The next challengers of US role in the Middle East

The next challengers of US role in the Middle East
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Religion has played a vital role in Middle East politics since the 1970s. Over the past four decades, its role has been folded into a regional geopolitical competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Regimes such as these, with strong theocratic elements, aim to mold countries of the region in their own images. While Islamists were quite favorable to these regimes, the regimes’ ties to domestic Islamist actors have been tenuous at best.

The Arab Spring revolutions of 2010-2011 brought about a different dynamic to the region’s religious politics, however. Seismic shifts in numerous countries created opportunities for Islamist groups — mainstream and extremist — to take more active roles in the emerging political structures of these countries as they underwent transitions from toppled longstanding authoritarian leaders. Their greater organizational skills and mobilizational appeal enabled Islamist movements to outflank issue-based political groups that struggled to make headway.


Previously marginal actors Qatar and Turkey made an impactful entrance into the regional politics during Arab Spring protests. Both countries saw an opportunity to gain greater influence in two important ways. First, they took ownership of conventionally “Islamic” issues such as the Palestinian cause, by becoming the most-vocal critics of the United States and Israel and supporters of Palestinian groups, particularly Hamas. More recently, Turkey spearheaded efforts to rebuke the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, in contrast to tacit acquiescence by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Second, both countries bet on political Islam as the new face of the Middle East when the Arab uprisings upended regional politics. The foreign policies of Turkey and Qatar established direct linkages with Islamist groups during this turbulent period. In Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Palestine, Morocco, Egypt and Sudan, both countries openly supported the rise of Islamist movements and called for their inclusion in emerging post-Arab Spring political systems. It is no coincidence that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood found sanctuary and support first in Qatar, then in Turkey, after the 2013 coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi. Both countries offered political, financial and material assistance to Islamist groups and became important patrons in the region.

Appeals to Islamist groups and ownership of traditionally Islamic causes have afforded Turkey and Qatar greater popularity in public, if not among ruling elites, across the region. While the recent crisis with other Gulf countries has hurt Qatar’s standing in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, this public popularity is particularly evident in Turkey, where President Erdogan’s charismatic leadership combines elements of democratic credentials with strong economic performance.

Ruling elites across much of the Middle East, by contrast, are uneasy with Qatar’s and Turkey’s popularity and the associated amplification of calls for greater Islamist policies and politics.

In a region historically marked by efforts to eliminate or minimize Islamists’ role in the political system, greater favorability of Islamist politics implies heightened security risks for many regimes. Regional Islamist groups feel emboldened, knowing they have allies with resources that provide alternatives to status quo politics. This is a major difference from the pre-Arab Spring period when a key challenge for Islamist movements was their lack of regional supporters.

Qatar and Turkey thus raised the stakes for embattled post-Arab Spring regimes as Islamists’ growing self confidence and participation in politics have changed the rules of the game. The prominence of Islamists of various ilks has, however, created security risks in the eyes of the United States and its regional allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The countermoves from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have amplified sectarian, ethnic and ideological divisions throughout the region, triggered conflicts, and complicated the search for political settlements.

Qatar and Turkey’s Islamist-oriented regional politics directly and indirectly collide with U.S. policy, underlying the heightened tensions between them and the United States, starting as the Obama administration struggled with how to respond to the upheaval of 2011 and Syria’s civil war. At a time when the United States needs full cooperation of its regional allies in the face of mounting instability and conflict, Qatar and Turkey’s policies questioning the regional status quo have widened existing fault lines into political chasms.

This has, in turn, shattered President TrumpDonald TrumpHouse votes to condemn Chinese government over Hong Kong Former Vice President Walter Mondale dies at age 93 White House readies for Chauvin verdict MORE’s call at the Arab-Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh in May 2017 for the region to unite against Iran and violent extremism.

Indeed, U.S. policies in the Middle East under the Trump administration have hardened significantly against Islamist involvement in politics and aligned considerably with hyper-hawkish Saudi and Emirati approaches to regional affairs. Although the participatory openings of 2011 were slammed shut long before Donald Trump took office in January 2017, his surprise election reinvigorated the same authoritarian leaderships that felt so beleaguered under his predecessor, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama, Clinton reflect on Mondale's legacy Polls suggest House Democrats will buck midterm curse and add to their ranks Boehner: Mass shootings 'embarrassing our country' MORE.

While the term “Arab Spring” was always a bit of a misnomer, it has been followed by an “Arab Winter,” as the space for autonomous or collective action — always limited — has been rigorously (and, in many cases, ruthlessly) suppressed.

The danger for the region and for longstanding U.S. interests is that the stifling of political aspiration and the failure of authoritarian leadership to resolve the social and economic grievances that fueled the protest wave of 2011 make it likely that the next explosion will be more violent still. Like a pressure cooker with the lid firmly on, tensions across the region are at boiling point but the repression of political movements and civil society groups means they have no outlet or safety valve to channel public demands for accountability or transparency from their leaders.

Islamist groups, under these circumstances, are likely to rise to the occasion, claim to be the voice of the voiceless, and find legitimacy because of the repressive environment — and Qatar and Turkey’s support for Islamist actors will surely boost their influence.

A. Kadir Yildirim, Ph.D., is a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. His main research interests include politics and religion, political Islam, the politics of the Middle East and Turkish politics. He is the author of “Muslim Democratic Parties in the Middle East: Economy and Politics of Islamist Moderation.”  

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Ph.D., is a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East. Working across the disciplines of political science, international relations and international political economy, his research examines the changing position of Persian Gulf states in the global order, as well as the emergence of longer-term, non-military challenges to regional security.