Who Will Win the Middle East?

How New Rivalries Are Transforming the Strategic Landscape

A tribal fighter in Marib, Yemen, June 26, 2012. Khaled Abdullah / Courtesy Reuters

Since the middle of the twentieth century, the Middle East has seen regional hegemons come and go. The 1950s and 1960s were Egypt’s era: Cairo was the Arab World’s capital and the home of its charismatic postcolonial leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. But Israel’s victory over Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the 1967 war; Nasser’s death, in 1970; and the spike in oil prices after the 1973 war brought that era to an end. As millions of Egyptians and other Arabs left home for the oil-wealthy Gulf, the gravity of Arab politics went with them. As the Gulf’s fortunes rose, especially in Saudi Arabia, so too did Riyadh’s political clout. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, however, and the subsequent U.S.-led war, which was launched from Saudi soil, made clear that oil could buy Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, a lot of influence, but they still needed American protection.

After the Gulf War, in the first half of the 1990s, the Oslo Agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the Israeli-Jordanian Peace Treaty, shepherded by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, gave rise to Israel’s moment in the Middle East. Regional economic cooperation took center stage, casting the politics of the previous four decades aside with the optimism of peace and integration. Rabin’s assassination in 1995 abruptly dashed those hopes. The peace process floundered by the end of the decade, as a new rightwing in Israeli politics rose to power, hardly disposed to any closeness to its neighbors. 

Then there was a void; the 2000s was no one’s decade. No Arab country had the power, resources, or credibility to assert itself across the whole region. Sectarianism spread, fuelled by the U.S. occupation of Iraq and ensuing civil war. Arab republics, such as Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, witnessed shocking levels of corruption that eroded the foundation upon which they were built in the 1950s: social equality and the consent of the lower middle

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