The Middle East – A New Cold War?

By John Keller | USA

The Middle East is a region that has long been a region of rivalry and conflict, and as the Cold War (1947-1991) between the United States and the Soviet Union has ended, many begin to speculate where the next area of global tension will arise. Based on historical trends and the nature of the Cold War, it is theorized that the Middle East is now experiencing its own Cold War.

The Cold War itself was a global struggle between democracy and communism, East against West. A similar set of circumstances has been brewing in the Middle East. Two camps have evolved in a more or less East versus West stance.

Before the two camps, or rivalries can be developed it is important to note why they have. The root cause is simple – America’s foreign policy. The American foreign policy in the region has been one of interventionism – intervening in other sovereign nations affairs for the interests of the United States, not the people of Middle East. As a result, many Middle Eastern nations’ opinions of the US, and the West have been soured.

In a New York Times article titled ‘U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Spring’ by Ron Nixon, published 14 April 2011, the Arab Spring was acknowledged to be a result of American involvement:

“…as American officials and others look back at the uprisings of the Arab Spring, they are seeing that the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.”

If the United States was involved in the Arab Spring, what was the result of American involvement? Violence and instability. The Arab Spring lasted from December 2010 until December of 2012, and in the course of those 24 months, over 14 nations were destabilized, of which five sovereign governments were overthrown and two civil wars erupted, in Syria and Bahrain.

The Syrian Civil War still continues, and the Syrian Center for Policy and Research (SCPR) reports that over 470,000 have been killed in the course of the continuing conflict, with 5,116,097 refugees registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as of July 2017. The United States, under the Obama Presidency (2008-16) adopted an ‘Assad Must Go’ policy and began backing the rebels – making the Syrian Civil War, and the ensuing refugee crisis a major issue in the 2016 presidential election, in which Donald Trump won campaigning on against the Assad must go policy – although Rex Tillerson, Trump’s Secretary of State announced that, “Assad’s role in the future is uncertain… it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people” as reported by Spencer Ackerman on 11 April 2017 in an article he wrote for The Guardian.

This is one in-depth example of the United States meddling in foreign affairs, but it is consistent throughout the Middle East – a theme highlighted in an article by David Vine for Politico Magazine published August 2015, pointing out the U.S. invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, and deployment of troops in 14 Middle Eastern nations: Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

As a result of such heavy influence and involvement, two camps have formed in the Middle East, a pro-American and anti-American camp. Leading the Anti-American Coalition is Iran, with allies such as Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, while the Pro-American Coalition is led by Saudi Arabia and Israel, backed by nations such as Iraq and Kuwait. These camps, roughly, draw an East-West divide in the Middle East, as the world was divided during the Cold War.

Characterizing the Cold War was two key issues: influence and an arms race. These same subjects dominate Middle Eastern policy and discussions. Reports from Our World in Data and Statistics Times show that Saudi Arabia has increased its military spending by 4.62% in the past four years, spending over $80,000,000,000 in 2015 alone, a $13,000,000,000 increase from 2013. The Saudi Arabian Government is the world’s 3rd largest military spender in the world, despite being ranked 19th in global GDP; while Iran had the 19th largest military expenditure, although only being 31st in global GDP.

With such high spending, it is evident that both nations are racing each other to see who can have the larger, stronger military to dominate the region. Saudi Arabia’s influence is strong in the region, developed in part due to their involvement in the affairs of Yemen and their civil war. Based on the growing influence of the nations in the region it can be concluded that these factions are developed and further developing as time wears on, and the Second Cold War that has formed in the Middle East could be the power struggle of the new generation.

These events are highlighted in a major recent development, the Iranian Missile Crisis of November 2017. Max Greenwood, in an article for The Hill published on 10 November 2017 reports that:

“Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the top Air Force official in the Middle East, said Friday that the ballistic missile fired by Yemeni rebels toward the Saudi capital last week was manufactured by Iran.”

This crisis resembles the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) in which Russian missiles in Cuba threatened the U.S. Capitol. Diplomacy smoothed out the crisis, as it has recently, but the parallels are eerie. A regional power, giving missiles to an underpowered state in a prime location to threaten the rival capital.

The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States to the brink of war with Russia, as it brought Saudi Arabia to the brink of war with Iran. Throughout the tension, and believed to attribute to the regional crisis, was the Saudi Arabian house arrest of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a key ally to the Iranian government, and seemingly provoking an Israeli-Lebanese Conflict. The tension in the region very much parallels global tensions in the 1960s.

Another parallel to be drawn is the involvement of the major powers in minor conflicts. As the United States got involved in Vietnam, so too has Saudi Arabia in the Yemeni Civil War, as well as involving itself with the Islamic State (ISIS), as revealed by former Qatar Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani who was quoted in a Middle East Eye article, when talking about supporting anti-state militias in the Middle East, “King Abdullah said we are with you, take lead and we will coordinate.”

Saudi Arabia has been exerting increasing influence in the region, and as the United States had during the Cold War and the more this trend continues the closer the region comes to a total war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Cold War finally ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, due to its poor economy and sheer size, but such an issue does not face Iran or Saudi Arabia. The Cold War was able to peacefully end due to diplomacy and the collapse of the rival state.

With no such solution possible as the rivalry grows and diplomacy decreases, one can only speculate that the new Cold War in the Middle East will end in fury and fire when the regional tension snaps and the drums of war beat louder than the voices of peace.