Middle Power Politics in the Middle East Working Group I

On January 15-16, 2017, the Center for International and Regional Studies held a working group under its research initiative on “Middle Power Politics in the Middle East.” Over the course of two days, participants identified key gaps in the literature on the international relations of the Middle East through the lens of middle power theory. The participants led discussions on a number of related subtopics, including: Middle Eastern middle powers and the international system, middle powers and the 2011 Arab uprisings, domestic politics, middle powers’ cooperation and competition, humanitarian diplomacy, norm entrepreneurship, and conflict resolution and mediation.

The 2011 Arab uprisings have been an evolving moment of significance in the Middle East. While increasing domestic instability in some of the traditionally strong states led to a retraction in their capacity in international and regional affairs, smaller states were suddenly given an opening for more prominent engagement. It remains to be seen whether these smaller states’ regional and international status-seeking endeavors are of a durable, sustainable nature. During the working group, scholars examined the post-2011 dynamics of the international relations in the Middle East through the lens of middle powers.

There is ambiguity in the scholarly literature in terms of providing an exact definition for middle power states, and little work has been done on which states might qualify for middle power status within the context of the Middle East. The first topic discussed during the CIRS meeting revolved around the characteristics for determining whether, or not, a state is able to claim middle power status. These characteristics include, among others, states’ relative hard-power capabilities, their capacity to exert influence over regional events, their financial resources, their institutional strength and bureaucratic capabilities, and their relative autonomy. Participants also discussed common foreign policy features among Middle Eastern middle powers. These states tend to impact their immediate sphere, are regional balancers, have the capacity to bargain with super powers and great powers, establish alliances with lesser powers, and generally do not engage in warfare. Another issue in studying middle power politics in the Middle East is the limitations in middle power theory as to how it only focuses on the international hierarchal structure of power, and disregards the multiple hierarchal substructures within the international order. In other words, there are middle powers that pursue this role on the international level, and others who pursue it only within their respective regions. This raises a number of questions: Should the Middle East be defined based on exceptionalism, and thus needs a new definition of middle power? Can a middle power be a nondemocratic government, and not a good global citizen, such as in the Egyptian and Saudi cases? And do middle powers have to share similar pillars of foreign policy agendas? In other words, is the concept of middle power theoretically so diverse as one, for example, cannot compare Iran to Australia as middle powers?

Since status is a self-proclamation met with international recognition, the interactions of Middle Eastern middle powers with extra-regional powers, the expectations of global powers from middle powers in the region, and Middle Eastern middle powers expectations from other global middle powers are all issues worth in-depth examination. Moreover, the perceptions of middle powers in the Middle East with regard to international options, especially with the rise of China, Russia being a potential partner, and the South-South relations, remain profoundly understudied.

When discussing how the Arab uprisings reconfigured the power relations of the Middle East, it is evident that domestic dynamics impact foreign policy agendas. The post-2011 dynamics force us to reconsider traditionally understood conceptions of power, state, and sovereignty. The transnational impact of the Arab uprisings on middle powers in the region, in terms of political ideologies and migration patterns, have led to realignments of alliances. For example, under the current Egyptian leadership, President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi tried to pursue a balanced foreign policy by strengthening the Egyptian relations with Russia. In other incidents, it revived rivalries, such as the Saudi-Iranian case. The realignments and revival of animosities were results of discrepancies in regional actors’ rhetoric on the Arab uprisings. The discrepancies in rhetoric manifest the impact of agency on the identity of states, especially in totalitarian regimes of the Middle East. The transitions in leadership in many countries of the region, despite their various natures, have re-shaped the foreign policy agendas not only of these states, but also across the Middle East. United Arab Emirates is an example, as the transition in leadership from Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan to Sheikh Khalifa Al Nahyan was coupled with a transformation of Emirati foreign policy, which became more assertive.

