The political map of the Middle East has been in permanent flux for a decade. One country intervenes here, the next state disintegrates there. It is striking that it is mainly Arab states that are disintegrating, while at the same time it is non-Arab countries that are taking advantage of this weakness and expanding their power. How did this constellation come about and what will it lead to one day?
The long farewell from the world stage
When the first caliphate was established in 661 AD, under the rule of the Umayyads, the Arab people were in the midst of a great movement of expansion. The religion of Islam was only a few decades old, Muhammad himself had been dead for 30 years, and the cavalry armies of this new power set about establishing one of the greatest empires in history. At the time of its greatest expansion, it stretched from the Atlantic coasts of Portugal and Morocco across the entire Arabian Peninsula to the peaks of Central Asia and the banks of the Indus. For several centuries, the various dynasties and caliphates within this region represented the centre of world affairs. Spiritually, economically, scientifically and also artistically, the epicentre of all being lay here. However, even the caliphates were not immune to the eternal cycle of rise and fall, so that at some point they began to lose influence. Internal discord and the decadence of the ruling elites, masterfully explained by Ibn Khaldún, weakened them internally, while the apocalyptic hordes of Mongol horsemen destroyed them externally. And while the Arab caliphates never recovered from this blow, the Ottomans, who were almost wiped out, achieved a remarkable rise. With the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 at the latest, they were able to claim the leading role for themselves within the Muslim world, and since almost at the same time the Persians under the Safavids found new self-confidence and the Spanish were able to bring the Iberian peninsula into Christian hands, which was to prove much more significant than the small Crusader states, the superiority of the Arabs was a relic of the past.
The long wait
Now the time of the Turks had come. Their empire stretched to its greatest extent from Tunis to Basra, they controlled Jerusalem, Mecca and Medina, kept the “Second Rome” as their capital and threatened the core of Europe with their attacks on Vienna. The European nations, on the other hand, oriented themselves towards their colonies on all continents, over five centuries they expanded their power in all areas and soon also intervened in the Middle East. The Arabs had to eke out an existence as a pawn between Europeans and Turks, and if they allied themselves with one side, the other side stabbed them in the back and also treated them as a colony. The downfall of the “sick man on the Bosphorus” did not give Arab societies much of an advantage, however; after all, Britain and France were still there and, as a new low blow for Muslims, the emigrated Jews from Europe established Israel. Although Arab nations also gradually gained independence, Washington and Moscow remained decisive, because the politics of the Middle East were also shaped by the Cold War. After the end of the Cold War, the USA was the superpower that dominated everything and no longer had to fear an adequate adversary.
The phase of upheaval
But along with this great power came a hubris that infected Washington and took its toll. After the USA suffered severe psychological damage from the attacks of 11 September 2001, it reacted hysterically and with delusions of grandeur. Afghanistan was attacked and was to be rebuilt as a democracy, Iraq was attacked with a justification of lies and was to be rebuilt in the same way, this time even as a “beacon of freedom” and as a model for the whole region. Washington’s strategists should have been aware that these plans never had a realistic chance of being implemented. Thus, however, they gambled away their strong position, and since they have to react to the rise of China at the same time, they have been withdrawing from the region quite quickly since Obama and would probably prefer not to hear anything more about the Middle East today, as the current conflict in Israel proves.
The Arabs’ new chance
Since the Arab world was overwhelmed by a wave of protests, uprisings and later wars in 2011, it has been searching for a new role in the world of the 21st century. The old regimes are no longer able to respond adequately to the challenges of this time and look more and more like a relic of the Cold War. But like every period of upheaval, this one is also very brutal, with new military regimes and war-torn countries as a result. The fact that after more than a decade of global counter-terrorism, jihadists of the IS and other factions have been able to establish entire states on their own is a testament to the severity of the dislocations in the region. However, this phase also holds the opportunity to break away from the many powers that have dominated Middle Eastern politics for centuries. Unfortunately, there is currently not one Arab nation in sight that could take on this task, and it remains questionable whether this will change in the foreseeable future. Israel, Iran and Turkey are the active players in the region today, with Russia, China and, of course, the US still as foreign influencers. Are the Arabs missing an opportunity that has not been there for centuries and will probably not appear again for centuries?