Arab World Turbulent Unrest Strategically Threatening United States


By Dr Subhash Kapila

The Greater Middle East or the Greater Arab World extending from Tunisia to Egypt and reaching Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen and Sudan are today in a state of turbulent unrest. Tunisia has provided the incendiary spark which has set afire the Arab World long politically suppressed by authoritarian regimes and monarchial kingdoms.

Geostrategically and geopolitically, the Greater Arab World is of crucial strategic significance for the United States as the region sits atop the world’s greatest reserves of crude oil and natural gas. This extended region also abounds in choke-points through which must pass the supply route of energy requirements of Europe, South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia.

The Arab World was a theatre of Great Power rivalry during the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Today China is using its ‘soft power’ to establish substantive linkages in the Arab World and Russia has been able to make strategic forays in the region aimed at winning over United States traditional military partners.

The United States has enjoyed a virtual strategic predominance over this region ever since 1945.The United States has ever since ensured that its strategic predominance in the Middle East was ensured through US-friendly regimes governing these geo-strategic nations. In the pursuit of this strategic objective, the United States was permissive in tolerating authoritarian regimes and monarchial regimes ruling these nations, even though it was contradictory to the basic tenets of US democracy.

The United States was ruthless in ensuring its strategic predominance over this strategically vital region and did not hesitate in resorting to military interventions and even full scale major wars like Gulf War I in 1991 and Gulf War II in2003 against Iraq to prevent regional hegemons emerging who challenged the United States in the region.

The United States strategic architecture in the Greater Arab World not only rested on major Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia but also smaller nations like Jordan, the Gulf Sheikhdoms and Tunisia too.

Secure in the belief that their strategic utility to the United States would ensure that the continuance of their regimes would be underwritten by the United States, these authoritarian rulers and monarchs ended up in being politically irresponsive to the political aspirations of their peoples and also their economic woes.

The end-result of these two-way US-Arab regimes mutuality of vested interests was that the authoritarian regimes in the Arab world have continued being ruled by a single virtually despotic individual for thirty years as was evident in Tunisia and so also Egypt This story stood repeated in the US-friendly monarchial regimes in the Arab World too.

The significant reality that must be stressed initially in this Paper is that the violent and turbulent unrest that has broken out in Tunisia and in Egypt and which threatens to engulf the Greater Arab World has not been sparked off by any Islamic fundamentalist ideological initiative or some pre-planned political strategies of any dissident groups. The turbulence has been sparked off spontaneously by simmering political and economic frustrations perpetuated by despotic regimes. However dangers abound that Islamist groups could jump on to this popular upsurge and exploit it for their own ends and queer the pitch of the spontaneous political outbursts on Arab streets.

The United States today is faced with a grave strategic dilemma as to how to safeguard its long contrived and configured strategic and security architecture in the Middle East and as to how to ensure the emergence of US-friendly regimes in the wake of the present political turbulence that has arisen in the Middle East. The challenge for the United States becomes more graver when in the present turbulent unrest it is being widely perceived on the Arab World streets that the United States over the years has been complicit in the perpetuation of despotic regimes that suppressed them.

The overall situation is strategically threatening for the United States in terms of its continued predominance in the Greater Arab World when countries like China which has over the years silently nibbled at the edges of this predominance preach that the global power of the United States is on the decline.

The aim of this Paper is to fathom the strategic implications that arise from this turbulent unrest in the Greater Arab World and this is being done by focusing on the following issues:

  • United States Strategic Architecture in the Middle East: The Dominos Begin to Fall
  • Middle East Turbulent Unrest Was Foreseeable Not Unexpected
  • ‘Political Transformation’ Not ‘Revolutionary Transformation’ Seems to be Driving Force of Turbulent Unrest
  • Arab World Turbulent Unrest Strategically Threatening for the United States: Analysis

United States Strategic Architecture in the Middle East: The Dominoes Begin to Fall

The United States initial experiment in devising security architecture in the Middle East in the 1950s based on multinational collective security military alliances, like to begin with, the Middle East Defense Organization and later the Central Treaty Organization were unsuccessful and proved strategically fruitless. The United States later focus on the US security architecture based on the “Twin Pillars’ edifice of Iran and Saudi Arabia also soon crumbled. Learning from this experience the United States ventured on a more bilateral pattern of defense relationships with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Region Sheikhdoms. Similar understandings were also arrived at by the United States with lesser prominent Arab nations but yet crucial like Jordan etc.

