The Greater Middle East is a ticking time bomb – Part 2

Credit: The Turbulent World

This is part two of a two-part series that explores developments autocratic Arab rulers and US policymakers ignore at their peril. This two-part series explores developments autocratic Arab rulers and US policymakers ignore at their peril. This two-part series explores developments autocratic Arab rulers and US policymakers ignore at their peril. The series is based on an essay published in Horizons.

Part 1 looked at the region as a whole as well as Hamas’ standing in Gaza eight months into the war. Today’s Part 2 focuses on the war’s potential fallout in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

It goes without saying that the Palestinian issue touches many across the Greater Middle East.

Israel and the world’s inability or unwillingness to help Palestinians secure their rights and Palestinians’ sense of not being accorded the dignity and respect accorded to others mirrors a quest for recognition and dignity across the region.

Take Syria.

Returning this year to her home country for the first time in more than a decade, BBC journalist Lina Sinjab noted that Syria “is sinking into poverty, and many ordinary people are desperate. ‘There is no light at the end of the tunnel,’ they say. It has become normal to see families sleeping in the street and others digging food out of rubbish bins, while in other areas, a high-class lifestyle reminiscent of the swankiest parts of London or Paris continues unchanged.”

Grinding poverty keeps thousands of children out of school and forced to work in northwestern Syria. Across Syria, more than 43 per cent of children do not go to school, raising the spectre of a generation left behind.

Eleven-year-old Ahmad Amro and his family of ten fled the city of Aleppo in 2016. Since then, their home has been a tent in Syria’s northwestern Idlib countryside, a region with an 88.74 per cent unemployment rate ravaged by war and a 2023 earthquake.

Ahmad dreams of “wearing school clothes to go to school.” Instead, he and his older brother, Abdo, who has never attended school, struggle to make ends meet by helping their father sell daffodils.

With children like Ahmad and Abdo across the Greater Middle East staring at a bottomless abyss of despair and hopelessness, the question is not if but when and how simmering frustration and anger will boil over.

The Gaza war is stirring up every radical movement across the Middle East. Its recruitment potential against the US and Israel is enormous & will have repercussions for decades,” tweeted Middle East scholar Joshua Landis.

Mr. Landis noted that Osama Bin Laden first conceived of the 11 September 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington in 1982 when he watched US-built F-16 fighter jets carpet bomb Beirut during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

For now, much of the threat of renewed revolts and militancy may be more bluster than real.

Iranian-backed Iraqi militants asserted in April that they stood ready to arm 12,000 fighters of the Islamic Resistance in Jordan that would open a new front against Israel.

Abu Ali al-Askari, a Kataib Hezbollah security official, suggested Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s assessment that all Jordanian militants needed was access to weapons inspired the offer.

There is no evidence of an Islamic fighting force in tightly controlled Jordan despite mounting public anger at the Gaza war, a limited number of border incidents, and indications of attempts by Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, Hamas, and Iran to exploit the fury, and in some cases smuggle arms from Jordan into the West Bank.

Against the backdrop of 22 per cent unemployment, Jordan’s Brotherhood affiliate, the Islamic Action Front, hopes escalating pro-Hamas protests in Jordan will favour it in general elections scheduled for later this year.

Earlier, Kataib Hezbollah said it would work with partners in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to enable militants to strike at “any point in West Asia where the Americans exist.”

A close US ally dependent on American economic and financial aid with a peace treaty with Israel, Jordan walks a tightrope with more than half of its population of Palestinian descent. Jordanian participation in the shooting down in April of a barrage of Iranian drones and missiles fired by Iran at Israel has increased the tightrope’s tension.

Similarly, Hamas leaders have sought to capitalise on pro-Palestinian sentiment and Jordan’s vulnerability.

“We call on our brothers in Jordan, in particular, to escalate all forms of popular, mass, and resistance action. You, our people in Jordan, are the nightmare of the occupation that fears your movement and strives tirelessly to neutralize and isolate you from your cause.,” said Hamas military spokesman Abu Obeida.