Agency, size, and material capacity of middle powers matter in assessing their influence, particularly as they are expected to take part in directly shaping the regional order, and indirectly influencing the international order. Thus, based on material capacity, countries like Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the pre-2003 Iraq could be considered destined middle powers. Israel and Algeria may be considered middle powers; while countries like Qatar and UAE are influential regional actors. Some participants questioned the concept of “destined middle powers,” suggesting that states should have an interest in seeking a middle power status in order to be one. This interest should not be only expressed by the political leadership, but also supported by cohesive centers of power within the state, and commended by the public. A mismatch between interests of the leadership and its constituencies impacts the country’s ability to claim a specific status in the regional or international order. If the leadership fabricates a state identity that does not fit with the public narrative, tensions in the foreign policy of the state are inevitable. Therefore, material capacity and interest in seeking a middle power status are both indispensible.

Furthermore, colonial legacies have impacted states interests and public narratives. For example, Algerian foreign policy is an extension of its nationalist movement that, for years, fought for independence. These colonial experiences encourage states to avoid conceding sovereignty to regional alliances that may hinder their status and influence. The UAE, as an example, sought an independent foreign policy agenda to escape the Saudi hegemony over the Gulf Cooperation Council. At the same time, Middle Eastern middle powers tolerate alliances that may support their regional activism and competitions. Delving deeper in the Saudi hegemony over the GCC, one can see that Middle Eastern middle powers act differently through regional organizations than other middle powers as they aim to dominate rather than collaborate. However, economic interdependence among Middle Eastern middle powers has been the key to cooperation.

Norm entrepreneurship activities of Middle Eastern middle powers are critical in studying middle power politics in the Middle East. Humanitarian diplomacy has been a prominent form of norm entrepreneurship exercised by middle powers across the world. When it comes to the Middle East, there has been Western scrutiny and skepticism on Middle Eastern charity organizations’ activities, especially after the September 11 attacks. This has impacted not only humanitarian diplomacy of individual countries, but also regional organizations, such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, as member states scaled back their charity activities to avoid accusations of supporting terrorism. This has impacted Middle Eastern states that seek a middle power status by using philanthropy as a way to project themselves as global good citizens.

Middle Eastern middle powers have also pursued other forms of norm entrepreneurship, such as conflict resolution and mediation. Since being involved in mediation is a key component of the behavioral definition of middle powers, Middle Eastern middle powers (and aspiring middle powers) have acted as active mediators and honest brokers. However, the Middle East is not an ideal setting for studying norm-driven mediation for three main reasons. First, there is a scarcity of comprehensive agreements and a tendency to only perpetuate ceasefires. Second, oil-rich countries of the Middle East seeking middle power status have relied only on incentive-diplomacy, which is not viable in ongoing diplomatic crises. Third, there is an ostensible weakness of multilateral settings and institutions in the Middle East.

Finally, why do countries seek a middle power status? There are not necessarily common motivations among states to pursue a middle power status. Each state has its own domestic, regional, and international dynamics at play driving its pursuit for a middle power status. Some states pursue status-seeking endeavors as a legitimization strategy. Claiming a higher status in the international or regional order induces the public and helps in preempting the spillover of instability to the country, as in the case of the UAE. It also drives attention away from domestic challenges affecting the public such as low GDP, youth population bulges, and budget deficit, such as the case in Saudi Arabia.

At the end of the working group, Mehran Kamrava, Director of CIRS, concluded the session with emphasis on the contribution of the working group discussions to the literature on middle power politics, to be published in an edited volume in the near future.



Participants and Discussants:

  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Jonathan Benthall, University College London
  • Suleyman Elik, Istanbul Medeniyet University
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Simon Mabon, Lancaster University
  • Imad Mansour, Qatar University
  • Robert Mason, American University in Cairo
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Marco Pinfari, American University in Cairo
  • Amin Saikal, Australian National University
  • Adham Saouli, University of St. Andrews
  • Nael Shama, University of St. Andrews
  • Jackie Starbird, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Yahia Zoubir, KEDGE Business School, France


Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS