For centuries, the Middle East has served as the crossroads of empires, given its geostrategic location between Europe and Asia. In the twentieth century, the discovery of oil there fueled modern-day rivalries between foreign powers looking to exploit the resource. World War I established British and French dominance in the region, while the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union fueled arms races and conflicts across the Middle East. Following British and French withdrawals and the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States became the dominant foreign superpower active in the region. But the disastrous occupation of Iraq, the faltering of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, and the dramatic rise in American oil and gas production have reduced the United States’ commitment to the region, creating a vacuum filled by countries like China, Russia, and Turkey. Likewise, regional powers—namely Iran and Saudi Arabia—back rival governments and armed groups in their escalating competition for regional dominance, inflaming the Middle East’s already-fragile political situation.
Saudi Arabia and Iran: The Middle East’s Cold War
It doesn’t take long to find conflict in the Middle East. War rages on in Syria. Yemen is in the midst of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Lebanon’s government is consistently roiled by political infighting. And what do these conflicts all have in common? Behind the scenes, two powerful countries—Iran and Saudi Arabia (with support from the United Arab Emirates)—are supporting opposite sides, providing weapons, funneling money, manipulating politicians, and even participating directly in the fighting. Their rivalry revolves around an intense competition to be the dominant power in the region. Iran aims to extend its financial influence and military presence all the way to the Mediterranean by supporting proxy forces in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, a Sunni country, is determined to limit Iran’s expansion into what it sees as its region of influence, particularly in bordering Bahrain, Iraq, and Yemen. Iran and Saudi Arabia have never directly gone to war, but their power competition affects conflicts throughout the Middle East.
Global Significance of Oil Fuels Competition in Region
Though the Middle East accounts for just 4 percent of global GDP, the region carries an outsize importance in the world economy given its abundance of two natural resources: oil and natural gas. These resources power cars, supply electricity to cities, and fuel freighters that ship goods around the world. The Middle East controls so much of the world’s energy supply that when oil and gas prices rise in the Middle East, prices around the world rise as well. Much of this oil—around 20 percent of the world’s total supply—passes through a narrow body of water known as the Strait of Hormuz, which separates Iran from the Gulf countries. So strategic is this strait that experts refer to it as the jugular of the global economy. Recently, however, competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran has escalated into a series of Iran-sponsored attacks on tankers and Saudi oil installations around the strait, prompting global oil price fluctuations and concerns over the potential for broader regional conflict. The United States has strongly supported its partner, Saudi Arabia, by leveling sanctions, cyberattacks, and direct military action against Iran.
Syria Becomes Battlefield for International Proxy War
Countries outside the Middle East have intervened in the region’s affairs repeatedly, often to advance competing economic, political, and other strategic interests. These interventions frequently turn domestic conflicts into far larger and deadlier wars. Syria is a prime example. In 2011, Syrians protested the oppressive rule of president Bashar al-Assad. The government responded with violence, plunging the country into civil war. But the conflict didn’t stay local. Countries around the world poured money, weapons, and fighters into Syria in support of their various agendas. Russia and Iran defended the Assad government, their longtime partner. The United States and Europe backed opposition factions in a bid to depose Assad. Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar supported opposing Islamist groups. Israel launched air strikes and Turkey rolled in its tanks, both to counter perceived domestic threats. Meanwhile, Syrians suffered as their once peaceful, local protests devolved into an international proxy war.
The Islamic State: Defeated but Not Eliminated
At its peak, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, controlled territory in Iraq and Syria larger than the size of Great Britain,with a population greater than Sweden’s. It took an international military coalition of more than seventy countries to uproot the extremist group from the cities it held. But the campaign came at great cost, destroying entire cities and killing thousands of civilians. In the battle for Raqqa, Syria, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, the United States launched more artillery shells than anywhere since the Vietnam War. Though the Islamic State no longer holds territory in Iraq and Syria, it continues to pose a global threat. Hundreds—if not thousands—of its members evaded capture, returning to the group’s roots of carrying out hit-and-run operations in the region. Meanwhile, new Islamic State chapters continue to inspire, coordinate, and carry out attacks in Afghanistan, Libya, Sri Lanka, West Africa, and elsewhere around the world.
