This Week in Geopolitics

Medieval Times in the Modern Middle East

June 26, 2017

If geopolitics studies how nations behave, then the nation is singularly important. Nation-states are the defining feature of the modern political era. They give people a collective identity and a pride of place… even when their borders are artificially drawn, as they were in the Middle East.

Constantly in conflict with the notion of nationalism, especially in such a volatile region, are transnational issues. These are issues like religion and ethnicity that cannot be contained by a country’s borders. Arab nation-states are now failing in the Middle East, and though their failure is primarily due to their governments’ inability to create viable political economies, transnational issues—especially the competition between the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam, as well as the struggle within the Sunni Arab realm—are expediting the process.


Click to enlarge

The Failure of Pan-Arabism

Transnational issues have long bedeviled the countries of the modern Middle East. Major Arab states like Egypt, Syria, and Iraq began to flirt with pan-Arabism—a secular, left-leaning ideology that sought political unity of the Arab world—not long after they were founded. It threatened entrenched powers, particularly Arab monarchies like Saudi Arabia. But for an ideal that promoted unity, pan-Arabism was a notably fractured movement, with claims of leadership coming from the Baath party in Syria and Iraq to Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. Whichever form it took, it advocated a kind of nationalism that defied the logic of the nation-state.

Pan-Arab nationalism failed because it couldn’t replace traditional nationalism and because it advocated something that had never existed in history. But the countries that rejected it never really developed into viable political entities. Autocracies and artificial, state-sponsored secularism kept them fragile, held together mostly by the coercion of state security forces.

Since the 1970s, these countries have been challenged by another transnational idea, Islamism (or political Islam), which has proved to be far more effective than pan-Arabism. Whether practiced by the Muslim Brotherhood, by jihadists, or more recently, by Salafists, the movement has spread throughout the Middle East. It has taken root not only among Sunni Arabs but also among Shiites. In fact, the Shiites were the first to create an Islamist government when they toppled the monarchy in the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Sunni Islamists would not hold traditional political power until after the so-called 2011 Arab Spring. But their power was short-lived: Either the regimes they sought to replace survived the uprisings, as was the case in Egypt, or the uprisings themselves eventually gave way to armed insurrection, as was the case in Syria.

The anarchy of the Arab Spring was fertile ground for jihadists, especially for the Islamic State, which became the most powerful Sunni Islamist force in the region. The group owes its success primarily to its ability to exploit sectarian differences in the region—differences made all the more acute after the United States toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, a secular government dominated by Sunnis who had been in control of a majority Shiite country. The Baathist regime in Iraq was replaced by a Shiite-dominated government that Sunnis throughout the region had tried to keep from power.

Likewise, the Islamic State, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey scrambled to take ownership of the Sunni rebellion in Syria, which had been led by a minority Shiite government. The Islamic State was the best positioned to exploit the situation, creating a singular battlespace that linked eastern Syria with western Iraq.


Click to enlarge

In doing so, it has destroyed what we have come to know as the sovereign states of Iraq and Syria. Iraqi and Syrian nationalism can’t really exist if there is no nation. The Islamic State has lost some territory recently, but its losses appear to benefit not the nations to which the land once belonged but the sectarian and ethnic groups that happen to be there. In Syria, Sunni Arab forces are not all that interested in fighting the Islamic State. The only two groups that appear willing are the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are dominated by Kurds who are trying to carve out their own territory, and Syrian government forces, who want to retake the areas that IS seized after the rebellion broke out.

Nationalism Replaced by Sectarianism

Identities based solely on sectarianism now stand in the place of nationalism. On one side are the Sunnis, led nominally by Saudi Arabia. On the other are the Shiites, led nominally by Iran. The Sunni bloc is in disrepair; the Shiite bloc is on the rise. The fact that Iran is Persian has in the past dissuaded Arab Shiites from siding with Tehran, but Saudi efforts to prevent the Shiite revival (not to mention the rise of the Islamic State) have left them feeling vulnerable. They are willing to set aside their differences for sectarian solidarity.


