The Perils of the Pursuit of Geopolitical Interest

More than four years after the 2011 Arab uprisings, the geopolitical considerations of major countries inside and outside the region appear to remain largely within the familiar parameters of security, stability and economic interests, as opposed to those of democracy and reform. The strategies followed by some states as they pursue those security and economic goals have often remained constant, as in the cases of France, Germany, the United Kingdom (UK), and China. But other countries, like Turkey and Russia, have shifted some of their tactics following the uprisings with the aim of increasing their geopolitical influence, not only within the region but also, in the case of Russia, in the face of the West. However, the results of both longstanding strategies as well as new tactics have for the main part not been positive, because the focus on security and economic benefits at the expense of reform has contributed either to sustaining autocratic regimes or, ironically, to increasing instability across the Middle East. While this may be beneficial for some countries’ interests in the short term, both autocracy and instability eventually result in the opposite outcome.

Scars From the Past

Policies intended to serve a country’s interest that end up resulting in the opposite outcome are sometimes the manifestation of geopolitical behaviour informed by past experiences. In such cases, past experiences, especially past mistakes, actually misinform present policies. This has been the case with the United States’ (US) and the UK’s approaches to the Syrian conflict. Both countries have been scarred by their military interventions in Iraq and Libya, and have used those cases to justify their lukewarm approach to the Syrian conflict, specifically to the matter of arming the Syrian opposition. The caution applied by both countries is understandable. Yet, neither did it stem from a needed reflection on why those past military interventions failed in achieving genuine democratic transitions in those countries, nor was it based on adequate attention to the divergent circumstances in the three cases of Iraq, Libya and Syria. Policymakers should not use the same approach in different countries in the Middle East without paying attention to their local specificities. A key mistake was that the interventions in Iraq and Libya happened without a long-term plan for stabilizing the countries following regime change. Transitions to democracy require a stable environment to exist before democratic processes can take off. But stability must not be at the cost of individual freedoms. In the cases of countries witnessing bloody transitions, policy-makers should seek to strengthen the security services, but also make them accountable so that those countries do not regress into cycles of oppression and rebellion.

Governance Ignored

Another mistake in both cases is that the intervening foreign actors paid inadequate attention to the role of good governance in preventing social and political grievances. Foreign actors primarily viewed the new governments in Iraq and Libya through the prism of their usefulness as allies, as opposed to the long-term implications of the governments’ behaviour towards their citizens. Subsequently, external actors largely ignored their allies’ democratic transgressions. While it may be in the West’s geopolitical interests to support friendly regimes in the short term despite those regimes’ regressive behaviour, policy-makers need to think about the long-term implications of the lack of good governance, because this absence plants the seed of future instability that emerges from citizen grievances.

And yet, as witnessed in the cases of Egypt and several monarchies in the Gulf and the Maghreb, countries as diverse as China, France, Germany, Russia and the US, as well as the European Union (EU), continue to support autocracies in order to serve their own economic interests such as trade and energy agreements. In this, democratic Western countries have ended up following the same approach as non-democratic countries, as they both seek to stabilize the authoritarian status quo in the Middle East for the sake of economic benefit. The US has gone as far as abandoning a focus on economic or political reform in favour of development assistance of a technical nature that does not require the countries being supported to improve their governance practices, systems or structures. This focus on technical development issues instead of systemic political reform allows the US to retain leverage without upsetting the status quo of countries being offered support, which is a case of ‘low-cost’ engagement.

Stability’s Backfiring Effect

A key motivation behind sustaining the status quo is maintaining security interests, but this approach can backfire. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) it facilitated the return of the pre-revolution status quo partly because they viewed it as a guarantor of national security. But the Abdelfattah al-Sisi regime’s harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups and individuals contributed to the rise of jihadist activity in the country. Israel also supports Sisi on the basis that he is stabilizing Egypt with his crackdown on jihadist activity in the Sinai.

A similar scenario applies in the case of Russia’s support for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Russia’s fear of Sunni jihadist groups that have emerged in Syria, which was one of the reasons it gave for its support for the regime, ended up causing it a bigger headache because of the involvement of Chechen brigades in the conflict on the side of Daesh (also known as Islamic State). Moscow’s aim to sustain the status quo in Syria ironically contributed to creating wider instability. Other cases in the region, from the US turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Bahrain to France’s continuing its military support to autocratic regimes in North Africa and the Gulf, highlight shortsighted approaches to national security. Overlooking human rights in the pursuit of stability may work in the short term, but it plants the seeds of deep grievances that will eventually surface and threaten security in the long run.

The continued prioritization of short-term security interests at the expense of structural political reform shows that the lessons from the Arab uprisings have not been learnt. The Arab uprisings themselves were the product of decades of oppression in the region. Therefore, even if autocracies appear to be stable, they harbour simmering instability beneath the surface that will eventually erupt. Policy-makers in the West and elsewhere must consider the long-term implications of their economic and security policies, because ignoring human rights and planting the seeds of grievances means that those policies are likely to eventually work against their geopolitical interests. On the contrary, good governance measures mitigate against the instability that often accompanies political change.

Sustaining instability

Regional and non-Western actors have also pursued some policies geared towards strengthening their influence that have served to sustain instability as opposed to stability, with equally devastating results. Qatar’s and Saudi Arabia’s support of jihadist groups in Syria and Libya was a way to cultivate local clients to increase their influence, but this has stoked regional tensions in the Gulf and served to aggravate the conflicts in the two countries. Turkey’s turning a blind eye to jihadists crossing its border with Syria – because of the perceived benefit of those jihadists to its aim of toppling the Assad regime – jeopardized Ankara’s relationship with the West and also exacerbated the Syrian conflict.

Iran’s strategy of weakening the states it is trying to influence, and supporting Shiite militias within them as a way of putting pressure on the central states (as has been the case in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and to a lesser degree Yemen), has increased sectarian tensions in those countries. Groups like Daesh have capitalized on those tensions to rally popular support, which has increased those groups’ influence. What once may have been a useful enemy for Iran has now grown to become a serious threat on its borders. Even Egypt’s benefitting from the war against Daesh, because it catalysed the resumption of military aid by the United States to the country in March 2015, is only a short-term gain, for Daesh has widened the scope of its activities in the region and Egypt will not be excluded.

In the pursuit of geopolitical interests, the key drivers for countries in the Middle East and outside revolve around increasing political influence and sustaining economic advantages. Unfortunately, the old policy frameworks focused on security and stability remain influential in the way countries choose to approach the Middle East. Without attention to the future implications of focusing on security without democracy, the region is at risk of remaining in a state of perpetual conflict.

Instead, policy-makers seeking to stabilize the Middle East need to rethink their geopolitical strategies to make support for democracy part of both short- and long-term policies. This means not abandoning programmes for economic and political reform, and supporting civil society institutions that can hold state institutions accountable. It also means being sensitive to country variations in the design and implementation of foreign policies and to different countries’ needs. In the cases of states undergoing violent transitions, stability should be a priority before democratic processes can be expected to proceed, but this should not be at the expense of human rights. Ultimately, although the balance between interests and values is tough to achieve, it is not impossible and should be the guiding light for policy-makers in the Middle East and outside.

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