Re-Orient? – An overview of the Arab revolutions and the balance of power in the Middle East


  • Mikael Eriksson

Publish date: 2012-03-12

Report number: FOI-R--3278--SE

Pages: 94

Written in: English


  • Arab Spring
  • Arab revolutions
  • popular revolts
  • peace
  • geopolitics
  • non-violence
  • conflict
  • crisis
  • power balance
  • Middle East
  • security policy
  • protests
  • demonstrations


This study investigates the security implications of the Arab revolutions by analysing whether any new geostrategic dynamics have developed in the Middle East as a result of the ongoing and predominantly non-violent Arab revolutions. The aim is to analyse if any geopolitical changes have occurred and, if they have, what forms these have taken. The study is mainly confined to interstate relations in the Middle East, not including the Arab Spring events in North Africa (these are covered in a previous FOI report: see Eriksson 2011a). On the basis of empirical records chronicling domestic political developments in each state (provided in the stand-alone Addendum), this study draws a number of conclusions about what regional foreign policy and security implications the revolts have had. The main conclusion in this study is that no profound geostrategic change per se has taken place in the Middle East as a result of the Arab revolutions. Although relations between states have changed to varying degrees, the revolts taking place in the region during 2011 and early 2012 have for now primarily come to have domestic and foreign policy implications in each challenged state. For example, the region's key states - Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - have not been significantly affected by the revolutions. Their security environment has changed, but this does not mean that the geostrategic situation has altered drastically in comparison with the pre-revolutionary phase. Yet, several states in the region are quickly approaching a "tipping point" as a consequence of the developments inside Syria. The country so far most affected by the revolts in the region is Syria under the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Several countries have also had to adapt and adjust their policy towards the emerging civil war. However, the situation can change rapidly in geostrategic terms as well. A Syria breaking up in violence can, for example, have severe and rapid security implications for key countries like Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, and Israel. Furthermore, the international community, notably the UN Security Council, is increasingly being locked into a stalemate with regard to Syria. Most Western countries, together with an increasing number of Arab countries, are in disagreement with Russian and Chinese interests. In February nearly 70 states meet in Tunis to establish a contact-group for Syria, the so-called friends-of-Syria group, inter alia for the purpose of unlocking the political stalemate. An important factor that suggests that Syria will attract foreign interest in the time to come, not least from the US, is the considerable implications a fall of the al-Assad regime may have for Iran's future role in the region. Another conclusion is that the US hegemony in the region is still in place. This hegemony has implications for the entire political, economic and military dynamic in the region. The US maintains its support to democratic forces as well as its relations with authoritarian governments. On the regional level the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League are playing increasingly important roles. The GCC has invited Jordan and Morocco to join the organisation in a bid to support these two monarchies and the stability of the organisation's members. There are indications that GCC forces may continue to play a regional role (especially since the US has shown support of this idea). The Arab League has also come to play an increasingly important role, initially by granting support for the external intervention in Libya, but more recently through its adoption of targeted sanctions against Syria. The League's role is likely to grow as events progress. Moreover, the contours of the security landscape in the Middle East will continue to be indistinct for some time because the new elements affecting the security dynamics in the region will have to come to terms with the former political structures and existing military interests. Depending on the political outcomes in some states (e.g. the survival of old regimes), the implications for other states could be either dramatic or negligible. This in turn will be shaped by different and parallel processes. However, worth noting in this context is that political structures and power bases can withstand the ousting of political leaders. Although the study finds that no profound geostrategic changes have occurred, it also recognises that old security dilemmas and armed conflicts persist. What is new is that new norms, orders, actors and interests have emerged due to the regime adjustments (and regime behaviour). These will change the security landscape in the long-term perspective. Important factors that may influence the security landscape in the region in the near future include: the survival of the al-Assad regime in Syria and the unfolding of the civil war in Syria; Iran's use of the Arab revolutions to further its own influence in the region, including its confrontation with Western governments; the nature of Egypt's orientation towards Israel and Iran; the position of Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis events in the region (e.g. Yemen); the extent of Turkey's meddling in Middle East turbulence; and the implications of an unresolved conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people. As this study primarily analyses the implications of the Arab revolutions, future research needs to combine these repercussions with already existing tensions and conflicts in the region. This was beyond the scope of the present study. After all, a number of existing security developments unfolding prior to the Arab revolutions will contribute to shape the region as well as the broader security agenda. The main challenges ahead that will affect the peace, security and stability of the region, including its relations with the international community, include the potential confrontation with Iran, the United States' downsizing of its troops in Iraq, the stability of Saudi Arabia, the presence of terrorists, and the resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In particular, the latter will pose a challenge for the region as several third-party actors have political and economic stakes and interests in supporting Israel. A further democratisation of the Arab world will most likely lead to more radical positions vis-à-vis Israel. Israel is currently more isolated than ever. Finally, as the regional security environment is being re-oriented, some general observations highlighted in this study suggest that democracy takes time to take root and that support for democratic forces in the region needs long-term engagement not least by neighbouring European states. As power vacuums will have to be filled, there is no room to leave the unfolding political processes to their fate. There are many actors both in the region and outside that want to exercise influence in such volatile situations, not all of them with good intentions. Sweden and the EU can play an important role to support this region's democratic forces.