The Arab Spring and the Balance of Power in the Middle East
By Kayhan Barzegar
The Arab Spring can be seen as a turning point in the regional balance of power of the Middle East. Previously, the “balance of power” was determined at the level of classic players—the states—and therefore was easier. However, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the roles of states are now combined with the “dynamics of internal politics”—making them much more complicated.
From the outset of the Arab Spring, the domestic socio-political issues of the Arab countries—democratization, political reform, Islamization, elimination of authoritarianism, establishment of a market economy and middle class, and human rights issues have become the priorities in these countries. This development has impacted the objectives of the regional players in the context of balance of power.
In these new circumstances, each of the regional and trans-regional players seeks to restrain threats and enhance its influence. Turkey and the West pursue a greater role in order to extend their political leadership. On the other hand, Iran, Russia, China, and even Saudi Arabia seek greater roles to contain threats and enhance their security. Therefore, factors such as “model,” “ideology,” and “economy” are all employed to enhance the roles of the players.
From this perspective, the future of the balance of power in the region will embrace the rivalry of two blocs of players: the regional 4+1 which comprises four active and major regional players including, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt plus Israel as a behind-the-scene player, which passively pursues its objectives through the channel of the United States. The trans-regional bloc is comprised of two key players; the United States and Russia.
The Arab Spring’s internal dynamics have drastically influenced the foreign policies of the regional players. Egypt is pursuing the policy of interaction with all the regional and trans-regional players. Influenced by its internal politics and in order to realize the government’s main objective of institutionalizing the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s political and power structure, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is aware that he needs to gain the support of the middle class while ensuring political stability as well as reviving the Egyptian economy. In other words, he should prioritize the demands of those who staged the revolution at Tahrir Square.
Therefore, the new Egypt seeks an active regional role through engagement with all the regional countries. For example, it interacts with Saudi Arabia and Qatar so as to attract financial support, and it also cooperates with Iran and Turkey in order to achieve regional political stability. Simultaneously, Egypt will continue its interactions with trans-regional players such as the United States, Russia, and China in an attempt to maintain a major role in the regional balance of power, consequently achieving its economic objectives.
Turkey mainly seeks to attain regional leadership and tries to exploit the Arab Spring’s internal potentials in order to benefit from its own, supposed, “soft power” and to strengthen ties with the new Arab governments so as to guarantee its economic interests in the region.
Saudi Arabia, as a traditional conservative regional player, seeks to “contain” threats and maintain its own security. While, the country seeks to distance itself from the impacts of the Arab Spring’s socio-political dynamics and prevent them from crossing its borders, its active role in the Syrian and Bahrain crises is centered on constraining Iran’s regional role as well as strengthening its relative security.
Iran also seeks to expand its regional sway by benefiting from the Arab Spring’s internal effects on other states. In doing so, Iran follows a two-pronged policy of expanding its regional role and containing threats. Regarding Egypt, Iran favors acceleration of internal dynamics there since it leads to closer relations with the Egyptian government, a development that both states will benefit from strategically. In Bahrain, Iran favors political reform. Not only does preserving political stability in Persian Gulf states matter to Iran, but good relations with Saudi Arabia is important too.
Regarding Syria, Tehran follows a policy of containing the threat of changing the current regional balance of power to Iran’s detriment. Iran’s main objective in Syria is to play a more active role in a peaceful resolution of the Syrian crisis, facilitating the process of political transformation and reform in the country in line with maintaining regional security and stability. This can happen with or without Bashar al-Assad in power, depending on the will of the Syrian people.
Israel mainly seeks its own survival as a Jewish state. Tel Aviv is concerned about ideological and negative reactions of the Arab Street about Israeli policies bringing about challenges to the Arab-Israeli peace process. Therefore, it has adopted the passive policy of “patience and caution,” mainly seeking to gain control over Arab Spring developments through U.S. policies.
The United States follows its traditional policy of extending its influence and dominance over the political-security and economic trends in the region, aiming at managing the Arab Spring’s dynamics through public diplomacy and focusing on the values of Western liberalism, such as promoting democracy and human rights. Yet, contrary to U.S. claims, Washington has adopted a passive policy towards the Syrian crisis as it fears any disruption of the regional balance of power would be to the detriment of U.S. geopolitical interests.
Russia is exploiting the potential of the Arab Spring to enhance its regional role by constraining U.S. influence. For example, Russia’s opposition to the United States over the Syrian crisis is due to Moscow’s concern about Washington’s exploitation of Arab world dynamics in changing the regimes of states which are friendly to Russia and weakening strategic allies such as Syria and Iran which can ultimately pose ideological and geopolitical challenges to Russia itself.
Therefore, the developments of the Arab Spring have led all the players to use national power to enhance their regional role, whether to contain threats or expand influence. Thus, the Arab Spring has further complicated the regional balance of power. In such circumstances, regional solutions in which the dynamics of states’ internal politics as well as the interests of regional and trans-regional actors are simultaneously considered, have become more useful for solving the regional issues such as the Syrian crisis.
Kayhan Barzegar is Director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies (IMESS) in Tehran and a former fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is also a faculty member and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research branch of the Islamic Azad University in Tehran.