Middle East

The struggle for regional dominance in the Middle East

Thomas Gilmartin

Thomas Gilmartin is a freelance writer with a degree in history, a master’s in international relations and a law degree from King’s College London. He worked for several years at a high-profile anti-corruption tribunal in Dublin.


o many onlookers, the nature of diplomatic relationships between the nations of the Middle East can seem labyrinthine in their complexity — a tangled mess of shifting political strands which can, in comparison, make the struggle for Westeros, in the HBO television series Game of Thrones, seem straightforward.

Some alliances have stood the test of time while others have foundered. Wars can be, and are, conducted by proxy, with larger powers fighting each other through war-ravaged smaller countries. Former enemies can find it useful to bury the hatchet and to become, if not friends, at least uneasy bedfellows. The main powers in this saga are Saudi Arabia, which is the home of Sunni Wahhabi extremism, Shi’a Iran and the Jewish state of Israel (though religion is only a part of the story).

In this overview, we will take a necessarily brief and incomplete look at some of the key elements of the region’s current political chess board. Many consider the epicenter of violence in the Middle East to be the 70-year Israeli conflict with the Palestinians, which continues to cost many lives among the impoverished population of Gaza. This piece, however, will look more at the other conflicts, diplomatic and military, currently plaguing the region as the Middle East’s most powerful actors vie for dominance. Any regional localization strategy needs to take these realities into consideration.

The ethno-linguistic substrata

Arabic, a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family (as is Hebrew), is the most widely spoken language in the region, used commonly as a first language (albeit with regional dialect variations) throughout the entire Arabian Peninsula, across North Africa, and in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine. As the language of the Quran, Arabic is also widely known beyond these countries, including as a de facto official language in Israel. The rise of Arabic, emerging from the Arabian peninsula to a position of cultural dominance across the Levant, North Africa and southern Europe (until the reconquest of Spain in the 15th century), was seen as a threat by other ethno-linguistic traditions in those regions, not the least being the Persian/Farsi culture of much of modern-day Iran.

Farsi, the majority language in Iran, is a member of the Indo-European language family, sharing a common linguistic ancestor with nearly every language in Europe. There is a popular Iranian saying that “Arabi ‘Ilm Ast, Parsi Shikar Ast,” or “Arabic represents knowledge, but Farsi represents sweetness” — which, to some Arabs, is illustrative of a cultural condescension exhibited by Iranians towards them (it should be added that only 60% of Iranians speak Farsi as a first language, and that Iran is not a synonym for Persia). There is a stubborn cultural resistance in Iran to the idea of being subsumed within an Arabic-dominated Islamic world, and part of that is certainly due to a sense, among many Iranians, of Arabic language and culture being inferior. Conflict between Persia/Iran and the Arabs dates back 1,500 years, to the destruction of the Sassanid Empire by Arab Bedouins (which many Iranians see as having led to their country’s cultural and economic stagnation). While the Sunni/Shi’a divide plays a large part in the enmity between Arab countries and Iran, there is an underlying ethnolinguistic tension.

Azerbaijani Turkish is the second most common spoken language in Iran, being the primary tongue of perhaps a third of the population. Turkish is a member of the Turkic language family (which includes languages spoken across several central Asian countries) and forms the third major linguistic population grouping in the Middle East. It serves to make Turkey somewhat politically and culturally semidetached from their fellow Sunni Arabs, as does the stubbornly secular tradition instituted in Turkey by the nationalist leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire — including the use of the Latin alphabet in place of the Arabic one.

The imposition of Turkish language and identity on Kurds within Turkey since the days of Atatürk is the main source of the Kurdish conflict with the Turkish government today. Similarly, the Berbers of North Africa, particularly in Libya and Algeria, have struggled to maintain their ethno-linguistic identity in the face of neglect or repression by Arab-speaking states. In Israel, it is Arabic that is seen as being under threat. Though Hebrew and Arabic have been de facto official languages, the reality is that they are not treated equally — there is a marked social disadvantage in the use of Arabic compared to the use of Hebrew. In July 2018, the Knesset passed a “Jewish Nation State” bill into law which, among several controversial provisions, strips Arabic of its status as an official language. This drew condemnation from Israeli Arab politicians. There is, however, a linguistic patchwork in Israel — Israeli Jews might speak Russian, French or English more commonly than Hebrew, and Arabic speakers might speak a dialect such as Bedouin that would be difficult for those speaking another dialect, such as Palestinian, to understand.

What all of this serves to illustrate is that relationships between countries and cultures in the Middle East are not to be viewed through the prism of solely — or even mainly — religious differences (Jews versus Muslims, Sunni versus Shia). Rather, there is an underlying cultural and linguistic story, one which is known in Europe and throughout the world: longstanding ethnocultural enmities, with religious differences serving only to obscure these underlying causes. In much the same manner, lazy commentators refer to the conflict in Northern Ireland as being Catholic versus Protestant, when it is in fact much more comprehensible as a conflict about ethnic origin and political worldview.

