Three years ago, then Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter attributed Iran’s growing dominance to its being “in the game, on the ground.” He urged its regional rivals to do the same, thus expressing a widely shared sentiment in policy circles at the time: Arab Gulf states needed to rely less on the United States and play a greater role in their neighborhood.
In many ways, that is exactly what these countries have been attempting to do since 2015, and now Carter and others have reason to revisit their advice.
In the absence of strong American leadership, now spanning two administrations, the future of the region hinges on what local powers define as priorities, and how they go about trying to achieve them. Even if Washington decides to wake up, it will now find it far more difficult than in the past to assert itself.
What’s happening in the Middle East today can be traced back to the 2011 Arab Spring, which sparked a desire for democratic change among ordinary people and, among governments, a countervailing desire for stability based on the status quo ante.
To go back in time, as it were, the counterrevolutionary bloc—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and their allies in Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere—believes the future must be more authoritarian than ever. Based on extensive conversations with senior Arab officials, I’ve found that the dominant outlook could be summed up as follows: A heavy-handed domestic and regional approach may well carry risks, but the alternative is worse.
If the autocrats lost control over the masses in 2011, the thinking goes, that was because they did not go far enough in their repression. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak gave some space to the Muslim Brotherhood, political activists, and critical media. Look what happened to him.
As unrest generated by the Arab Spring shifted power away from Arab republics to richer, more stable Gulf monarchies, leaders throughout the region dropped the pretense that they would ever bow, or bend, to the popular will—whether in the direction of more democracy or of more extreme religiosity.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for example, declared in 2017: “We will not waste 30 years trying to deal with extremist ideas; we will eradicate them here and now.” In defense of moderation, he proposed simply stomping out religious radicals. (In American terms: shock and awe, rather than hearts and minds.) And MbS was probably using the term extremist conveniently; the Saudis have since designated as terrorist organizations certain religious groups, such as the International Union of Muslim Scholars, broadly perceived as mainstream.
Generally speaking, authoritarian countries seem more willing than ever before to disregard the desires of the Arab street. It is now an open secret that Gulf states have developed ties with Israel, in the absence of formal relations, including trade partnerships and security deals. Just last week, an Israeli minister toured Abu Dhabi, the national Israeli anthem was reportedly sung in Doha, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a historic visit to Muscat. Such reports, along with continued support for President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” despite his administration’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, have enraged Arab populations.
Of course, there is a constituency for such high-handedness. Elites, secular nationalists, and ordinary people exhausted by or fearful of wars were euphoric following the rise of leaders such as Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt and MbS. They are now banking on their success, convinced that any compromise will undo the “gains” made so far.
In Egypt, the campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and any form of dissent is the fieriest it’s been in nearly 50 years. Most Islamists and critics are either languishing in jail or living in exile. The regime also consolidated control of the media, once seen as among the most vibrant in the region. To Sisi and his supporters, harsh measures are acceptable because they have stabilized the country. Even Muslim Brotherhood leaders acknowledge that the campaign against it has been effective in the sense that it has been devastating, breaking the organization into multiple pieces. Precisely because crackdowns have worked, the regime and its supporters also back their continuation. Now that a final victory against the Muslim Brotherhood is within reach, why let up?
For counterrevolutionary regimes, the top priority is to prevent a repeat of the 2011 uprisings, and they believe the best way to do that is to stay the repressive course. Which is why recent talk that MbS was doomed, or that he could be replaced after the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was out of touch with the broad reality of the region. MbS is seen as a key member of the pack of new leaders remaking the Middle East, and the pack will stand by him. This dynamic also informs the continuing blockade of Qatar, as well as the war in Yemen; humanitarian concerns simply don’t matter next to the perceived efficacy of aggression.
Amid revolutionary fatigue, authoritarians have the support of broad segments of their society and a window to consolidate their power. But a diverse group that includes liberal democrats as well as radical Islamists believes that window won’t stay open forever—or even very long—since the economic, political, and social causes of the Arab uprisings in 2011 have largely worsened.
In their quest to consolidate power, authoritarian governments are vesting it in fewer and fewer hands—which might expose them to internal challengers. Political repression, which might crush opposition in the short term, also gives Islamists a legitimate grievance to exploit. And if authoritarians can’t improve the economic lot of their people—as so far they have not—that too hurts their ability to restore stability, and thus to remain in control. Iraq and Jordan, for example, recently saw a wave of uprisings over unpopular economic policies.
No space for reconciliation or compromise exists between authoritarian governments and their democratic or Islamist opponents. If the strongmen win—and they have a real chance—then the West will have to abandon its dream of a more politically open Middle East (the vision sparked by the Arab Spring). If they fail—and there is a compelling argument that they could—their countries could experience a period of turmoil on the scale of the Syrian civil war. In this volatile environment, the United States is ominously absent.
Iran’s rivals are “in the game, on the ground,” just as Carter advised three years ago. Missing from the scene is an umpire to manage conflicts and halt the autocrats’ worst instincts. The United States seems not to care what’s happening in the region at this moment, but the real risk of apathy is that it will bring forth a future that’s even less stable than the past.
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