Senior Doha-based Hamas official Khaled Mishaal, who survived an Israeli assassination attempt in Amman in 1997, told a women’s gathering in Jordan in a video address that “Jordan is a beloved country, and it is the closest to Palestine, so its men and women are expected to take more supportive roles than any other people towards the land of resistance and resilience.”

While Jordan is unlikely to emerge as a significant venue for militant resistance against Israel, escalating Baloch and Islamic State violence in Iran, a country in which widespread discontent regularly spills into the streets, and the adjacent Pakistani province of Balochistan is an indication of potential explosions of popular discontent and/or militancy.

Wealthy Gulf states see the writing on the wall. They worry that simmering public frustration and anger in much of the Middle East threaten regional stability, and, with it their economic diversification and development plans.

“Islamist groups want to benefit from (the ongoing protests in Jordan) …and reproduce the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions again,” warned Saudi journalist Hassan al-Mustafa. “Volatility in Jordan would pose a direct threat to Saudi Arabia’s own national security,” said Abdulaziz Sager, head of the Gulf Research Council and a scholar with close ties to the Saudi government.

Signalling Gulf concerns, Salah Al Budair, the Medina Grand Mosque’s imam, asked God in a Ramadan prayer to protect Muslim countries “from revolutions and protest.”

Wealthy Gulf states may be better positioned to pacify their populations but are not immune to the region’s undercurrents.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has sought to bolster Saudi national identity to cushion the impact of rapid social change that has sparked concern among some conservatives and those who fear they may be left behind.

“Whilst there is widespread support for the Vision, there are concerns about the pace of change, as well as the perception that to date, there has been an over-emphasis on elite interests,” said Mark C. Thompson, a Saudi-based social scientist and recent convert to Islam, who has long tracked the evolution of Saudi youth attitudes towards Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 economic diversification and development plan.

Mr. Thompson noted that “the significance of Saudi Arabia’s two primary identity narratives, namely, Islam and family, have only changed incrementally regardless of post-2030 transformations… The danger is that Vision-related transformations might be weak in the face of much stronger traditional values, and, consequently, the rapid social changes could vanish just as quickly precisely because they have not become deep-rooted within Saudi communities.”

The social scientist cautioned that most foreign Saudi watchers based their analysis and conclusions on interactions with members of the Saudi elite who would have the most to lose if social change were to falter.

Mr. Thompson quoted a Western-educated Saudi consultant saying that most Saudis “would not be affected greatly” if the entertainment sector failed.

The fact that Saudi elites are the greatest beneficiaries of Mr. Bin Salman’s reforms means that most Saudis, concerned primarily about jobs, cost of living, affordable housing, and healthcare, often only benefit at best partially. To benefit more fully, they would have to have what the elite has: wasta or clout and connections.

The risk for Mr. Bin Salman is that the reforms widen the kingdom’s already yawning income gap, cast further doubt on the integrity of the crown prince’s anti-corruption campaign, and undermine widespread support for his vision.

In addition, small and medium-sized enterprises and their employees feel they are often excluded from participation in Vision-related projects favouring large and well-known family enterprises. As a result, young Saudis with lesser family backgrounds and education become drivers rather than executives when they migrate from the provinces to the cities.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may be one-man-ruled autocracies, yet their leaders are sensitive to public opinion to varying degrees. “I know that the Saudi government under MbS (Mohammed bin Salman) has put in a lot of effort to actually do its own public opinion polls… They pay attention to it… They are very well aware of which way the winds are blowing on the street. They take that pretty much to heart on what to do and what not to do… On some issues, they are going to make a kind of executive decision… On this one, we’re going to ignore it; on the other one, we’re going to…try to curry favour with the public in some unexpected way,” said the late David Pollock, a Middle East scholar who until recently oversaw the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s polling in the region.

