Between Authoritarianism and Liberalization – The Ideational divide of the Middle East post-Arab Spring

The divide in the Middle Eastern states is more explicable if we analyze the regional affairs through the lens of ideational synergies, values and narratives, and not from the international relations and geostrategic paradigm. There are different layers of this divide between Middle Eastern powers and not all of them are based on geostrategic interests. The most important divide which drives the alignments at the moment, especially when it comes to Palestine and Israel’s alignments with the with Bahrain and UAE, is the divide of how to shape the Middle East in a post-revolutionary order of Post-Arab Spring.

In 2010-11, a major division ruptured the rapport of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into two halves and became the root cause of the prevalent Gulf crisis. The disharmony among Gulf nations is far-reaching as it divided the entire Middle East and drew external actors in it. We rarely look at this layer while examining the contemporary Middle Eastern affairs and it is equally important to consider when we look at the recent geopolitical realignment in the region.

In the context of polarity, the region exhibits the vagaries of multi-polarity due to the presence of state and non-state actors and their competition at the same time. In unison, the old regimes and old powerhouses of the Middle East no longer have the leverage, the depth or the resilience to determine the outcome of conflicts and prevalent crises in the region. Subsequently, the centre of gravity has shifted away from North Africa and the Levant into the Gulf, and that is why the Gulf crisis is just so important in terms of understanding the ripple effects for Middle Eastern countries, Pakistan, Europe and the United States.

The dissection of the Gulf crisis divulges that currently there are two camps; the first camp is one supporting the revolutionary narrative of 2010-11.

During the Arab Spring, the passive approach of Americans and the West allowed the Middle Easterners to shape their affairs to a certain extent. However, as these old regimes were disintegrating, they paved the path for more resilient regimes in the Gulf, in terms of social, political and economic resilience. This development provided the regional states with an opportunity to fill that void and the first actor to fill the vacuum was Qatar. Qatar was on the forefront of the first camp, who entered into the wider void that the Obama administration left with its withdrawal. Qatari approach was to support popular uprisings and the will of the people, although nobody at the time really knew what the will of the people was and still it is difficult to determine what the will of people is. At one hand, it was obvious that people were calling for democracy but democracy is a narrative that means different things to different people. There are some core values of the revolutionary side, which were trying to advance pluralism but not necessarily the liberal democratic notions of the western pluralistic society. Whereby, there was a degree of public sovereignty taking over the socio-politics and determining the society in a more democratic and inclusive process, avoiding the sectarian politics and forming an idealistic society where everybody has an equal say.

When we talk about Qatar, Turkey was also part of that divide and it was something that the countries were willing to experiment. The states like Qatar and Turkey followed the trail because they have the luxury of being rich and small countries with a very small indigenous population. They were always ready to experiment –as Qatar did with Al Jazeera in the 90s already. They never had to fear a backlash in the same way that other Middle Eastern countries had to fear and it is something driving the divide on the other side, especially towards those who oppose pluralism, those who oppose civil society and the empowerment of civil society. Thereby as Qatar was also empowering political Islam as an instrumental part of civil society in the Arab world. The other side of that divide saw that as an in as an absolute integral essential threat to the regime resilience.

The key advocate here for the other side of the divide were UAE or Abu Dhabi, supporting the narrative of authoritarian stability in many ways. The stance of Abu Dhabi against Qatar in 2011, to support the NATO-led operation in Libya, changed later on, during the process of consolidation in Libya. Until 2013, a splash emerged between Qatar and the UAE, on a point of instrumentalizing and managing the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

The Emirati approach is still very distinct than that of Qatar, owing to the rigid and less resilient regime of UAE. The country has certain regional divisions between the northern and the southern Emirates and they had an indigenous civil societal movement along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood. Throughout the 1990s, that was relatively powerful particularly in the northern emirates and it kind of attracted people who had grievances, the UAE started looking at the Arab Spring not as an opportunity like the Qatari or the Turks but they looked at it through the lens of threat and fear. This threat and fear was not just about political Islam per se but it was more widely about civil society, it was about the fear that civil society could be mobilized against regimes and that kind of regime insecurity paranoia was something that the Emiratis have exported ever since. While the Qataris were probably active between 2010 and 2011 funding different non-state groups across the regions, the Emirate started channelizing the groups slightly later in 2013 with their intervention in Egypt –where they assisted in overthrowing the Morsi government. Muhammad was also a very important interlocutor who played a key role in building networks within the military nexus and providing a pretext for this movement to mobilize onto the streets to topple the regime.

The denouement of 2013 was a lesson for the Emiratis, it made them cognizant of the fact that they had a lot more soft and hard power than they initially realized, and afterwards, they decided to use it more assertively to achieve their ends. This realization is also attributable to the aforementioned US and European passive approach towards regional affairs. Russia was also not involved in the conflict at that time and UAE was of the view that they need to have more like-minded authoritarian regimes in the region and particularly those that can fight political Islam and narrative of terrorism, which deepened the regional divide.

Qatar with the regime change that happened in 2013 with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani formally handing power to his son, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the country became a lot less experimental and a lot more risk-averse. The new leadership fairly withdrew from Libya and Syria bit by bit, and by 2014, Qatar disentangled itself from these conflicts while allowing the Emiratis a free go to expand their commitment. This led to the increased involvement of Emirates in Yemen, Somalia and the whole of Africa, along with their engagements in Egypt, Libya and Syria. They are building ties along with the same patterns with groups or organizations, which have an authoritarian outlook onto the region and can bring about the idea of stability. However, the biggest fear for Emiratis in the post-Arab spring remained the non-state actors and civil society groups that could dominate their social politics in a way that the state can no longer control it.

Therefore, the UAE started fostering and advancing a narrative of building strong military state, and a region with countries having military leadership that could control civil society. The divide in Libya very much goes down along the same lines, as the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar for many years was heavily supported by the UAE. In Egypt, they supported Sisi, in Yemen they first supported Ali Abdullah Saleh and when he was going out they built their own military proxy Southern Transitional Council (STC). They are doing the same in Somalia where they are supporting a secessionist government in the north Poundland and adopted the same approach in Sudan by supporting the new military regime, which in many ways became a proxy of the Emirates.

While looking at the enmeshment of Saudi Arabia in this divide, under Muhammad bin Salman or King Salman, the country has jumped onto their same bandwagon. They were very much fearful of any civil society groups and revolutionary movements during the Arab spring and they wanted to contain civil society in the age of social media, which led them to follow the Emirati approach in many ways. KSA is now also assisting the Emirates in the horn of Africa, in Sudan, in Libya and they might follow the UAE in assisting them in Syria to get Assad back into the fold because Assad is now seen as the lesser of two evils in comparison to political Islam.

As per the Emirati and Saudi approach, political Islam is the absolute key threat to any form of stability in the Middle East region. The interesting thing is that Israel also believes into that authoritarian stability model which is why the Israelis have advanced the narrative that political Islam is the kind of the stepping-stone or the root cause of terrorism leading to regional instability. However, it also has something to do with the fact that if the Palestinian cause is supposed to lose traction within the Middle East and silencing the civil society in the wider Arab world because the wider Arab world civil society or the so-called Arab street has always been weak but supported the Palestinian cause. Arab civil society has always stood for the cause of Palestine, although not to the same extent that they had in the 50s and 60s, but silencing civil society is in the interest of Israel in the Arab world.

Israelis were always in favour of authoritarians, they were always in favour of dictatorships across the Arab world and in that respect, it leads to the ideational synergy that is currently emerging between Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem or Israel and the UAE. The same case applies to the snowballing relation between Russia and the UAE because Russians would like to deal with particular authoritarians that control civil society and political Islam. Again, the realignment in the Middle East is based on the narrative, values and ideational synergies instead of the strategic interests.

Presently, all the states of the region and beyond are kind of trying to fall into one camp or the other. Along this ideational divide, Libya is a great case where the Government of National Accord (GNA) is trying to fall into the camp of the revolutionaries and the LNA falling into the camp of the authoritarians in many ways. The Americans obviously under Donald Trump were very much receptive to the stability narrative of the Middle East and Trump himself has a weakness for authoritarians and autocrats and so naturally his ideational weakness is probably also again more in that authoritarian camp.

The far-reaching divide in academia means that most of academia is more on the liberal end of the spectrum and they tend to take more of a pluralistic approach to social politics and against the Saudi, Emirati narrative. There are also constraints by the think tanks, journalists and universities, especially with respect to the idea of clashing narratives and division of civil society across the Arab world. It also divides the academia, journalism, media and the way that people report and talk about the Middle East. Therefore, it is something that one should not disregard because alliances are being forged along those lines.

In many ways, the Qatari-Turkish alliance is currently in the retreating phase, while the Europeans although naturally more on the Turkish-Qatari side in terms of the narrative and the synergies haven’t decided which camp they are in. The French are at the moment, is more tilted towards the Emirati camp because they have dealt with North Africa in a way that they would prefer strongmanship and strong autocrats over multipolar pluralistic societies. While the Germans and the British for the most part are more on the Qatari-Turkish end in kind off steering or trying to help to build the Middle East that is more pluralistic and based on inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness.

Pakistan should be cautious in terms of falling into one camp, either Qatari or Saudi, as it also has an ideational divide and taken an open-minded approach to the Islam and political Islam, and role of Islam in the civil society. With respect to the current positioning of KSA and UAE, it is highly problematic for both Gulf nations to compel Pakistan into their camp and in addition, the KSA often use its soft power of religion to pressure Pakistan. However, Qatar is a small state and cannot offer Pakistan anything; it built its relation with Pakistan in the last Kuala Lumpur summit where the idea of building of new Islamic alliance was coined. Qatar-Pakistan relation is deepening because Qatari soldiers cannot operate without the support of contract soldiers of Pakistan and this is true for the Saudi military as well. But then again, Qatar is not pushing Pakistan like KSA to get out of the umbrella of Kuala Lumpur initiative. Ideationally speaking Pakistan should be in the Qatar-Turkey camp than in the Saudi-Emirati camp.

To understand the emerging realignments in the region, it is important to understand the multilayers to determine how states and how non-state actors will act and align themselves. The anatomy of the Gulf crisis reveals the ideational clashes in the Middle Eastern region and illustrates a more value-based conflict, which acts as an impediment in the meaningful resolution of the crisis. Outside support to the civil society will not result in meaningful change, because the society needs to breathe and develop organically. If civil society is against the regime, then it is difficult for such regimes to grow into full potential.

QUOTE: Israelis have an ideational synergy with Arab authoritarian regimes and dictatorships because it backs the idea of silencing the Arab civil society for the Palestinian cause.

Newsletter SignUp

About ANDREAS KRIEG 1 Article
Lecturer School of Security Studies, Fellow at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies