Regional Political Dynamics in the Middle East
- Factors Changed and Remained Unchanged after the October 7th Incident-

Amane Kobayashi

Introduction: How to Understand Political Dynamics in the Middle East

The October 7th attacks on Israel by the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the subsequent large-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip by the Israel Defense Forces have given a massive jolt to the regional stability in the Middle East, also affecting superpower relations among the United States, China, and Russia. Focusing on regional powers such as Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, this paper examines the political dynamics of intra-regional relations and what has changed and what remains unchanged after the October 7th incident, thereby analyzing potential escalation risks.

In order to understand the political dynamics in the Middle East, we must recognize that there are both tensions and friendly relationships between the regional countries. The political history of the Middle East is characterized by constant restructuring due to major shifts in the axes of conflict, which result in the region being divided into two or three camps. These camps change every three to five years1. As relationships between Middle Eastern countries and the United States, China, and Russia change, Middle Eastern countries form alliances with countries both within and outside the region, creating a situation in which they have no permanent friends or foes2. These factors are important to consider when looking at the long-term and broader trends in the region, beyond the October 7th attacks.

The political dynamics in the Middle East are constantly influenced by international relations and the way regional countries interact with superpowers. Therefore, the sources of power that individual countries possess and the factors used to evaluate them are always changing. Middle Eastern countries could not be evaluated solely based on traditional parameters such as military power, economic strength, energy resources, or population size. Instead, their political presence in the region may vary depending on their relationships with extra-regional countries and non-state actors, or through their soft power, including media influence. It is important to note that due to the fluidity of the regional political and security environment, the regional political leadership also constantly passes from one country to another.

1. Tensions and Mitigations in Intra-Regional Relations

The five major regional powers in the Middle East, capable of exerting crucial influence on regional politics, economy, and security, are Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. In addition to these countries, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), an economic and financial hub and leading oil and gas producer in the region, is also attracting attention as a country capable of influencing intra-regional politics because of its close relationships with extra-regional powers and of its geopolitical expansion across the Middle East and Africa.

Major Powers in the Middle East
Country GDP Population Notes
Turkey $905.5 billion 84.68 million
  • NATO member state
  • Linking Europe and the Middle East
Iran Approx. $367.9 billion 83.99 million
  • Unique military tech-nology and nuclear development
  • Conflict with the US
Israel $481.6 billion 9.5 million
  • Advanced technology
  • Special relationship with the US
Saudi Arabia $1,108.1 billion 35.34 million
  • Major oil-producing country
  • Home to Islamic holy sites
  • The OIC headquarters
Egypt $404.1 billion 192.6 million
  • The Arab League headquarters
  • Suez Canal
UAE $421.1 billion 10.09 million (Foreigners: 90%)
  • Economic and financial hub
  • Major oil/gas-producing country

Prepared by the author using statistics from World Bank, IMF, individual countries, and media reports.

With diminishing US engagement in the Middle East since the 2010s, countries in the region developed their own foreign and defense policies. However, their pursuit of national interests poses a threat to regional stability. The region has experienced the emergence of complex structures of conflict and cooperation, such as the hostile relationship between Israel and Iran backed by pro-Iranian forces, the confrontation between Iran and the Gulf Arab states, and the one between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt versus Qatar and Turkey. As a result, the regional cooperation frameworks, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Arab League, became dysfunctional.

Since the end of 2010, Yemen, Libya, and Syria have experienced civil wars due to the Arab Spring. As a result, the governments in these countries have weakened their governance functions, and public security and border control have not been adequately maintained. This has led to the emergence of powerful non-state actors such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, the Houthis in Yemen, Kurdish armed groups in Iraq and Syria, Syrian rebel forces, and Shiite militias in Iraq. These groups have had a significant impact on regional politics and security.

Iran has taken advantage of the power vacuum in the Middle East caused by conflict, political turmoil, and reduced US engagement in the region. Iran increased its political and military sphere of influence which extends through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, known as the Shia Crescent. Iran also provides military support to the Houthis in Yemen, increasing military pressure upon Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf Arab states. The political and military pressure exerted by the Trump administration on Iran between 2017 and 2021 had a significant impact on the Iranian regime. In response, Iran escalated its military pressure on US allies in the Persian Gulf region, which in turn increased the burden on the United States to address this move.

In the 2020s, there was a significant effort to reduce tensions in various regions. From August 2020, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco have agreed to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel through US mediation. This agreement, known as the Abraham Accord, has resulted in an increase in economic and technological cooperation between Arab countries and Israel. As a part of this, in April 2023, the UAE signed a comprehensive economic partnership with Israel.

In January 2021, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt restored diplomatic relations with Qatar after a three-and-a-half-year interruption. These four countries had cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar in June 2017, citing Qatar's relationship with Iran and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which they consider a threat to national security. Following the rupture, Qatar's alignment with Turkey led to a geopolitical competition between these four Arab countries and Qatar, backed by Turkey, involving African nations. 3 However, after the normalization of relations between all the involved parties, the tensions between Turkey and Arab countries also decreased. In November 2021, the then Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi (now UAE President) visited Turkey for the first time in almost a decade to meet with President Erdogan, providing significant financial assistance to Turkey, which was suffering from a stagnant economy.

In March 2023, Saudi Arabia and Iran restored diplomatic relations, which was a significant step towards easing tensions in the Middle East. Notably, the negotiations were mediated by China. In late September of 2023, Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Advisor, stated that "the (Middle East) region is quieter than it has been for decades."4 thanks to these diplomatic approaches. However, the Biden administration may have underestimated the risk of destabilization in the Middle East. This was evident when Hamas attacked Israel less than ten days after Sullivan's remark., The situation was further disrupted by Israel's subsequent large-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip.

2. What Has Changed and What Remains Unchanged in the Wake of October 7th Incident

The following diagram illustrates the relationships among the major powers in the Middle East following the October 7th incident.

Relations among the Regional Powers in the Middle East (As of February 2024)

Prepared by the author based on various media reports.

The following are the changes or highlights that have emerged from the October 7th incident:

  1. The failure of Israel's deterrence and its strategy toward Gaza (Palestine).5
  2. The revival of the principle that "there can be no stability in the Middle East without the resolution of the Palestine issue." Middle Eastern countries, excluding Israel, are once again calling for a two-state solution and coexistence with Israel by founding a Palestinian state.6
  3. The US-brokered negotiations for the Saudi-Israel normalization, which were considered to be close to an agreement, have run aground. However, this does not necessarily mean that the negotiations have been completely abandoned. For Saudi Arabia, the defense agreement, nuclear cooperation, and additional arms purchases from the US were important factors in the normalization process, even if anti-Israel sentiment was growing in the country.
  4. Failure of the US offshore balancing strategy in the Middle East. The United States implemented an offshore balancing strategy to stabilize the strategic environment in the region and to deter Iran. This strategy involved normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel while also strengthening their military capabilities. Additionally, the United States reduced its troop presence in the region. However, since October 7th, the United States has been forced to deploy significant military forces, including two carrier strike groups, to the Middle East in order to defend Israel and deter potential aggressors.

According to the WHO, as of the end of February 2024, more than 30,000 Palestinians were killed and more than 70,000 injured in the Gaza Strip, whereas over 200 Israelis were taken hostage and more than 1,200 killed. There are concerns about the further deterioration of the humanitarian situation not only in Gaza but also in the entire Palestinian territory. However, it is unlikely that the political dynamics in the Middle East have fundamentally changed:

  1. It is evident that Iran and other major regional powers including Iran do not desire war or any disruption of relations with Israel, which could result in increased tensions with the United States. Although many countries express their strong condemnation of Israel and stand in solidarity with Palestine, none of them are willing to attack Israel or break diplomatic relations with the country. Only Turkey, Jordan, and Bahrain have recalled their ambassadors. So far, the countries that have engaged in warfare with Israel in the past have not taken any hard-line political or military actions.
  2. Iran and its proxies are seen as a security threat to the Arab states, especially the Gulf states. Iran is the only country in the Middle East that openly expresses hostility towards Israel. The Houthis and Hezbollah, under Iranian influence, are attacking Israel, but this does not help align the Arab countries with Iran. While there have been some diplomatic compromises between Iran and Arab countries in support of Palestine, it is unlikely that these compromises will be comprehensive. It is important to note that there is still deep-rooted distrust in the relationship between Turkey and the Arab countries, though they appear to be making progress in easing tensions.
  3. Non-state actors, such as the Houthis, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shiite armed groups, pose a significant threat to the stability of the region. These actors have the potential to trigger military conflicts and escalations and are considered a "wild card." Although Iran provides military support to these groups, it doesn't exercise complete control over them. While Iran claims to avoid direct conflict or escalation with Israel and the United States, there is always a possibility of an attack by these non-state actors that could lead to a larger conflict. It's crucial to recognize the potential risks associated with these powerful non-state actors and their involvement in military conflicts or escalations.
  4. Current regional organizations and cooperation frameworks, such as the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the GCC, are incapable of playing a practical and decisive role in conflict resolution.
  5. While some progress may be made in resolving the Palestinian issue, it is unlikely that conflicts and discord among regional powers will disappear. Arab countries continue to harbor distrust toward Iran, and disagreements and competition in political, economic, and security domains exist, even within the Arab nations. These complex cooperative and confrontational relationships will continue to persist.

3. Response of the Regional Powers and Escalation Risks

The major regional powers in the Middle East are strongly condemning Israel. However, they are avoiding direct intervention and instead are striving to prevent the spread and escalation of military conflict. Even in Iran, Supreme Leader Khamenei reportedly told Hamas political leader Haniyeh that Iran would not directly intervene in the ongoing Israeli-Hamas war.7 Incidentally, the day after the October 7th incident, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran's Revolutionary Guards had given Hamas instructions for the operation8―to date no clear evidence to prove the allegation has been found.

Although Arab countries have shown solidarity in support of Palestine, they have not taken any significant steps to disrupt their diplomatic relations with Israel or change the situation significantly. Likewise, there has been no move by oil and gas-producing Arab countries to impose an embargo on countries that support Israel, as was done during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. It is unlikely that the Arab countries in the region will join an anti-US-Israeli camp led by Iran, given their shared perception of the threat from Iran and its proxy forces.

Based on the current situation, it appears that no regional power can influence Israel's behavior to cease its actions. The United States, on the other hand, has the potential to exert substantial pressure on Israel if it chooses to do so. However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a crucial issue for the forthcoming 2024 US presidential election, and it has become deeply entangled with the country's domestic politics. As a result, the Biden administration is unable to take immediate and decisive action to alleviate the situation in Palestine.

Currently, there is no clear plan for reconstructing and governing the Gaza Strip. No country in the region is willing to take on the risk or the cost of leading the reconstruction efforts. Even Egypt, which shares a border with the Gaza Strip and Israel, has the same interest as Israel in containing the destabilization of the Gaza Strip while calling for the protection of Palestinians' rights as the headquarters for the Arab League.

On the other hand, the risk of escalation is actually high. Israel is more focused on restoring its deterrence that was weakened after the October 7th incident, rather than avoiding escalation. It continues its military invasion into Gaza without considering the huge humanitarian damage it causes. Israel is also engaging with Hezbollah to the north and has killed Iranian government and military officials in Syria. The purpose of these military operations is to eliminate threats and enhance deterrence by encouraging a counterattack from Iran and other non-state actors, which would increase tensions and prompt US military involvement. However, these actions by Israel could contribute to making the situation more unpredictable and may result in escalated risks in the future.

In addition, Israeli forces and Jewish settlers are intensifying attacks on Palestinian residents not only in the Gaza Strip but also in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Israeli behavior is widely reported by the international and local media and circulated on SNSs, increasing condemnation to Israel in the regional countries and making it difficult for the parties concerned to reach a compromise.

Various military activities are being carried out by non-state actors, which poses a "wild card" risk of escalating the situation. Since October 7th, there have been clashes between Hezbollah and Israel on the Lebanese-Israeli border. Hezbollah has been attacking Israeli troops with rockets, anti-tank guns, and mortars, while Israel strikes Hezbollah's military settlements with fighter jets and drones.

The Yemeni Houthi group has been launching missile attacks and capturing ships in the Red Sea. On October 19, 2023, the Houthis attempted to fire cruise missiles and drones towards Israel, but a US destroyer intercepted and destroyed them. It's been reported that the Houthi group has attacked more than 50 ships so far. On November 19, they captured a cargo ship operated by NYK. On January 11, 2024, the US and Britain carried out airstrikes against Houthi-related facilities in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and Hodeidah. Since then, both countries have conducted joint military operations against the Houthis, with support from Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Bahrain.

Shiite armed groups are continuing attacks on US military bases in Syria and Iraq. On January 28, 2024, a drone strike allegedly conducted by Iran on a US military base in northeastern Jordan killed three US soldiers and wounded over 40 others. Although Iran denied its involvement, the US military retaliated on February 2 by bombing the bases of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and related organizations in Iraq and Syria.

Israel has been repeatedly attacking on Iranian facilities in Syria and pro-Iranian militia groups. A senior IRGC official was killed in an Israeli missile strike on the Syrian capital of Damascus on February 2. Iran called for retaliation for these attacks.


It is evident that none of the countries involved in the ongoing conflict including Iran, Arab states, Israel, Turkey, or the United States want the situation to escalate any further. Both Iran and the Biden administration have taken measures to limit the use of force, ruled out direct military intervention, and have avoided all-out war. However, Israel seeks to restore the deterrence that was lost after the October 7th incident by provoking Iran and pro-Iranian forces. While Israel's goal is to eventually involve the United States in the war, its actions could pose a great risk of escalation in the region.

As previously mentioned, non-state actors such as Hezbollah, the Houthis, Hamas, and Shiite militias, could act as a "wild card" and trigger military conflict and escalation. Even though these organizations are supported by Iran, they operate independently and do not coordinate their actions with one another or with Iran9. This means that a situation may arise where a non-state actor takes military action that is inconsistent with Iran's intentions or interests, leading to Iran's involvement in an unwanted conflict.

It is unlikely that there will be a full-scale war involving multiple countries in the short term, as long as the United States, Iran, and other regional powers behave with restraint. However, there is tension between regional countries and actors, and if armed conflict breaks out, it could affect Japanese citizens and interests. We must always be aware of the risk of local conflicts escalating into an "unwanted war" in the Middle East. 10 Japan needs to understand the complex political and security dynamics inherent in the region and respond calmly without getting involved in intra-regional tensions.

(Senior Researcher, the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan)

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