Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The War between the Middle East Wars

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The War between the Middle East Wars

Article excerpt

Conflict between Israel and Iran seems increasingly inevitable, now that the US has torn up the nuclear deal. But if--or when--it happens, the Sunni Gulf states and Egypt will have a choice: whom do they back?

It was said of Carlyle's account of the French Revolution that it was like reading history by flashes of lightning. We read the contemporary Arab world by the flash of air and artillery strikes, and in the lurid glare of exemplary and extreme violence. The arguments that rage about the most recent Western air attacks on the Assad regime's chemical weapons infrastructure, or Israeli attacks against the growing Iranian military infrastructure inside Syria--the latest a strike near Hama on 29 April targeting a large consignment of anti-aircraft missiles, in which upwards of 11 Iranians are said to have died--are part of this discourse. It is common ground that the former, at least, change nothing. Yet, we still miss the point.

What we see in the contemporary Middle East and North Africa is a classically Gramscian crisis, with the protracted and agonising death of the old impeding the birth of the new and producing instead widespread symptoms of social and political morbidity. One hundred years after the modern Middle East was created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement--as much a fantasy as any map of Middle Earth--political parturition remains incomplete, not simply in Syria or the other Arab Spring countries but also in the Gulf, Jordan, Morocco and Iraq. The same is true of Iran.

This state of affairs stems from the failure of the late-imperial and post-colonial nation-building projects in the region. The states that emerged after the First World War from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, often in fractious relationships with London and Paris, tended to be elite, family- or clan-based, and conscious of the urgent need to develop basic welfare, social control and security systems in order to maintain their often fragile authority. This resulted in rapid demographic growth, but also the emergence of communally-based client groups and militaries that conceived of themselves as representing the general will more authentically than anyone else. After the Second World War, this produced a series of coups and conflicts that led to the highly securitised and repressive hereditary republics of Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Algeria. Their rigidity, harshness and incompetence led directly to the uprisings of 2011-13--just as in Iran, the particular deformations of the Pahlavi monarchy led to the hijacking of the 1979 revolution by a vanguardist and reactionary part of the clerical class, who thus had their revenge on the constitutionalists of 70 years earlier.

The impact of these developments on the Gulf monarchies was interestingly complex. Their more benign but still authoritarian neo-patrimonialism was partly a reaction to the instability and aggression of the militarised republics. Unlike them, they did not collapse under the pressures of the Arab spring. They had--and have--something that their regional competitors did not.

This was not simply wealth: Iraq, Libya and Algeria are all rich in energy resources but their particular political sociologies led in different ways to disaster--in the case of the first two, accelerated, but not ultimately caused by, Western military intervention.

It wasn't particularly a demographic issue either: there are 20 million Saudi nationals, for example, which makes the kingdom comparable to Iraq and Syria in population size, and in some ways also in diversity. And while the violence in Bahrain in 2011 reflected real grievances among elements of the Shia population of the island, it wasn't an uprising of the sort we saw in Tahrir Square in Egypt, or in Syria's Dera'a or Homs. And if you visit Dubai (or indeed Manama) and go beyond the tourist hotels of Jumeirah you will find vibrant communities from all over the Arab world who have sought refuge there in times of turbulence. …

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