The Middle East and North Africa in a Polycentric World

Dmitry Polyakov is a Research Fellow at the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Over the last few years, expert circles have been discussing the “crumbling” of the world order. Among the key theses was that the old order no longer exists, and that a new one has not yet emerged, nor is there any understanding of what this new order should be. One peculiarity of the current situation is the speed of developments. While the transition between phases in the development of the global order used to take dozens of years, now it only takes several years. Today, it is inappropriate to speak of a “crumbling” world. The world has already crumbled, and its current state should be assessed. We should not assume that the current situation is a transitional phase between the old order and the establishment of a new one. The current phase is a new system, which is being created rapidly and is here to stay for a long time.

The crumbling of the world was made possible, on the one hand, by the American attempt to impose its dominance on everyone, and, on the other hand, by strengthening the alternative poles of power that do not agree with it. Consequently, the features of a new polycentric world are already visible today at the macro level. Therefore, we can also define its obvious parameters.

The Middle East: a sovereign center of power in a polycentric world

The first parameter is the absence of rigid hierarchy and structure, which presupposes a balance of power among a limited group of countries. These were the parameters that characterized all previous world orders. Today, the situation is changing. The main factor contributing to such a change is the number of states in the world. It is enough to recall the number of countries in the world when the United Nations was created in 1945. There were 51 of them. Today, the UN includes 193 sovereign states. Therefore, a rigid hierarchical structure is no longer suitable for a polycentric world. Sovereign states themselves are able to shape their foreign policies, determine their course, decide with whom to build ties, enter into alliances, and so on.

The second parameter is the prevalence of sovereignty over universal normative-value constraints. The key idea of the unipolar world or the “unipolar moment” was to create a single set of liberal-democratic rules and values, i.e. their unification, for all countries of the world. It was believed that by adopting them, the behavior of states would change, and they would all act in the same mainstream. On the contrary, the attempt to forcefully impose universal values led to their rejection. Today, most states are keen to emphasize their identity and distinctiveness. The uniqueness of each nation and state makes it impossible to have uniform rules and values for all. This is where the contradictions between national sovereignty and the popular Western concept of the “rules-based international order” are rooted.

The third parameter is the increasing propensity for conflict. The absence of a rigid structure in the system of international relations will inevitably lead to greater disorganization and increasingly more chaos. Of all previous international orders, from the Westphalian to the unipolar world, the most stable was the bipolar order. But it was the one that implied a rigid framework, structure, and hierarchy within the system. The erosion of these provisions has reduced the stability of the system, which led to the emergence of new conflicts. In addition, in the unipolar world, the United States set a dangerous precedent by introducing a power factor into world politics, trying to fulfil the role of a “global policeman” and interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. There were several such examples, the most notable of which are Yugoslavia (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011). A series of armed conflicts demonstrated that Washington’s use of force had nothing to do with the defense of normative value rules, but was merely the defense of American national interests. This has led to the emergence of revisionist powers, which are now also using the precedent of the power factor in international relations to revise the existing balance of power. Both circumstances lead to an increasing propensity for conflict. Today we can clearly see this in many regions of the world—with conflicts emerging in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Moreover, the potential for new conflicts exists in even more regions. Therefore, the concept of a World War III, which would likely take the form of a new Thirty Years’ War, with many local conflicts, seems quite realistic. But this time, the theatre of military operations would not only be the European continent, but the whole world.

Meanwhile, a very different situation is unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Today, MENA is a prototype of polycentricity. The region does not have only one or two leaders, as there is no block character. On the contrary, several countries—namely Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Türkiye—have roughly the same potential. In addition, two small monarchies, Qatar and the UAE, are the closest to these states. That is why the Middle East and North Africa, as a polycentric regional system, contain both the advantages and disadvantages characteristic of the entire polycentric world.

The next feature is the appeal of the countries of the region to their civilizational roots. An increasing number of states in the Middle East and North Africa are emphasizing their identity and distinctiveness. Some countries even position themselves as full-fledged state-civilizations. It is important that most regional actors share the same cultural perceptions. Identity plays a key role here.

