In 2011, millions of citizens across the Arab world took to the streets. Popular uprisings from Tunis to Cairo promised to topple autocracies and usher in democratic reforms. For a moment, it looked as if the old Middle Eastern order was coming to an end and a new and better one was taking its place. But things quickly fell apart. Some states collapsed under the pressure and devolved into civil war; others found ways to muddle through and regain control over their societies. Seven years later, those early hopes for a fundamental, positive shift in Middle Eastern politics appear to have been profoundly misplaced.
But the upheaval did in fact create a new Arab order—just not the one most people expected. Although the Arab uprisings did not result in successful new democracies, they did reshape regional relations. The traditional great powers—Egypt, Iraq, and Syria—are now barely functional states. Wealthy and repressive Gulf countries—Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—are thriving. The proliferation of failed and weakened states has created new opportunities for competition and intervention, favoring new actors and new capabilities. Regional dynamics are no longer determined by formal alliances and conventional conflicts between major states. Instead, power operates through influence peddling and proxy warfare.
In almost every Arab state today, foreign policy is driven by a potent mixture of perceived threats and opportunities. Fears of resurgent domestic uprisings, Iranian power, and U.S. abandonment exist alongside aspirations to take advantage of weakened states and international disarray—a dynamic that draws regional powers into destructive proxy conflicts, which sow chaos throughout the region. Any vision of the region finding a workable balance of power is a mirage: the new order is fundamentally one of disorder.
The catalog of despair in the Middle East today is difficult to fathom. The Syrian civil war has become one of the greatest human catastrophes in history, killing at least half a million civilians and displacing more than ten million. Iraq
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