Geopolitical perspective of a “new era” in the Middle East (Part II)

Опубликовано: 25.02.2014

Геополитическое измерение «новой эры» на Ближнем ВостокеPart I

Turkish gambit

The new political course chosen by Turkish government is not an accidental choice. It was determined by the readiness of Ankara to challenge the regional leadership of Iran. Economic growth and political initiatives allows talking about this state as an example for all Sunni Muslims in the Middle East. Recep Erdogan breathed life into a Turkish backward economy, doubled GDP for a very short period, “dealt” with military and made Turkey one of the examples of successful modernization of the state under moderate Islamic leadership in the modern history of the Middle East. Turkey made economic cooperation with Arab countries. Its policy “zero problems with neighbors” gave good results – for example hostile relations with neighboring Syria swapped to close cooperation in various fields.

Turkey successfully challenged the status of the main defender of Palestinians from Iran. In 2009 in The Davos meeting Erdogan ventured a public exchange with Israel President Shimon Peres, and in May 2010 there was a shocking incident happened to The MV Mavi Marmara, carrying the humanitarian aid to Gaza. It was attacked by Israeli Special Forces. Criticizing Israel Erdogan eclipsed Ahmadinejad’s fame in the eyes of Arab youth. Arabs quickly forgot their longstanding antipathy to Turks (since the collapse of Ottoman state the antipathy is sometimes cultivated in a few Arab countries) and happily welcomed Erdogan in his frequent visits to Arab countries.

The beginning of the “Arab Spring” became a serious challenge for Turkey. Ankara saluted the resignation of Ben Ali and Mubarak and accession of “conservative” (close to the ideology of Turkish regime) parties to a power. But Libyan events, where Turkey had the big contracts and tens of thousands specialists had been working there, staggered Erdogan. Finally, Turkey took the rebels’ side, perhaps because of the necessity to keep up the image of the country-protagonist of democracy before the West and being afraid to be reputed as a strangler of “Arab awakening” in the eyes of the Middle East inhabitants. Turkey supported the opposition when the revolutionary fire blazed in neighboring Syria. Ankara hoped that Asad’s regime would fall soon and Syrian “Muslim Brotherhood” would come to power, and Turkey would become the main savior of the Syrian people.

Surrender a former partner Asad was seen by Turkish authorities as chess gambit. Turkey figured on a strong consolidation in the renewed Middle East. But Asad didn’t give in and war demanded more and more expenses from its sponsors. If we look at the geopolitical scene objectively we will see that the position of Turkey in Syrian issue is a serious mistake. Turkey is forced to spend huge funds to support refugees and rebels. Bomb blasts in Reyhanlı resulted in anti-government demonstrations in the border areas with Syria. It’s obvious the Turkish participation in Syrian conflict stroke a blow to the image of the ruling “Party of Justice and Development”. Discontent against Turkish policy towards Syria provoked disorders in Gezi Park. Once a successful policy “zero problems with neighbours” has sunk into oblivion and close relations between Turkey and Gulf monarchies and Qatar in particular annoyed the most of Turkish people.

Erdogan’s words about the necessity to listen to the people’s voice concerning the events in Libya and Syria turned against him when the protesters in “Taksim” square in Istanbul and other Turkish cities were dispersed by police with batons and tear gas. Overthrow of the Egyptian president Mohammed Mursi resulted another serious shock for Turkey because Ankara considered Egyptian “Muslim Brotherhood” as one of the most important partners, and “Palace reshuffle” in Qatar was the bell to these events.

Qatari “Amir for an hour”

About 15 years ago one could hardly guess that a small gas-bearing state in the Persian Gulf could have a profound influence on the political processes in the Middle East. The analysts still have to look into Qatar phenomenon which made the full use of the funds, received from hydrocarbons sales, for realization of its political ambitions, and the origin of these ambitions should be learnt as well. The economists reported on the economic success, growth of GDP, high level of income per capita and etc. of Qatar long time ago. Al-Jazeera was familiar to everybody; the broadcast company made its name covering the events in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan and became the first world-class Arab mass media. Qatar conducted a flexible policy. It pretended to have a special relationship with Iran, European countries and USA as well (even with Israel – the only in whole Arabian Peninsula Israeli trade mission is located since 1996 in Doha). Qatar played on the interests of countries-antagonists successfully.