The problem for rulers like Messrs. Bin Salman and Bin Zayed is that their rule’s moorings could be called into question by a failure to deliver public goods and services that offer economic prospects. At the same time, social reforms needed to bolster development go hand in hand with undermining the authority of religious establishments. Increased autocracy that turns clerics and scholars into regime parrots has fuelled youth scepticism toward political elites and religious institutions.

For rulers like the Saudi crown prince, the loosening of social restrictions – including the disempowerment of the kingdom’s religious police, the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, less strict implementation of gender segregation, the introduction of Western-style entertainment, and greater professional opportunities for women, and, in the UAE a degree of genuine religious pluralism – are only the first steps in responding to youth aspirations.

Determined to contain public sentiment, Saudi authorities, in contrast to the UAE and Qatar and despite official condemnations of Israel’s Gaza war conduct, have cracked down on expressions of solidarity such as the donning of keffiyehs, the chequered head scarf symbolizing Palestinian identity, T-shirts with Palestine emblazoned on them, and the waving of Palestinian flags.

In the same vein, Egypt, a nation that perennially pulls back from the brink of economic disaster with the help of band-aid foreign financial injections, has largely banned public protests and criticism of the country’s ties with Israel.

Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi fears that pro-Palestinian demonstrations could expand into domestic protest as has happened in the past.

The ban was imposed after pro-Palestinian demonstrators gathered In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, an icon of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled four leaders, including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, reverted to chanting the uprisings’ common slogan, ‘Bread, freedom, social justice!’

The Palestinian cause has always been a politicizing factor for Egyptian youth across generations,” noted Hossam el-Hamalawy, a prominent Egyptian journalist, photographer, activist, and author of a weekly newsletter.

“In fact, for many Egyptian political activists — whether those who led the (2011) revolution or were involved in earlier protests — their gateway into politics was the Palestinian cause. The 2011 uprising in Egypt was literally the climax of a process that started with the second Palestinian intifada a decade earlier… The more this war (in Gaza) drags on, the more likely it is that something might happen,” Mr. El-Hamalawy added.

An end to the war may lower the temperature and take the immediate sting out of public anger, but the drivers of discontent, including the quest for dignity, remain unaltered.

Even worse, the fault lines have hardened. The Middle East and North Africa are populated by the harshest rulers the region has witnessed since its various constituents became independent. Repression in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates is at an all-time high. The Gulf states go to great lengths to ensure that others in the region mirror their suppression of any form of dissent.

Despite a worldwide clamour for a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state, hardened Israeli attitudes towards the Palestinians mirror Arab crackdowns on dissent.

Israel has moved from de facto recognition of Palestinian rights to outright denial but was for decades willing to go through the motions of a peace process.

Storied former Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan was brutally honest when he spoke in 1956 at the funeral of an Israeli farmer, brutally murdered by Palestinian militants.

“Let us not cast blame on the murderers. For eight years, they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes, we have been transforming the lands and the villages where they and their fathers dwelt into our estate,” Dayan said.

“Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs living around us. This is our life’s choice—to be prepared and armed, strong, and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down,” Dayan added.

Dayan’s comments frame United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterrez’s statement seven decades later that Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel did not happen “in a vacuum,” particularly with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands since 1967.

They also frame the disregard for the lives of others and their own that have been put on public display in Hamas’ targeting of civilians and brutality on October 7 and its risking of the lives of innocent Palestinian civilians during the war as well as Israel’s relentless devastation of Gaza at enormous human cost and its failure to prioritise the release of hostages held by Hamas.

Said an Arab human rights activist: “Gaza is the pinnacle of the Middle East’s disdain for life and the dignity of individuals. It’s disregard on a massive and unprecedented scale. It’s disregard that underwrites autocracy in the region. It’s disregard that ultimately will spark an explosion, even if it’s impossible to predict when, where, and how.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.

About the Author
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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