The Middle East’s Crisis Factory
The Iran-Qatar-Saudi conflict shows that the sclerotic, unpredictable, petulant dictatorships of the region produce nothing but endless conflict and brutal repression.
Tensions in the Middle East have hit new heights in the weeks following U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh. During that trip, Saudi Arabia’s rulers seemingly succeeded in getting Trump on their side in their own “war on terror” against their Sunni Arab opponents and Iran’s regime. Energized by Trump’s support, the Saudi and Emirati regimes led a “coalition of the willing” to force back in line the Qatari leadership, which had followed a foreign policy that is independent of and at times in opposition to theirs.
Saudi Arabia and its allies accused Qatar, in official statements, of “meddling in the internal affairs of other countries,” supporting a list of terrorist groups — including the Islamic State, al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis — and of being sympathetic to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Confusingly enough, Qatar also hosts U.S. Central Command’s forward headquarters, where more than 10,000 American soldiers are stationed — and had been a member of the anti-Houthi and anti-Islamic State coalitions.
Iran is also being dragged into a larger conflagration in the Gulf. As the Gulf states’ war of words escalated into a blockade of Qatar, an unprecedented terrorist attack struck the key symbols of the regime in Tehran, leaving at least 17 dead and more injured. The Islamic State claimed the attack, but Iran’s regime, not missing a beat, accused the Saudis of the crime, referencing comments made during Trump’s visit to Riyadh, as well as earlier comments by the Saudi foreign minister about taking the battle to Iranian soil.
Like Europe in 1914, the Middle East stands precariously at the edge of conflict. The history of the dictatorship-plagued region has shown that there is no such thing as a short and decisive war. The Yemeni and Syrian conflicts adequately demonstrate that, though both conflicts have been more or less geographically contained. If the current posturing transforms into an open regional war, the conflict will be neither brief nor conclusive. And the explosion of instability in the heart of the world’s most energy-rich region will send global economies into shock, create more opportunities for terrorists, necessitate further foreign interventions, spark new waves of refugees, and make the entire world less safe, less stable, and less prosperous.
Origins of the chaos
The origins of the current round of chaos can be found in former President Barack Obama’s decision to disengage the United States from the Middle East — just as the region was undergoing a wave of pro-democracy mass protests. In the power vacuum created by the U.S. disengagement, various players saw both the space and the necessity to pursue their own independent, competing agendas — and in the ensuing melee, the voices of the Middle East’s people were brutally suppressed.
Obama’s push for a deal with Iran’s regime threw further confusion into the mix — leading to more destruction in Syria and ultimately opening the door to an overwhelming and brutal Russian intervention. Furthermore, to balance American alliances, Obama supported the Saudi leadership’s war on Yemen, adding more fuel to an already burning region.
Despite this, it is wrong to assume that Obama’s policies were the root cause of this mess. If anything, the U.S. decision to no longer police the region only exposed a deep-seated instability that has always existed. What we are witnessing is the consequence of a regional order dominated by dictatorships, coupled with outside powers’ reliance on an expired foreign-policy paradigm that focuses on short-term gain rather than long-term stability. It is time to realize that partnering with dictatorships for the sake of stability and security is unsustainable, myopic, and potentially disastrous.
None of the actors in the current conflict is blameless. Each stands accused of enabling terrorism, spreading extremist ideology, bankrolling coups, supporting militant groups, interfering and intervening in other countries, or committing gross human rights violations. Unsurprisingly, all are dictatorships. Among them are no innocent parties or reliable partners for peace and stability. Left to themselves, they seem to choose escalation — and this is what makes mediation efforts so important.
There are efforts underway to de-escalate the crisis in the Gulf, with Kuwait’s emir shuttling between capitals in efforts to strike a compromise. The U.S. State Department has urged de-escalation, and — despite repeated public statements by Trump endorsing the Saudi-Emirati position — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson still seems to be working to craft a compromise.
But don’t expect this conflict to be resolved so easily. The key players — especially the Saudi and Emirati leaderships — seem to be resisting Tillerson’s mediation. Someone in the anti-Qatar camp, meanwhile, seems to have launched a major cyberattack on Qatar’s Al Jazeera news network, which is at the center of this crisis. Meanwhile, the mood in Doha is tense but resilient: Qatar downplayed reports that its military was placed on high alert, even as the Turkish government approved sending fresh troops to its military base in Qatar.
The United States also finds itself slipping closer to an open conflict with Iran. Hours after Iran’s foreign minister called Trump’s response to the Tehran terrorist attack “repugnant,” an Iranian-made drone opened fire on American soldiers in southern Syria.
With the stakes so high, it may seem puzzling that these players are all pushing for more escalation. But the key to understanding this is to realize that the main audience of the regimes, and their fear, is domestic. A narrative of conflict that employs sectarianism and nationalism enhances their hold on power.
Already, the conflict is being used to suppress civil society, push for more executions, and shut down space for free speech and solidarity. Egypt has blocked 64 websites, and the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain have used the opportunity to control the social media space even further. The mood among many of the region’s civil society activists is dismal; they have to bend to allow the current storm to pass but fear they won’t be able to stand back up after it.
Despite their open rivalry, the regional players’ relationship with each other is actually symbiotic. Each of these regimes promotes a narrative of “fighting terrorism,” “ensuring stability,” and “resisting foreign encroachment.” Terrorist groups on the other hand promote a narrative of “resistance to dictatorship” or “resistance to foreign intervention.” The narratives interlock to create a vicious cycle of increasing conflict and polarization.
From noise to solutions
The Middle East seems to be unraveling even further, toward fresh levels of instability. Is there a way out of this spiral? The potential for catastrophe necessitates a focus on immediate solutions — but in the rush to defuse the current crisis, we shouldn’t lose sight of the longer term. After all, short-term thinking is what got us here.
The authors of this article are an Iranian and an Arab analyst. As such, we are more aware than most about the geopolitical implications of the conflict. But even as we understand and are alarmed by them, we realize that they are distractions from the root causes of instability. Dictatorships are not responsible global partners and, if given the chance, will only create more instability.
De-escalation in the short term is of course needed — but a counternarrative is also needed that shifts the conversation toward how to build a sustainable peace and emphasizes societies over states, solidarity over hatred, integration over sectarianism, human rights over illusory “stability,” and hope over despair. We cannot solve this problem by empowering the very actors that created it. We cannot afford to keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different outcomes.
The way forward — and the cornerstone of any long-term strategy — necessitates a disbelief in the sustainability of Middle Eastern dictatorships. While engagement with these governments is necessary, they should not be treated as responsible or trustworthy partners and should be seen as part of the problem more than the solution. This needs to be coupled with a recommitment to Middle Eastern societies, represented by their social entrepreneurs, civil society activists, free thinkers, and native reformers. The space within which they operate is severely threatened and needs both protection and investment.
Finally, the people of open societies also need to be a part of the potential solution — to understand the role and importance of human rights for stability and to push their governments to put human rights at the top of the foreign-policy agenda. The delusion that partnering with dictatorships can bring stability, and that peace and prosperity can somehow be attained while ignoring human rights, needs to finally come crashing down.