The Arab Spring obviously became the hour of triumph for Qatar and made a small emirate one of the architects of political processes in the region. Yet it’s not clear how Qatar was embroiled in organization of anti-governmental rebellions in Libya and Syria – whether Qatar planned them beforehand or successfully joined in an early stage. But unprecedented efforts of Qatar in financing the rebels and the acts of Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar Asad overthrows are quite obvious. Qatar played a leading part in Libyan events, being responsible for the campaign finished with disgraceful murder of Gaddafi. In addition, the rise of Muslim Brotherhood to power in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco should be put on Qatar’s account, which was considered as the main Ikhwan’s ally.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s alliance with Qatar could be reckoned as one of the most successful strategic alliances in the Middle East until recently. It is considered that the personal contacts of ikhwans and emir of Qatar are at the core of that relationship. The Muslim Brotherhood as the biggest Muslim network organization in the region needed a rich sponsor, and Qatar needed the platform for its regional expansion. And we can say that they really have found each other.

In the early stage of “Arab war” Qatar used all cards it had in its hands – informational monster “Al Jazeera” covered every step of “freedom fighters” and unmasked acts of crime of “dictatorial regimes”. Egyptian theologian Yusuf Qaradawi resident of Qatar and one of most famous and popular Muslim theologian in the Middle East was ready to play the role of revolutionary-preacher of forthcoming changes in the region. Qatar had its “own people” among Libyan and Syrian opposition.

Though Qatar’s triumph finished shortly. Recently considered as a voice of Arab streets Al-Jazeera was denounced as propaganda machine of Muslim Brotherhood and finally reduced its popularity. Turkey as an alliance partner of Qatar was enveloped in anti-government riots. The leader of Syrian opposition became “the man of Saudis” in 2013, who had found the way to outflank the Qatar’s appointee. Qatar’s key partner- Egyptian ikhwans- were completely not able to retain the power which they lost after the military coup in July 2013. But the strange retirement of Emir Hamad Al Thani became the most momentous event for Qatar. Officially he reposed power in hands of his son Tamim, but all events proved that it was a palace reshuffle. The prime-minister of Qatar and one of the architects of the Arab Spring Hamad ben Jassim had deserted his post also. Probably ambitious plans of Emir Hamad and his expenses for Arab Awakening made the representatives of Qatar elite annoyed. And Saudi Arabia and its republican partners in USA were annoyed with the emir’s activity most of all.

Saudi Endspiel?

Saudi Arabia had enough motives to be dissatisfied with Qatar’s policy. The militant actions of Qatar during the Arab Spring annoyed Saudi authorities notably. Conflicts between two Gulf monarchies for Syria came in full force.

The Saudis have seen the ideological threat coming from growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. The ikhwans policy is more flexible and more liberal than the policy of so called “Salafis”. The Brotherhood call for active participation in political processes, parties set up, participation in election and etc. All these actions were unacceptable for Saudi Arabia because it considered that only governing of Saud house is corresponded to true Islamic tradition. Whereas the voice of Yusuf Qaradawi and the Brotherhood is against the theocracy. Saudi Arabia is afraid of losing the monopoly for political Islam which may be undermined by the Brotherhood’s successes. This is one of reasons why Saudi Arabia ardently welcomed the military coup in Egypt and arrest of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. In his official appeal about the events in Egypt Saudi king stated strictly: “In the name of the people of Saudi Arabia and on my behalf, we congratulate your leadership of Egypt in this critical period of its history. We pray for God to help you bear the responsibility laid upon you to achieve the ambitions of our brotherly people of Egypt.” In addition Egypt received huge financial aid from Arabian monarchies. (It’s remarkable that so called Salafis in Egypt represented by Al-Nour Party and sponsored by Saudis moved aside from their “ideological neighbors”).

Saudi Arabia has an influence on various so called Salafis movements and groupings in many countries. During the last decades Saudi authorities resisted the growing influence of Iran in Lebanon and Iraq, relying on the local Sunnis. However these aspects are local. Saudis don’t have the own political project and model like Iran or Turkey have. The models which Arabian monarchy could offer as an alternative project of development. Of course, it is important to have the status of holy cities custodian, Hajj organizer and the centre of so called fundamentalism, but these cards aren’t enough for the renewing Middle East. Saudi Arabia being rich and having close relations with USA has quite archaic and big political structure preventing the state from being flexible and bringing their interests into effect. Though the Saudi authorities try to use the results of the Arab Spring to consolidate their positions but it will be very difficult to keep it for long. The one thing is to promote their own people in Lebanon or Syria speculating on “Shiah threat” and the other thing is to become a regional leader and offer attractive and effective models of development. The crisis of this system will come sooner or later and it may happen with the help of the old partners like USA.

The dependent Middle East

In the recent years it is widely stated that USA loses their positions in the region. This is one of the reasons to discuss the issue regarding the regional leader after the fatal withdrawal of Americans from the Middle East. Of course the USA is not the same it had been 15 ago but the USA still is the superpower having unprecedented economic and military strength and ability to affect any regional processes.

