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  • Navigating a Turbulent Middle East:Priorities for the Next President
  • Paul Salem (bio)

It has become a cliché — but nevertheless true — to observe that the Middle East is going through one of the most severe bouts of instability in its recent history. Major states have collapsed, civil wars have morphed into sectarian and proxy conflicts, state boundaries set a century ago are being erased, ideological battles about religion and public life are tearing societies apart, and the Middle East’s regional and international relations are undergoing profound change. Meanwhile, terrorist movements like the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and al-Qa‘ida have taken advantage of the turmoil to expand their footprint and set up protostates. Different US administrations have tried various approaches to secure American interests and manage risks in the region. This essay examines the key drivers of instability in the region, identifies core US interests that are at risk, and suggests a number of key parameters that might guide Middle East policy for the next administration.

Core Drivers of Instability in the Middle East

A Broken Regional Order

In a 2015 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Henry Kissinger correctly stated that the United States played a key role in creating a fairly stable Middle East order in the aftermath of the 1973 war.1 What he failed to mention is that the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 shattered that order. Today there is no regional order to speak of: Iran wields great influence over Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sana‘a; Iran, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and Turkey are involved in various proxy wars in the Levant and Yemen; and Sunnis in Iraq and Syria have been driven to revolt and radicalization. Regional conflict has contributed to the collapse of state order in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, threatening the stability of Lebanon, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. This broken regional order has also fueled civil wars, sectarian radicalization and militarization, of both Shi‘i and Sunni factions, creating the conditions for the resurgence of global terrorist threats such as ISIS and al-Qa‘ida.

Broken and Brittle States

The second blow to regional stability was the wave of uprisings that swept the region in 2011 and brought down several states. Authoritarian regimes that had stood for decades proved brittle when confronting a sudden spike in public empowerment and protest. Two states, Libya and Yemen, fully collapsed; two others, Syria and Iraq, partially collapsed; Bahrain and Egypt doubled down on authoritarianism; and only one, Tunisia, has managed a tentative democratic transition. The full or partial collapse of several states created the local conditions of civil war and ungoverned space that have ignited radicalization and enabled the resurgence of terrorist groups. [End Page 657]

The threat of state failure also exists for other brittle states in the region that are grappling with political and socioeconomic tensions. Lebanon and Jordan are directly threatened by the spillover of refugees and hostilities from Syria; Egypt’s dysfunctions that unleashed two uprisings in three years still persist; and tensions in Algeria rise as oil prices remain low. Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries still have enough economic resources to absorb and manage internal tensions, at least in the short term; and Morocco has found a workable balance between authoritarianism and political inclusion, despite persistent social and economic challenges. Egypt is the elephant in the region; state collapse in Egypt would make the Syrian, Libyan, and Iraqi crises appear minor in comparison. Helping Egypt grow its economy and return to the path of political progress is not only an Egyptian priority, but a regional and global one as well.

Underlying Stress Factors

The Arab world has one of the highest demographic growth rates in the world and a very young age pyramid.2 This will continue to push millions of young men and women into adulthood searching for jobs, identity, voice, and a role in shaping their future. Meanwhile, economic growth, especially in the nonoil countries, has been modest. The mismatch between high demographic growth and slow economic growth will continue to be a primary stress factor.

The underlying material and resource conditions do...


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pp. 657-665
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