In 2011, millions of citizens across the Arab world took to the streets. Popular uprisings from Tunis to Cairo promised to topple autocracies and usher in democratic reforms. For a moment, it looked as if the old Middle Eastern order was coming to an end and a new and better one was taking its place. But things quickly fell apart. Some states collapsed under the pressure and devolved into civil war; others found ways to muddle through and regain control over their societies. Seven years later, those early hopes for a fundamental, positive shift in Middle Eastern politics appear to have been profoundly misplaced.
But the upheaval did in fact create a new Arab order—just not the one most people expected. Although the Arab uprisings did not result in successful new democracies, they did reshape regional relations. The traditional great powers—Egypt, Iraq, and Syria—are now barely functional states. Wealthy and repressive Gulf countries—Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—are thriving. The proliferation of failed and weakened states has created new opportunities for competition and intervention, favoring new actors and new capabilities. Regional dynamics are no longer determined by formal alliances and conventional conflicts between major states. Instead, power operates through influence peddling and proxy warfare.
In almost every Arab state today, foreign policy is driven by a potent mixture of perceived threats and opportunities. Fears of resurgent domestic uprisings, Iranian power, and U.S. abandonment exist alongside aspirations to take advantage of weakened states and international disarray—a dynamic that draws regional powers into destructive proxy conflicts, which sow chaos throughout the region. Any vision of the region finding a workable balance of power is a mirage: the new order is fundamentally one of disorder.
The catalog of despair in the Middle East today is difficult to fathom. The Syrian civil war has become one of the greatest human catastrophes in history, killing at least half a million civilians and displacing more than ten million. Iraq has made remarkable progress in defeating the Islamic State, or ISIS, but that success has come at a great cost to those who live in the liberated areas. The civil war in Yemen has resulted in the largest outbreak of cholera in human history and left 8.4 million people on the brink of starvation. Libya remains a catastrophically failed state.
Even states that avoided collapse are struggling. Egypt is still suffering from the consequences of its 2013 military coup, as stifling repression prevents political progress, suppresses tourism, fuels insurgency, and drives popular discontent. Bahrain continues to simmer after 2011’s bloody sectarian crackdown, with no solutions on offer beyond repression of the political opposition. Relatively successful states, such as Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia, are grappling with massive economic problems, discontented youth, and unstable neighbors. In almost every country, the economic and political problems that drove the region toward popular uprising in 2011 are more intense today than they were seven years ago.
Meanwhile, there is no shortage of flash points in the region. The U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran has reopened the prospect of an American or Israeli military strike leading to war. The boycott of Qatar, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has divided the Gulf Cooperation Council, the most successful Arab international organization. In Syria, Israel’s increasingly frequent air strikes, Turkey’s cross-border operations, and Iran’s entrenched presence are pushing the civil war in new directions even as the armed opposition to the Assad regime fades. The stalemated war in Yemen defies containment, with missiles launched by the Houthi rebels targeting Saudi Arabia, Saudi air strikes causing widespread civilian deaths, and the United Arab Emirates establishing naval bases across the Horn of Africa to help enforce the Saudi-led blockade and to protect its new presence in the country’s south. Meanwhile, recurrent violence in Gaza and the death spiral of the two-state solution threaten to return the Palestinian territories to the center of international attention.
Amid all of this, the United States, under President Donald Trump, has enthusiastically aligned itself with an axis of like-minded states: Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. But this attempt to restore something that resembles the pre-2011 order is far shakier than it appears. In the Middle East today, the proliferation of failed states, unresolved crises of governance, and crosscutting lines of competition undermine every exercise of power. When states attempt to assert control at home or influence abroad, they only exacerbate their own insecurity. The Trump administration’s decision to double down on support for autocratic regimes while ignoring the profound structural changes that stand in the way of restoring the old order will neither produce stability nor advance U.S. interests.
The Changing Balance
There is nothing new about cross-border politics in the Middle East, but the structure and dynamics of the region today are quite different than they were in earlier periods. The 1950s and 1960s were defined by what the scholar Malcolm Kerr famously called “the Arab Cold War.” Under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt competed with Western-backed regimes and the conservative forces of Saudi Arabia in conflicts that ranged from direct military intervention in Yemen to proxy struggles over domestic politics in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Meanwhile, pan-Arabism—the belief in a shared Arab nation—established the terms for both cooperation and competition among the region’s leaders on a platform of anticolonialism, Arab unity, and hostility toward Israel.
Conventional accounts of Middle Eastern history view the 1970s as the end of these cross-border ideological wars. With the death of Nasser and the sudden advent of massive oil wealth, states became more interested in regime survival than grand ideological causes. During this period, countries developed stronger national security apparatus, which blocked domestic uprisings. And as states became more internally secure, there were fewer opportunities for proxy interven-tions. (Lebanon, to its eternal mis-fortune, was the exception to this rule, and its civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, became the primary arena for proxy conflicts.) Even the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which introduced a new form of cross-border popular mobilization among Islamists, who were inspired by the successful overthrow of a U.S.-backed despot, failed to regenerate those same proxy-war dynamics. Instead, the Arab regimes united against a shared enemy and doubled down on their repression of Islamist challengers at home.
Contrary to the standard story, however, that era of hard states had been fading for some time before the 2011 eruption. In the 1990s, globalization began to introduce fundamental challenges to the traditional Middle Eastern order. New international economic orthodoxies pushed states to cut social welfare spending and public employment. The large Arab states saw poverty grow and their infrastructure decay. Even the wealthy oil states found themselves at the mercy of global economic forces, such as the 2008 financial crisis and fluctuations in oil prices. At the same time, satellite television, smartphones, social media, and other new technologies undermined regimes that had become dependent on controlling the flow of information and the expression of opinion. And after 2001, the global war on terrorism, the demons unleashed by the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process undermined the foundations of regional cooperation. By 2010, little justification remained for the Arab order beyond containing Iran and stifling democratic change.
The 2011 Arab uprisings did not come out of nowhere.
The 2011 Arab uprisings did not come out of nowhere; they were the culmination of structural changes that had been developing for a long time. Popular frustration with countries’ stagnant economies and lack of political freedoms had been mounting for at least a decade. The region’s political space had become unified through satellite television, the Internet, and other transnational networks, which allowed protests to spread rapidly from Tunisia to Egypt and then across the entire region. These simultaneous uprisings revealed a great deal about the internal strength of the Arab states: some easily adapted, others barely made it through, and the rest collapsed.