The Multiple Crises in the Middle East

Haizam Amirah Fernández

Senior Analyst for the Mediterranean and Arab World, Elcano Royal Institute

Today, the Middle East is a region with many points of instability and a growing degree of complexity in the crises and conflicts that affect its countries as a whole. The destruction of Syria, the decomposition of Iraq, the upheavals in Egypt and Libya, the rivalries between the Gulf oil monarchies, the complicated relations with Iran, the widespread social discontent, the exploitation of ethno-sectarian divisions, the expansion of Jihadism, the confusion of US policy in the area and the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are some symptoms – and also results – of the growing complexity experienced by the Middle East.

Three Decades of Growing Instability

The Middle East and North Africa or MENA region countries have just over 5% of the world’s population. However, the media attention they have received over the last three decades has been far beyond what this area represents at world level in terms of population, land mass, wealth or global presence. The images normally associated with these countries are of conflicts, wars, authoritarian regimes, innocent victims, struggle for resources and, increasingly, states in decomposition.

The recent history of the Middle East is closely linked to multiple traumatic experiences suffered by its populations over the last century. The clash with colonialism and complex decolonisation, the difficult formation of the states and the perpetuation of authoritarian systems, the creation of Israel and its conflicts with its neighbours, competition for regional hegemony and the interference of the major power has created a climate of insecurity and mistrust. The conflicts and struggles for power – frequently bloody – are a result of the lack of regional integration and the absence of cooperation between the different social and economic actors.

The 1990s: Many Shocks and Some Hope

The 1990s began in this area with the very recent memory of the devastating war between Iraq and Iran (1980-1988) and the prolonged civil war in Lebanon (1975-1990). The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 heralded changes in this part of the world where the Cold War had conditioned the system of alliances and balances of power. However, the great upheaval took place on 2 August 1990 when Saddam Hussein’s troops invaded the neighbouring emirate of Kuwait, putting at risk both the security of the oil supply and the distribution of powers in the strategic region of the Gulf.

The Iraqi dictator made one of his biggest miscalculations by invading Kuwait, as it provoked the formation of the biggest international coalition in modern times, led by the United States. In early 1991, Operation Desert Storm forced Iraqi withdrawal and a harsh regime of sanctions against his people was applied. One consequence was the establishment of a major American military presence in the Arabian Peninsula, which provoked an anti-American backlash throughout the region. This was one of the reasons used in February 1998 by Osama Bin Laden and other radical Islamist leaders to create the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.

Once Iraq’s regional hegemonic temptations were neutralised, George Bush Senior’s Administration set up a Middle East Peace Conference held in Madrid in autumn 1991. This was a ray of hope for a region that had suffered several wars since the creation of Israel in 1948. The “land for peace” formula was to be the basis of what was then called the Peace Process. However, many of these hopes were curtailed on 4 November 1995 when the Israeli Prime Minister Isaac Rabin was assassinated by a radical rightwing Jewish extremist opposed to the idea of giving up land for peace.

The recent history of the Middle East is closely linked to multiple traumatic experiences suffered by its populations over the last century

The Oslo Accords (1993 and 1995), as well as the successive memorandums, protocols, summits and conferences between Israelis and Palestinians – with the United States as the main mediator – have not resulted in any peace agreement acceptable to the opposed parties. After almost a quarter of a century, the so-called Peace Process has failed to find a negotiated solution to the conflicts between Israel and its neighbours. All the diplomatic initiatives undertaken during that time have not stopped the growing Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, or prevented the extremists on both sides from having the last word and the ability to torpedo the attempts to reach a just and lasting peace.

The 2000s: A Decade of Terror, Wars and Serious Mistakes

The international panorama at the start of the 21st century has been marked, to a great extent, by events that have occurred or originated in the Middle East. The first decade of the century began with the 11 September 2001 macro-attacks, committed by the al-Qaeda network in the name of globalJihadism. George Bush Junior’s Administration, dominated by the neo-conservatives, reacted by invading Afghanistan, with the support of the UN Security Council, to defeat the Taliban regime. In this way, the so-called “global war against terrorism” became a central element of international relations. One consequence of that doctrine is that it helped strengthen the authoritarian regimes that adhered to it.

However, in March 2003, the United States carried out its regime change plans in Iraq, invading the country and overthrowing Saddam Hussein without UN backing. This caused a serious split in the Security Council and, even more seriously, broke internal and regional balances, allowed the rise of Iran as a regional power and immersed Iraq in an unstoppable spiral of violence and sectarianism. One decade later, it is clear that the so-called reconstruction of Iraq has been a failure and the neo-conservatives committed an act of political pyromania that – as had been warned – opened the gates of hell in the Middle East.