Click to enlarge

There’s historical precedent for what’s happening in the Middle East. In the 10th century, the Shiite Buyid and Fatimid dynasties came to power because the Sunni Abbasid caliphate, challenged by competing caliphates and upstart Persian and Turkic groups, began to lose its power. Shiite dynasties ultimately could not survive in a majority Sunni environment, especially not after it came back on top from around 1200 to around 1600. The Shiites rebounded in the 16th century in the form of the Safavid Empire in Persia, which officially embraced Shiite Islam as state religion. Power changes hands, cyclically, about every 500 years.


Click to enlarge

And now, with Sunni Arab unity on the decline and with jihadists challenging Sunni power, the circumstances are ideal once again for Shiite power to expand. The Shiites are a minority, so it’s unclear just how far their influence can actually spread. But what is clear is that modern nationalism is being replaced by medieval sectarianism.


Click to enlarge

George Friedman
George Friedman

 

Prepare Yourself for Tomorrow with George Friedman’s
This Week in Geopolitics

Geopolitical Futures To learn more about George Friedman and Geopolitical Futures, click here. »


Discuss This

0 comments

We welcome your comments. Please comply with our Community Rules.

Comments

Robert Veigel

June 26, 5:19 p.m.

Based on the definitions of modern nationalism and medieval sectarianism is the United States nationalism slowly being replaced by sectarianism?


Use of this content, the Mauldin Economics website, and related sites and applications is provided under the Mauldin Economics Terms & Conditions of Use.

Unauthorized Disclosure Prohibited

The information provided in this publication is private, privileged, and confidential information, licensed for your sole individual use as a subscriber. Mauldin Economics reserves all rights to the content of this publication and related materials. Forwarding, copying, disseminating, or distributing this report in whole or in part, including substantial quotation of any portion the publication or any release of specific investment recommendations, is strictly prohibited.
Participation in such activity is grounds for immediate termination of all subscriptions of registered subscribers deemed to be involved at Mauldin Economics’ sole discretion, may violate the copyright laws of the United States, and may subject the violator to legal prosecution. Mauldin Economics reserves the right to monitor the use of this publication without disclosure by any electronic means it deems necessary and may change those means without notice at any time. If you have received this publication and are not the intended subscriber, please contact service@mauldineconomics.com.

Disclaimers

The Mauldin Economics website, Yield Shark, Thoughts from the Frontline, Patrick Cox’s Tech Digest, Outside the Box, Over My Shoulder, World Money Analyst, Street Freak, Just One Trade, Transformational Technology Alert, Rational Bear, The 10th Man, Connecting the Dots, This Week in Geopolitics, Stray Reflections, and Conversations are published by Mauldin Economics, LLC. Information contained in such publications is obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but its accuracy cannot be guaranteed. The information contained in such publications is not intended to constitute individual investment advice and is not designed to meet your personal financial situation. The opinions expressed in such publications are those of the publisher and are subject to change without notice. The information in such publications may become outdated and there is no obligation to update any such information. You are advised to discuss with your financial advisers your investment options and whether any investment is suitable for your specific needs prior to making any investments.
John Mauldin, Mauldin Economics, LLC and other entities in which he has an interest, employees, officers, family, and associates may from time to time have positions in the securities or commodities covered in these publications or web site. Corporate policies are in effect that attempt to avoid potential conflicts of interest and resolve conflicts of interest that do arise in a timely fashion.
Mauldin Economics, LLC reserves the right to cancel any subscription at any time, and if it does so it will promptly refund to the subscriber the amount of the subscription payment previously received relating to the remaining subscription period. Cancellation of a subscription may result from any unauthorized use or reproduction or rebroadcast of any Mauldin Economics publication or website, any infringement or misappropriation of Mauldin Economics, LLC’s proprietary rights, or any other reason determined in the sole discretion of Mauldin Economics, LLC.

Affiliate Notice

Mauldin Economics has affiliate agreements in place that may include fee sharing. If you have a website or newsletter and would like to be considered for inclusion in the Mauldin Economics affiliate program, please go to http://affiliates.ggcpublishing.com/. Likewise, from time to time Mauldin Economics may engage in affiliate programs offered by other companies, though corporate policy firmly dictates that such agreements will have no influence on any product or service recommendations, nor alter the pricing that would otherwise be available in absence of such an agreement. As always, it is important that you do your own due diligence before transacting any business with any firm, for any product or service.

© Copyright 2017 Mauldin Economics