The Future of the Middle East is Turkey, Iran and Islamic Socialism

Turkey and Iran are the region’s natural hegemons. Islam and socialism provide the necessary social glue.

Tehran Iran
View of Tehran, Iran from the Milad Tower at night (Shutterstock)

It may not seem it, what with the Islamic State’s suicide bombers lashing out, Israeli soldiers shooting wounded Palestinians and the war in Yemen grinding on, but the Middle East’s broad new outlines are starting to show.

They appear in front of the Turkish tanks on their way to Raqqa; in the brightly-lit press conferences of the White House; in the ballot printing factories of Tehran and in the banks of Dubai.

They are both a return to history and step further into it. Nation states founded on the borders of great empires are reasserting themselves and the assault on neoliberal economics will give way to Islamist socialism.

Let’s begin with context.

Who are these great nation states reasserting themselves? Well, in short, the Middle East’s Core states

The Middle East can be broken up into three broad geopolitical categories: Core powers, Borderland powers and Periphery powers.

In the Middle East, geopolitical problems are twofold. The region is on critical trade routes and has critical natural resources the rest of the world wants.

The trade routes are as old as civilization itself. They’re a major reason why everyone from the Romans to the Mongols to the Americans have stopped by over the centuries.

Critical natural resources only add fuel to the fire; as the twentieth century wore on, the desperate need of Arabian crude made an already important region suddenly critical.

Thus every Middle Eastern state has long had to contend with outsiders trying to control, conquer or dominate them. There is no way around those problems until the trade routes shift and oil is no longer valuable.

The region’s two Core powers are the hearts of the old empires: Iran and Turkey.

Geographically endowed with defensible trade routes, natural resources, good climates and strong geography-based borders, these are the bases from which great powers can be made. They are the Middle Eastern equivalent to Europe’s France and Germany.

The region’s Borderland powers are those that are directly influenced or controlled by the two Core powers. They cannot defend against a Core power that wants to control them, but since each Core power fears the other, they end up being squabbled over. With historical influence from Core powers, they have always enjoyed some development and technological transfer from the Cores, but they lack the natural resources, defensible borders or trade routes to develop as quickly on their own. When they are ignored, they stagnate.

These Borderlands are Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine/Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen.

Finally, there are the Periphery powers. These are the states beyond the Borderlands that cannot be readily controlled by the Core powers. They can resist influence from the Core states, but they can’t directly compete with them and survive. They have weak geographies: unfriendly climates, bad water supplies, indefensible borders and hard-to-defend trade routes. These Periphery powers often seek help from beyond the Middle East to balance the Core powers. They are the Gulf Arab states of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Oman.

These three geopolitical regions have unifying challenges, but developed at different paces. As they advanced through the twentieth century’s Five Eras, they often did so in different years in response to their unique problems.

There are four eras of the Middle East, each meant to correct the mistakes of the past: the Imperial Era, the Mandate Era, the Nationalist Era and the Islamist Era

Each phase had an ideology of the day meant to guarantee security and development. This didn’t mean everyone had the same ideology all at once; it just meant there was a popular one that challenged the old order.

These are the eras:

  • The Imperial Era: The Ottoman and Safavid Persian Empires dominate the region, developing provinces to exploit resources for their heartlands while squabbling over trade routes and borderlands. The Periphery survives by raiding imperial trade routes; the Borderlands change hands or are exploited at will.
  • The Mandate Era: The prostrate Core powers have to come to terms with superior Western statecraft and military kit. All three geopolitical regions seek European influence and knowledge in order to jump start development and establish real security. It’s short in some places and long in others; it’s completely over by 1979.
  • The Nationalist Era: The Mandate Era gives way to a Nationalist Era, in which elites try to forge nation states and Borderlands try to become Cores, often by bringing in the superpowers of the Cold War. This era lasts from at the earliest 1924 (in Turkey) until the 1980s, when nationalism loses traction. This era also overlaps with a sub-era: the Neoliberal Era, in which Western neoliberal ideas increasingly influence and control state behaviors.
  • The Islamist Era: In the wake of repeated military defeats by Israel and the West, nationalism loses favor. States in all three regions begin to draw on Islamic tradition to forge Islamic nation states rather than ethnic ones. There is blowback, however: non-state forces seeking their ideal of Islamic purity, like Al Qaeda and eventually the Islamic State, take up the ideology and challenge established states.