The coming to power of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran in 2005 strained this country’s relations with western powers. The incendiary rhetoric and the reciprocal threats, with the backdrop of the Iranian nuclear programme, have conditioned the alliances and perception of threats of the regional actors. During that decade a “cold war” intensified in the Middle East between two blocs: one led by Saudi Arabia with Arab-Sunni allies, and another headed by Iran in the Persian-Shiite orbit, but that also brings together resistance movements. Each one of these regional leaders has clients and allies (state and non-state) that it supports with resources, guarantees and direct involvement when possible. It is interesting that there is no reason for the allies against one specific threat to be the same allies against another.

From 2010 until Today: A Tangled Region in Rapid Transformation

The 2010s began with Barack Obama in the White House and a change of style in American foreign policy towards the region, with the clear aim of not getting involved in new Middle-Eastern adventures. The surprise came on 14 January 2011 when Tunisian dictator Ben Ali was forced to abandon the country due to the anti-authoritarian uprisings all over Tunisia. The so-called “Arab awakening” quickly reached Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s regime chose to respond violently to the uprisings demanding rights and reforms. The regime massacres and the radicalisation of the rebellion have caused what is probably the biggest humanitarian disaster of the 21st century. Al-Assad preferred to set his country alight and spread the fire to the rest of the region rather than undertaking reforms and sharing power. And the world did not stop him.

A Region in Rapid Transformation

As a whole, the Middle East and Maghreb region today is messy and in rapid flux. In this part of the world, as in others, insecurities create power struggles. Both the foreign and domestic policies of its countries aim to eliminate or contain the threats, perceived or real, to “security” understood in different ways. National security is frequently confused with the security of the regime and its options to continue in power. It also involves state interests such as sovereignty, territorial integrity and the capacity to influence. The desire for influence can have the objective of achieving regional leadership, advancing economic interests or attaining the recognition of the great powers.[1]

The realistic theory of international relations establishes that when the states are confronted by a serious threat, they usually either seek balance through the formation of alliances or bandwagoning. The choice is between forming alliances against common threats or aligning with the source of the threat to avoid damage[2]. This in its turn also involves security dilemmas about how to defend oneself without rivals feeling threatened and causing the start of an arms race. Another security dilemma in several Middle East countries is the choice between developing their own defence capacities or “contracting” their defence with the major international powers. It is common for these dilemmas to generate paradoxes and contradictions. 

American actions in the Middle East after 11-S have contributed – apparently without foreseeing it – to the regional rise of Iran

For decades, the Middle East countries have formed different alliances, have been the object of many threats and have suffered numerous superimposed conflicts. These processes seem to have become far more complex in the last few years. Three factors – which will be detailed later – contribute to this growing complexity: 1) the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the consequences of having broken internal and regional balances, 2) the “Arab awakening” and the socio-political transformations experienced in the region since 2011, and 3) the Obama Administration’s foreign policy on the area, partly conditioned by the two previous factors.

The aforementioned panorama is causing a rapid increase in levels of uncertainty and, with it, of the insecurity felt by the different regional actors. This directly affects their choice of alliances and how they implement their foreign policy. Faced with distinct threats, real or potential, alliances of a non-exclusive character emerge. There is no reason for allies against a specific threat to be the same allies against another threat. In the current Middle East there are rivals with common enemies, allies that support each of the opposed sides in the same conflict, contradictory interests between “friendly” countries, shared interests between “enemies”, partners unimaginable until recently and pacts against nature. Some old friendships and enmities are being replaced by new alliances in a highly volatile environment.

Three Underlying Changes

Three main factors are contributing to disfiguring the Middle East and altering the alliances and balances of power between its members. The first factor is the invasion of Iraq, led by the United States in 2003, and the consequent change of regime in Baghdad. According to the neo-conservatives, this invasion would end the tyranny of Saddam Hussein – formerly an ally of the West – and make Iraq a democracy that would serve as an example to the rest of the so-called Greater Middle East, in what would be a first step in a chain of change of hostile regimes.

The reality, one decade later, is very different: instead of becoming a stable state, an example of democracy and an American ally, Iraq is today a quasi-failed state, affected by deep internal instability and the main regional exponent of sectarian violence, focal point of ethno-religious radicalism and fertile terrain for the advance of violent and terrorist groups, such as Daesh (the self-proclaimed and misnamed Islamic State). If Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a threat to peace and security in the Middle East, the occupation of the country and change of regime in 2003 do not seem to have eliminated the danger it represented for the whole region, quite the contrary.

American actions in the Middle East after 11-S have contributed –apparently without foreseeing it – to the regional rise of Iran. On the one hand, in 2001 the United States put an end to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (enemy of the Iranian ayatollahs), which placed Teheran-allied groups in power in Kabul. On the other, in 2003 George W. Bush’s Administration deposed Saddam Hussein, who had acted as a containing wall against the Iranian hegemonic ambitions in its Arab neighbourhood. An expected consequence has been the increased Iranian influence in the arc from Iran to Lebanon, including Iraq and Syria. This, on the one hand, has created strong reactions from Iran’s rivals and, on the other, reluctance by the United States to get involved in new Middle-Eastern adventures.

The second factor is the so-called “Arab awakening” that, since 2011, has been provoking internal upheavals in several countries. The effects of the socio-political changes are noticeable throughout the region and have put all the authoritarian regimes on the defensive, faced with the risk of finding themselves increasingly more questioned by their populations. This has taken each regime to attempt to “shield itself” with all the resources available to it: economic (trying to appease the social discontent or influencing other countries that can cause it problems), ideological (exercising influence using certain religious and political interpretations), identity (mobilising socio-political actors by appealing to their primary tribal, religious or ethnic identities) or dependence (seeking the protection of external security providers in exchange for guaranteeing certain strategic interests)[3].

The third factor is the Obama Administration’s change in policy towards the Middle East. There has been much debate over whether Washington is disengaging from the region as a result of its pivot towards Asia. It is clear that, rather than having a “policy” towards the region, Obama is showing an “attitude” of conviction that getting deeply involved in those lands is dragging the United States into more problems and draining its energy to deal with the serious challenges in other regions[4]. This change of attitude is altering the calculations of the United State’s traditional allies, creating a degree of nervousness and misgivings in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, Turkey and the small Gulf oil monarchies. 

The United States’ growing energy self-sufficiency, added to the traumatic experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, means the Obama Administration is asking its allies (and also its one-time enemy Iran) to take on more responsibility to guarantee a framework of regional security that does not depend almost completely on Washington. This approach explains why in November 2013 an interim agreement – called “historic” by many – was signed in Geneva between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. The agreement focused on the Iranian nuclear programme, although its reach would go much further with the gradual lifting of international sanctions against Iran and its opening to the rest of the world. A key question for the Iranians concerns the recognition implicit in having negotiated with the main world powers on equal terms.

Uncertain Alliances in a Complex Region

The traditional frameworks of analysis to explain the alliances formed in the Middle East are proving to have serious limitations. This is because several of these states are fragmenting and have ceased to operate as unified actors. In fact, in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen the states stopped acting as such in their internationally recognised territories some years ago. The questioning of the concept of “state” in the region as a whole is on the rise. The borders inherited from European colonialism (derived from the Sykes-Picot Agreement), as well as the traditional models of leadership in societies with many youths, poor expectations in the distribution of wealth, little respect for freedoms and increasingly more open to the outside world are also being questioned. 

Several of the conflicts that currently affect the Middle East are frequently presented as a sectarian war between the members of the two main branches of Islam: Sunnis and Shiites. Although it is true that the religious element is highly present in the discourses of the ideologues of the different opposed factions, the key does not lie in a religious war but in a fierce struggle for power faced with rising insecurity, in which rival religious identities are replacing nationalism as a mobilising agent. It is easy to identify a kind of “cold war” in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran, where each one has clients and allies (both state and non-state) they support with resources, guarantees and direct involvement when possible.

Several of the conflicts that currently affect the Middle East are frequently presented as a sectarian war between the members of the two main branches of Islam: Sunnis and Shiites

Today, three regional blocs can be identified: the bloc under Iranian-Shiite leadership (including Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime, the government of Baghdad and several Iraqi militias, Hezbollah and, intermittently, Palestinian militias such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad); the Saudi-Sunni bloc (on which the Egyptian regime headed by Abdul Fattah al-Sisi depends, with countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan and, to some extent, the Palestinian National Authority); and lastly a much weakened bloc mainly formed by Qatar and the different organisations linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The military/civil coup against the Egyptian government of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 appreciably changed the composition of these alliances, as his Islamist government was close to Qatar and also to Turkey. For its part, although Israel is not a declared member of any of these blocs, it is de facto an ally of the Riyadh-Cairo axis.