In Gulf War I United States strategies paid off as it broke the myth of Arab unity and Islamic World unity when Arab nations participated alongside the United States in the war against one of their own, namely Iraq.

A repeat performance did not take place in Gulf War II a decade later as Saudi Arabia opted out. In the wake of 9/11 the picture changed still more when the Islamic fundamentalists groups like the Al Qaeda and the Taliban and their constituents elsewhere propagated that the United States was at war with the Islamic World.

Egypt however over the decades has been the cornerstone of United States strategic architecture in the Middle East along with Israel. It receives over a billion US dollars a year in military aid. Egypt as the most politically influential Arab nation with combat tested Armed Forces and a relatively more moderate Islamic state has been a valuable strategic asset for the United States especially in the context of Palestine and Israel. Egypt in many ways has been a restraining influence on the Palestinians and more specifically the radical Hamas which controls Gaza bordering Egypt.

Tunisia equally strategically important for the United States having fallen to the current turbulent unrest and Egypt today is in the throes of a far more pronounced turbulence. With the impending exit of President Hosni Mubarak who is unlikely to ride out the massive street clamor for his ouster a vital strategic asset of the United States falls with uncertain results for the United States.

The fall of the Egyptian domino of the United States strategic architecture is likely to set in motion the sequential crumbling and fall of other dominoes that comprise the lineup of United States other Arab military allies. Reverberations can already be witnessed in Jordan, Sudan and Yemen etc

And if all this happens then what awaits the fragile Gulf Region Sheikhdoms with sizeable Shia populations in their midst. They could crumble more faster than anticipated.

The United States would be hard pressed to devise alternatives to the dominos that it had configured to sustain its security architecture in the Middle East.

Middle East Turbulence Was Foreseeable Not Unexpected

Middle East political turbulence was foreseeable and cannot be said to have been unexpected. Diplomatic and intelligence establishments in the United States and the West which have the most crucial stakes in this region seem to have been so preoccupied with focusing on the Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hammas and the Taliban and in that fixation they seem to have lost sight of the societal volcanoes that were simmering in this region and whose eruption could unravel their entire security architecture in the Region.

In 2009, my Paper entitled “Iran’s Political Turbulence: The Strategic Fallout” (SAAG Paper No. 3289 dated 3 July 2009) the following observations were made while commenting on the regional fallout of those demonstrations:

  • “Monarchial and authoritarian regimes in Middle East can expect increased political turbulence and political challenges to their authority.
  • People in these countries will be encouraged by Iranian pattern of political demonstrations against all authoritarian rule and not permitting free political activity.
  • Increased political turbulence in Middle East could alter the strategic landscape.”

Admittedly, difference exists in that Iranian turbulence in 2009 may have been partly inspired externally, and the present political turbulence in the Arab World are spontaneous and indigenous outbursts, but the root cause remains the same and that is a revolt against political repression and poor economic conditions.

More than the United States, the Arab regimes themselves are more largely to be blamed because even when the incendiary sparks flashed in Tunisia, they continued to be dismissive of the crisis unfolding in their midst. This evidenced by the responses to the cautionary warnings made by US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton at Doha in the week following the Tunisian revolt., that “ too many places in too many ways, the region’s foundations were sinking in the sand” and advising Arab regimes to become more politically responsive. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Organization of Islamic Countries retorted that the United States should not interfere in domestic affairs of Arab nations.

The arrogant dismissiveness of Arab regimes to calls for political reforms is now seemingly catching up and threatening the very existence of these regimes.

“Political Transformation” Not “Revolutionary Transformation” Seems to be Driving Force of Turbulent Unrest.

This may be a debatable assertion in a rapidly unfolding Arab turbulent landscape but yet briefly merits to be recorded as any misreading of the underlying urges that define this Arab turbulence can distort policy formulations of the United States as the predominant power in the Middle East.

