Transformation of the International Order
in the Middle East
--- Varying Degrees of "Stateness" and Three Directions of the New Order---

Satoshi Ikeuchi
Professor of Religion and Global Security, Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, The University of Tokyo


The international order in the Middle East is in the process of transformation. What will the new order in the Middle East look like? With the key concept of "stateness," this article is intended to categorize the situations of the Middle Eastern states after the "Arab Spring" and to understand the characteristics of regional international politics made up of the interactions of regional states. This will be followed by an attempt to identify the basic factors that will help to shape the newly emerging order in the Middle East and to provide a categorical perspective on future developments.

1. The Demise of the "Sykes-Picot Order"?

In the Middle East there can be found countries, cities, and religions with a long history traceable to ancient times. Along with these, there are several states with a short historical background artificially founded in the late modern period, reflecting the interests of external powers and the balance of power in the region. The regional history that treats these artificially created states collectively as an aggregation of ostensibly homogeneous sovereign states spans just a century at the shortest. This history is punctuated by the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, and other agreements and treaties hastily concluded during or after World War I, as well as by the fluid process of the rise of nationalism and the withdrawal of imperialism after World War II. Such is the history of international politics in the Middle East over the past 100 years where the regional order was a chance product of history maintained to date in some way or other.

The recent events that shook the regional order in the Middle East were: first, the wavering and collapse of the regional state governments under the impact of the 2011 Arab Spring; second, the rise of the "Islamic State (IS)" that raged in the region from 2014 through 2018, and the anti-IS military operations undertaken by the external powers led by the United States in coalition with the regional forces; and third, the long-term and gradual withdrawal of the United States from the Middle East that constitutes an entrenched factor behind the other significant events. Although it is not certain at this moment whether the US presence will actually diminish in the Middle East, the regional states and forces acknowledge, expect, and worry about the decreasing US commitment to the region, and this itself may accelerate the loosening and weakening of the regional order. The absence or the impression of the absence of the United States will draw attention to Russia's and China's efforts to fill the resulting void. The regional forces are also encouraged by the US absence to invite the involvement and interference of those new external powers.

The turmoil of the "Arab Spring" and the rise and decline of the IS were survived by a group of fragile or failed states tormented by civil war and conflicts. The road to the termination of the Syrian civil war and national unity is fraught with difficulties. Yemen and Libya are expected to remain as divided nations for many years to come. Iraq's security situation is unpredictable, and sectarian, ethnic, and factional divides are chronic. Lebanon, a microcosm of the regional order in the Middle East, has been chronically suffering from the interference of diverse forces from inside and outside the region. The paralyzed state of its governance and economy is becoming worse without a solution. As for the Palestinian issue, the internationally supported two-state solution is about to be unabashedly abandoned.

At this moment, are we witnessing the final breakdown of the process of formation of the sovereign state system in the Middle East initiated by the ill-famed Sykes-Picot Agreement and the fatal wavering and overthrow of the regional order that has so far been barely maintained?

It is premature, however, to jump to this conclusion. The situation in the Middle East is not yet totally chaotic. Maintaining the consolidation of their territories and peoples, Iran, Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are capable of being regional powers contributing to the restriction of conflicts to a certain extent and to the partial appearance of stable realms in the region --- through interference with conflicts in their neighboring areas, arbitration efforts, or support for proxy forces existing like enclaves. Small in size but influential in specific areas including military, information, and the media, the UAE and Qatar are also rising powers, enhancing their presence. The purpose of this article is to provide a perspective from which to comprehensively understand these overlapping and ostensibly contradictory events.

2. The Polarization of Middle Eastern States: The Question of "Stateness"

The "post-Arab Spring" Middle East is characterized by the coexistence of two kinds of regions: the region of disturbance where conflicts continued and divided states came into existence, and the region enjoying some stability. In the "post-Arab Spring" period, a trend of differentiation or polarization notably developed among the Middle Eastern states. The "Arab Spring" and subsequent difficulties "sifted" and polarized these regional states into two categories: the strong states and strong secondary states that maintain stable unified governance in their territories and seek an opportunity of interfering with the neighboring areas, and the failed states that failed in the governance of their citizens, forfeited half the integrity of their territories, and were exposed to interference from their neighbors and external powers. This trend of differentiation between the strong and the failed states is the keynote of the regional order in the Middle East after the "Arab Spring."

What became clear during this period is the existence of varying degrees of "stateness" among the Middle Eastern states. According to Max Weber's famous definition, the essential requirement of a modern state is that it claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. There are a certain number of sovereign states in the Middle East that fail to satisfy this minimum requisite. Although this drawback had been latently present since the establishment of these states in the late modern period, it became apparent and visible in the confusion following the "Arab Spring."

Besides military unity, among the attributes that a modern state is considered to possess are a central government with centripetal force, the integration and unity of the people, the establishment of a common legal system, bureaucracy, and administrative institutions, and an integrated border management. Middle Eastern states fall into those that possess these attributes and those that do not. The exposure of remarkable differences among Middle Eastern states in the degrees of "stateness" consisting of these attributes may account in part for the changes in the Middle East after the "Arab Spring." In the Middle East, a polarization is underway between the states in terms of the degrees of "stateness," or between "the nations with a strong state" and "the nations with a weak state."

Needless to say, the majority of existing states in regions outside the Middle East do not necessarily possess all or many of the attributes that make up "stateness." The number of states that perfectly possess these attributes may be small. However, the states in regions other than the Middle East and Africa possess these attributes to a certain extent, as long as they have survived as modern nations.

In the history of the Middle East, there are not that many nations that adequately possess these attributes of "stateness." In the process of independence as a sovereign state and the establishment of the state machinery in the late modern period, not many Middle Eastern nations have so far succeeded in acquiring the above attributes. This fact was betrayed by the confusion following the "Arab Spring."

Conversely, in the Middle East, the acquisition of a greater part of or an important part of these attributes of "stateness" would help a nation to secure the status of a "great power" or of a "strong state."

3. Rising Regional Powers and Strong States

Among the present Middle Eastern countries that have established themselves somehow as regional powers are Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, though small in size, have some prominent attributes of stateness and display the will and capabilities of behaving as "strong states" in the areas of foreign and security policies.

In the latter half of the 20th century, Egypt was regarded as the largest regional power in the Middle East. In recent years, however, it has gradually reduced its national power and influence and significantly scaled back its presence due to continuous domestic political disturbances and economic difficulties after the "Arab Spring." Nonetheless, Egypt is considered to be capable of restoring its prestige and to have sufficient potential to that end. Egypt's comeback will depend on changes in the overall situation in the Middle East and on changes in domestic politics and international relations of Arabian Gulf oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar, which are behaving as regional powers or strong states taking the place of Egypt.

Such regional powers and strong states are capable of not only securing sovereignty in their territories and ruling the people, but also of interfering with and wielding influence over conflicts in neighboring countries and in the region. They have been exerting these capabilities following the cataclysm after the "Arab Spring."

4. Fragile States and Non-State Actors

In the meantime, the pressure from the inside and outside in the wake of the "Arab Spring" shed light on the countries with weak stateness --- Syria, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, and Iraq. These countries lack some prerequisites for being modern sovereign states. In these countries, the central government does not function properly; a civil war occurs; and the military and other security agencies are on the verge of disintegration.

Nonetheless, these countries with weak stateness are not in total disorder. In these countries, various non-state actors have risen to fill the void created by the fragility of the central government. Some of these non-state actors unite based on tribal and local identities, or religious sects like Shiites, and autonomously control their spheres of influence depending on the situations, while other forces including the IS are guided by some religious ideology and aim at controlling territorial spheres by rallying external forces who embrace the same ideology. Still, other non-state actors like Kurds seek autonomy or national independence, abiding by nationalism rooted in language and history.

Those forces find a core of their identity somewhere else from the state and the state-based ethnic consciousness and are united together by the bond of identity. These non-state actors may not be able to govern the entire territory of a state, but effectively control part of the territory or certain areas that transcend national borders. They are accepted by the inhabitants of those localities as entities in possession of "justice" or "legitimacy." Such actors are perceived as a threat by a state (central government) and other groups with different identities. In this respect, the case of the IS is particularly remarkable.

5. Cooperation and Rivalry between Regional and External Powers Using Non-State Actors as Proxies

The intricate, multi-layered relationships between regional powers / strong states on the one hand and fragile states and diverse groups within on the other hand are helping to complicate the situation in the Middle East. This is because the interests between various regional powers and external powers are widely at variance and it is necessary for the parties concerned to make constant adjustments and negotiations for compromise to temporarily stabilize the situation and to pacify conflicts.

In particular, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran often assumes the aspect of rivalry over regional hegemony. The United States and Russia --- external powers --- are engaged with or mounting hostile pressure to both sides. Meanwhile, the confrontation between the powerful microstates UAE and Qatar continues. The Muslim Brotherhood wielding influence across the Middle East is intensifying friction with the potential regional power Egypt and its military.

What intensifies and prolongs such confusion, instability, and unpredictability in the Middle East is the fact that none of the regional powers or strong states has the hegemonic scale and capabilities to overwhelm others and to proactively establish a regional order beneficial to themselves. Probably none of them may have the will to do so.

The policy objective of each regional power in becoming involved in regional international politics is to secure a "veto power" that denies competing states and forces from significantly increasing their influence in the region. Major regional powers and strong states are exercising this "veto power" when necessary and taking reasonable and optimal actions.

Besides, regional powers and strong states intervene in various conflicts in the Middle East or exert a "veto power" only through their proxies. Those proxies are the groups of non-state actors who exert effective control or assert a similar influence over certain areas or spheres in the territories of fragile states. This fact adds to complexity and spurs confusion.

Those non-state actors benefit from the continuation and prolongation of conflicts and obtain the status of "proxies" of regional powers or external powers that engage or interfere but lack decisive force. They can utilize their proxy status of superior powers in relations with their primary enemy and competitor --- the central government of a sovereign state, in whose territory the non-state actors are active. These non-state actors seek to strengthen their sphere of dominance and secure a certain level of international legitimacy by calling for the interference of regional powers and external powers like the United States and Russia.

6. Three Directions of the New Order in the Middle East

What kind of international order should we expect to appear in the Middle East? Here, we will identify the major supporters of the new regional order and the major factors that will regulate the order. Furthermore, we will present three ideal types provided by the combinations of supporters and factors and indicate the possible directions in the formation of the order.

The future direction of the formation of the Middle Eastern order could reach widely different consequences depending on a choice from among several options. This is concerned with the choice of regional actors in the Middle East, as well as the choice of external actors with the power to influence countries of the Middle East and the regional order.

When regional and external actors predict the future, the choices regarding the following three points would influence the direction of the formation of the regional order: (1) whether to maintain the modern state and the international system with the sovereign state as a unit or to make revisions; (2) whether or not to acknowledge as legitimate the existence of non-state actors that actually exist; and (3) whether or not to reintroduce the principle of the pre-modern order --- the premise for the existence of regional powers --- into contemporary international politics.

From the different combinations of all the possible options for these three points, we will indicate the potential directions of the order in the Middle East by means of three ideal types.

The first direction can be inferred from the assumption that countries in the Middle East will be integrated into the existing dominant international order predicated on sovereign states and the international system based on sovereign states.

As already described earlier, the sovereign state system in the Middle East is fluctuating, and disparities and polarization in terms of "stateness" are becoming apparent among the countries that nominally exist. But from the standpoint of acknowledging the present state just as temporary confusion and as part of the difficult path for establishing a future sovereign state system, or from the standpoint of claiming the necessity of normatively promoting such a course, we should persistently continue efforts to integrate the domestic orders of and international relations among individual Middle Eastern countries into standard nation-states. Moreover, diverse regional and external powers should join forces so that Middle Eastern countries can acquire, improve, or reconstruct their "stateness." There is still the likelihood that countries in the Middle East and highly influential countries outside the region will jointly choose and advance such a course of action.

The second direction is to maintain the principle of sovereign state system and to improve the situation by making actual partial changes. This is based on the recognition that the territorial and sovereign claims of non-state actors who have acquired more than a certain degree of legitimacy among a certain number of the local population should be acknowledged to some extent. This is the direction that the international community, including regional and external powers and superpowers, should agree to a new demarcation of national boundaries, advanced autonomy, or the establishment of a new sovereign state.

In the past, the idea was often advocated for dividing, for example, Iraq into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish-led areas, each of which should gain autonomy as an independent state or a highly independent province that will forge a federation with other provinces. After the 1991 Gulf War, the northern Kurdish region accumulated experience of de facto autonomy under military and political support from the United States, and after the Iraq war, it achieved more institutionalized autonomy in the framework of the Iraqi state. Similar ideas have been discussed for application to Syria, Yemen, and Libya. It is the gist of this second direction to have this idea materialized and recognized as legitimate by Middle Eastern countries and regional and international communities.

A third direction argues that the principle of order based on the notions of nation-state and sovereign state is unfamiliar to the Middle East and has little prospect for realization; and that assuming a return to the imperial order rooted in the history and tradition of the Middle East that existed in the pre-modern times, countries outside the region should respond accordingly and, if necessary, advance this course of action. For example, Iran widely uses its influence over the Shiite forces, achieving certain results. The idea of the third direction is to formulate this move, recognize it as legitimate, and approve the establishment of the imperial order. If, for example, Turkey continued to strengthen its influence over wide areas with past Ottoman dominion in mind, the international community should, if following this direction, positively acknowledge Turkey's move as efforts towards the formation and maintenance of order. If such an option became available, the sovereignty of modern Middle Eastern countries and their national borders would be substantially nullified and modified.

The formation and reorganization of order in the Middle East along this line were discussed by many people as "the New Map of the Middle East" in the period from 2011 to 2015 when the regional order began to become fluid due to the "Arab Spring," and the emergence and rapid expansion of the IS further disturbed the regional order. People mapped out historical great powers in the Middle East, the dominions of the past empires, and the areas where various groups constituting non-state actors have historically lived and held sway. With many such maps, there was a lot of discussion over the reorganization of modern sovereign states.

The three directions examined above are ideal types, and it is hard to imagine that the actual formation of an international order in the Middle East will proceed unilaterally along any of the three directions. For example, if we regard the first ideal type as the only direction of the formation of order and attempt to make the states and powers follow it, much support will not be gained.

If we attempt to compel the existing Middle Eastern states and societies made up of different forces to adapt to the principle of sovereign states, we should realistically assume that such an anticipated change will not easily occur in the future, given that any large transformation did not actually take place during recent history spanning a century.

The second ideal type proposes, among other things, the delimitation of borders of sovereign states and autonomous territories taking into account the spheres of influence of non-state actors that are actually influential in the localities. Since, however, the spheres of influence of multiple non-state actors are often overlapping with each other in the same localities, whatever move towards the establishment of autonomous areas or partial changes of national boundaries may immediately ignite a civil war or a conflict among these non-state actors. Also, regional powers that support respective non-state actors from their strategic speculations often claim mutually conflicting interests. But for substantial conflicts involving the parties concerned, no agreement would be reached among various forces on the redrawing of national boundaries and the establishment of autonomous areas. The resolution of current conflicts and instability through another conflict is obviously an incoherent option. It is unlikely that there are many actors eager to promote and realize it.

