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The winter of Middle East discontent

The winter of Middle East discontent Oleg Zabielin/Shutterstock
20 Nov
After spring should come summer. But in the Middle East, the Arab Spring’s dizzy optimism has dissolved into a long winter. Geographical presents four different perspectives on what drives conflict in the troubled region

Syria has all but dissolved as a united country, while Iraq has split along sectarian lines. Brutal guerrilla forces, such as Islamic State, have emerged in the power vacuum. It’s a conflict that threatens the fragile power balance in Lebanon and raises Turkish fears over Kurdish aspirations for an independent state.

Iran remains at loggerheads with Western powers over nuclear aspirations, and Yemen is torn with fighting while water resources dwindle. Libyan militias battle it out over Colonel Gaddafi’s ruins, and in Egypt, despite elections, the military still hold a firm grip on power. And, of course, Israel and Palestine continue an interminable bloody grind.

Perspectives is the first in a semi-regular series that highlights authoritative views often missed in the day-to-day rush of events. Future editions will examine acute issues in disease, technology, society, and even the nature of geography today, but in this issue of Geographical we present four factors – demography, ideology, territory and, first, climate – that can be used to explain why the Middle East is so afflicted with conflict.


CLIMATE: Fatal Intersection

Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies, Bradford University

The Middle East is a region where Great Power rivalries, vital natural resources, ideological divisions, autocratic government and sectarian tensions all combine to cause conflict.

A few years ago, a poor harvest in China caused global food prices to rise resulting in food riots across the Middle East. In Syria this was excacerbated by a severe drought, which led to a movement of people from the country to the suburbs. This led to more crowded slum areas, leading to an even greater anger directed toward the regime.

The Mediterranean basin through to the Levant is an area where there are going to be considerable effects from climate change due to decreases in rainfall. This extends to the Sahel in central Africa. Asymmetric warming over the region is likely to lead to a decrease in rainfall which will reduce the ecological carrying capacity of the land.

It has huge implications in terms of social disruption. There could well be a major attempt of dispossessed people to get into Europe. It is likely to be far more serious if climate change is not brought under control.

It is difficult to predict exactly what effect climate change will have. It is possible to say generically that it will cause problems across the Middle East. Already you have people on the margins there and this is going to make the problem a lot worse.

As for Great Power politics, the US spent the last decade attempting to reshape the region. This is an approach that has been largely abandoned, although the free market system is now quite entrenched. As far as Russia is concerned, it currently has a leader who plays on nationalism and resentment, although its economy is no bigger than Britain and smaller than Germany, China, Japan or the US. Its economic power does not match Putin’s aspirations.

China has a huge thirst for resources. It has an internal problem distributing resources and avoiding the impact of climate change, which is very serious as far as the Far East is concerned. It developed links with the Saudis, Iranians and Iraq and put arms into Iran, but avoided military involvement. It is resource driven and not interested in changing the region in the way the US and Russia have attempted.

In a wider perspective there have been more terrible conflicts in Africa than the current situation in the Middle East. India/Pakistan is the world’s longest and most dangerous conflict and there is troubling potential in the South China Sea. The Middle East is the most intense area at the moment, but certainly not the only one. It’s also worth remembering that there has been progress in places such as South America. In the 1960s, this was the most intense area of conflict.

So while the Middle East is the hub at present, it is not necessarily one to get out of proportion.


IDEOLOGY: Liberal No-gooders

Richard Seymour, writer and broadcaster

We can’t understand intervention in the Middle East without understanding the legacy of colonialism – particularly given that the ideologies which legitimise intervention have origins in the colonial era.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the seemingly fresh idea of ‘humanitarian intervention’ has come to the fore: the idea that the victorious capitalist democracies could use military power in defence of human rights.

But this notion, far from being novel, has beginnings in the colonial period. The liberal justification for war originates at first in Lockean justifications for colonialism and slavery on the basis of property rights. Later, Mill, Tocqueville and others developed alternative justifications for empire as a civilising force, delivering modern rights-based regimes and the rule of law. As long as colonised peoples were ‘backward’, it was argued, they would need white tutelage to guide them to modernity.

This idea influenced American liberalism, so that figures like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson defended white supremacy on the grounds that self-government was a cultural state which had only been attained by the Anglo-Saxon ‘race’. Nor was it just liberalism. Major thinkers and organisations of the left were influenced by these ideas, from French Saint-Simonians to British Fabians.

In the Cold War, the American government was terrified of ‘premature independence’ for the colonies, lest these backward peoples be tempted by communism. Liberal ‘modernisation theory’ held these peoples would have to be guided toward their true destiny of liberal capitalism by authoritarian elites – until ready to govern themselves.