Firstly, ethnic identity is of immense importance, as most of the region is populated by Arab countries. Moreover, the entire twentieth century was spent under the banner of Pan-Arab identity. In the twenty-first century, this specificity is no longer so pronounced, but it still exists. Twenty-two states in the region have an Arab identity, which is a significant fact.

Secondly, the Islamic identity. In most countries of the Middle East and North Africa, Islam is the dominant religion, with Israel being the only exception. Therefore, the religious aspect is an important circumstance in the value character of the region’s societies. For example, national programs for the political and socio-economic renewal of societies often take place under the slogan of affirming Islamic values.

Thirdly, traditional identities associated with tribal and clan cultures persist. Although Westernization and Western values have deeply penetrated the structure of regional societies, traditional values still play an important role.

Fourthly, sovereign ideologies are emerging in the region. For example, three non-Arab states have their own distinct ideologies. Iran has its own Islamic Republic project. Türkiye, on the other hand, champions what has been widely labeled as Neo-Ottomanism. Israel focuses on the preservation of the Jewish state, where religion is not separated from secular politics. The situation is somewhat different with the Arab states. In the mid-twentieth century, most countries were characterized by the ideology of Pan-Arabism. Today, the idea of a unified Arab nationalism has been replaced by ideas of these countries’ own Arab nationalisms. For example, Egypt, the former chief ideologist of Pan-Arabism, now appeals only to its own development. Today, the main state slogan is “Our common goal is to build a modern Egypt.” In Algeria, national unity is achieved by appealing to the memory of the French colonial period. In Morocco, similar processes are realized through the strengthening of irredentist sentiments. Even in Syria, a country where formally the idea of Arab nationalism is preserved and the slogan “Unity, Freedom, Socialism” still prevails, in reality, the idea of national consolidation has been developed through opposition to radical Islamism-Wahhabism. The example of the Gulf monarchies is also interesting. There, development strategies called “Vision” act as national ideas.

In addition, the region, much like the rest of the Global South, is becoming increasingly influenced by an anti-colonial agenda. This invariably leads to the disintegration of a unified global intellectual space. Some new schools of thought are likely to replace this. In MENA, these will be based on deeply rooted Arab and Muslim cultural traditions. All this suggests that during the period of the unipolar world, it was not possible to create a single set of liberal-democratic values in the Middle East to unify its countries and identities.

After foreign interventions in the region in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, most states have accumulated fatigue with external interference. MENA actors in particular are increasingly asserting their sovereignty. They also claim that crises within the region should be resolved by regional members without external intervention. The sovereignty of the region’s states also implies that their political course should be shaped independently and not by players external to the region. A clear example is the policy of the MENA states after February 24th, 2022. Despite pressure from Western countries—especially the United States—none of the MENA states supported sanctions against Russia or abandoned ties with Moscow. On the contrary, Russia’s network of partnerships and alliances with the countries of the region is growing.

The first example is the aspiration of states to strengthen their sovereignty and independence, which is reflected in their economic policies. MENA countries consider themselves full-fledged subjects of the world economy, with the right to build trade relations with any state in the world despite external dictates. One such example is the energy policy of the Gulf monarchies. Despite pressure from the United States in the summer and fall of 2022, the region’s states that are also members of OPEC+ refused to increase oil production. On the contrary, the October 5th, 2022 meeting in Vienna resulted in the largest reduction in oil production since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This decision was justified on the grounds of prioritizing the national interests of OPEC+ members, even in the face of external pressure.

The second example is the beginning of the de-dollarization process, i.e. the rejection of the dollar in foreign trade settlements. Thus, the region’s leading economies such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are establishing relations with foreign trade partners in currencies alternative to the dollar. Both actors prioritize their national currencies, or the currency of the buyer in mutual settlements. In dealing with Moscow, MENA countries also prefer settlements in national currencies. For example, the majority of Russian food is paid for in rubles. Importantly, more than two-thirds of Russian grain is exported to markets in the Middle East and North Africa. In addition, payments for Russian gas supplies to the region, especially to Türkiye, are also made in rubles.