On present indications no evidence is forthcoming which suggests that the Arab masses current turbulence is being driven by impulses seeking “Revolutionary Transformation”. This upsurge has not been preceded by or crafted by any Arab political opposition groupings espousing a revolutionary change, other than the ‘regime change’ of oppressive regimes which have throttled them for decades.

Therefore it is “Political Transformation” that is being clamored for on Arab streets. The Arab masses whether in Tunisia, Egypt or in other Arab countries where this turbulence is likely to unfold, seemingly stems from political suppression, denial of economic activity, abuse of power by authoritarian regimes and the dominance of security establishments. This is echoed by a noted academic from the American University in Beirut

If that be so then United States responses to this Arab upsurge cannot be aimed at perpetuation of Arab authoritarian regimes. The United States would require a wholesale transformation of its current Middle East policies.

Arab World Turbulent Unrest Strategically Threatening for the United States: Analysis

The Middle East as it is has been a formidable challenge for the United States strategically even before the present Arab World turbulent unrest. In the Non-Arab World the United States has been unsuccessfully grappling with the Iranian nuclear program challenge and Turkey unshackling itself from its intensely proximate strategic linkages with the United States. Both Iran and Turkey as Non-Arab nations are major regional powers and cannot be discounted in United States Middle East strategy.

In the Arab World, the United States has lately been witness to Saudi Arabia resorting to ‘hedging strategies’ to escape United Sates pressures and is now in a state of ‘cozy relationship’ with China and Russia.

Middle East Six Power Peace Initiative to find a workable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has made no headway and nor is it likely to do so.

In the Levant, Syria and Iran seem to be making headway in Lebanon where they were displaced from during the ‘Cedar Revolution’ some years back, masterminded by the United States.

Without going into the countrywise-specifics of the strategic losses, the strategic threats that the United States may have to cope with in the unfolding Arab turbulence, the following overall assertions can be made on analysis of the unfolding situation:

  • Globally, as the United States had commenced strategically focusing in filling the Asia Pacific security vacuum caused by it in the last decade with a more robust strategic presence and focus against a rising China, the United States would once again now be strategically diverted to the Middle East.
  • Regionally, Egypt as the ‘strategic center-of gravity’ of United States Middle East strategy seems to be endangered. The Army there may stabilize the situation but not without the exit of President Mubarak. Political uncertainty is likely to follow over which the United States may not have control
  • Regionally, Egypt and Jordan engulfed by turbulent unrest endanger the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty and Israel’s security, and which has ensured an uneasy peace in the region
  • Regionally, the United States if unable to retrieve political stability in Egypt would be faced with a strategic catastrophe, as it would be left with Israel only as the ‘lone sentinel’ of the United States in the Middle East to safeguard American strategic interests.
  • Politically, United States global predominance gets endangered by Middle East turbulent unrest in face of irretrievability by the United States as the loss of image would have ripple effects and contribute to the perception that the Unite States is a declining power.
  • Economically, the loss of effective control of the United States over incoming Arab governments as a consequence of the present turbulence can severely hit the United States economic recovery and global economic recession, since energy security could be affected.
  • Nuclear proliferation in the region could be one of the endangering spin-offs of the present turbulence
  • Islamist groups and Islamist armed militias would have that much more free play to further their interests in a disturbed environment.

Concluding Observations

The United States has been virtually the sole arbiter of the strategic, political and economic dynamics of the Arab World. Ever since 1945, the United States even in the heyday of the Cold War strode the Middle East like a ‘Colossus’

In terms of options to deal with the turbulent Arab unrest which shows signs of spreading wider in the region to engulf traditional military allies in the region, the United States will have to cope with contradictory options of opting for perpetuation of the status-quo or take a call on actively facilitating the “Political Transformation” of the Middle East by regime changes Military interventions in the current scenario would be ill-advised.

Turbulent unrest in the Middle East threatens comprehensively the strategic interests of the United States more than that of any other global players and consequently the United States would have the lonely task of virtually single-handedly to restore stability in the region.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email: [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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