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 the course of two days, scholars discussed 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 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 and 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 working group’s discussion with an exploration of middle power theory in both regional and global hierarchies. Darwich argues 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.


Another contributor, Adham Saouli, focused the discussion on “Middling or Meddling? Domestic Origins of External Influence in the Middle East.” Saouli 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. In his paper, Saouli discusses the constitutive and behavioral elements of middle powers in the Middle East and presents a conceptual analysis that identifies six key attributes a middle power should possess. He also examined the conditions that have enabled the pursuit of middle power politics in the region and identifies four domestic variables that may hinder or induce middle power behavior. Lastly, Saouli 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. In his paper, 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, Pinfari 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 Benthal examined another form of norms entrepreneurship in his paper, “The Rise and Decline of Saudi Overseas Humanitarian Charities as an Expression of Soft Power.” Benthal 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 the 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, Benthal 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 interrogates the relationship between domestic governance and international action for middle powers. He argues 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 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 argues 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 argues that under 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. Saikal maintains 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, Mabon 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, Mabon turned to the importance of diplomacy and normative values, considering how Saudi Arabia has positioned itself within the Gulf Cooperation Council, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and United Nations Human Rights Council.


Robert Mason shifted the discussion to “Small State Aspirations to Middle Powerhood: The Cases of Qatar and the UAE.” Mason argued that small states such as Qatar and the UAE can break the mold of small state classification, but the tipping point to middle powerhood for Qatar came and went during the Morsi presidency in Egypt. Mason argues 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 mark 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 middle powerhood, 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 also claims 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 and 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.” Zoubir 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. Zoubir 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 counter-terrorism as a new norm projected by the Algerian state. Zoubir 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.


Article by Islam Hassan, CIRS Research Analyst.




Participant Biographies:


Zahra Babar is Associate Director for Research at CIRS at Georgetown University in Qatar. Her current research interests include rural development, migration and labor policies, and citizenship in the Persian Gulf states. Babar has published several articles and chapters, most recently, “The ‘Humane Economy’: Migrant Labour and Islam in Qatar and the UAE,” Sociology of Islam (2017); “Circular Migration in the Gulf States,” in Impact of Circular Migration on Human, Political and Civil Rights: A Global Perspective (Springer, 2016); “Women, Work, and the Weak State: A Case Study of Pakistan and Sudan,” in Fragile Politics: Weak States in the Greater Middle East (Oxford University Press/Hurst, 2016); “Population, Power, and Distributional Politics in Qatar,” Journal of Arabian Studies (2015); and “The Cost of Belonging: Citizenship Construction in the State of Qatar,” Middle East Journal (2014). She has served as Editor for Arab Migrant Communities in the GCC (Oxford University Press/Hurst, 2017), and co-edited with M. Kamrava, Migrant Labor in the Persian Gulf (Columbia University/Hurst, 2012), and with S. Mirgani, Food Security in the Middle East (Oxford University Press/Hurst, 2014). 

Jonathan Benthall is Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, University College London and Director Emeritus of the Royal Anthropological Institute, which he directed for twenty-six years and where he was Founder-Editor of the journal Anthropology Today. He has published widely on the relationship between contemporary Islam and humanitarian aid. His interests include the international aid system and the growth of new quasi-religious movements and their interactions with traditional religions, among others. His current research is focused on faith-based organizations with special reference to Islamic charities. He has recently published, among others, Islamic Charities and Islamic Humanism in Troubled Times (Manchester University Press, 2016); “Religion and Humanitarianism,” in The Routledge Companion to Humanitarian Action (Routledge, 2015); and Gulf Charities and Islamic Philanthropy in the “Age of Terror” and Beyond, co-edited with R. Lacey (Gerlach Press, 2014). 

May Darwich is Assistant Professor in International Relations of the Middle East at Durham University. She was Research Fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg, Germany, working within the IDCAR-Network (The International Diffusion and Cooperation of Authoritarian Regimes). Her research interests include international relations of the Middle East, IR theory, foreign policies of Middle Eastern states, and security studies and identity politics. She recently authored “Creating the Enemy, Constructing the Threat: The Diffusion of Repression against the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East,” in Democratization (2017); “The Ontological (In)security of Similarity: Wahhabism versus Islamism in Saudi Foreign Policy” in Foreign Policy Analysis (2016); and co-authored with T. Fakhoury, “Casting the Other as an Existential Threat: The Securitisation of Sectarianism in the International Relations of the Syria Crisis,” in Global Discourse (2016). 

Islam Hassan is Research Analyst at CIRS, Georgetown University in Qatar. His current research interests include state-building in the Gulf states, and comparative politics and international relations of West Asia and North Africa. His publications include a co-edited special issue of the Muslim World Quarterly on “The State of Middle-Eastern Youth” (2017), “GCC’s 2014 Crisis: Causes, Issues and Solutions” (in Arabic and English with Al Jazeera Research Center, 2015), and “Jordan on the Brink,” in International Journal of Culture and History (2016). 