Saudi Arabia and Iran fight by proxy in Yemen

Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two largest and most powerful actors in the region, and relations between them are strained, to say the least — with the religious Sunni/Shi’a divide playing a major role in this rivalry, but a large portion of the enmity rooted in centuries of mutual cultural suspicion.

Iran has been beset by internal protests, and US President Donald Trump has repudiated a peace deal with Iran achieved by his predecessor Barack Obama (though other Western powers continue to back it). Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has promised internal reforms, but there has been no change in the country’s position on Iran, or vice versa.

This rivalry is being played out via a squalid proxy war in the poorest country in the entire region, Yemen. Saudi Arabia suspects Iran of having backed the Shi’a Houthi rebels who seized control of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, in 2014, overthrowing the Sunni-led government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi (with the assistance of his predecessor and former boss, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who later turned on the Houthi rebels, tried to take control of the capital from them, and was killed by his erstwhile allies).

Saudi-led forces, which include the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been bombing Yemen using British and American planes, hardware and weaponry since 2015, aiming to oust the Houthi rebels. The UN has described those attacks as indiscriminate, with civilian areas being shelled and more than 10,000 people being killed. The resulting humanitarian catastrophe has led to 22 million (three-quarters of the population) being left in desperate need of basic aid and protection. Since the death of Saleh, and the unqualified support given to Saudi Arabia by President Trump, the prospect of peace in Yemen looks as remote as ever.

Iranian efforts to undermine Saudi-backed rule

In Bahrain and the east of Saudi Arabia, Iran has looked to undermine Saudi or Saudi-allied rule by fomenting unrest among the Shia populations there. A Shia uprising in Bahrain in 2012 led to the Saudis sending armed forces across the border to help put it down. Iran is still accused of supporting militant groups with weapons, intelligence and training, but also of using its financial clout to skirt sanctions and sponsor spies, lobbyists and militia elsewhere. The UK and the USA both operate military bases in Bahrain, from which they can reinforce their naval presence in the Gulf. Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are key allies in the region for the NATO powers. They have even expressed support, against Iran, for that traditional enemy of many Arab countries, Israel.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt versus Qatar

Qatar is a small, oil-wealthy state, led by emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, which hit headlines in 2017 when its more powerful neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, imposed sanctions on it for what they described as Qatar’s support for terrorism and extremism. In a bizarre series of events in the days following US President Donald Trump’s meeting with Gulf leaders in Riyadh in May 2017, news broke of statements attributed to the emir, which the latter denied making, expressing support for rapprochement with Iran.

The Saudis claimed that Qatar had become too close to Iran and Israel, as well as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria. It was subsequently claimed that the state-run Qatar News Agency had been hacked to publish those statements. Not unreasonably, Qatar asked how it could be possible that it was simultaneously supporting Shi’a Iran and Sunni extremists, including ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood, which despise Iran, as well as supporting Israel at the same time as Hamas and Hezbollah. Others noticed the irony of Saudi Arabia accusing Qatar of funding Islamic extremism, given its own record in that area.

On June 5-6, 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, the Maldives and Bahrain all broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar, with borders closed and trade restricted. Qatari nationals and diplomats were expelled from those countries, and demands were made that Qatar shut down the Al Jazeera television network (which had been perceived as a source of criticism of the Saudi regime); close Turkish military bases in Qatar; expel resident members of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood; and pay reparations to make up for several years of being troublesome. Kuwait and Oman, fearful of the power of Saudi Arabia in the region, remained neutral. The economic impact has been largely neutralized by the continuing trade relationship between Qatar and other countries, particularly Turkey and Russia, though the sanctions remain in place as of summer 2018.

Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel face off in Lebanon and Syri

One of the key allegations made by opponents of Iran is that it is using Shi’a proxy organizations to throw its weight around throughout the region, and Hezbollah is the foremost among them. Israel and Saudi Arabia both fear the influence of Iran in Lebanon via Hezbollah, as well as the role of both in the Syrian civil war (in support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad). The origins of Hezbollah’s power lie in its resistance to Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon between 1985 and 2000 — it was credited with forcing Israeli withdrawal in 2000 and again in 2006, following another period of occupation.

Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni who had led a coalition government that included Hezbollah ministers as well as Sunnis and Christians, mysteriously and suddenly resigned his office while on a visit to Saudi Arabia in November 2017. His resignation was widely perceived to have been somehow forced by Saudi Arabia, which wanted to undermine Hezbollah’s position in the country in advance of imposing sanctions on the organization. Hezbollah, however, turned that situation to its own advantage, rallying the country behind the government against foreign influence, with Hariri subsequently withdrawing his resignation. It seems that Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon as a virtual state within a state has been entrenched, including in the country’s military and security services, and that Iran’s influence has been further enhanced, contrary to intention, by Saudi meddling.

