Middle Power Politics in the Middle East - Working Group II

On August 20-21, 2017, CIRS hosted the second working group of its project on “Middle Power Politics in the Middle East.” Over two days, scholars discussed key gaps in the literature on the international relations of the Middle East through the lens of middle power theory. Participants led discussions on related subtopics including the role of Middle Eastern middle powers in the international system; in relation to the 2011 Arab uprisings; in terms of their domestic politics; their cooperation, competition, and norm entrepreneurship; their efforts at humanitarian diplomacy; and their forays in mediation and conflict resolution. Also discussed were a number of case studies, including Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Algeria.

May Darwich started the discussion with an exploration of middle power theory in both regional and global hierarchies. She argued that during the Cold War and post-Cold War periods, middle power theory is frequently used in International Relations (IR) literature to examine the role of certain types of middle-ranking states. Although middle power theory seems to offer a rich testing ground for the analysis of state behavior in global and regional hierarchies, its application to the Middle East has been paradoxically scarce. In the region, an increasing number of states cannot achieve regional hegemony, but at the same time do not lend themselves to being categorized as small states. She argues that middle power theory affords some conceptual and theoretical adaptations to provide novel insights in comparing and assessing the behavior of this category of states in the Middle East. Darwich explores the transferability of the concept from international to regional hierarchies.

Adham Saouli focused his discussion on “Middling or Meddling? Domestic Origins of External Influence in the Middle East.” He argued that while the Middle East has failed to produce great powers, it has not been in short supply of influential regional middle power. These influential actors have played key roles in shaping the regional political order and also in both resisting and enabling international penetration of the region. Saouli discussed the constitutive and behavioral elements of middle powers in the Middle East and presented a conceptual analysis that identified six key attributes that a middle power should possess. He also examined the conditions that have enabled the pursuit of middle power politics in the region and identified four domestic variables that may hinder or induce middle power behavior. Lastly, he presented a detailed empirical analysis of three types of middle powers in the region: the Aspirant, the Constrained, and the Hesitant.

Marco Pinfari shifted the discussion to “Middle Eastern Middle Powers: The Roles of Norms in Mediation and Conflict Resolution.” Pinfari argued that one of the most recognizable behavioral traits of middle powers is their tendency—indeed, their “vocation”—to mediate in international conflicts and to engage in conflict resolution initiatives. Pinfari discussed case studies of conflict resolution initiatives promoted by three Middle Eastern middle powers since the 1980s, namely Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Despite whether or not these countries acted as norm entrepreneurs in the field of conflict resolution, he argued, there exists a sort of norm-based behavior. These cases, more specifically, includes instances of norm-driven positioning of mediators comparable to the international behavior of established middle powers like Sweden; of pragmatic but repeated use of norms as part of the content of mediation initiatives; and of norm-influenced foreign policy initiatives aimed at conflict prevention. The analysis of the political motivations behind these initiatives provides insights into the complex interplay between norm-based behavior, identity building, and symbolic rewards in the formation of the foreign policy priority by Middle Eastern middle powers, and the central role played by domestic priorities—from security concerns to regime survival—in these processes.

Jonathan Benthall examined another form of norm entrepreneurship in his paper, “The Rise and Decline of Saudi Overseas Humanitarian Charities as an Expression of Soft Power.” Benthall records and interprets the rise and decline of Saudi overseas humanitarian charities as an expression of soft power, with special reference to the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO or IIROSA). This and another prominent Saudi-based charity, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) were in effect closed down in early 2017. Founded in 1975, IIROSA grew as an expression of Saudi soft power and pan-Islamism—a policy that played a major role in the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s, including support for the mujahidin in concert with Western powers. By the mid-1990s IIROSA was the world’s largest Islamic aid organization. Following the dismissal of its secretary general in 1996, and the crises of 9/11 and the Al-Aqsa Intifada, which cast a cloud over nearly all Islamic charities, IIROSA’s activities were reduced, but efforts were made to revive them. In 2017, however, Benthall argues that the kingdom’s new policy of centralization, and its disengagement from the “comprehensive call to Islam,” resulted in IIROSA’s virtual closure.

In his paper “Middle Eastern Middle Powers in a Transitioning Multi-Polar World,” Imad Mansour interrogated the relationship between domestic governance and international action for middle powers. He argued that Middle Eastern middle powers have acted in most of the twentieth century to sustain a relationship of dependence on systemic opportunities, mostly procuring strategic rents, which aided state-building processes domestically. Since then Middle Eastern middle powers developed varied governance practices that translated into different relationships with the global system. However, not all Middle Eastern middle powers achieved similar measures of withdrawal from this dependence, a reality which impacts how they acted vis-à-vis the global political economy in the twenty-first century, and how they are likely to interact with unfolding dynamics represented most recently by major power relations and China’s rise.