Mehran Kamrava is Professor and Director of CIRS at Georgetown University in Qatar. He is the author of numerous journal articles and books, and recent publications include The Impossibility of Palestine: History, Geography, and the Road Ahead (Yale University Press, 2016); Qatar: Small State, Big Politics (Cornell University Press, 2015); The Modern Middle East: A Political History Since the First World War, 3rd ed. (University of California Press, 2013); and Iran’s Intellectual Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2008). His edited books include The Great Game in West Asia: Iran, Turkey and the South Caucasus (Oxford University Press/Hurst, 2017); Fragile Politics: Weak States in the Greater Middle East (Oxford University Press/Hurst, 2016); Beyond the Arab Spring: The Evolving Ruling Bargain in the Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2015); The Political Economy of the Persian Gulf (Oxford University Press, 2012); The Nuclear Question in the Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2012); and The International Politics of the Persian Gulf (Syracuse University Press, 2011). 

Simon Mabon is Lecturer in International Relations in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. His research explores the international relations of the Middle East with a particular focus on sovereignty and political violence across the region. He is also Director of the Richardson Institute at Lancaster, and Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Centre. He recently co-authored The Origins of ISIS: The Collapse of Nations and Revolution in the Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 2017) with S. Royle and British Foreign Policy since 1945 (Routledge, 2017) with M. Garnett and R. Smith. He also authored Saudi Arabia and Iran: Soft Power Rivalry in the Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 2013); “Sovereignty, Bare Life and the Arab Uprisings,” in Third World Quarterly (2017); “The Battle for Bahrain: Iranian-Saudi Rivalry,” in Middle East Policy (2012); and “Kingdom in Crisis? Saudi Arabia, Instability and the Arab Spring,” in Contemporary Security Policy (2012); among other publications examining the fragmentation of the Middle East. 

Imad Mansour is Assistant Professor in the Department of International Affairs at Qatar University. His research interests lay at the intersection of International Relations (IR) and foreign policy analysis, with an emphasis on the role of ideas and narratives, regional orders, protracted conflicts, and rivalries. He authored Statecraft in the Middle East: Foreign Policy, Domestic Politics and Security (I.B. Tauris, 2016); “The State of Hezbollah? Sovereignty as a Potentiality in Global South Contexts,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics (2017); “A Global South Perspective on International Relations Theory,” International Studies Perspectives (2016); “Qatar’s Global Activism: Pursuing Ambition in the Midst of Domestic and Regional Transitions,” in Diplomatic Strategies of Nations in the Global South (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); and “A GCC-China Security ‘Strategic Partnership’: Its Potential and Contours,” in The Arab States of the Gulf and BRICS: New Strategic Partnerships in Politics and Economics (Gerlach Press, 2016). 

Robert Mason is Associate Professor and Director of the Middle East Studies Center at the American University in Cairo. His research interests include the regional and international relations of the Middle East, foreign policy analysis, development, and security studies. He is the author or editor of five books: Reassessing Order and Disorder in the Middle East: Regional Imbalance or Disintegration? (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017), Egypt and the Gulf: A Renewed Regional Policy Alliance (Gerlach Press, 2017), Muslim Minority-State Relations: Violence, Integration, and Policy (Palgrave, 2016), The International Politics of the Arab Spring: Popular Unrest and Foreign Policy (Palgrave, 2014), and Foreign Policy in Iran and Saudi Arabia: Economics and Diplomacy in the Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 2015). His articles have been featured in a range of publications, including: Middle East Journal, Middle East Policy, Harvard Journal of Middle East Politics and Policy, Third World Quarterly, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, and many more. His op-eds have appeared in OpenDemocracy, Iran Review, Financial Times, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and others. 

Suzi Mirgani is Managing Editor of Publications at CIRS, Georgetown University in Qatar. Her research is based on critical discourse analyses of government and corporate-sponsored media messages and their influence on social attitudes toward issues of piracy and copyright infringement. In addition, she writes creatively on the intersection of politics and popular culture. She recently published Target Markets: International Terrorism Meets Global Capitalism in the Mall (Transcript, 2016). She co-edited with M. Zayani Bullets and Bulletins: Media and Politics in the Wake of the Arab Uprisings (Oxford University Press/Hurst, 2016); and Food Security in the Middle East with Z. Babar (Oxford University Press/Hurst, 2014). She has published in International Feminist Journal of Politics (2007); Journeys Home: An Anthology of Contemporary African Diasporic Experience (2009); and Critical Studies in Media Communication (2011). She is an independent filmmaker working on highlighting stories from the Gulf region. 