Hezbollah’s role in Syria, however, has raised its profile, membership and capabilities to a different plane. Though it has lost in the region of 1,200 members in that brutal civil war, fighting alongside the Syrian government and the Russians against the Free Syrian Army and ISIS, it has also honed its fighting skills and has recruited many more fighters, while acquiring tanks and sophisticated weaponry. Much of that growth has been funded directly by Iran. The organization has been credited with protecting Lebanon’s borders against ISIS and al-Qaeda extremists, another reason for its popularity in Lebanon — and not just among the Shi’a population. More strategically, Hezbollah’s position in Syria creates a direct corridor between Beirut and Tehran, and it is unlikely that either Hezbollah or the Iranian government will want to see that link severed upon conclusion of the civil war. It also gives Hezbollah a strong presence along a long stretch of Israel’s northern borders. Taken together with the Iranian political and economic dominance of Iraq since the construction of a post-Saddam coalition government in Baghdad, Saudi and Israeli fears of Iranian regional hegemony are easy to understand.

For the moment, Hezbollah (and thus Iran) are perceived to have the upper hand against Saudi Arabia and Israel in the propaganda war taking place in Lebanon and Syria, but the situation is fluid. Israel, which accuses Hezbollah of assisting the Sunni Islamist Palestinian militant organization Hamas by building rocket and missile factories for them as well as providing them with bases in Lebanon, has threatened military action. Israel has also been a prime mover in convincing President Trump to reimpose American sanctions on Iran, previously withdrawn by former President Barack Obama when a multilateral agreement on scaling back the Iranian nuclear program was reached.

Turkey and the Kurds in Syria and Iraq

The war against Sunni extremists ISIS in both Iraq and Syria saw some desperate and heroic fighting by, among others, the Iraqi Kurdish fighters of the Peshmerga (literally “Those who face death”) and the Syrian YPG (People’s Protection Units). The traditional Kurdish homelands lie to the north of Syria and Iraq, crossing the borders of both into Turkey. The expansion of the so-called Islamic State threatened those lands with the type of fanatical barbarianism witnessed elsewhere in the region. The Peshmerga and the YPG managed to stave off ISIS at a time when they seemed to be unstoppable, and stories of the bravery of its male and female fighters inspired many westerners to travel to join them in their fight.

Militant Kurdish nationalists, particularly the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) have been involved in a guerrilla campaign against Turkey, in which the bulk of the Kurdish territories lie, since 1984, in opposition to Turkey’s ban on acknowledging their separate ethnolinguistic identity and in an effort to bring about a cross-border Kurdish state. Turkey responded forcefully to the campaign, with tens of thousands of Kurds killed in its efforts to crush the insurgency (the Kurdish militants have killed over 8,000 people). A ceasefire of nearly five years ended in 2004, and a two-year ceasefire ended in 2015. One of the reasons for the latter was that Turkey had begun shelling Kurdish forces in Iraq while they were fighting ISIS.

Kurdish forces in Iraq were (and are) backed by the US-led coalition forces there — the CIA trained the Peshmerga, who played a key role in the conflict that led to Saddam Hussein’s fall. Turkey is a strategically important member of NATO. Thus, Western powers have been placed in a dilemma. They do not wish to alienate Turkey, even under its increasingly autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but they also see the Kurds as allies in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts and post-conflict environments. They continue to fight alongside each other against ISIS.

Erdogan is angry about what is perceived as NATO collaboration with, and empowerment of, terrorists bent on dismembering Turkey. The Turks have thus carried out a number of attacks against the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, despite the Kurds helping spearhead the US fight against ISIS. This has led to US commanders on the ground warning that they and hundreds of American troops were prepared to engage with Turkish forces to protect their Kurdish allies. Turkey sent troops to take control of the Kurdish Syrian enclave of Afrin in January 2018, threatening to then move on to the town of Manbij, where US special forces were operating in alliance with the Kurdish YPG. The Americans threatened to open fire on their NATO “allies” if they did.

In an effort to appease Erdogan, former US President Barack Obama agreed to Kurdish forces being pulled back to the east of the River Euphrates, and an agreement was reached to pull Kurdish militia out of Manbij in June 2018. However, the Kurds are in turn threatening to pull back from the frontline of the fight against ISIS if they feel that they are in danger of being betrayed, and many Americans, including the Pentagon and many military commanders, share their concerns. It is difficult to see how Western powers will ultimately be able to square this circle.


The Middle East is a region that has been beset by tribal conflict for many hundreds of years. Conflicts have been massively compounded by 19th and 20th century Western imperialism, with its history of disastrous interventionism, its arbitrary and unnatural political boundaries and its callous diplomatic model of “divide and rule.” Add in the extreme religious zealotry associated with Sunni Wahhabism and revolutionary Shiism, and the transformation of regional politics by oil-based wealth, and then there is the perfect mix for decades of intractable political and military conflict. Every attempt to help solve these problems seems to create more. By comparison, Westeros seems like a model of peaceful coexistence.