The upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa is symptomatic of a region in transition with multiple interlinking subplots and struggles. Political transitions can take decades, and at the seventh year of the process, we are still at the beginning. The transition began with the 2011 revolts, the ‘Arab Spring’, that toppled leaders, sparked protests and was countered by forces opposed to change.
On 9 May 2018, Dr James Dorsey, Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the ‘New Books in Middle Eastern Studies’ podcast, discussed the upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa.
Dr Dorsey first underlined his view that no matter when the political transition in the region began, whether the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ or earlier, it is still in its early stages. Among the conflicts and tensions of various natures throughout the region, one of the most significant is the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
He brought up the latest events particularly the US backing out of the Iran nuclear deal, the possible immediate fallout; such as a nuclear arms race and put these developments into a larger context. Ultimately, he believes that the American withdrawal is an effort towards a regime change in Tehran.
Dr Dorsey highlighted the 2011 Arab revolts as a period that marked a fundamental transition in the region, summarising the current state of the countries in the region and how discontent is simmering at the surface. While the revolts came about by the ruling parties’ failure to deliver public goods and services, the ensuing response was driven by regime survival, instead of the need to genuinely address the public’s concerns.
He described the nature of the current relationships in the region such as the one between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and how this might shift once the leadership is passed down to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. He also spoke about the Crown Prince’s efforts to modernise the kingdom and exert greater influence in the region.
However, despite Saudi Arabia’s efforts, Dr Dorsey asserts that it will only play second fiddle. He believes that the three natural regional powers are Egypt, Turkey and Iran. This is due to their large well-educated populations, huge domestic markets, industrial bases, advantageous geography, and deep-seated identity derived from storied histories.
The talk ended with Dr Dorsey addressing the audience’s questions which included discussions on the potential role of India and China in the region and business investment in specific countries.