Despite the apparent clarity of the aforementioned blocs, the degree of complexity of their alliances and interactions is very high. While Saudi Arabia and Qatar compete and strongly conflict on the destiny of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, these two countries are allied against Iran and its protected al-Assad supporting rebel Syrian groups composed, among others, by the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, Iran massively supports the al-Assad regime against the Syrian Islamist rebels supported by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian movement Hamas, which strikingly have also received support from Teheran. Turkey maintains good relations with the Arab Gulf states and positions itself with them against al-Assad, although they seriously differ in terms of the support that should be received by the Egyptian regime sustained by the military. This is without mentioning the origins of the so-called Islamic State that has taken possession of territories on both sides of the border between Syria and Iraq and is now threatening countries that supported it.

Questioning the Status Quo

In 2002 the first of a series of Arab Human Development Reports, published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) appeared. Their objective was to identify the challenges facing Arab societies and propose changes to get them out of the multiple crises in which they were immersed. These reports, prepared by Arab researchers and intellectuals, acquired great importance internationally, and analysed the shortcomings of the Arab world (mainly the lack of liberty, protection of women and access to knowledge)[5], which were –and still are – a source of discontent and frustration for broad sectors of their populations. Two independent phenomena, although sometimes linked, as are emigration and radicalism – religious or otherwise –, are usually associated with desperation and lack of expectations of better living conditions. Hence the search for formulas to transform the region and eradicate the threats – real or perceived – that originated there.

Anti-Authoritarian Uprisings 

The crisis of Arab development has worsened over the last decade. The Arab Human Development Report 2004, prepared by the UNDP, already identified the acute deficit of freedom and good governance in the Arab world is the main obstacle to an Arab renaissance. Many inhabitants of the region have for a long time felt profound discontent over the everyday injustices and humiliations, but the attempts to transform that discontent into social mobilisation against authoritarianism and corruption had not been very successful following the independencies of those countries in the mid-20th century. The ferocity of the Arab State – as we will see later – seemed to prevent any real and profound democratic change. However, in the final days of the past decade they witnessed an individual act that has transformed the region: a young Tunisian, Muhammad Bouazizi, desperate and humiliated by the agents of power, set himself alight in an act of extreme desperation. The uprisings originated by that incident spread throughout Tunisia and, in just a few weeks, provoked dictator Ben Ali’s flight to Saudi Arabia from the country that he had turned into a family fiefdom. 

On 14 January 2011 the myth that an Arab authoritarian regime would never be decapitated by spontaneous social, peaceful and non-ideological protest was ended by a major regional upheaval whose effects would be long-lasting. The spark ignited by Bouazizi spread in a few months to almost the whole Middle East and Maghreb, beginning what has become known as the “Arab awakening”. It truncated the dynastic succession in Egypt and Libya, whose tyrants, Mubarak and Gaddafi, were forced to abandon power months after Ben Ali by popular pressure and, in the case of Libya, due to the military support provided by NATO and some Arab countries. The deposed lifetime leaders must have thought their peoples would remain passive, frightened or anesthetised forever, but the distorted reality produced by holding absolute power for long decades prevented them from seeing something elementary: that rising pressure eventually causes an explosion. That blindness made them act as only dictators cornered by their peoples know how to act: accelerating their end.

Egypt has spent four years immersed in an erratic transition that, since the fall of Mubarak, has generated excluding and socially polarising dynamics

Tunisian society set a precedent for other Arabs whose expectations of having a decent and prosperous life were low, not to say non-existent. In all countries of the region, including Israel, the social protests are producing internal transformations, from the change of regime to attempts at constitutional reform and government remodelling of greater or lesser importance. Tunisia and Egypt represent opposite poles of the Arab transitions that started in January 2011. On the positive side, Tunisian society and its political elites were able to hold democratic elections during 2014 that have brought about a peaceful power switching (between Islamists and secularists), as well as approving the most advanced, democratic and egalitarian Constitution in the history of Arabs. 

Egypt, in contrast, has spent four years immersed in an erratic transition that, since the fall of Mubarak, has generated excluding and socially polarising dynamics, without tackling the roots of the profound and chronic socioeconomic problems of the country (the very high aid received from the Gulf countries is preventing the collapse of the Egyptian economy). The current regime overseen by the Armed Forces has gone down the path of politically eradicating its adversaries, both the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberal and pro-democracy activist groups. That scenario brings an elevated risk of radicalisation and violent civil confrontation, as is being seen with the deterioration of security conditions (rising attacks and terrorist attempts). The current regime’s official discourse that “Egypt is fighting terrorism” can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, whose implications would not be limited to Egypt. 

