The geopolitical makeup of the Middle East is changing. In any kind of significant geopolitical change there are bound to be winners and losers, while others just try to hold their own, indeed, even hoping for stalemate. What I attempt to do in this article is suggest which countries and peoples may be winners and which or who may be losers.
It is important for interested readers to acknowledge there are five major significant powers in the Middle East. These countries are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Iran.
Egypt is the most populous with a population of nearly 90 million. It is overburdened with poverty, lack of arable land (6-8 percent), poor education, malnourishment, crumbling infrastructure, inequality, illiteracy, gender discrimination and, most importantly, lack of water. The further reduction of water flowing from the Nile’s tributaries in Ethiopia and Sudan means that Egypt will be occupied with relations with these two countries for the coming decades and will become more of a country addressing issues with African countries than with Middle East countries. However, one of Egypt’s primary concerns remains dealing with its powerful Israeli neighbor. But it will not be a major player in the politics of the central Middle East countries.
This leaves Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Iran as the major players. It seems unlikely that Saudi Arabia will remain a major influential player for more than the next 20 years. There are two principal reasons for this. The first is that, in spite of its energy richness, few peoples in the Middle East (or anywhere I can think of) would want to be governed by such an illiberal, undemocratic, sectarian, conservatively zealous dynasty. The Arab spring is proof of this despite its short-term success. It is unlikely that the conservative dynastic ideology of the Saudis will appeal, let alone find root, among the Arab peoples of the Middle East.
Turkey, Iran and Israel
Readers should note Turkey, Iran and Israel are not Arab identified countries. In short, this means there is no “Arab World” in the sense of powerful states able to engage in major ways in the future geopolitics of the Middle East, let alone globally. Only two of these countries are largely Muslim –Turkey and Iran — both of which have diverse populations of nearly 80 million people. But the majority of Turkey’s population in Sunni, about 80 some percent, while the majority of Iran’s population is Shia, around 80 some percent. In addition, about 18 percent of Turkey’s population in Kurdish while Iran’s population is about 8 percent Kurdish, 4 percent Arab and 15 or more percent Azeri Turks who speak Turkish akin to that spoken in Turkey.
A major result of the US war in Iraq is that it increased the regional geopolitical power of Iran and Turkey. The destruction of Iraq as a state and its division into two different entities — Kurdistan Iraq and Arab Iraq — and the profound challenges this poses to the concept of “state” and the destruction caused in Arab Iraq as a result of its war with the US (2003-2011) means that Arab Iraq and any government in Baghdad will be busy for the next two decades, at least, attempting to even hold Arab Iraq, sans the Kurds, together. In addition, if the current Shia-dominated Bagdad government continues, because of the Sunni challenge, to foster close relations with Iran, it will face continuing challenges from the predominantly Arab Sunni countries. The substantial energy resources of Arab Iraq will allow it to maintain its position a moderate geopolitical regional role but not a dominant one.
The Iraq war also increased Iran’s geopolitical strength in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria and among the Palestinians. It is Iran’s strengthened geopolitical power, gained from the war in Iraq, that the US, Great Britain, France and Germany are now trying to reduce via negotiations in Geneva regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
Turkey’s position was also strengthened as a result of the destruction of Iraq and the subsequent, and ongoing, destruction of Syria. Thus the two strongest countries in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, are the two former imperial powers — the Ottoman Empire (1300-1923) and the Iranian Empires of the Safavids (1501-1724) and Qajar (1795-1925) — of the Middle East. But Turkey and Iran are also challenged by the diverse legacies of those empires.
As a result of major consequences of the US wars in Iraq (and Afghanistan), Iran and Turkey have once again become the major, and probably, the most enduring major players in the politics of the Middle East. It is perhaps an additional historical irony that these two former historical states are now challenged by Israel, a largely Jewish, non-Muslim, non-Arab, non-Iranian, albeit historic entity of the Middle East. Given its historical provenance it is easy enough to understand Europeans and Americans avid support for Israel. These three countries: Turkey, Iran and Israel, none of them Arab, are now and will continued to jostle for geopolitical and geo-economical position throughout the Middle East, in the eastern Mediterranean and along the Persian Gulf littorals. At the moment only Israel is strongly supported by the US and Europe. The implied global geo-strategic trends indicated above suggest that too could change.
Robert Olson is a Middle East analyst based in Lexington, Kentucky.