The Middle East as a “powder keg”
The focal feature of both the history and the politics of the region of the Middle East in the Modern and Contemporary Age (during the last 250 years) is the constant conflicts between different internal and external conflicts. Therefore, probably the term a “powder keg” at the best describes this region (the Balkans as well) for the very reason that for a long period the Middle East was and is involved in different larger or smaller forms of conflicts, struggles, and wars. However, as in many other global cases, the roots of modern and contemporary problems are largely sown in the past and, consequently, current political events have to be taken within a larger historical background. The autochthonous people have been all the time on the crossroad of different civilization and political-cultural influences from abroad and, therefore, their crossroad position was the battleground for the foreign invaders even from West Europe in the Middle Ages (the Crusaders).
The biggest part of the Middle East from the first half of the 16th century until the second half of the 19th century was under the domination of the Ottoman Empire. Since the second half of the 19th century West European states (France, UK, and Italy) started gradually to introduce their political, military, and economic-financial control over the region. After WWI, West European colonialists received formal protection rights in the Middle East in the form of mandates (French and British) with an increased influx of Euro-Jewish settlers in Palestine. Several new national states have been created after 1918, dividing the land not respecting for tribal differences or Western (British) promises made to Arabs for their support in 1916−1918 which finally resulted in unfixed problems up today.
The proclamation of an independent state of Zionist Israel in May 1948 only more fueled the political situation in the Middle East and provoked a harsh Arab reaction, leading to three major Arab-Israeli wars and several minors. This conflict is one of the longest in modern history as those two Semitic peoples – the (Muslim) Arabs and the (Zionist) Jews – are struggling for their bilateral peaceful coexistence 60+ (or even 100 since the 1920s). Since the end of the Cold War 1.0, there were two US and Allied invasions in the region inspired by the Iraqi-Kuwait conflict which led to the First Gulf War in 1990−1991 followed by the UN sanctions. In the next century, the USA and its allies (primarily the Brits) started the Second Gulf War in 2003 by the aggression on Iraq, supposedly searching for the WMD bringing together with the invasion of Afghanistan an additional geopolitical mass in the Middle East.
In the region, there were and conflicts between the states like the Iran-Iraqi War in the 1980s (anyway inspired by the US) or the conflicts (in fact, civil wars) within certain states in which, for instance, the Islamic fundamentalists or/and extremists challenged the official governments (Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Yemen, Somalia, or predictably in Iraq in the near future). The next type of conflict is those which occurred for the reason that some local organizations or groups, usually with foreign assistance, opposed the occupiers like in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Kuwait, or Afghanistan. In the current stage of the regional conflicts in the Middle East, the focal hope for the regional people is that the struggle between the Zionist Israel and its Muslim neighbors will be soon over by peaceful negotiations, conflict resolution, and economic development like it finally happened, for instance, with the Kingdom of Jordan and Egypt (today, Bahrein and the UAE recognized Israel too).
Nevertheless, we have to be even more concerned regarding the clash of civilizations (predicted by S. P. Huntington in 1993) in the region founded, in fact, on incompatible cultural differences. Probably, the most serious cultural clash in the Middle East is that of the Western-type of globalization and style of life that is fueled by interaction with oil-buyer external (Western) powers but which is in opposition with traditional Middle Eastern/Islamic values and life philosophy. In dealing with such questions, several focal points and facts had to be stressed as remarkable features of Arab-Islamic Middle Eastern culture:
- Muslim religion in this region historically, in principle, was showing tolerance for other faiths.
- There are many Muslims (both Arabs or not) who are supporting the faster process of democratic reforms in the region and fighting against unequal distribution of wealth within their states especially oil-states.
- The majority of the regional inhabitants are not supporting violent Islamic radicalism/fundamentalism and especially its call for military jihad for the sake to change the existing political structure and promote their worldview.
- Western civilization is extremely indebted to Arabs for their translations during the Middle Ages of crucial Hellenistic knowledge and tradition but above all in science and medicine.
- Islamic intellectuals and academicians are not, in principle, against the West but they really fear Western political power and influence in their societies, especially regarding materialism and cultural colonialism.
- Historically, a bilateral enriching coexistence between Muslims and Westerners is more the rule but not some exception.
- As a matter of fact, more than half of 1,6 billion Muslims in the world are not Arabs, most Muslims are not fundamentalists, and the majority of the Middle Eastern Muslims (including Iran and excluding Turkey) are Arabs.
- Muslims in the region of the Middle East are not dogmatically homogeneous as they are divided among themselves mainly in two focal branches: Sunni and Shia communities.
- Economic factors mainly behind their control are pushing the Middle East into the globalized market place.
- The contemporary Middle East is a region of substantial social, political, cultural, and economic transition.
