Arab Spring or Winter? Reconsidering Regional Geopolitics of Uncertainty

by Iliasse Sdiqui

“Owing to domain dependence, we forget the need to check our map of the world against reality. So we are living in a more and more fragile world, while thinking it is more and more understandable.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile

What is exactly happening in the Middle East? As post-revolutionary regimes descend into chaos and sectarian conflict engulfs Arab states, finding risk-sharing explanations to local dynamics of change is an urgent yet unaccomplished task. The “Arab Spring” concept can hardly be defined, for it displays new forms and shapes, perhaps a new topography, within a region that’s increasingly inconsistent with previous readings of its map. Could it be the end of Sykes-Picot? Today, protracted conflict in Syria and, its ability to spill into neighbouring countries may well give the “feeling that the future of whole states is in doubt” across the region.

Without doubt, so much confusion surrounds the term initially coined by Marc Lynch and its outcomes: what locally began as hopeful aspirations for social equality in Tunisia, has now culminated into a regional regime of insecurity; producing global threats as evident with ISIL. The group and its activity – which according to a UN report generates from $846,000 to $1,645,000 in daily oil revenue – further increased regional levels of uncertainty, weakening states’ ability to regulate risk. By showing “little respect for juridical boundaries”, the group is not only undermining the status-quo imposed by Damascus; it is in fact redefining territory with the “emergence of autonomous zones” across peripheries. As a result, the threat has fostered communal initiatives to mobilize along ethno-sectarian lines, as was the case across Kobani’s cantons. On the other hand, governments respond with draconian measures to protect their respective territorial integrity. Any solution to the crisis would have to moderate between these diverging trends. For Common narratives to develop, a shift from state-centric approaches with sovereign nation-states is essential. Arab Spring or winter?

The spring, the summer,

The childing autumn, angry winter, change

Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,

By their increase, now knows not which is which:

And this same progeny of evils comes

From our debate, from our dissension;

We are their parents and original.

I am sure I have exhausted the reader’s patience, as that of most analysts. To reassure you, it would be beyond the scope of this modest post to develop a ready-made solution to current crises, or in fact predict what the new order will look like in the Middle East. Nevertheless, it would be crucial to develop a theoretical framework or “lens”, within which dynamics of change can be assessed. Eager to comprehend the complexity of what is going on, both analyst and reader are more likely to conclude by now that, this is business as usual in the Middle East. Indeed, it has become somewhat of a rule to infer that nothing has changed – nothing will – and that the Arab Spring has failed because the region breeds instability: to quote Bernard Lewis, “they are simply not ready for free and fair elections”. With this approach, the entirety of the Arab Spring and its complexity are oversimplified and constructed as a threat, solely because it could endanger the status quo, namely stability of the pipeline. The Arab Spring is – in terms of measurable outcomes – a winter only because it costs 800 billion USD in lost output and some $55 Bn in total.

But how can this approach comprehend dynamics of change? Unfortunately, neoliberal frameworks have defined much of US policy in the region for the past decade. In fact, some argue “Obama’s biggest failing in the Arab Spring is not that he chose the wrong side; it is that he has waffled back and forth”. First, it was the complete failure to predict the uprisings from the Obama administration. Isn’t the failure to predict something as major as the Arab Spring, a good indicator of something wrong within “our” textbooks of the Middle East? The logic is simple: if the knowledge presented happens to be deficient, then methodology forwarded is subject to critique.

As a consequence, it would be erroneous to use old parameters and exhausted IR paradigms to make sense of the Arab Spring. This is exactly what motivated this blog post: it isn’t so much about what is happening in the region but rather, what is happening that can’t be seen, and why? As I wrote in a prior essay, because geography is as political as it can get (since Ottoman era), in the Middle East changes are then always best understood in geopolitical terms. Failure to do so could, result in overlooking local/territorial transformations. What is at stake? As this map illustrates, the whole region may be transforming; 5 countries could become 14 without us having a single clue.

Map1

Source: The New York Times

Today the modus operandi of Middle East politics is changing; it is shaping new parameters for resolving conflict in/of the Middle East, especially reactions to ISIS. As US policy declines in the region, power and political leverage are also shifting with a specific focus on Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and other GCC countries. Obama’s reluctance to intervene directly to tackle the threat, having no clear cut strategy to do so, hesitation to call it a “war on terror” and last but not least, keen interest in forming a coalition to stop ISIS; are all revealing traits of a declining US policy in the Middle East. The threat posed by ISIS is creating new regional political alliances, and an interesting development has been the rapprochement between Gulf countries and Iran. Not to mention the prospects of a military alliance between Egypt and Gulf states. This trend – uniting against a common threat regardless of ethnic or religious divides (Sunni/Shiite) – is likely to increase over time with perhaps the institutionalisation of a regional security regime.

Furthermore, the Arab Spring “paradox” as presented by Le Monde Diplomatique, is quintessentially geopolitical. What started as a local phenomenon, became regional in scope with the “domino effect”, and is now being internationalised along sectarian lines (the imaginaries created by the Sunni/Shiite divide) and other geopolitical factors. As a result, the Arab Spring is better understood when defined as a process to grasp its geopolitical effects, extending beyond recognisable borders. However, when viewed as an outcome with a state-centric approach, dynamics of change may not be captured, and in that case disorder on the surface becomes synonymous to continuity. As a consequence, when carefully dealing with the term “Arab Spring”, the aim should be to demystify it: to critically readjust our expectations according to those local dynamics/narratives. This urgency to find local explanations translates into new forms of knowledge production such as Jadaliyya, a unique platform generating independent academic theorising from within the region.

In brief, the Arab Spring has produced new political realities, which so far, have been met with lacking analytical frameworks. This has in effect led to more confusion and proves that whatever it may be, the Arab Spring challenges “our” reading of the entire region. Not only is it a vision of the other – as never being able to democratise – but its voluntary mimicry, which makes the Arab Spring more complex. The same vision once criticised by Edward Said, is now being reproduced locally; what could be defined as neo-orientalism. Take the example of Egypt’s so-called transition. The fact that Sisi’s Egypt today resembles a neo-colonial state makes it very difficult to define the Arab Spring in terms of outcomes for the country. Theoretically, the Arab Spring could be the “end of postcolonialism” and by forging new identities, binaries between “East and West” are slowly becoming insignificant. As a consequence, new spaces of exception have appeared: in fact, Tahrir Square which served as the locus of the revolution, may now become Emaar Square, a military secured development turning the whole place into a shopping mall. Question is, what is not happening in the Middle East?      

Map2

British Library

Comment from author: Any change in the Middle East will be geographically significant in terms of borders: whether states will survive between their identity as colonial constructs and/or nation states. The Arab Spring has certainly undermined, if not ended, the political imaginary set by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Iliasse is a published junior analyst specialising in the Middle East. He has worked extensively in the region, consulting on Morocco’s immigration policy and in the oil & gas industry with a global energy company in the Gulf. His research interests include borders / boundaries, the “Arab Spring”, Egypt, Energy politics, contingency planning and IR theory. Iliasse seeks to build bridges, and to do so welcomes any foreign critique as part of a rich cultural, academic and human experience. An avid reader, during his free time he enjoys learning/teaching new languages, horsemanship, good food and traveling.

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One thought on “Arab Spring or Winter? Reconsidering Regional Geopolitics of Uncertainty

  1. This is brilliant ! The kind of work needed for the subject: to get the theory right before assuming things about the Arab Spring. A great read.

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