In “Egypt’s Middle Power Aspirations Under Sisi,” Nael Shama looks into the foreign policy of Egypt under the leadership of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi from the perspective of middle power theory. He argued that following the revolution of the Free Officers in 1952, Egypt was a leading power in the Middle East—setting trends, spreading ideas, making war, and promoting peace. However, weighed down by economic difficulties and a population boom, the country’s influence has waned over the past few decades. He also argued that under Al-Sisi, Egypt has attempted to revive its middle power status, relying on active diplomacy and a substantial upgrade of military capabilities. Its efforts to play a leading role in regional politics are mostly evident in its policy towards the civil war in Libya.

Amin Saikal discussed another case study, that of Iran. He maintained that the Islamic Republic of Iran has achieved a level of power and resource capability to be able to impact geopolitical developments within its region and beyond, in support of what it regards to be its national interests. The country’s economic, and hard and soft powers, along with its size, geographical position, culture, and oil and gas riches need to be taken into account in this respect. As such, the country is able to affect events in its neighborhood, positively or negatively, and to deal with major powers from a strong bargaining position at bilateral and multilateral levels. Yet, the republic has not exuded an ideological disposition and a model of governance and state-building that could be attractive to its neighboring states or further afield. Nor has it exhibited a mode of foreign policy behavior that has persuaded many state actors in its region to be favorably disposed towards it. The republic is in variance—both ideologically and geopolitically—with these actors, and is regarded as an oddity in the international system. Meanwhile, it does not possess the military and non-military resource capabilities to be able to project much more than a defensive posture.

In his paper on “Saudi Arabia as a Middle Ranking Power,” Simon Mabon reflected upon the extent to which Saudi Arabia can be considered a middle ranking power, and explored the changing dynamics of the kingdom’s foreign policy in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings. In doing this, Mabon examined three main points. First, he looked at the importance of Islam, which serves as a reservoir for normative influence. Second, he examined the regional security complex, looking specifically at the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and also between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Within these two rivalries, finally, he turned to the importance of diplomacy and normative values, considering how Saudi Arabia has positioned itself within the GCC, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Robert Mason shifted the discussion to “Small State Aspirations to Middle Powerhood: The Cases of Qatar and the UAE.” He argued that small states such as Qatar and the UAE can break the mold of small state classification, but the tipping point to middlepowerhood for Qatar came and went during the Morsi presidency in Egypt. He argud that although Qatar and the UAE share a common approach by investing heavily in defense, aid programs, and diplomatic mediation, and through a range of subtle power tactics, they have not been equally successful. A history of terrorism, fear of political Islam, and the GCC Cold War with Iran have combined to make UAE foreign policy out as being particularly assertive. For Qatar, regional instability created conditions for opportunism and new alliances that propelled it into the realm of middlepowerhood, manifestly proven through open intelligence with Egypt and unprecedented influence in its political economy. Being short lived, it shows that the costs of breaking more than some of the features of small statehood can be high.

In “UAE: A Small State with Regional Middle Power Aspirations,” Islam Hassan argued that the UAE is a small state due to its limited material capacity and soft power capabilities. Yet it aspires to claim a middle power status within the Middle East. This aspiration is steered by system and domestic level conditions. Insofar as system level conditions are concerned, the 2011 Arab uprisings and the status race between the UAE and Qatar have compelled the UAE to engage more assertively with regional politics. Hassan claimed that five main domestic level conditions triggered the UAE’s assertive foreign policy. These conditions include a perceived need for preempting the spillover of regional instability; the failure of the GCC to stimulate a robust defense and diplomatic coordination; Saudi Arabia’s hegemony over the council; the rising economic power of the UAE and its capability to maintain the ruling bargain domestically and to project soft power regionally; the narrative of the UAE as being a model of modernity, tolerance, and happiness; and the transition in leadership. Collectively, the system and domestic level conditions have played a significant role in the UAE’s pursuit of a regional middle power status.

Finally, Yahia Zoubir examined the case of Algeria in “The Giant Afraid of its Shadow:” Algeria, the Reluctant Middle Power.” He argued that despite its qualifying capacity and capabilities, Algeria is unwilling to play a regional and international role concomitant with its military and economic capacities. He explored Algeria’s sources of power and its role as a regional mediator, which has contributed to its position as a middle power. Zoubir then discussed the Algerian civil war and how Algeria went into a decade of isolation. This isolation was followed by a return to the regional and international system, but this time with a focus on counterterrorism as a new norm projected by the Algerian state. He argued that mediation remains a constant in Algerian foreign policy, as evident in the examples of Algerian mediation in Libya and Mali after its decade of isolation.





Participant Biographies:


  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Jonathan Benthall, University College London
  • May Darwich, Durham 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
  • Sabika Shaban, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Nael M. Shama, political researcher and writer, Cairo
  • Jackie Starbird, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Yahia Zoubir, KEDGE Business School, France


Article by Islam Hassan, CIRS Research Analyst