The third example is the diversification of membership in international organizations. On January 1st, 2024, four MENA countries became members of BRICS—Egypt, Iran, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. In addition, the countries of the region are dialogue partners of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and Iran is a full-fledged member. The MENA states’ interest in BRICS and the SCO is due to the opportunity to advance the economic agenda and strengthen their image in the international arena. It is also a chance for countries to diversify their foreign economic ties, as well as strengthen economic and possibly technological sovereignties. Moreover, participation in the summits of the designated organizations provides an opportunity to meet more often with representatives of Russia, China, and India.

The fourth example is the desire for military sovereignty. This is less true of powers that have large armies of their own, such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, and Türkiye. This example applies more to the Arabian monarchies. For a long time, they have outsourced their security to external actors. Hence the appearance of a huge number of military contingents of Western countries, mainly the United States, who were willing to assume this role. However, the situation has changed over time. The process is connected to the erosion of alliances that began to take place. External actors began to reduce their commitments to regional recipients, fearing that investments of various kinds might be lost, and their allies might turn to another actor for external assistance. In addition, external powers have refused to get involved in intra-regional quarrels between countries, especially if these were between regional leaders. For this reason, the region’s countries have less trust in external security providers. A critical case study was the hasty American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, which caused the Afghan government to lose power in a matter of weeks. In addition, Washington has been consistently reducing its military contingent in the region for several years and is now moving it to the Asia-Pacific. All this leads to a security vacuum. However, this vacuum can be filled, and not only by other external actors.

Thus, the rejection of universal values in favor of one’s own identity, as well as the desire to strengthen national sovereignty, is a signal that the MENA region has a chance to become a sovereign center of power in a polycentric world. First, this center operates according to its own unique set of cultural assumptions. Second, the countries of the region are increasingly asserting their right to their own sovereignty and are becoming more opposed to external interference.

Another feature of MENA, which is characteristic of the whole polycentric world, is the persistence of conflict. The region has always been at the center of world attention because of private wars and armed conflicts. Therefore, this trend is not something new. However, it is worth looking at the situation from a different angle. By the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century, MENA states began to follow a policy of détente, or what French political scientist Gilles Kepel called “Away from Chaos.” As the Arab Spring swept across the region, the problem of terrorism by armed and non-state actors came to the fore, and rivalries between regional centers of power were fierce. We saw several major lines of confrontation at the same time: Iran-Saudi Arabia; Iran-Israel; Türkiye-Gulf monarchies; Türkiye-Egypt; and rivalries within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), mainly between Saudi Arabia/UAE-Qatar. These lines of confrontation have been reflected in the major armed conflicts in the region: the Syrian, Libyan, and Yemeni conflicts.

By the third decade of the twenty-first century, the situation began to change. First, key conflicts de-escalated. In Syria, the last full-scale military operations involving large formations of ground troops and aviation ended in March 2020, after the completion of Operation “Dawn over Idlib-2.” A fragile peace has been achieved in the state. Major fighting in Libya also ended in 2020, and the conflict has moved from a military phase to a political one. Even the failure to hold presidential elections at the end of 2021 has not led to a resumption of hostilities. Today, the status quo remains between the parties. In Yemen, although the formal ceasefire process between Ansar Allah and the government ended in autumn 2022, major fighting has not resumed. The status quo is also maintained.

Secondly, there are attempts between major regional players to find a compromise. The most famous example in recent years have been the Abraham Accords. These agreements allowed Israel to increase its engagement with Arab countries, primarily by establishing relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. These agreements not only reduced the level of threats to Israel, but also provided an opportunity to combine high-level Israeli technology with Arab financial resources. Given the Jewish state’s existing relations with Egypt and Jordan, Israel is increasingly integrated into the common regional space. It is also increasingly developing informal ties with the Gulf monarchies. The main example of this is the attempt to involve Saudi Arabia in the Abraham Accords. Negotiations on this issue were going on throughout 2023. The new escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has temporarily paused the negotiations, but has not interrupted them. It is therefore likely that in the future, the Accords will extend to Riyadh.

The next example is the détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the end of the so-called “Middle East Cold War.” It is important that the mediating role in achieving détente was not played by traditional mediators like the United States or Russia. This time it was China that brokered a deal between the parties. Furthermore, it is also worth mentioning the role of Iraq. For several years, this Arab state provided a platform for the parties to develop consensus. The platform was called the Baghdad Format. This proves once again that at the global level, the states of the Middle East and North Africa pursue a policy of diversifying ties with world actors, but at the same time regional mediators work more actively to bring the conflicting sides together. Meanwhile, the détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran not only reduced conflict in the region as a whole, but also allowed these actors to develop a modus operandi in the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts, which had an immediate impact on their resolution.

One more important fact is the improvement of relations between Türkiye and the Gulf monarchies, mainly Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The parties are moving away from the fierce competition not only for leadership in the region, but also for leadership in the Sunni world. A few years ago, their rivalry was actively reflected in the existing armed conflicts. In Syria, Türkiye was able to seize the initiative and establish control over much of the armed opposition. In Libya, Ankara sided with the Government of National Accord, while Riyadh and Abu Dhabi supported the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Haftar. In addition, Ankara supported Doha in the Qatar crisis within the GCC. Today, however, the parties have chosen the path of compromise. After the COVID-19 pandemic, the Turkish economy has not been able to recover for several years and has only been getting worse. Therefore, Ankara has chosen the strategy of normalizing relations with the Arabian monarchies, which implies receiving new investments. In exchange, Türkiye, with its large army and developed military-industrial complex, is ready to become a security provider and supplier of military technologies.

Another example is the normalization of Egypt’s ties with Iran and Türkiye. The parties have turned a blind eye to previously existing problems. Instead, all three actors are ready for a new phase of relations. Egypt faces several root problems at the same time: economic weakness, a large population, and food and water security. By improving relations with Ankara and Tehran, Cairo is trying to address these problems. In addition, this process represents an opportunity for the two sides to strengthen each other’s technological sovereignty.

It is also important to note the return of some states to regional organizations. In 2021, the Qatar crisis came to an end. The Gulf monarchies decided to reach a consensus with Doha and reduce conflict within the GCC. In addition, Syria regained its seat in the Arab League in 2023. This step indicates the Syrian government’s return to the Arab family and the positive dynamics of a full-fledged resolution of the existing crisis.

Consequently, all the processes outlined demonstrate that the MENA states realize the need for peaceful coexistence with each other in order to advance both their own development and the creation of a regional atmosphere that will facilitate it.

However, the overall state of the international system, and the ensuing transition from the unipolar to the polycentric world, brings chaos and disorganization, which is also reflected in the Middle East and North Africa. This is becoming obvious in many examples. In October 2023, there was a new phase of escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The humanitarian consequences of this are already enormous. Moreover, the conflict has taken a two-dimensional shape. On the one level, there is a direct armed conflict between the Israeli armed forces and Palestinian armed militias. On the other, there is a “proxy conflict” between Israel and Iran, which has already spread to neighboring countries: Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. The proxy forces are the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon and the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, the latter of which also attacks American military bases in the region. In addition, the conflict has also spread to the Red Sea and destabilized shipping and maritime trade in the region.

One should not forget the civil war in Sudan that erupted in the spring of 2023. This conflict is in many ways a reflection of the claims of key regional powers to leadership in MENA. Moreover, this war reflects the fickleness and changing configuration of regional alliances. The main external stakeholders in Sudan are also stakeholders in the Libyan conflict. In Libya they predominantly support Khalifa Haftar. In Sudan, however, their interests do not coincide—they support polarized parties: the official government and the Rapid support forces.

It is also worth adding that the Arab Spring conflicts—in Syria, Libya, and Yemen—are still unresolved. Although they are currently frozen, they could be rekindled at any moment. It is also important to remember the longstanding Western Sahara conflict, which has now become part of the rivalry between Algeria and Morocco in the Maghreb. The emergence of a security dilemma between major sub-regional actors against the backdrop of a sharp escalation of global contradictions has the potential to become a source of new conflict in North Africa.

