Unstable, Unruly, and Reprobate: The Middle East Today

Grappling with unstable, unruly, and reprobate Middle Eastern nations, and by extension North African ones such as Libya, has constantly been and will continue to be a major challenge for U.S. administrations. Attempts by Iran and Saudi Arabia to expand their regional influences by interfering in the internal affairs and ethno-sectarian tensions of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen have worsened instability in those Arab countries. Now Riyadh and Tehran have been drawn into the region’s bloody civil wars—directly with Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq and with Saudi troops in Bahrain and Yemen to bolster client regimes, or through surrogates such as Sunni rebels in Syria and Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza. The Saudi population is increasingly restive toward the squandering of life and money by new King Salman to prop-up the Sunni government in Sanaa. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s deployment of Islamic Revolutionary Guards into Syria faces mounting criticism by moderate Iranians for similar reasons.

These are just some of the problems that will confront the next U.S. president. He or she must try to end civil wars and tamp down interstate rivalries. Attention must simultaneously be focused on other challenges arising from faltering economies, increasing terrorism, rising numbers of displaced persons, development of weapons of mass destruction, and leaders willing to trigger regional confrontations as a way of distracting their citizenry from domestic woes.

The Middle East, in other words, will be a full time job for a new administration that will be able to give the region only a fraction of its attention.


Governance Issues

One widespread scourge to effective governance in the Middle East is sectarian and ethnic strife—currently ripping apart Syria, Iraq, and Yemen; violently suppressed in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Iran; and resurfacing in Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt. Ethnic tensions in Turkey are not only about political configurations but also about oil. Southeast oil fields, with potential for twenty-seven billion barrels, are located inside that country’s Kurdish region. Turkey’s concurrent attempts to destabilize Kurds in Syria and suppress Kurds at home, and thereby thwart cross-border pan-Kurdish aspirations, have triggered retaliatory bombings in Ankara and Istanbul. Sectarian tussles in Saudi Arabia are likewise about inequities, for the kingdom’s oil-rich northeastern region is populated by the underprivileged Shiite minority.

Yet another form of political instability U.S. administrations have been forced to deal with results from Arab authoritarianism. Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Oman fail to achieve political stability at the highest levels of government due to their imperial structure. As rulers pit rivals for the throne against each other, either lack of a clear succession plan occurs, as in Oman, or subunits within the royal families compete with each other for positions and resources by blocking progress, as in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Faced with discontent among their populations, many Middle Eastern governments resort to extensive repression. Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were and in some case still are clients of Russia and previously the former Soviet Union. Their internal security agencies learned draconian techniques from Moscow’s enforcers and deploy government-endorsed terror in attempts to keep populations in line.

Authoritarian rule may seem to produce an effective government administration and enforce the rule of law as in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE, but it does so at the expense of civil liberties, government accountability, and long-term political stability. By associating the United States with repressive regimes, Washington has often lost the goodwill of masses and successors to power. Sidelining the Sunni Arabs of post–Saddam Iraq in favor of Shiite leaders like Nouri al-Maliki is a recent example of bad policy by Washington. The next president’s policy must steer them toward more representative governance in exchange for U.S. support.

Lack of high levels of accountability and inability or unwillingness to control corruption are among the administrative weaknesses that have made Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen far more susceptible to the negative consequences of widespread unemployment, poor nutrition, and inadequate health care brought about poor policy and environmental causes. Those systemic deficiencies have likewise left Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates ill prepared to deal constructively with the societal problems generated by worldwide fluctuations in fiscal, commodity, and job markets over the past five years. So the incoming U.S. president also has to convince the region’s regimes to make rule of law, transparency, and both government-directed and private sector-driven administrative reforms a priority.


Economic Problems

Since early in the last century, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE have relied on continuous extraction of crude oil and natural gas to provide for their citizens’ economic needs—45 percent, 60 percent, 55 percent, and 33 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), respectively.