Nevertheless, the Middle East attracted full global attention after 9/11 2001 due to the terror acts in New York and Washington committed by the regional Islamic radical organization – al-Qaeda when their members led by Saudi wealthy Osama bin Laden crashed three hijacked airliners into NYC WTC and Washington, D.C.’s Pentagon buildings killing over 3000 people. It is extremely important to notice that after 9/11, 56 Muslim states immediately condemned the terror act as something that is in opposition to the Islamic values, teaching, way of life, and Qur’an. However, this terror act generated American global war against (Islamic) terrorism, accompanied by Western invasions, occupations, and mass-killings of the civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq what in many eyes of the Muslims is seen as a modern type of anti-Islamic crusades.
The question is what might prompt Middle Eastern individuals, especially the youngsters, to commit any type of terror act? Surely, behind such act is a deeper process of radicalization of the Arab Islamic youth by Islamic fundamentalists and extremists but on the other hand, there are many members of the younger Arab generation, including and Arabs who studied in the West, who has a sense of being oppressed and humiliated by Westerners or just intentionally provoked by, for instance, French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Some of these disillusioned youngsters are recruited into militant and terrorist networks.
Special features of the region
All states of the region of the Middle East can be selected into four ethnic-geographic regions: 1) the North African States; 2) the Persian Gulf States; 3) the Central Arab States; and 4) Iran and Israel. The combined number of inhabitants of all of those states is more than 250 million (for the matter of comparison, in the EU 28 there were some 500 million people). The region itself is experiencing culture and civilization back some 6000 years but the majority of the present-day nations are relatively new. In other words, except for Iran and Egypt, all other regional states appeared in their present form only in the last century, largely after WWI, but some of them even after WWII (Israel). The number of states of the Middle East can be fixed taking into account at least three criteria: The historical period; Political conditions; and Geopolitical perspective. Today, there are at least 14 states in this region, but the new one – the independent state of Palestine, most probably will appear taking into consideration the results of the Israeli-PLO negotiations (Roadmap for Peace).
It is worth to notice that the first modern Arab country became Egypt of Muhammad Ali in the first half of the 19th century when due to the French (Napoleonic) occupation Egypt became familiar with some features of the “European progress”. As a result, Muhammad Ali started certain modernization reforms of the society like the creation of the modern and more effective governance organization, rational economic system, and modern army restructured and reorganized according to the Western principles of warfare at that time. In Cairo, the first Western-type institute (the Egyptian Institute) in the Arab world with the crucial function to spread out West European (mainly the French) philosophers’ writings (Russo, Volter) was established.
The majority of the regional populations are Arabs and Muslims. Pan-Arabism is one of the focal political issues in the Middle East and Africa in the 20th century. In recent times, leadership in the Pan-Arab movement, however, initially passed to the hands of the Christian Arabs in Lebanon and Syria. Nevertheless, all political attempts to form some kind of United Arab Republic failed but there are successful stories of macro-regional economic integration as, for instance, the economic integration of six states of the Persian Gulf as they created a Gulf Cooperation Council. Nonetheless, instead of United Arab Republic existing an Arab League which promotes better communication systems for the region using the Arabic language and the ARABSAT (the Arab Regional Satellite System).
The oil discovery and production is probably the focal special feature of the Middle East in contemporary history. The economic and social development of all oil-rich Gulf countries depends almost totally on the policy of oil export and, therefore, for better mutual economic cooperation, Middle Eastern oil-producing nations established their Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (the OAPEC) that is the regional variant of global OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries). In fact, some 65−70% of global petroleum reserves are in the Middle East, oil extraction and refining play a significant role in both regional and world’s economies, and, therefore, have a significant impact on the welfare and politics of the majority of Western (post-industrial) countries.
A lack of full democracy is another crucial feature of the Middle East as today, regional forms of governance are ranging from pure authoritarianism (Saudi Arabia) to some kind of democratic experiments (Lebanon or Israel) which are followed by Muslim regimes governed by religious leaders (Iran). Out of 20 Arab states today, 7 of them are republics (including the Islamic Republic of Mauritania and the Baath Socialist Republic of Syria), 7 are monarchies, 4 have a one-party rule, the UAE is a political federation of sheikdoms, and Somalia that is, in fact, lacking functioning governance. In general, regarding the politics, the region is still in evolutionary transition as a result of modernization, Westernization, and globalization including and references to economic and educational development with current tendencies of the radicalization of Islam as anti-colonial ideology against the post-industrial Western imperialism.
