The independent resource on global security

5. The greater Middle East



I. Introduction

II. The state system and associated issues

III. Region-wide and transnational challenges

IV. Military spending

V. Regionalism and cooperation

VI. Conclusions


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The greater Middle East is a region little penetrated by the political effects of globalization, but highly prone to ‘new-style’ transnational threats as well as older-style inter-state tensions. The apparent security deficit has recently drawn new efforts at international engagement and ‘region building’, by NATO and the EU among other organizations.


Much of the region’s state structure is of post-Ottoman creation, and has been shaken by several crises during its first century. Many boundaries and territories remain disputed. Apart from the dramatic regime changes in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are specific security issues linked with Syria and Lebanon, Turkey and the Kurds, and several others. Cutting across national and bilateral agendas are four main issues with region-wide impact: the USA’s military presence and security ambitions; the stubborn conflict between Israel and the Palestinians—where international peace efforts failed to set the agenda in 2004 despite new leadership on the Palestinian side; the regional fall-out of the Iraqi conflict; and terrorism, where local and outside states find it hard even to agree on the source and nature of the challenge.


Military expenditure by the region’s states is high and shows a rising trend since 1996. Conventional arms races are unconstrained, but developments related to weapons of mass destruction are the ones that receive international attention. The greatest current concern is over Iran, including its potential missile delivery capability. The number of multilateral institutional initiatives focused on the region has grown recently, while the level of home-bred regionalism remains very modest. NATO, apart from its operational engagement in Afghanistan and incipiently in Iraq, decided at its Istanbul Summit in July 2004 to enhance its existing Mediterranean Dialogue Initiative and to launch a new Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. The latter aims particularly to reach out to Arab partners and offers a menu of possible cooperation options for each state. Its impact on the region’s fundamental security problems may be inhibited, not just by political factors, but by NATO’s own limited focus and competence.


Among indigenous cooperation structures, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) aims to promote integration in several dimensions including joint military capabilities, but has made little progress in this direction. The Arab League made a declaration in March 2005 covering security issues in the Middle East and Sudan, and also support for the principle of political reform. In February 2004 Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco signed the Agadir Agreement, aiming to create a free trade area among themselves.

The EU and the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized nations, as well as the USA, have highlighted themes of democracy and good governance in their latest regional initiatives. The USA has earmarked some $70 million for aid related to reform in the region, while the G8 in June 2004 adopted new programmes including a joint ‘Forum for the Future’ with Middle Eastern and North African countries. The EU’s new Strategic Partnership with the Mediterranean and Middle East attempts to link economic relations with the promotion of good governance and security-related goals such as anti-terrorism and non-proliferation. Experience thus far suggests that the impact of EU ‘soft power’ on realities in the greater Middle East is still much inferior (for good or ill) to that of the USA’s exercise of ‘hard power'.


Basic questions still remain open about the inter-state order in this region: whether and how a Palestinian state will take root, and what will be the fate of the new Iraq. The risk of the whole order collapsing may be small but a zero-sum approach to coexistence and competition seems set to continue. An Iranian nuclear breakout and/or US retaliation could increase polarization among local actors, as well as instability. However, efforts are continuing to achieve more peaceful solutions, and the cost of the alternatives might yet cause calculations to shift in favour of a cooperative security approach.