Lack of economic diversity inhibits the major oil and gas producers of the Middle East from achieving genuine economic stability, and in this respect, they are behind regional powers such as Turkey and Egypt and even small nations such as Jordan and Lebanon whose economies are less dependent on energy exports and prices. Indeed, during Iran’s years of sanction and isolation, the country was forced to become more self-reliant—notably in auto and electronics manufacturing and agricultural production for local consumption and export markets. As a result, Iran will likely eclipse those of the Arab countries in economic complexity over the next few years.

As Saudi Arabia has attempted to dominate the world’s oil market by ramping-up output, prices have dropped dramatically. At the same time, Iran’s reentrance into the energy marketplace has added 1.5 million barrels a day to the world’s supply, and plans to add four million barrels per day. Given that Iraq will be adding to this—and that global demand is falling—it appears highly likely that not only will Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners’ decades long dominance of world energy markets soon end, but also that reduced prices could put a serious pinch on government revenues and budgets. Meanwhile, Middle Eastern producers are using up their fossil fuel reserves while the United States is not.

During the Arab Spring of 2011, monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula bought their way out of much-needed economic, social, and political reforms to moribund governance structures by placating their subjects with substantial fiscal handouts. But now, sovereign wealth funds are declining as energy-based revenue fails to keep up with expenses. Saudi Arabia, for example, is depleting 2.5 percent of its foreign reserves each month to meet its populations’ demands. Consequently, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf kingdoms are forced to scale back not only economic growth but the social services and other state-funded welfare programs that have hitherto bought their subjects’ loyalty.

Reliance on energy production as the basis of national revenue has negative consequences with revenues declining by $500 billion. So Arabian economies are showing downturns in economic complexity when they need to be becoming more diverse. Financial inequities between and within populations are growing. Upheaval would swiftly drive away foreign investment and labor, returning places like Dubai to backwaters. Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan could help reverse these trends, if appropriately funded and implemented.

Therefore, the next U.S. president needs to encourage its regional partners, especially Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates, by providing policy guidance, know-how, and training to support these governments’ efforts to diversify their economies, manage retrenchment of social services, and trim unsustainable welfare programs. Any failure to address the Middle East’s mounting economic structural challenges will inevitably lead to populist protests and uprisings which, as events in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen have already demonstrated, can be hijacked by Islamist movements.


Islamist Terrorism

Of course all the other problems confronting the new U.S. administration will pale in comparison with terrorism—a constant concern in the West and a constant reality in the Middle East. Since 1979, Sunni Islamists, including Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, offshoots, and rivals such as the Taliban, Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Shabaab, Islamic State (IS, also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS and as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL), and its own affiliates such as Ansar al-Shari’a, Boko Haram, and others, have carried out approximately 1,277 terror attacks, 426 suicide bombings, and thirty-four mass murders of at least one hundred victims. Their plots have been uncovered on every continent except Antarctica. At least seven attacks have occurred within the United States since 9/11. The European Union (EU) has witnessed carnage in Madrid, London, Paris, and Brussels. These groups have been central players in wars and civil wars within Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Chechnya among other places—causing thousands of casualties, millions of displacements, and billions of dollars in losses and expenses.

The Islamic State now holds significant territory in Syria and Iraq, and has operatives, strongholds, and support networks in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, South and Southeast Asia, and southeast Europe. Although not making such territorial claims, Al-Qaeda is represented in Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia plus further east in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Its affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra controls regions of Syria. Although in constant competition with each other, the different Islamist terror groups are united in seeking to demolish the extant political, social, and economic systems of Middle Eastern nations and strike fear across the world.

IS, Al-Qaeda, and others expand their reach in ways quite similar to one another, typically by flooding the Internet with perverted calls to duty and service and by dispatching charismatic representatives to set up regional command posts and to identify and recruit local insurrectionists. They establish sources of local revenue to supplement now-diminishing external sources to fund their operations. IS’s smuggling in Syria and Iraq includes oil, natural gas, human organs, and antiquities. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda are active in narcotics and human trafficking. Boko Haram generates revenue through systematic kidnapping and ransoms.

