Strategic Interests and Sectarianism: An Overview of the Emerging Geopolitics of the Middle East

Sent On: 
Wed, 2020-06-24
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Nadeem Ahmed Moonakal, former CAWU research intern and currently a Dr.TMA Pai Fellow and Ph.D. candidate, Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India, spoke at our webinar about the extremely volatile region that Egypt is located in. Egyptian authorities not only have to deal with numerous challenges inside the country but also challenges from outside. It is important to realize that the median age across the MENA region is nearly 26.8 years old. The January 25, 2011, revolution in Egypt to a large extent was carried by young people. The demonstrations in favour and opposed to president Mursi [Mursī] in the years 2012-2013 were also largely led by youth. President al-Sisi [al-Sīsī] is aware of the importance of youth for the development of Egypt and has organized several large youth conferences. But if states fall apart it is also the youth that plays a most important role; either through joining particular partisan groups or even militia in society or they try to flee to other parts of the world where they are able to build a future for themselves.

The strongest regional powers in the Middle East now are Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey that vie for wider influence in the region. These powers contest particularly in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Libya. These countries can be described as weak states lacking a coherent national identity or dealing with contending identities within their borders, lacking a clear hierarchy of political authority. Some of these countries also have a high level of political violence. It is often believed that religion plays a major role as an organising ideology, yet Iran’s international assertiveness is as much due to Iranian-Persian nationalism as it is to the dictates of Shi’ite clerics. The international policies that Iran’s clerics adopt are rarely driven by religious doctrine, but rather political strategies.


The U.S.A. has played a major role since the Second World War in the Middle East, first through support for the state of Israel, including military support for Israel in the wars of 1967and 1973 which has led to the occupation of Palestinian areas but also peace between Israel, Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994). The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 changed the geopolitical situation of the region even more, in particular since a number of policy decisions showed a lack of understanding of the region and coherence.


The U.S. dissolved the Baath party of Saddam Hussein [Ṣaddām Ḥussayn] and the Iraqi army. This led to a political vacuum in Iraq that turned the country into a theatre for competition between the U.S. and Iran with disgruntled Sunni Muslims contributing to the rise of the Islamic State. Some of the main opposition groups that the U.S. designated as official opposition political parties were eligible for U.S. assistance as per the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 but it turned out that many of these groups had very strong links to Iran. Iraqis are increasingly angered by mass unemployment, corruption, and permanent foreign interference since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Demonstrations seem to have become increasingly nationalistic and anti-sectarian in the eye of a common enemy. President Donald Trump decided to withdraw the remaining US forces from Iraq. They transferred four bases to Iraqi forces in March and April this year. The Intercept and The New York Times published about leaked intelligence reports that clearly point out how Iran executed its agendas in Iraq. The leaked reports suggested that following this withdrawal Iran has managed to add former CIA informants to its payroll.


Iran has increased its influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah. Iran is also assertive in using its asymmetric warfare capabilities in the straits of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandeb through which a very large percentage of the global energy trade happens. Several incidents of attacks have been reported in these maritime chokepoints and any pressure in these strategic locations will have direct effects on global energy trade.


Nadeem concludes that in the regional dynamics of the Middle East, identity plays a crucial and inevitable role. Rival states and movements exploit the highly divisive sectarian dichotomy between Sunni and Shia.


Sectarianism is instrumentalized because it has turned out to be an excellent tool to mobilize people. The disaster is of course that when one side frames the struggle in sectarian terms, its successes motivate its rivals to respond with similar identity-based mobilization of people.  Structural factors like state failure, civil war when combined with trans-national penetration, and interventions from extra-regional powers make several countries susceptible to invariable sectarian contestations and conflicts.


Egypt plays a major role in this as an ally of Saudi Arabia. Egypt has one the largest and experienced army in the Arab World and it is in Egypt’s interest to work towards stability in the region.


With the presentation of Nadeem, our students were able to see Egypt in the large context of the Middle East. It was also a warning for the disastrous consequences of sectarian policies.



June 24, 2020


Cornelis Hulsman,


Editor-in-Chief of Arab-West Report