Foreign Countries Struggle to Repatriate Former Islamic State Fighters
From 2011 to 2017, more than forty thousand foreign fighters from 110 countries traveled to Iraq and Syria to join terrorist groups, including the Islamic State. After largely defeating the Islamic State on the battlefield, Western-backed forces captured thousands of foreign fighters and their families, who now face legal uncertainty. Many European countries refuse to bring their citizens home. They fear the danger these fighters pose yet often lack the evidence to try them in European courts. (Despite European objections, Turkey has begun forcibly repatriating dozens of former fighters to Europe from territory it controls inside Syria.) The alternative is to leave foreign citizens in Iraq and Syria, sending them to local courts where scores have been sentenced to death in hasty and heavily criticized trials. With no legal resolution in sight, thousands languish in jails and displacement camps, including women and children who were forced to join the Islamic State.
Backed by Iran, Hezbollah Exerts Influence in Lebanon, Syria
Hezbollah, or “Party of God” in Arabic, is a Shiite Muslim armed group and political party in Lebanon. The group emerged in the 1980s to resist Israel’s invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon. Pledging its loyalty to Iran’s leader at the time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Hezbollah called for the destruction of Israel and the expulsion of Western forces from the region. It quickly gained popular support, both for its attacks against Israeli and Western targets and for the social services it provided to marginalized Shiite communities. Today, Hezbollah is a highly influential part of Lebanon’s government, controlling several state ministries. Its popularity, however, has fallen since the group entered Syria’s civil war to fight for the oppressive Assad government, which many in the region saw as a war against fellow Arabs. But Iran has used this opportunity to fund and equip the militant group, prompting air strikes from Israel and risking further escalation in the region.
Hezbollah’s Financing Operations Span Globe
In 2010, the Barack Obama administration called Hezbollah “the most technically capable terrorist group in the world.” Central to this capability is the group’s highly sophisticated global terror-financing network. Hezbollah receives funding each year from Iran, with some government estimates as high as $700 million. But it also generates millions from illicit operations around the world. Hezbollah is heavily involved in the drug trade in the Middle East, smuggling operations in South America, and the conflict diamond industry in West Africa. Hezbollah members even made millions of dollars in the United States through an illegal cigarette smuggling scheme on the East Coast. This vast underground economy frustrates law enforcement worldwide and funds the group’s far-reaching domestic and regional operations.
Israel: The Middle East’s Lone Nuclear Power?
Israel is widely believed to be the only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons, though it has purposely maintained ambiguity about its nuclear capabilities in an attempt to avoid a regional nuclear arms race. Israel’s official policy is that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the region, but it will not be the second either. Though Israel maintains conventional military superiority over its neighbors, it fears that another country obtaining a weapon of mass destruction could pose an existential threat. This concern has led Israel to destroy nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria and to threaten to do the same in Iran.
Regional Organizations Fail to Mediate Middle East’s Conflicts
Middle Eastern leaders in the 1950s and 1960s championed Pan-Arabism, an ideology that called for political unity and economic cooperation across countries in the region. But, today, there is little that politically binds the Middle East, leaving weak multilateral organizations unable to address the region’s serious challenges. The Arab League brings together twenty-two member countries, but the group has struggled to promote security and prosperity where other regional institutions such as the European Union or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have succeeded. (The Arab League’s summits have become a point of humor in the region—leaders have been caught sleeping during speeches.) There is also the Gulf Cooperation Council, which aspires to promote cooperation among the oil-rich Gulf countries. But it, too, is undercut by internal rivalries, which in 2017 led to an ongoing blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates because of concern over Qatar’s relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, an influential Islamist political group.
Nile River Becomes Battleground for Water Security
Egypt is the region’s largest country, and it is growing fast, adding more than one million people every six months. Approximately 95 percent of Egyptians live along the Nile River. But Egypt is not the only country with claims to the Nile. The majority of the river originates in Ethiopia, a rapidly developing country with a growing demand for energy. For generations, Egypt dictated water-sharing rights to its weaker, sub-Saharan neighbor. But when the Arab Spring threw Egypt into turmoil, Ethiopia moved to gain more control over the Nile’s waters, announcing plans to build Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam. Egypt fears the dam could limit its already strained water resources and has threatened political and military action to halt the dam’s construction. With both countries experiencing growing populations and worsening effects of climate change, control over limited water resources is a geopolitical challenge regarding not only the Nile but also the Middle East’s other contested rivers, including the Euphrates, Jordan, and Tigris.