Middle East 101: Understanding Regional Political Logic

Written by Barry Rubin


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Briefing in a Minute: The Middle East Right Now
A reader asks why Egypt insists on tying restrictions on the Iran's nuclear program with putting restrictions on Israel's program, including demanding Israel join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), that the doors to Israel's Dimona reactor be opened to international inspectors, and that Israel must declare that it has nuclear weapons.

The reader adds that he knows Israel won't do this so what's the point of Egypt making a demand which makes it more likely Iran will get nuclear weapons and thus endanger Egypt and its interests? On one level, then, Egyptian policy doesn't make sense.

For those who don't know, by joining the NPT Treaty countries (like Iran) have received certain benefits. In exchange, they have to submit to inspections and basically promise not to develop nuclear weapons. Iran has broken these commitments. Israel never made them in the first place so Israel's actions are quite in accord with international law.

At any rate, I responded by explaining that it was easy to understand the Egyptian government position: The regime wants everything without making any concessions itself. That isn't just a goal; that's its negotiating position. In addition, by putting the emphasis on Israel's arsenal-which doesn't threaten the current regime-Cairo looks good in Arab and Muslim terms. Will it actually work? Hey, that isn't important! It works in other ways: strengthening the regime's credentials at home and in the region. And that's what's important!

He responded: These despots don't seem cunning to me at all.

But that's flat wrong. They are very cunning and if you understand why and how then you can understand the Middle East. Conversely, those who don't get it understand nothing.

Here is the order of priorities and methods that make up what might be called the Middle East version of pragmatism. It goes like this:

The most important priority is regime survival, which means the current rulers staying in power. The people's well-being and country's interest is secondary at best. To stay in power, a dictatorship needs to generate foreign enemies, reduce freedom, and monopolize economic power. This is in many ways the opposite of the Western democratic framework that a government which provides freedom and material benefits is the one most likely to stay in power.

To ensure regime survival, the dictatorship must protect its Muslim and Arab credentials. Using these two pillars in various combinations, the rulers mobilize the people to support them. A key way to do this is anti-Western and anti-Israel demagoguery: the government portrays itself as a champion of Islam and Arabism against the West.

What the West thinks or says in response is pretty unimportant to a populace which already views those countries as enemies or the regime can ensure this through propaganda. Suppose the United States distances itself from Israel or Israel makes concessions, for example. How will the Arab populaces know this? They will be told that nothing has happened, it is all a trick, or it is far from enough. Rather than prove that they are good guys, these developments are interpreted as merely proving they are weak and frightened.

In these dictatorships, the main purpose of the army is to support the regime and not to threaten it with a coup. This is more important than the military being able to win wars. The main purpose of the educational system and media is to glorify the regime, not to improve the society and help correct its mistakes. The main purpose of the economy is to provide the regime with assets with which to reward friends and punish enemies, not to create general prosperity or raise living standards.

This approach is not democratic and neither provides rapid progress or better lives for the people. But if you start with the original premise-keeping the regime in power comes first-everything makes sense.

Now that you've absorbed this lesson, let's move to a more advanced stage. Here's a paraphrase of a letter from another reader which parallels the first one:

"Given that Israel is not the only country in the Middle East that feels threatened by Iran's nuclear ambitions, and that Israel is likely to be the only country that has the political will to do anything about the situation, doesn't this give Israel a considerable strategic advantage?

"It strikes me that a number of demands could be made upon Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in exchange for Israeli action against Iran, starting with:

"--An end to media, trade and academic boycotts against Israel

--"An end to indoctrination and propaganda

--Concrete steps to share the burden of the Palestinian refugee issue"

Now this is a very good question. But the answer is: No. Why? Because there is very little or no give and take. If the Arab regimes get something from Israel, they will not give anything in return (I'll qualify that point in a second). If they don't get anything from Israel, they will not give in order to get an advantage. They will let events go as they may.

The precise same point, by the way, applies to U.S.-Arab state relations. Of course, the United States saved Kuwait in 1991 and Kuwait likes having U.S. military forces around. But there has been no effort to promote pro-American feeling or to help out much on such issues as the Arab-Israeli conflict or the efforts to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

Why is this? Are the regimes stupid? No, they are following their interests as they perceive these things to be. Similarly, they are not irrational. True, in the end they may pay a high cost for their policy, but up until now they have survived pretty well. The exception is Saddam Hussein in Iraq who just kept going too far.

Of course, too, they can expect in this case that Israel or the United States will attack Iran for their own reasons, or at least the U.S. policy will contain Tehran without their having to do anything. They certainly have seen the West often desperately trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict without them having to do much to help. If the West fails, the regimes can get gifts by complaining how much they are suffering; if the West succeeds, they don't have to do anything any way. The more you think about it, the more sense their stance makes.

And they have another reason for acting this way: the West lets them get away with it. When they have to choose whether to be more afraid of the United States or their internal rivals, neighbors, and people conditioned to accept radical ideologies, it is easy for them to pick the second option. It is often more risky to be moderate, to work with the West, then to defy it. Thus, being intransigent and defiant, using radical rhetoric, maintaining hardline positions, is the rational alternative. They are acting logically.

If you tell them that they would be better off if they went to a more Western-style system, they would reply that this is not their culture. But there are also additional factors: their masses might not like it; their rivals at home and abroad would take advantage of it to portray them as traitors. The Arab elites very carefully watched what happened in the Soviet bloc in the 1980s. The West cheered a revolution toward freedom; the Arab regimes shivered at the thought of anarchy and their own downfall.

So, is this system pragmatic? Well yes and no. It is NOT pragmatic in terms of keeping people happy through freedom and high living standards. It is pragmatic in judging that demagoguery and control are alternative means of, if not happiness, passivity or outright support for the regime. It is NOT pragmatic in terms of maximizing material profit because that isn't the regimes' goal. It is pragmatic in terms of its own goal: stability and regime maintenance.

Homework: Apply this model to Palestinian politics. In this framework, why isn't the Palestinian Authority as eager for a complete peace settlement and an independent state through compromise as one would expect using a Western model of politics?

*Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org.  You can read and subscribe to his blog at http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com. Briefing in a Minute: The Middle East Right Now

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