A coalition of thirty-four Muslim nations was established in December 2015 to combat these Sunni terrorist organizations. But its power players—Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf Emirates, Turkey, and Egypt—are busy quashing Muslims like the Houthis who do not follow Sunnism, thwarting separatists like the Kurds, and subduing internal dissidents ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to democracy activists instead of focusing fully on the real threat. Although the ideas may come from extreme interpretations of Islam, especially those of the Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia, terrorism feeds on despondency, alienation, sectarianism, and subsequent conflicts that arise from governance inadequacies and economic disparities. The next U.S. president must find a way to persuade Middle Eastern leaders—allies and foes alike—to mitigate those root causes of religiopolitical violence.

Regional Sunni versus Shiite power-plays between Saudi Arabia and Iran also fuel terrorism and impede effective counterterrorism. The next U.S. president would be wise to exert the administration’s diplomatic energies to persuade Middle East rivals to resist the temptation to inflame sectarian tensions in the pursuit of their religiopolitical goals because it is ultimately detrimental to themselves, the region, and the global community. He or she will also have to convince them and others in that region to work actively with the West in snuffing terrorism’s ideology and resources. The president must also endeavor through diplomacy and sanctions to moderate the fundamentalist tendencies not only of the Sunni elites in Saudi Arabia but also the Shiite clerics in Iran.

The next U.S. president’s strategy should seek victory not mere containment. To succeed in the long term, the overall strategy will have to be holistic because the Islamist terror phenomenon shares common funding sources, extremist religious views, ideologues, fighters, and financiers. Ending Sunni terrorism requires eliminating not only established groups but nascent ones too. It will also involve convincing Sunni and Shiite regimes to scale back state support for the majority faith and to grant greater freedom of worship and tolerance to non-Muslims.


Population Displacement

The United Nations (UN) counts approximately twenty million people of Middle Eastern origin as internally displaced persons, refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless. Conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen account for most, with Syria now leading the world in number of refugees produced. Overall, the Middle East generates nearly 3 percent of the roughly sixty million displaced persons globally. This human flight and the burdens it imposes cannot be sustained, and must be stopped, if not reversed, before neighboring nations like Lebanon, Jordan, and Kuwait are further weakened and destabilized, inevitably creating power vacuums that will almost certainly lead to yet more war.

Europe gets the headlines, but most of the population movement occurs within the Middle East itself, overwhelming host nations like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Iran has a refugee problem too, but less from Iraq and Syria and more from Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE, although funding factions in the region’s wars, are less amenable to accepting refugees due to fear of militants and violent ideologies destabilizing those monarchies.

The epic human displacement in the Middle East has sparked a health crisis that is perhaps without precedent. Internally displaced persons in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen often cannot seek health care because they are not permitted free movement by warring factions. Refugees seeking to flee Libya forgo much-needed immunizations and other preventive medicines because of fears they will be robbed, murdered, or enslaved by rival militias before reaching domestic hospitals or ones in the EU. Within the war zones, emergency care is scarce because only 50 percent of hospitals are functional. Not surprisingly, Iraqis and Syrians are experiencing high incidents of rabies, cholera, and Leishmaniasis (a flesh-eating parasite).

Saudi Arabia is providing food aid to Syria and Yemen; so is the UAE. Kuwaitis are extending similar assistance to Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Nonetheless, nutritional insecurity remains widespread in the besieged areas of Iraq and Syria. Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, is one example of an urban center excluded from international humanitarian aid. The World Food Programme has declared a food emergency in Yemen, warning that malnutrition is at its highest level in many years. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has received only 2.6 percent of resources needed for humanitarian relief to Libya.