Talking about the policy of different countries which are trying to play for the Arab Spring events, I didn’t say anything about the role of American deliberately. From the very beginning USA notably minimized the importance of its involvement in political processes. However the White House carries on the same dynamic policy like it was under Obama’s predecessor. Until recently – under George W. Bush Jr. — it was difficult to believe that the notorious “axis of evil” could become thin without war machine interference. However the job of American militaries was easily done by Arab teenagers mobilized through Facebook and Twitter.

At first it might seem that it wasn’t favourable for the USA the fall of such leaders like Ben Ali or Mubarak. However this approach is quite imperfect because it doesn’t take into account the conflict of interests between different geopolitical actors inside the USA. It is a matter of the democrats and republicans. These names are quite conditional; however they reflect the things existing in American political elite for a long time – liberalism sympathizers, soft power sympathizers and those of indirect impact are grouped around Democratic party, whereas conservatives, fundamentalists, hard power supporters are accumulated in the ranks of Republican party. Of course there is some exclusion, but in whole such differentiation takes place.

Those geopolitical blocks differ from each other by various parameters including religion. For example, one of the features of American democrats is their devotion to “protestant fundamentalism”. In this regard there is the following conclusion: conditional affiliation to the Anglo-Saxon world and location in the USA are the only moments joining these two blocks. Nevertheless it doesn’t mean that these alliances don’t cooperate with each other in the mutually beneficial aims, for example, in making their competitors like Russia or China weak. Overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya is another example of their cooperation. These blocks cooperated in the Syrian issue as well.

It’s obvious that regimes of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt were completely controlled by “republicans”. In fact, there is a close relationship between this geopolitical camp and Saudi Arabia (it’s not a coincidence that ousted Tunisian president had found the refuge exactly in Saudi Kingdom). The “republican” members responded to events in Tunisia and Egypt cautiously. They criticized the White House for the contacts with so called “Islamists” (at the same time they tried to establish their own contracts with them). However, the “democrats” and Obama in particular didn’t hide their cheerful emotions regarding these events. In fact American “democrats” succeeded in making Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood movement as allied dependent from America geopolitical axis, regardless the reasons of the Arab Spring, the aims the Turkish authorities had and the principles the Brotherhood guided.

The dependence of these states from America is a real fact. Egypt in this case is quite demonstrative example, if we take the serious economic and social problems in the country into account. Egypt failed in carrying on the policy of independence from the West when the Brotherhood came to power. “Brothers” were hog-tied by different circumstances (first of all economically) towards the USA and by supranational finance structure like IMF. Once Gamal Abdel Nasser had found a loophole when he appealed to the USSR. It’s difficult to guess why Ikhwans aren’t able to find the allies now.

And now The Muslim Brotherhood has lost their power in Egypt in fact. Their allies in Tunis and Morocco are also in a difficult situation. Their position in Qatar is not clear. In Syria they fail not only in getting results but they are receding from all fronts also. There is another front for Syrian Ikhwans opened by their former coalition partner consisting of different radical groupings; they receive armament on Arabian money. The change of the leader of Syrian opposition from pro-Qatar to pro-Saudi is the proof of existing divergences and open confrontation between two alliances:

1)     USA democrats – Turkey – the Brotherhood (perhaps Qatar is in the same range still, though it is difficult to say anything for certain regarding it);

2)     USA republicans – Saudi Arabia – “Salafis”.

Global intention

The geopolitical intention has wider and farther aims in planning of events than it is seen from the forefront. Perhaps the overthrow of any of regimes (loyal or unwanted) is not the main goal of leading geopolitical players. Probably primary task of modern global strategy in the Middle East and in the world do not let any of participants of Chessboard game to gain bigger preferences and even to destroy them by using mass turmoil and destructions. The fact is that Egyptians have found quite interesting maps in the offices of Western NPOs. On these maps Egypt was divided into several separate states. Enough time has been passed since those events to make the proper conclusions, but unfortunately Muslims prefer to attack themselves in order to please crafty forces.

Indeed is there any declaration according to the Western principles that there should not be leaders in the Middle East who are able to unite the region? That’s why it isn’t a surprise that the strategy of supranational structures in the regions is reduced to bump heads together of those who want to become “the king of the mountain”, and to maintain the slow conflicts where none of the parties can succeed. Long-running fight around Syria, permanent inter-tribal conflict in Libya and series of revolutions in Egypt are the results of such strategy. This “controlled chaos” may go far into decades providing that the position of the USA as the main supplier of weapon, consumer of oil and gas and as the main base for leading geopolitical players will be maintained.

Gumer Isaev

St.-Petersburg State University, Department of Political Science,

St.-Petersburg Center for Studies of Contemporary Middle East

Muslim Politic

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