The woes of a Greater Middle East

The woes of a Greater Middle East
6 min read
21 Jan, 2016
Comment: Definitions of the Middle East, much like its borders, have been imposed on the region by others, writes Naveed Ahmad.
UN sanctions relief for Iran raises regional tension to new heights [Getty]
It was more than a century ago when American naval historian, strategist and geopolitical theorist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, popularised the term "Middle East", using it in the article The Persian Gulf and International Relations, published in The National Review.

But little did Admiral Mahan know quite what the region he described would become after demise of the Ottoman Empire and the discovery of oil and gas.

Nonetheless, he predicted enormous technological advancements, the rise of the Bolsheviks and the ascent of China.

From concept to reality

For him, the Middle East was a geographical region of enormous maritime and naval significance ranging from the Bosporus to the Suez Canal and the Straight of Hormuz to Bab el-Mandeb.

Mahan was awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, McGill, Columbia and Dartmouth - to name but a few.

Thus, the term "Middle East" became popular among strategists as well as practitioners. Irans Mahan Air has nothing to do with him, however.

After the Second World War, the significance of Middle East shipping lanes increased with the soaring consumption of petrochemicals, and the rivalry between the West and the USSR.

Before the reign of the shah, Saudi Arabia and Iran enjoyed tension-free relations

The theoretician and strategist's definition had included Iran and Turkey. The popularity of Arab nationalism and strengthening of the Arab League in the face of Israel's creation and its recognition by Turkey and Iran created fissures.

Without the Palestine issue, Arabs remained divided between pro-Soviet Baathist rulers and US-allied Gulf states.

Some theorists started to extend the term's scope all the way to Morocco - but others preferred to use "Arab world" or "Middle East and North Africa".

Before the reign of the shah, Saudi Arabia and Iran enjoyed tension-free relations.

Turkey and Syria, meanwhile, were at odds mainly due to being part of opposing blocs in the Cold War. Despite its weak economy, Ankara always aspired to become part of Europe.

Regardless, Mahan's concept remained pretty much intact with language and ethnicity not being core defining elements.

Centripetal and centrifugal forces

The Khomeini-led revolution in Iran, the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan and the dismemberment of Pakistan - resulting in the creation of Bangladesh - strained the Middle East in various ways.

Iran's blood-soaked regime change sent powerful tremors across Arab nations, whether Baathist or otherwise. Tehran proclaimed to "empower the suppressed", backed by loud rhetoric of exporting the Shia revolution. The Gulf states not only lost a pro-US ally but also found themselves next door to a pro-Soviet expansionist country.

Meanwhile, an otherwise irrelevant and landlocked Afghanistan fell into the hands of the USSR, a superpower that had been longing for access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea.

To avert the Communist superpower from entering the fray alongside Iran, Washington, Riyadh and Islamabad looked for allies.

Saudi Arabia had financially, politically and diplomatically supported Pakistan since the days of its independence movement. The relationship only strengthened after Pakistan's creation as one of the world's largest Muslim countries - both in terms of geographic size and population.

Despite its internal security and political woes, Pakistan provided troops and air power in every war the Arabs fought against Israel. Unlike Turkey and Iran, Pakistan also refused to acknowledge the existence of Israel.

The state institutions would treat Palestinians as citizens. However, the creation of Bangladesh - more than 2,000 kilometres from Islamabad and surrounded by rival India on three sides - and the emergence of pro-India Bangladeshi politicians brought Pakistan's policy-makers even closer to the Saudi-led Middle East.

After Soviet troops seized control over Afghanistan, the convergence of interest among Pakistan and Arab nations was three-fold - denying the rival superpower foothold in the region, strengthening spread of Shia-inspired revolution and cementing bilateral security against external political and military threats.

Islamabad signed a long-term mutual security pact with Saudi Arabia in 1982.

Coming back to the subject, the Middle East was falling apart on the one hand and expanding on the other. Iran was swift in allying with the ruler of Syria, Hafez Al-Assad.

Come 1985, a Shia militia with a political arm named Hizballah was founded in Lebanon. Saddam Hussein's Iraq had already entered a war with Iran following Tehran's efforts to overthrow the Sunni ruler.

Turkey was also alarmed at developments in Tehran and moved closer towards its pro-US allies in the Gulf region.

Afghanistan, meanwhile, saw the creation of resistance militia groups, initially funded and organised by the Gulf states and Pakistan. By 1984, the US and its allies joined the alliance with full support.

Mahan's Middle East was witnessing unparalleled internal confrontations and expansion alike. Alongside Beirut, Islamabad and Kabul became pivots of the region's dynamics. 

Over the next decade, Iran's revolution could engulf neither Islamabad nor Baghdad - but the region at large became prey to Shia-Sunni sectarianism. The Soviet Union had to leave Afghanistan and shun its quest for a warm water port.

Eventually, the superpower disintegrated into many countries.

Emergence of the greater Middle East

With the Taliban controlling Afghanistan from 1996, the UAE and Saudi Arabia joined Pakistan in acknowledging their rule in Afghanistan.

The war-ravaged country was home to a sizeable number of Arab dissidents who were unwelcome back home. Two years later, Pakistan tested its nuclear weapons a fortnight after India. The west slapped sanctions on Pakistan.

The Muslim countries celebrated the achievement. Saudi Arabia extended Pakistan 50,000 barrel of oil per day for one year. The payment was later written off.

Fast forward to 9/11. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE abandoned the Taliban and joined the US-led war against "terror". The second Iraq war further strained alignments within the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia's efforts remained passive, leaving the US to call the shots. Saddam Hussein was overthrown, to be replaced by pro-Iran Iraqi Shia, raising morale and ambitions in Iran.

Today, the greater Middle East is crowded with 'terrorist' outfits

Meanwhile, the Bush administration's Condoleezza Rice introduced the concept of the New Middle East, which stretched Mahan's definition all the way to Afghanistan. The US started looking and dealing with "the New Middle East" as a highly unstable Muslim region marred with numerous extremist non-state actors as well as sectarian and geopolitical rivalries for political supremacy.

Like a host of other issues, here too the Bush administration's description of a New Muslim Middle East, otherwise referred to as a greater or extended Middle East, was correct - but its understanding and policy responses were awfully flawed.

The miscalculated response of the ruling Republicans to the "new Middle East" resulted in greater chaos and long term instability, which was inherited by the Obama administration.

Today, the greater Middle East is crowded with "terrorist" outfits ranging from Hizballah, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State group and dozens of less known Shia and Sunni militias.

After Russia gained a strong foothold in Syria, the lifting of UN sanctions against Iran takes the strain in the region to new heights.

Damascus and Kabul are the pressure points for militancy, while Ankara and Islamabad are recent entrants to the game of thrones played by Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The scholars have long been debating the volatility of the Middle East's arbitrary and distorted borders. With Iran and Saudi Arabia coming face to face amid the Obama administration's disengagement, regional tectonic plates are set to shift along sectarian lines.

The greater Middle East comprises a bloc stretching from Pakistan and the GCC all the way to Turkey and Egypt, and another to include Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.

Syria, profusely bleeding, belongs in neither's fortress.

Convincingly, Mahan's century-old definition sounds simplistic and obsolete.

Naveed Ahmad is a Doha-based investigative journalist and academic with special focus on diplomacy, security and energy issues. Follow him on Twitter: @naveed360

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.