Interregnum: The Regional Order in the Middle East and North Africa after 2011

Interregnum: The Regional Order in the Middle East and North Africa after 2011

Publication date:
Raffaella A. Del Sarto, Helle Malmvig and Eduard Soler i Lecha

MENARA Final Report nº 1

This report contends that the Middle East regional order since 2011 has changed in several ways. This is evidenced by the decline in US power, the rise of sectarianism, the growing influence of non-state actors, the return of Arab state permeability, intensified rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the emergence of regional players such as Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and the fluidity of alliances. However, these and other changes constitute a change within order, rather than of order. Below are listed some of the main take-away points from the report. Each theme is developed in detail in the report, allowing the reader to go into more depth in the separate sections.

Middle East scholars and observers have been rather generous in the way they have repeatedly identified changes in the MENA’s regional order over the decades, with analyses usually focusing on variations in the relative power of states, changing patterns of amity and enmity, and the influence of external actors. Ignoring important changes at the intersection between domestic and regional politics, such a perspective fails to detect significant shifts within the regional order that may transform the region in the medium and long term.

• Increased numbers of armed non-state actors – transnational ethnic and sectarian groups, rebels, tribes, terrorist organizations, foreign militias and mercenaries – are challenging states’ claims to monopoly of violence and territorial control. Yet the sovereign state system and territorial boundaries are more resilient than widely assumed.

• The obsession of regimes with remaining in power has further blurred the boundary between the domestic and the regional, as perceived threats to regime survival are balanced by often erratic foreign policies, interventions and ever-shifting alliances.

• Sectarian entrepreneurs and political leaders have enhanced their power and deflected demands for change by manipulating fears of political exclusion, claiming to protect certain sections of the population from others, or using sectarianism to discredit their political opponents and regional rivals.

• Explanations of regional politics that are based on notions of Sunni–Shia antagonism are overly simplistic and may even lead to dangerous policy prescriptions, such as breaking up states along ethno-sectarian lines, fortifying autocratic governments’ repressive practices or reinforcing Orientalist understandings of the Middle East as “all about religion”, and conflicts therefore endemic to the region.

• There is not just a single defining division in this region. Patterns of amity and enmity are the result of the overlap of three main fault lines. These divide between (1) those that are ready to normalize relations with Israel and those that oppose it; (2) those that confront each other along identity lines and by doing so insufflate life into regional forms of sectarianism; and (3) those that are in favour of political change versus those who defend the status quo. The latter cleavage is also linked to the question of supporting the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a regional actor versus trying to eradicate it.

• Anti-Zionism has ceased to be a major defining feature of Arab politics. Instead, shared hostility towards Iran and its allies has been forging a new rapprochement between Israel and a number of Arab states. However, the norm of Arab solidarity and the Palestinian cause still resonate very much with Arab publics, pointing (once more) to the ever-growing disconnect between Arab regimes and their populations.

• Since 2011, one-off events have been changing the perception of what or who represents a threat and this is why alliances limited to single issues proliferate. Such liquid alliances are not durable and constantly adapt to different landscapes. The eruption of simultaneous and intersecting regional conflicts has increased the sense of unreliability in allies and prompted more assertive and often aggressive attitudes towards both rivals and friends.

• Since 2011, we have witnessed shifts in the centres of gravity of the MENA region. The Gulf has replaced the Mashreq/Levant as the main geopolitical centre, while the Maghreb, but also other parts of the Middle East, have been pivoting towards the African continent.

• The American unipolar moment is long gone. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq and its catastrophic aftermath, the US retreat from the region and Russia’s willingness to fill the power vacuum in Syria, in addition to China flexing its economic muscles across the region, have created a new reality, where the USA is only one among many global powers.

• States that continue to present themselves as US allies are also very much willing to strengthen links with Moscow and Beijing. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and even Israel are able to play external powers off against each other, thereby obtaining concessions and leverage. At times, Middle Eastern governments have even succeeded in manoeuvring global powers to do what they otherwise might not have done. Often, such tail-wags-the-dog dynamics work in rather subtle ways, as global powers internalize or uncritically take over the security perceptions of regional allies.

• After the Arab uprisings, the MENA region entered a period in which the existing order is increasingly challenged while an alternative is still to be framed.



  • Eduard Soler

    Eduard SOLER i LECHA

    Senior Research Fellow and MENARA Project Scientific Coordinator