An ancient conflict between two Islamic factions – the Sunni and the Shia Muslims – is another feature of the division of the region of the Middle East. The first division within Islam was born soon after the death of his Prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D. when the Islamic world of Arabs became divided between those who had the pretensions to inherit the religious power after the death of the Prophet. They created two principal factions with different claims. The Sunni faction claimed that the religious power of Caliph after 632 A.D. passed to Abu Bakr – Muhammad’s father-in-law, while the Shia faction (“Followers of Ali”) claimed the religious power to the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet – Ali ibn Abi Talib. The assassination of the third Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan in 656, and the election of Ali ibn Abi Talib fueled the first armed conflict (civil war) among the Muslims which ended with the Battle of the Camel on November 7th, 656 in present-day Iraq in Basra between Aisha’s supporters (widow of the Prophet) and Ali ibn Abi Talib’s supporters (the fourth Caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet) who won the battle against Aisha. However, it was only after the murder of Ali, and a few years later, of his son Hussein ibn Ali in the Battle of Karbala on October 10th, 680 in present-day Iraq, that Islam went to a dogmatic and political split. The Shia Muslims reject the legitimacy of the first three Caliphs whom, however, the Sunni Muslims follow, having at the same time some doctrinal and political differences with the Sunnis. The biggest percentage of Shia Muslims today in the Middle East is in Iran (90−95%), Bahrain (65−75%), Iraq (60−70%), Lebanon (45−55%), and Yemen (30−40%).
The Saudi Government is composed of Sunnis and the monarchy itself in power belongs exclusively to the Sunni faction being in constant competition with the Shia Iran. The Government of Saudi Arabia fears that the Shia theocratic Islamic Republic of Iran could create serious unrest within both the Saudi and the Gulf’s Shia communities. However, both Iran and Saudi Arabia, in fact, are pretending to become the leading power in the region.
The majority of Bahrain’s population is the Shia believers but there is a ruling Sunni monarchy. Inspired by the Arab Spring in 2011, the Shia believers started to demonstrate their political rights but without support from the US administration. The Bahraini Sunni Government and its allies, including Saudi Arabia, have violently cracked down on protests, killing hundreds of civilians.
In Iraq, for a long time, the country’s Shia majority had been oppressed by the Sunni regime in Baghdad. We have to keep in mind that in Iraq exist the most sacred religious sites for the Shia Muslims. After the fall of Sadam Hussein in 2003, they came to power and the Shia population has begun to target the Sunni community. The Sunni believers have been persecuted and tortured by the Shia death squads and in response to the increasing violence against them, Iraqi Sunnis have committed several suicide attacks and bombings. As a consequence, the Shia-Sunni religious sectarianism in Iraq exacerbated nationalistic and fundamentalistic attitudes of the Shia Muslims in power and has contributed to the strengthening of the Sunni support to the ISIS (the ISIL, the DAESH).
For Iran, the most important thing is to protect its regional interests among them the rights of the Shia population abroad. For instance, after the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979 that brought the Shia Government to power in Tehran, Iran has begun to fund and encourage the Shia revolts in the eastern region of Saudi Arabia which is rich in oil reserves. The Iranian Government is also supporting the Government of Alawite (a branch of the Shia Islam) Assad in Syria, which bridges with Lebanon.
In Yemen, the Houthi rebels, located predominantly in the northern part of the country, are Shia Muslims and represent about 1/3 of the total population. The Houthi were able to force the resignation of President Hadi, recognized by the international community. Regardless of the fact that during the revolt in 2014−2015 Shia rebels took political control, the majority of Sunni tribes in South Yemen do not recognize the Shia authority. In 2015 it was formed a coalition of Arab states under the leadership of Saudi Arabia to support former President Hadi against the Houthi rebels, who are pro-Iranian. Large parts of the territory of Yemen are also under the control of the Sunni militant group al-Qaeda which is opposed to both Shia Houthi and the ex-Government of Hadi. The Sunni al-Qaeda in Yemen has been several years targeted by the controversial US drone campaign inside of the country.
Finally, behind the Syrian civil war which started in 2011 is, in essence, sectarian violence. The Syrian President al-Assad belongs to the minority Alawite Muslims who are a branch of the Shia sect. The Alawites take their name from Ali ibn Abi Talib who was a cousin, son-in-law, and the first male follower of the Prophet Muhammad (Alawite = “Follower of Ali”). The protests against Assad’s rule started in March 2011 and have been violently repressed. Nevertheless, the Syrian civil war is in part contributed to exacerbating the feelings of hatred and resentment between the Shia and the Sunni communities in the country. During the conflict, Shia Iran and the Shia Hezbollah from South Lebanon, in the moment of greatest difficulty for Assad’s regime, have flocked to the side of President Assad to prevent the deposition. However, similarly, the Sunni fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra Front and the Sunni ISIS are fighting in Syria against Assad. We have to keep in mind that Jabhat al-Nusra is the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda and that the Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf and the Sunni Turkey are financially and militarily supporting the Sunni opposition fighters in Syria.