Written by: Andreas Beckwith
Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.
Examining the Machiavellian influence in the Middle East in a time of covert action, proxy wars and switching alliances
The recent proxy wars and geopolitical games the two biggest Middle Eastern powers have been engaging in have involved shifting alliances, as states seek to bandwagon with the two regional powers. Egypt is a case in point. Egypt was a firm enemy of Iran under Mubarak, yet this changed under the Muslim Brotherhood and Muhammed Morsi seemed to open up to Iran. The overthrow of Morsi and the instalment of Al Sisi, and the bankrolling of Egypt by Saudi Arabia seemed to return Egypt into the Saudi fold, yet tensions between Egypt and Saudi brought Iran and Egypt close again, with Iran even lobbying for Egypt to get a place at the Syrian peace talks. Then only a year later, Egypt was back in Saudi’s corner, backing its Sunni ally in its hostile stance with Iran. Iran also lost long-time ally Sudan over their Saudi feud, after Iran’s takeover of the Saudi embassy, Sudan cut ties with its former patron.
There is of course the case of Qatar, which was long hostile towards Iran, and along with Saudi Arabia, helped arm Syrian rebels, including terrorists to fight against the Iranian ally Bashar Al Assad, hoping Assad’s fall would weaken Iran. Yet, in 2017 there was a diplomatic spat between Saudi and Qatar due in a large part to the latter’s relations with Iran, and Saudi Arabia led a blockade of its former ally on the GCC, pushing Qatar closer to Iran. The situation with Qatar also is closely related to that of Turkey, who, seemed to join an alliance of Sunni states seeking the overthrow of Assad, and Turkey even sent troops into Syria for a while. Yet Turkey’s enduring alliance with Qatar, and the fallout between Qatar and Saudi Arabia brought Turkey down firmly on Qatar’s side, and thus an improvement of relations with Syria and Iran, in part due to a concern about their respective Kurdish populations.
Then of course, there is the special case of Israel, and its relations in the region. Due to their joint concern on the perceived threat of Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia have moved closer together in cooperation. While historical precedent doesn’t tell us everything, there is perhaps precedent in the Saudi-Israeli alliance vis-a-vie the French-Ottoman alliance, two peoples ideologically opposed as can be, yet working together against a powerful common enemy, a Machiavellian move on both their parts, more so on Israel’s. Israel already had warming contacts with the UAE as they begin to see each other, if not as allies, then at least sharing a common foe, Prime Minister Netenyahu admitted as much. There is also the Machiavellian alliance between the Saudis, the puritanical Wahhabi Muslims intolerant of other faiths, with US president Donald Trump who has often shown hostility towards Muslims in general.
In the modern Middle East, one can of course not overlook the role of non-state actors, rebel groups like the FSA, the Houthis and most notoriously of all, terrorist groups. Al Qaeda and Al Nusra have been used as proxies in these wars, especially by Saudi Arabia who has a notorious Machiavellian history of funding terrorism, including backing the MKO an anti-Iranian government terroist organisation. The creation of ISIS was a symptom of state support for a non-state actor going too far, empowering it to stand alone, claim territory and challenge its former benefactors legitimacy while spouting their ideology. The evocation of the non-state actor Hezbollah in the conflict was a reaction to ISIS on the side of Iran.
Despite this being labelled as a Sunni-Shia conflict, and while there are clear signs of alliances based on religious reasons, like Bahrain’s alliance with Saudi Arabia and Iraq and Syria’s alliance with Iran, the reasons are more nuanced. It is textbook case of Realism and Realpolitik triumphing over the Constructivism of religious identity, as was the case in the Middle Ages with Francis I and his rivalry with Charles V. Both rulers were Catholics, yet both often were on opposite sides, as is the case in the modern Middle East. Political calculations are more important that religious identity and the conflict is far more about the struggle for power, and each state considers its own interests political interests, and chooses its alliances primarily on that basis. This is why there is back-and-forth bandwagoning between Iran and Saudi Arabia.