The security dilemma is also a challenge for the Gulf area. The threat of new conflicts in the sub-region still exists. Most actors, unfortunately, have not been able to overcome their contradictions. Even the detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia has not yet brought all parties closer to a consensus. Therefore, the Gulf is still a zone of tension.

Given all the identified points of tension, conflict remains a feature of the region and the potential for new ones to emerge looms large. Moreover, in the context of the increasing number of conflicts worldwide, the number of conflicts in the region may also increase.

Another key feature of the Middle East and North Africa is the weak connectivity of its parts with each other. This is expressed in several factors. The first factor pertains to the differences in the level of development of the MENA states. Countries are graded according to the principle of capital deficit and capital surplus, oil-exporting, and oil-importing. This predetermined the difference in the material possibilities of growth patterns and chosen evolutionary paths. Some countries are far ahead of others in terms of economic potential. Consequently, some countries in the region have the potential to move to a higher technological mode. This situation is particularly characteristic of the Gulf monarchies and non-Arab countries in the region, such as Israel. However, this transition is unlikely to be pulled off in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, especially for war-torn states.

The second factor is the actual disintegration of a unified region into several sub-regions. The first of these is the “Greater Levant.” Today, its borders are not limited to the geographical area of the region known in the Arab world as the Sham. It now also includes Iran and Türkiye. Over the last 20 years, Ankara and Tehran have directly or indirectly participated in all military conflicts in the Levant, spread their influence there, and markedly increased their cooperation in the political, economic, military, and cultural spheres. In many ways, the inclusion of Iran and Türkiye in the sub-region has predetermined its orientation. Today, the Levant is increasingly oriented towards integration into the Eurasian space, even Central Eurasia.

The second sub-region is the Gulf. It traditionally includes the Arabian monarchies and Yemen. This sub-region has had the most effective integration project in MENA, namely the GCC. Today, the Gulf is most integrated into the larger South Asian space. This trend has been largely driven by economic cooperation with emerging Asian economies. In addition, a large percentage of people from these countries live in the Gulf states, which also creates cultural ties.

The third sub-region is the Nile Valley. This is the smallest sub-region within MENA, comprising only Egypt and Sudan. Its development vector is closely linked to all the Nile River states as well as neighboring countries like Chad, which predetermines the existence of common problems. In many ways, the current crises in the Nile Valley are cross-border and immediately spread to neighboring states, as clearly demonstrated during the current war in Sudan. In addition, the Red Sea plays an important role in the life of the sub-region. This factor has also predetermined the connection of the Nile Valley with South Arabia.

The fourth sub-region is the Maghreb. Its weak connectivity with the rest of the Middle East was accurately captured by Russian researcher Konstantin Truevtsev: “The Maghreb is now even more separated from the Arab world by the Libyan moat. Today, the sub-region is largely economically oriented towards Southern Europe, and permanent conflicts in the Sahel, often spilling northwards, create a unified zone of destabilization.”

Thus, both factors clearly demonstrate that the parts of the MENA region are poorly connected. In addition, the Middle East and North Africa have practically dissolved the unified ideological component. It has been outlined in the previous sections of this essay that the strengthening of ideological sovereignty is pronounced in most countries. However, there is no unified cohesive idea for the whole region. Pan-Arabism has lost its strength. A unified Arab nationalism has morphed into a multiplicity of Arab nationalisms. Instead, no common idea has emerged, if not for all, at least for most countries.

As a result, the Middle East and North Africa reflects a polycentric world. MENA has key features inherent in the new world order. These include: the absence of rigid hierarchy and rigid structure within the region, increased sovereignty and its own identity, and overall increased propensity for conflict. However, this does not mean that the region can become a full-fledged center of power. There are root problems preventing this from happening. Chief among them are weak connectivity of the parts among themselves and huge imbalance between the states in socio-economic development. In addition, the factor of increased likelihood of conflict also hinders the development process. Even the fact that there has been a détente in the relations of key actors does not make the region calm. Therefore, the future of the region in the new world is very uncertain.

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