Displaced Middle East populations are highly vulnerable to suffering and death from disease and starvation. They also are very susceptible to terrorist recruiters, human traffickers, and black marketers—who peddle hopes of sustenance, stability, and security to secure their own nefarious ends. Consequently, the countries producing displaced populations and those receiving refugees are potential powder kegs of domestic and regional instability in addition to serving as breeding grounds for epidemics.

To prevent influxes of traumatized refugees and virulent diseases, it is essential the next U.S. president direct nutritional resources, medical technologies, repatriation capabilities, and societal reconstruction at the geographical loci of Middle Eastern population displacements. A rise in stability will end displacements while providing safety and socioeconomic opportunities for returning populations to rebuild their lives without resorting to crime and terrorism.


Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction

Tensions arising from political, economic, and sectarian rivalries between Middle East nations are at the root of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) development in that region. Russia, China, North Korea, and Pakistan have been the main proliferators of WMD technology to the Middle East. Proximate foes Iran and Saudi Arabia are signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty but have nonetheless explored nonconventional military capabilities. Many other Middle East nations have signed only some international accords on WMD. Egypt, for instance, which once explored nuclear power, has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, or the Nuclear Terrorism Convention.

In late 2015 Iran, the UN Security Council, EU, and United States finally began to implement the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to denuclearize that Middle Eastern country. What happens to Iran’s nuclear aspirations after the JCPOA expires is not addressed, however. Iran has also accumulated the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East. After the JCPOA ends, Iran could commence miniaturizing nuclear, chemical, and biological warheads for those missiles. The incoming U.S. president should make Iran’s membership in international organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO) conditional on freezing missile development.

Egypt weaponized anthrax, botulism, and plague in the 1970s with Soviet assistance. Israel followed with offensive and defensive capabilities. Iran commenced its biological and chemical WMD programs after being attacked by Iraqi chemical WMD during the 1980s. Not all the chemical WMD stockpiles in Iraq, Syria, and Libya have been destroyed either. Saudi Arabia is suspected of having explored similar weapons development, while Dubai has been identified as a transit point for WMD technology.

The danger of nuclear, chemical, and biological agents passing to nonstate actors is on the rise. Since 2001, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have sought WMD capability. During Syria’s civil war, a range of chemical agents such as sarin, mustard gas, and cyanide plus their precursor substances have fallen into the hands of IS and other terrorist groups from captured government depots and been subsequently deployed against civilian populations. As its expansionism continues in the region, Iran may be tempted to provide WMD to its anti-Israeli and anti-Saudi nonstate surrogates Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis.

Fearful of Iranian, Israeli, and terrorist capabilities, Saudi Arabia could turn to its Sunni ally Pakistan for WMD and delivery systems. Indeed Pakistan is presently at the forefront of developing tactical nuclear WMD. To prevent a regional WMD race, that Arabian kingdom and its smaller Gulf coast neighbors need renewed guarantees from the next administration in the White House—not just words and weapons sales but enhanced U.S. armed forces presence at regional bases—to ensure their security. The new U.S. president must also restore goodwill between Washington and Jerusalem, provide unwavering assurances that Israel will be protected, and enhance that nation’s defensive capabilities such as iron dome to ward off all deadly intrusions by Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas.


Overall Policy Thrust

In meeting all these challenges, the next President must acknowledge that the Middle East’s problems have dire implications for the United States and the rest of the world. It is no secret that solving them is a long-term endeavor. U.S. policy toward the Middle East should be comprehensive and proactive. It must be forward-looking, forward planning, and multidimensional. The United States will need to provide reassurance and resources where and when needed, while taking effective actions against troublemakers. To gain legitimacy in the region, U.S. policy must address not just American and European concerns but those of Middle Easterners too. And, above all, the United States must remain constantly engaged in the region.


Jamsheed K. Choksy is the distinguished professor and chairman of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. He also is a member of the U.S. National Council on the Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Carol E. B. Choksy is lecturer of strategic intelligence in the School of Information and Computing at Indiana University. She also is CEO of IRAD Strategic Consulting, Inc.

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