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University of Basel

“So far, yet so near”: The Middle East.

Text: Maurus Reinkowski

The current power vacuum in the region between Libya and Afghanistan has left large areas, and whole countries, in a state of permanent crisis. At the same time, the conflicts in the Middle East are encroaching on Europe.

(Photo: Dana Smillie)
(Photo: Dana Smillie)

The survival of the Middle East as we knew it is now in doubt. The future of Iraq, plagued by violence and war since 2003, is unclear.
Even greater uncertainty surrounds the continued existence of Syria, which has been a war zone since 2011. Libya and Yemen have ceased to be functioning states, now serving merely as cauldrons for confused conflicts. Generally, that is about as much as we can say, as working out how a different, reconfigured region might emerge is no easy task. Still, before I offer some preliminary thoughts on what the Middle East is today and could be in the future, it is important to address the question of what it has been previously.

There are many different understandings of what constitutes the Middle East. You can set very broad parameters for the region and say that it extends from Morocco to Pakistan and from Turkey to Sudan. Narrower definitions are also possible; it would be easy enough to exclude the Maghreb and countries like Pakistan and Sudan. Given that the boundaries of the Middle East are so hard to pin down, you would be forgiven for thinking that the concept itself must be very vague. That is not the case, however: The core meaning of the term “Middle East” is quite clear.

Changing dominant powers

First, the hard regional core of the Middle East is largely coextensive with the former subject territories of the Ottoman Empire – from Libya, through Israel/Palestine, to Iraq, including Yemen and western Saudi Arabia. As the Ottoman Empire was on the losing side at the end of World War I, it had to surrender its territories in the eastern part of the Arab world. Most of them ended up in the hands of France and Britain, which held them as what were  known as “mandates” of the League of Nations. Of these two great powers, Britain was clearly the one with strategic control of the region after World War I.

This brings us to the second core meaning. Domination of the region by a hegemonic imperial power has always been a defining feature of the Middle East as it developed after World War I. Up to the end of World War II, that power was Britain. The role then passed to the United States of America, occasionally challenged (mostly with little success) by the Soviet Union. This interplay of imperial hegemony, coupled with a relative lack of clarity as to what constituted the region, served to define the core meaning of the Middle East.

More specifically, the vagueness of the term has the benefit of allowing political action relating to the region to appear both appropriate and open. The Eisenhower doctrine of 1957, which was the first American foreign policy doctrine directly related to the Middle East, had the objective of protecting the region from Soviet influence. The fuzziness of the term “Middle East” was particularly helpful in this regard, as it meant that the USA reserved the right to intervene anywhere in a poorly defined region where it felt that its interests were threatened or there were new opportunities for it to exploit. The boundaries of the Middle East fluctuated, therefore, in line with the strategic interests of the great powers engaged in the region. In other words, the very haziness of the term explains its durability.

Controlled distance

For decades, Europeans saw the Middle East as reliably unpredictable. One of its fundamental characteristics was that it was a region prone to crises, but that these conflicts had little direct impact on the outside world. The Middle East may not have been a long way away, but it was not right on “our” doorstep, either. Thus, the Middle East was always characterized by a controllable susceptibility to conflict and a sense of controlled distance.

If you had to single out one key event that changed things fundamentally, it would be the occupation of Iraq by the USA and its “coalition of the willing” in 2003. Up to that point, US policy toward the Middle East had always been cautious, aimed not at bringing about regime change but at maintaining existing political structures – a cynical approach, but one seen as necessary from this policy perspective. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 represented a break with this policy of exercising hegemony in a cautious and coldly calculating way.

The consequences of this bad decision – which are clear to see in the disintegration of first Iraq and then Syria, the strengthening of Iran as a regional power, and the rise of organizations like the Islamic State – have shaped American Middle East policy up to the present day, speeding up the historic retreat of the US from its role as the dominant global power. The “Arabellion” that broke out in Tunisia in December 2010, only to be subsequently derailed in Libya, Syria and Yemen, is a reflection of these fundamental changes, rather than their primary cause.

New migration routes

For the first time since World War I, there is no longer anyone willing or able to assume a clear hegemonic leadership role in the Middle East. In this power vacuum, an unstable system structured around “partial hegemons” such as Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey has started to emerge, the consequences of which are apparent in the almost endless war in Syria.

For Europe and Switzerland, this means that the Middle East has been brought closer and that “its” conflicts have become, indirectly, Europe’s own. New spheres of communication and migration routes to Europe have appeared. In the 1980s, the Balkan route would still have been just a series of impenetrable borders for refugees and migrants.

Disciplines dealing with the history and politics of the region, such as the Middle Eastern Studies program at the University of Basel, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year, are no longer exotic niche subjects. Today, they are concerned almost exclusively with thorny issues and are helping to tackle questions relating to the stability and future of Europe.

Outdated conceptions of space

The United States will be able – albeit at the price of a loss of influence on the world stage – to insulate itself from most of the consequences of the reordering of the Middle East that is clearly under way. But for European states this is not an option. The Middle East with which they were once so familiar – a region permanently engulfed in crises that seemed, by their very nature, to have no direct repercussions for European societies – has gone, never to return.

In future, there will be a greater emphasis on realpolitik in European policy. It is notable that the last few years have seen a blurring of boundaries and the collapse of preexisting conceptions of space that informed the West’s approach to conducting policy in the Middle East over many decades – without any real understanding of the issues at times, perhaps, but with a fair degree of success. The traditional view of the Middle East as a region clearly differentiated and distant from Europe is no longer tenable, in any case.


More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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