When ideologies failed to provide security from outsiders and development for natives, they were ditched

Which is a reasonable thing to happen in any region. This also happened in Europe: divine right gave way to the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment bred communism, Nazism and neoliberalism. Each was a response to the failure of one ideology to provide security and development.

Whenever the Core powers were threatened or disrupted by extra-regional forces, ideologies would switch. During these switches, opportunities emerged for Borderlands and Periphery states to try to become Core states.

During the switch between the Mandate Era to the Nationalist Era, Egypt tried to become a Core, unifying with Syria from 1958-61 and waging repeated wars on Israel. But it could win no wars, nor jumpstart economic development. By the 1970s, nationalism was on life support in Cairo.

Saudi Arabia is trying to do the same today, seeking Core status by challenging Iran. Like Egypt in the 1960s, it is fighting a proxy war in Yemen. Like Egypt, it will probably fail to change its geopolitical status.

Thus today we have overlaps of eras: some Nationalism here, some Islamism there, but all increasingly giving way to a new ideology and providing new opportunities for the old Core powers

Egypt, Assadist Syria, Iraq, Turkey and the Gulf states are all still, to varying degrees, in the Nationalist Era. Yet all have let Islamism creep into them: Iraq changed its flag to include “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Great”) in the 1990s; Egypt’s nationalist rhetoric gave way to Muslim talking points after Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1982; the Gulf states, while still hoping to build nations from their tribes, heavily emphasize their version of Islam as part of national identity.

But the coming of the Islamic State has shown the limits of this approach. Islamism as it exists today doesn’t have a very good economic development program. It has instead an all-encompassing social order that sucks a lot of energy from the state.

The only state to fully embrace Islamism, Iran, has gained a degree of greater independence and security than it had under the shah. Yet that is a limited comparison; the shah acted like a mandate most of the time and so any move from that would bring more independence.

Moreover, Iran’s Islamist bent also puts it at odds with the United States, which prefers the nationalists it knows it can militarily defeat. This undercuts the argument that “Islam is the solution”, as the Muslim Brotherhood says. Rather than keeping outsiders out, it invites yet more interference from foreigners worried that Islamism will rile up Muslims in Europe, America or Asia.

So the Imperial Era failed to build empires strong enough to keep Europeans out. The Mandate Era was a sham to keep outsiders in. The Nationalist Era got subverted by foreigners seeking advantage in the Cold War. And the Islamist Era has produced non-state actors no one can control, predict or trust.

Thus a new ideology must come along. Like all the previous ideologies, it’s one hiding in plain sight.

Islamic Socialism: Islamic culture married to socialist equality and economic protectionism

Since World War I, all the Middle East’s ideologies have begun in either the Cores or the Borderlands. All these ideologies have failed, either because they provoked the more powerful outside world or because they brought foreigners in who intended to stay.

The hope that the Middle East will transform into a secular paradise is a long shot: even with the Islamic State’s barbarism, most Muslims see them (rightly) as radicals who have distorted their beloved religion, rather than a reason to ditch Islam entirely.

Moreover, every Middle Eastern state that has tried to build a nation on a single ethnicity has faced very high operating costs. Turkey’s emphasis on Turkishness provoked its Kurds to rebellion; Ghaddafi’s, Assad’s and Saddam’s Arab nationalism forced police states on their tribes and sects. Even Gulf states, with their uncomplicated native populations, have had to build cradle-to-grave welfare states to ensure loyalty.