The direction proposed by the third ideal type aims at overcoming the problems caused by "stateless states" by recourse to the principle of the pre-modern order represented by the Persian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Islamic caliphate --- alien to modern nation-states and sovereign states. The view that the revival of the principle of the pre-modern order such as an empire and a caliphate may constitute the future direction of the regional order in the Middle East is a discourse which is endorsed by the ethnic consciousness of the people who make up some existing influential sovereign states, such as Turkey and Iran, which are supposed to promote the third ideal type. Similar discourses are often adopted as a tool of internal politics by national leaders to mobilize the people and to secure their political support. But in the recent development of international politics in the Middle East, the leaders of those regional powers are not necessarily proposing and pursuing the model of the imperial revival indicated by the third ideal type as their foreign and security policies.

7. The Selective Ottomanism --- Turkey's Strategic Double Standards

Taking Turkey for example, we point out the discrepancies between the "revival of the Ottoman Empire" that is often used by Turkish leaders in domestic political discourse and the country's actual foreign and security policies. Defending its status as a sovereign state at all costs, Turkey does not hesitate to interfere with neighboring fragile states like Syria and Iraq to secure its influence. Turkey has conducted military interventions to prevent Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria from achieving autonomy or independence, while providing support to local opposition forces near Idlib in northwestern Syria. Turkey has temporarily and partially violated the sovereignty of neighboring countries due to specific circumstances, but it refrains from challenging the legitimacy of the modern sovereign state system itself and values and maintains the principle of the existing international order. This is an approach that can be called "selective Ottomanism," which is a claim of the right to intervene in the past areas of the Ottoman Empire. The approach is used as a tool for maintaining Turkish nationalism. Thus, Turkey is exercising a "strategic double standards" by which to violate and safeguard the principle of sovereign states according to the needs of its intent as a state.

An analysis of the present situation suggests that even Turkey's current administration advocating Islamism, will not part with the merits, domestic and diplomatic, of relatively strong "stateness" and stability as a sovereign state. Such a position enables it to make full use of the "strategic double standards" by repeating that an intervention in and a retreat from the past realms of the Ottoman Empire is a reasonable option for Turkey and meets its national interests.

The advantages of "strategic double standards" are apparent in the way Turkey deals with refugees. The Syrian civil war gave rise to a large number of refugees and internally displaced people in Syria. Many of them have flowed into Turkey and may continue to come in the future. If Turkey could revive the realms of the Ottoman Empire, giving up the status of a territorial sovereign state of Turkish people, it would be obliged to assume the responsibility for responding to the refugee problem and to bear a tremendous burden in terms of economy, politics, society, safety, and security. At present Turkey abides by the principle of sovereign states, maintains the exclusive right to preserve its territorial integrity, and distinguishes its citizens from foreign refugees, thereby claiming that it is addressing the Syrian refugee crisis from a humanitarian standpoint. Thus, Turkey is increasing pressure on Western Europe to assume the responsibility to share an appropriate burden and is strengthening its diplomatic position. This may be an advantage that Turkey can gain by maintaining a position to exercise the "strategic double standards" while making the selective use of its geographical advantages inherited from the historical Ottoman Empire. For Iran, that acquired its position of regional power by also leveraging the legacy of a historical empire, it is rational to have room for exercising the "strategic double standards" through the selective revival of the imperial domain as well as the maintenance of the principle of sovereign states.


The turmoil after the "Arab Spring" and the emergence of the IS and subsequent anti-IS military operations were combined to destabilize the regional international order in the Middle East. The polarization of regional states according to the degrees of "stateness" will advance. The emerging regional powers will take the lead in intervention in fragile states by providing arbitrary support for non-state actors within the territories of those states, thereby contributing to the creation of some restraints, though not resolving conflicts. Due to the existence of strategic rivalries and hegemonic competitions, the fundamental solution of conflicts and instability will be postponed. Nationalist discourses appealing to the mind yearning for the past glories of pre-modern empires will be encouraged. Nonetheless, the framework and principle of sovereign states will be maintained. Some regional powers will exercise the "strategic double standards," involving external powers. Such a situation is expected to continue in the Middle East.

(This paper was translated into English by Tsutomu Inuzuka, SSDP Associate)

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