The collapse of colonialism put these ideas in the dustbin for a long time. But in the post-Cold War world, the idea that humanity is divided between the modern and liberal, and the backward and illiberal, has been revived. Humanitarian crises are read as symptoms of failed modernisation, thus triggering the need for liberal democracies to intervene and set these regimes on the right path. This was the ‘nation-building’ discourse that partially underpinned the invasion of Iraq.

Similar ideas have been deployed to justify US policies in response to the ‘Arab Spring’, whether backing Mubarak or overthrowing Qaddafi. The imperative in each case is supposedly to advance liberalising regimes. In Egypt, the fear of ‘atavistic’ Islamists justified backing a dictatorship described by Tony Blair as relatively ‘open’. Ultimately, this comes down to distrust of the masses. They must not be allowed to determine their own destiny, or find their own solutions.

There is still another leftist variant of this default. Many on the left, naturally distrusting US imperialism, give Russian imperialism a free pass in backing Assad. They assume that Assad upholds secular modernity, and tar all his opponents as medieval fundamentalists. There was always a view that Stalinist and Arab nationalist regimes were in some sense ‘progressive’ and now they are to be protected from their own people.


TERRITORY: No Maps for These Territories

Stuart Elden, Professor of Political Theory & Geography, University of Warwick

The concept of territory has had profound effects in the Middle East, and it’s an idea that has evolved in Western political thought. In the past, territory was understood as zones of transition between one political entity and another. The idea that there was a line to cross between one entity and another is a more recent concept, which came with the development of large-scale construction projects and military fortifications. A political map of the world with clear lines marking territories seems like the obvious way to do it, but this isn’t always the way we’ve thought about things.

The Sykes–Picot agreement between France and Britain decided how to carve up the Ottoman Empire post-WWI, superimposing a Western territorial model. Western powers after the Peace of Paris were trying to fix existing boundaries.

Groups like Islamic State want to see the Sykes–Picot delineation broken down. These groups want to create territory, but with boundaries in a new place. In other words, the concept of territory adopted by these groups is still a Western one. Their idea of a new Caliphate is that it is a state–territory relation, and a modern approach rather than a return to earlier understandings. It is similar in places like Nigeria with groups like Boko Haram. These groups buy into Western ideas about sovereignty and territory, even as they challenge existing arrangements.

The borders in the region were drawn quite arbitrarily with little relation to physical terrain or where people actually live. Often the decisions were from imperial powers. Now these boundaries are breaking down.

The model of territory we have today is historical and is not the only way that we have organised political–geographical relations. Everyone acts as if the only solution is to rearrange within the current system rather than consider there might be an alternative.


DEMOGRAPHY: Baby Boom, Baby Bust

David Goldman, economist and author

The most important source of conflict is economic and cultural backwardness, particularly a sense that quality of life is not improving for most people combined with the fact that there is now, in most Arab countries, the largest generation of young people in history. There is a large population of young people facing very poor prospects of advancement.

Here is the curious thing. Iran, Turkey and Tunisia have achieved close to 100 per cent literacy rates. What we have observed is that as young women leave traditional family life and go to high school and college, they stop having children. In Iran this gobsmacked the demographers. In all world history, we’ve never seen a decline in fertility as steep or as rapid as in Iran and the effects are potentially catastrophic.

We see the same thing in Turkey, Algeria and Tunisia. In all the Arab, Persian and Turkish areas in which alternatives have become available, you see the great 200-year demographic transition occur in a single generation. This implies a cultural crisis.

If people leave a world where roles are defined by hundreds of years of practice – where there are few choices and the course of one’s life is not determined – and one enters a world where one does have choices and has the ability to define life’s course according to will, the result is a crisis of identity that has led to a lack of desire in some cases to have children.

Syria is a country that has ceased to exist. Out of 22 million people, 11 million are displaced from their homes. Meanwhile, three million have emigrated and the rest are internally displaced. This is a country where resources were stretched before the war, but now there is no solution.

There is an enormous bulge in youth. As of 2005, there were 28 million youths of military age in the region. In 1975 there were just ten million. If you have huge numbers of military-aged young men displaced as refugees, torn out of family, clan and other social relationships that governed behaviour in the past, it is easy to see why organisations like Islamic State gain recruits who will take huge risks. The demographic bulge is contributing to the instability. It’s a terrible situation.

There have been situations where very large numbers of displaced people have contributed to war. The agricultural revolution shook loose large numbers of people from the land and was a contributing factor in the Napoleonic Wars. This was how Napoleon raised a 500,000-man army – a completely new development.

In the past decade there has been a failure to anticipate the extent to which these trends would lead to a violent outcome. At this point, tragic results cannot be avoided. In truth, the most important thing the West can really do is to try to limit the resulting damage as much as is humanly possible.

This story was published in the December 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

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