The Ferocity of the Arab State

Arab authoritarian regimes have, to a greater or lesser degree, been held up for decades by two pillars: tight internal control of the population and acritical external support for their policies. To control their societies, those regimes resorted – and most continue to resort – to powerful security forces and intelligence services (mukhabarat). The aspirations of the population for more freedom and to fight against corruption were seen with great suspicion, and defenders of these aspirations were considered enemies of the state. Moreover, the Arab leaders exploited – each in their own way – the strategic value of their regimes for the international powers, presenting themselves as essential to the stability of their own countries and the region as a whole. Despite the continuous use of intimidation, repression and corrupt clientilist systems, those leaders managed to convince their main international interlocutors that their countries could only be ruled with a firm hand, otherwise the alternative would necessarily be Islamist and, also, radical.

The previous formula has been highly efficient for prolonging the model of “authoritarian stability” in many Middle East and Maghreb countries. The relation between state and society based on mistrust and delegitimisation of the opponent has been the norm. What apparently was a strength of the state has become a weakness since the start of the anti-authoritarian uprisings. In the mid-1990s, the political expert Nazih Ayubi warned in his great work Over-Stating the Arab State of the error of confusing “strong state” with “fierce state”. According to him, the first “is complementary, not contradictory, to society, and its strength [is demonstrated] by its ability to work with and through other centres of power in society,” while the second “is so opposed to society that it can only deal with it via coercion and raw force.[6]” This ferocity in the long term makes them weak states, whose continuity becomes unsustainable. Beyond the theoretical debate, this has enormous implications for the future of relations between the international powers and Arab countries. 

Conclusion: Prepare to Expect the Unexpected 

With the rise of regional instability in the Middle East and the Maghreb and the relative but firm advance of the forces fighting against the status quo from very different positions, there is a real risk of an implosion that will finally disfigure the whole region. This might be caused by the de facto disappearance of some borders, the decomposition of more states, wars between neighbours or a regional outbreak of war. The question is whether it will be possible to stop the processes that could lead to one of these scenarios in time and, if so, what policies can now avoid the emergence of far more serious problems in a not so distant future. 

The United States seems to be trying to close the circle: to reach a definitive agreement with Iran, maintain its traditional alliances in the Middle East, contain the devastating effects of the decomposition of Syria and Iraq and, at the same time, avoid being dragged into a new military intervention in the region. Achieving all these goals does not seem easy, or even probable, and that is something on which many depend and that they will try to exploit when the time comes. For the European Union, it is clear that it lacks a strategic vision and leadership capacity in its southern neighbourhood. The foregoing suggests quite an unstable future in the short term in the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, in the Maghreb, where the alliances of the moment can change abruptly and where we will have to be prepared to expect the unexpected.

The generalised limitation of the analyses and predictions on the Arab world is patent, given that no one was capable of foreseeing the so-called “Arab awakening” or of acting quickly once it had begun. Several reasons can explain this inability to foresee what was coming: the incomplete and slanted knowledge of the transformations that occurred in the structures, preferences and values of those societies over recent years; the analysis based on obsolete paradigms; the political correction that impedes envisaging uncomfortable scenarios; and the confusion between desire and reality in the decision-making processes. It does not seem that these limitations in knowledge and analysis are being resolved for policies to be adopted that favour stability and development against the advance of frustration and chaos. 

It is very probable that the Middle East and Maghreb countries will go on assuming a more central role than would correspond to them at a world level. Their societies, very young and increasingly more open to the outside world, are transforming at an accelerated rate. What we do not yet know is if anything can avoid the worst omens. Will there be an agreement between Iran and the great powers? Will Israel manage to normalise its existence in its neighbourhood in line with the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002? Will inclusive systems of government be established that put an end to the discontent, radicalisation and sectarianism?

The Middle East and Maghreb countries have been deeply marked by different global trends over the last few decades. In view of the profound transformations taking place there, both socially and politically, one could ask whether this region will be the one that sets the global trends in the medium and long term. And the risks are many.


[1] Hinnebusch, R. y A. Ehteshami (eds). The Foreign Policies of Middle East States, Boulder, Lynne Rienner, 2014.

[2] Walt, S. M., The Origins of Alliances, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1990.

[3] Amirah Fernández, H., “Relaciones internacionales del Golfo: intereses, alianzas, dilemas y paradojas”, Real Instituto Elcano, 8 marzo 2011. [[In English: Amirah-Fernández, Haizam. “International Relations of the Gulf: Interests, Alliances, Dilemmas and Paradoxes”. Elcano Royal Institute (15 marzo 2011)]].

[4] Khouri, R., “A New Age in United States-Mideast Relations”, Agence Global , 29 Octubre 2013.

[5] Todos los informes y otras fuentes de información y análisis sobre el mundo árabe están disponibles en:

[6] AYUBI, N. N., Política y sociedad en Oriente Próximo: La hipertrofia del Estado árabe, Barcelona, Ediciones Bellaterra, 2008, p. 651.