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Egypt has finally returned to its position as the political heart of the Middle East – at least for a weekend. At the Arab League summit in Sharm Al-Sheikh, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi played host to the kings and presidents of the region and in the end could announce an at least in theory momentous decision: the creation of a joint Arab military force.
Although there are serious doubts as to how many countries will join the force and when (or if) it will actually materialize, the announcement is nevertheless significant. Together with the Saudi-led military operations in Yemen it is the latest manifestation of Arab interventionism, a trend that has gained momentum in the Middle East since the uprisings of the Arab Spring in 2011: Middle Eastern countries appear to be increasingly willing to use their armed forces to protect and pursue their interests in crisis zones across the region.
The primary security concerns of the Arab kings and presidents in this context are threefold: to protect the political status quo in allied countries; to fend off Islamist and Jihadist forces; and to counter what is perceived as growing regional influence of Iran - another country that is increasingly deploying its own forces across the region to back-up its allies, Shia militias, from Lebanon, to Syria and Iraq.
Traditionally the United States and its western allies, especially the United Kingdom, have played the role of regional policemen. However, over the past decade, the US and UK have grown reluctant to deploy their militaries to intervene in the conflicts troubling the Middle East. The painful experiences of the Iraq War, but also Libya’s post-intervention instability, have significantly reduced both the appetite of western governments and publics for military interventions, as well as the confidence that western forces can resolve the region’s conflicts. This was most obvious in the decisions by Parliament and the Obama Administration not to intervene in Syria over the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime in August 2013.
The US and its western allies are leading the international coalition against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but politicians from Washington to Paris, London and Berlin tirelessly stress that there will be ‘no boots on the ground’. At the end of last year Britain announced plans for a permanent naval base in Bahrain, signaling a long term, but limited commitment to the region’s security. Nevertheless, western military interventions to settle the on-going conflicts in Syria, Libya or now in Yemen are unlikely to happen in the near to medium term future.
The Middle Eastern governments that have survived the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 or, in the case of President Sisi in Egypt have emerged from it, appear much less reluctant to use force. In the past four years, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, as well as Jordan, Sisi’s Egypt and Morocco have repeatedly demonstrated that they are willing to use their often substantial armed forces to safeguard their interests across the region.
In two cases, the NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011 and the ongoing international campaign to ‘degrade and destroy’ Islamic State, Arab forces have joined broad western-led, international coalitions. Qatar, the UAE, Jordan and Morocco sent jets to enforce the UN-sanctioned no-fly zone in Libya, which eventually helped the rebel forces to oust Muammar Gaddafi. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan and Morocco have conducted airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq and/or Syria. In the United States and in Europe these contributions have been enthusiastically welcomed. Akin to the 1990-91 Gulf War, Arab participation in military interventions in Arab countries is seen as providing a degree of regional political legitimacy that was missing from the Iraq War.
But Arab states are also launching military interventions without the leadership or official support from the US or other outside powers. In March 2011, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent the GCC’s Peninsula Shield Force to Bahrain to help secure the embattled Bahraini Sunni monarchy against a popular uprising (Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, though contributors to the Force, did not send troops). The Obama administration and European governments could only look on as Saudi soldiers rolled across the causeway to Bahrain in American and British-made vehicles.
Egypt and the UAE, backed by Saudi Arabia, continue to intervene in Libya’s civil war, conducting airstrikes against groups affiliated with IS, as well as what they claim are Islamist forces loyal to the ‘Dawn’ coalition. Calls by the international community for all foreign actors - including Turkey, Qatar and Sudan who are allegedly supporting ‘Dawn’ - to cease all form of intervention in Libya have gone unheeded.
Finally, in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition, which includes aircraft and naval forces from Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan and Pakistan, seeks to reverse the ousting of President Hadi, a Sunni, by the Iranian backed Shia Houthi. Although the US has expressed its support for the intervention, this is clearly an Arab/Sunni initiative guided primarily by the national security interests of the participating countries.
That Middle Eastern governments, especially the rich Gulf monarchies, are trying to influence political events and conflicts beyond their own borders is of course not a new development. However, in the past three decades they have primarily used financial means to prop up other governments or fund proxy groups. The huge sums Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE have invested in Egypt to support President Sisi, and the money and arms sent to Syria to stand up militias against the Assad regime are continuations of this more traditional approach. The interventions in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen, however, are signs that Arab leaders have become increasingly willing to not just simply open their cheque-books, but also to deploy their own soldiers into violent conflicts.
Generally, it should be welcomed that Middle Eastern states are seeking to work together and are taking responsibility for the security of their own region. However, there appears to be a danger that Arab governments are becoming too focused on military solutions. Future popular uprisings and reincarnations of groups such as IS cannot be prevented solely with armed force, but require economic and political reforms; and a military solution to the Sunni-Shia and Arab-Iranian power struggle would mean nothing less than a war engulfing the entire region. Western countries, including the United Kingdom, should therefore use their influence, with both the region’s governments and western-educated and trained officer classes, to push for political solutions to the crises in the Middle East.