Thus it seems very likely states will soon start to ease off attempts to forge many peoples into single nations. That leaves only Islam as a social glue. The Islamic nation is already a well-versed ideal and there is no reason to think elites can’t emphasize the “Turkish Islamic nation” as a means to bring Muslim Kurds into the fold. Since Islam provides protections to Christians, and other religious minorities are so small as to be geopolitically irrelevant, this could be the new “nation” that underpins every state.

But that alone won’t be enough to guarantee stability and independence. Middle Eastern states must also ensure that their societies don’t become unequal in wealth — a decidedly un-Islamic trait — and so inspire uprisings (arguably the cause of the Arab Spring).

It must also ensure Middle Eastern nations don’t become dependent on outside capital, as the most successful of them are now, and thus prone to yet more foreign interference.

Hence the “socialism” part: a protected economy and society that emphasizes equality over productivity with limited trade and capital controls. This is not all that far off from what’s being demanded in the West. Brexit, in addition to being anti-immigration, was also anti-globalist, with free trade and free capital flows seen in the negative.

This model is already being quietly practiced in some Gulf states — at least, among the citizens of those Gulf states.

While cities like Dubai may seem neoliberal paradises of free trade and open markets, in reality Dubai’s government runs two very different societies: that of the native Emiratis, who make up about 10 percent of the population, and the 90 percent expatriate population. For the expatriates, it is a hyper-capitalistic, cutthroat, neoliberal society of international banks, Vegas-style tourist development and mass capital inflows. For Emiratis, it is a staid, statist, socialist world, in which most people work for the government in one form or another and a high safety net guarantees no Emirati falls into extreme poverty.

As neoliberalism crumbles elsewhere, the expatriate society of Dubai will be pressed. Its population may dip; parts of it may be emptied out. But Emiratis will carry on as they always have, working for a domineering government that emphasizes Islamic identity while providing free health care, schools and housing.

Not every Islamic Socialist state will be able to be so generous. Yet they will all have incentive to try. When states are seen combating poverty, much of the social impetus that forms groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State will be dried up. This will largely end the Islamist militant challenge.

Nearly all Middle Eastern states already have state-owned enterprises to build on. While neoliberalism institutions like the International Monetary Fund have spent decades trying to dismantle these companies, the near era will call for them to be strengthened and empowered. The youth bulge of the Middle East can be absorbed by state companies while their agitations can be mitigated by an emphasis on Islamic identity as part of a single nation.

This won’t produce breakneck growth, but that era is ending anyway. Oil is becoming less valuable as the West goes green; as resource-rich states like Turkey, Iran, and the Gulf more fully develop, the double-digit GDP growth of the 2000s will be much harder to achieve. Poorer states like Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon will instead have to fight hard to keep their elites from looking too rich in a time of scarcity.

Meanwhile, the Cores will reassert themselves

As the Middle East closes itself off to the rest of the world economically, it will return to its old power patterns. The two Core states will compete for control of new borderlands while the Periphery will reshape itself to become an appendage of one of the two Cores.

The Gulf states already are already showing natural alignment with Turkey; Qatar and Turkey both coordinated in the Syrian Civil War to achieve mutual objectives. Should the rest of the Gulf follow into the Turkish camp, Egypt will be hard pressed to resist; it needs access to Gulf cash and energy to maintain its state.

It might seem odd to think of Israel as being a close Turkish ally, but if the United States continues to divest from the region, Israel will need a strong, close friend capable of fending off challenges from the Core state — Iran — that still wants to destroy it.

Iran will solidify its hold on Iraq as firmly as it has in Lebanon. Second, it will push back against Turkish power in Syria and Yemen, both of which will be proxy battlegrounds for the two. Already this is taking shape: Saudi Arabia, a future close Turkish ally, is in Yemen while Turkish tanks race to destroy the Islamic State while simultaneously threatening Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s close ally.

Both will utilize Islamist socialism to wall themselves off from foreign interference. That won’t completely work: the world will find a way to influence the conflicts to come. But the days of seeing the region as terrorists versus the West, or Arabs versus Israelis, or even Saudis versus Iranians, are fast coming to close.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, February 22, 2017.