Marco Pinfari is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Department of Political Science at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and Associate Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. His research focuses on a number of sub-debates in international relations and security studies, and his recent work centers on interregional security cooperation, and multiparty mediation and terrorism, with a regional specialization in the Middle East and Arab Africa. His papers have appeared in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Terrorism and Political Violence, and Mediterranean Politics, among others. His most recent book is Peace Negotiations and Time: Deadline Diplomacy in Territorial Disputes (Routledge, 2013). Since 2012, he has led the AUC teams for three international collaborative projects researching regional security and democratization conflicts. He has also explored the role of the Arab League and the GCC as mediators in regional conflicts, and worked extensively on relations between the EU and MENA. 

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Public Policy Fellow, and Director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies (The Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University. He was Rockefeller Foundation Fellow in International Relations, and Visiting Fellow to Princeton University; Cambridge University; the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex; and Indiana University. He is an awardee of the Order of Australia (AM), and elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. He is the author of numerous works on the Middle East, Central Asia, political Islam, and Russia. Recent works include Iran at the Crossroads (Polity Press, 2016); Zone of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq (I.B. Tauris, 2014); and Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival (I.B. Tauris, 2012); The Rise and Fall of the Shah: Iran from Autocracy to Religious Rule (Princeton University Press, 2009); and Editor of The Arab World and Iran: A Turbulent Region in Transition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). He has published in numerous journals and edited volumes, and he is a frequent contributor and commentator for global media organizations. 

Adham Saouli is Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Middle East Politics at the University of St. Andrews. He is Director of Postgraduate Studies in the School of International Relations and Associate Director of the Centre for Syrian Studies. His research interests include historical sociology, state formation, and social movements; politics and international relations of the Middle East; politics and foreign policy of divided states (Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq) and non-state actors (especially Hizbullah); and political violence. He is the author of The Arab State: Dilemmas of Late Formation (Routledge, 2012). His forthcoming books are Hizbullah: The Tragic Ironies of Socialisation (Edinburgh University Press, 2018) and a co-edited volume with R. Hinnebusch, The Syrian Uprising: Regional and International Dimensions (Routledge, 2018). He has published in various journals including Political Studies, Democratization, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Third World Studies Quarterly, and others. His study, “Performing the Egyptian Revolution: Origins of Collective Restraint Action in the Midan” (Political Studies, 2015), was nominated for the Political Studies Harrison Prize. 

Sabika Shaban is Project Assistant at CIRS, Georgetown University in Qatar. She is responsible for coordinating all logistical aspects of the Working Groups, and providing editorial support to the department. Previously, she has been a columnist on commodity markets for a regional industrial publication, and worked as Marketing Associate in a leading family-owned recycling corporation. She has also authored a private family biography In Pursuit of Dreams (Biography Experts, 2016). She holds a degree in Business Administration and is an independent freelancer specializing in content writing, report development, and providing editorial services to both academic and commercial clients. 

Nael M. Shama is a political researcher and writer based in Cairo. His research focuses on the international relations and comparative politics of the Middle East. He authored The Stagnant River: The State, Society, and Ikhwan in Egypt (in Arabic; Rawafid, 2016); Egypt Before Tahrir: Reflections on Politics, Culture and Society (Al-Madani Printers, 2014); and Egyptian Foreign Policy from Mubarak to Morsi: Against the National Interest (Routledge, 2013). His writings have appeared in publications such as: Le Monde Diplomatique, Middle East Institute, Global Times, OpenDemocracy, The Huffington Post, Daily News (Egypt), The Egyptian Gazette, The Art Review, Al-Hayat, Al-Ahram, and Al-Shorouk. He obtained his PhD from the School of International Relations, University of St. Andrews. 

Jackie Starbird is Publications and Projects Assistant at CIRS, Georgetown University in Qatar. She is responsible for coordinating in-house academic and institutional publications, in addition to providing editorial and marketing support to the department. Previously, she worked for a number of nonprofit and advocacy organizations in economic development, public affairs, social justice, and the arts. She earned her Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and Museum Studies from the University of Minnesota. 

Yahia Zoubir is Professor of International Studies and Director of Research in Geopolitics at KEDGE Business School, France. He has been Visiting Faculty at various universities in China, Europe, US, and India. His numerous publications include books, such as North African Politics: Change and Continuity (Routledge, 2016); Global Security Watch—The Maghreb: Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia (ABC/CLIO, 2013); North Africa: Politics, Region, and the Limits of Transformation (Routledge, 2008); and articles in scholarly journals, such as Third World Quarterly, Mediterranean Politics, International Affairs, Journal of North African Studies, Middle East Journal, and Journal of Contemporary China. He has contributed many book chapters and various entries in encyclopedias. He is currently collaborating on a project on rivalries in the Middle East and North Africa and another on Sahel security and the Mediterranean.