The Arab uprisings of 2011 and their aftermath triggered a new iteration of the old debate on whether the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) had been transformed in a fundamental way or whether the region had changed only gradually at best. The initially perhaps predominant view was that the series of Arab uprisings could herald a profound and irreversible transformation of the region, which could eventually lead to the emergence of a new regional order. Yet, the old order proved to be more resilient than expected as the hopes of a democratic Middle East faded away.
A number of significant developments have characterized the MENA region since the Arab uprisings. While the state system and territorial boundaries are more resilient than widely assumed, important transformations have been taking place at the intersection of domestic and regional politics. Although a majority of states in MENA continue to be rather strong and with robust military apparatus, wars and extreme foreign meddling have eroded state capacities, as in the cases of Syria, Libya, Yemen and to a lesser extent Egypt. Concurrently, a growing number of armed non-state actors are challenging states’ monopoly on violence and territorial control. The weakening of several states in the region has had profound consequences for the shape of the regional order.
A focus on predominantly autonomous developments at the regional level, which are, however, often influenced by domestic politics and international developments, reveals a number of additional significant developments since the Arab uprisings. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is certainly a major feature of the regional system in MENA at present. However, while this antagonism pre-dates the Arab uprisings, developments after 2011 led to an intensification of the rivalry.
Moreover, the 2011 uprisings and their aftermath fostered the ambitions and willingness of a number of additional regional players, such as Turkey, Qatar and the UAE, to expand their material and ideational power in the region. Other regional actors, most notably the war-torn states of Syria and Libya, and to a lesser extent Egypt, lost influence after 2011. Thus, rather than moving towards an Iranian-Saudi bipolarity, the MENA system is still marked by a multipolar order, in which the region’s multipolarity is fragmented and competitive.
The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is an important feature, but it is not evidence of a new bipolarity marking the regional system. Rather, a fragmented multipolarity characterizes the region, with a number of regional powers having noticeably increased their influence and standing in MENA. Equally, sectarian antagonism is not a given fact but rather the product of social construction. And regional powers do not follow blindly the preferences of their global allies, with tail-wags-the dog dynamics being widespread.
Finally, at the intersection between international politics and regional dynamics, significant changes pertain to the role of the United States in the region and the emergence of new global powers. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq and its catastrophic aftermath, the US retreat from the region and Russia’s willingness to fill the power vacuum in Syria (and beyond), together with China’s growing economic influence in the MENA region have created a new reality in which the USA is only one among several global players. While Washington’s declining influence in the region pre-dates the Arab uprisings, the new role of Russia is linked to the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, most notably the civil war in Syria.
‚Interregnum: The Regional Order in the Middle East and North Africa After 2011‘ – Analysis by Raffaella A. Del Sarto, Helle Malmvig and Eduard Soler i Lecha –Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.