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Hugh White's Middle East doesn't exist

Hugh White's Middle East doesn't exist
Published 26 Jun 2013   Follow @RodgerShanahan

I really enjoy reading Hugh White's work on regional security, but as a Middle East analyst, he makes a good China pundit.

While I agree with Hugh that these are troubled times, the Middle East is hardly in the process of disintegrating. Hugh's view that modern state structures are collapsing is not supported by any evidence either in his article or on the ground. Autocratic regimes of one sort have been toppled in some states, but it is by no means clear whether the new systems will be any less autocratic.

Post-Ottoman borders have proven remarkably enduring, with the obvious exception of Palestine and Israel. The ill-fated merger of Egypt and Syria in 1958 failed after a few years, Jordan won its bloody 'Black September' war against the PLO in 1970-71, the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s left the borders and regimes intact, as did the 1991 Gulf War. The borders of the Levant have remained accepted if undemarcated in large parts; the fact that warring parties travel across them is hardly new.

In order to understand the region's politics one needs to understand history and religion. Hugh ignores both. Lebanon, for instance, never had a single authoritarian figure because the state was designed to be weak; a series of communal leaders have ensured political stability.

The 1958 crisis showed just how weak the state was and presaged the civil war that broke out nearly 20 years later. The failure of the rigid confessional political system (deliberately designed to favour Christians) to keep up with demographic changes, as well as the Arab world's willingness to give Palestinians the freedom to operate in Lebanon, ultimately led to its 15-year civil war. Hugh's claim that it hasn't been put back together in any durable way post-Taif Accord shows a lack of understanding of the founding nature of the republic. Lebanon was never 'together' to begin with.

I also think the Saudis would take exception to Hugh's description of Iran (which has problems with Kurds, Baluchis and Azeris, to name a few) as more natural and cohesive than its neighbours because its borders weren't drawn as a consequence of Sykes-Picot. The Saudis take great pride in the fact that Ibn Saud was the one who effectively created the country and set its boundaries. [fold]

I found it hard to follow Hugh's claim that the Iranian Revolution helped erode the legitimacy of secularism elsewhere in the region. The Iranian Revolution has never been successfully exported. Despite hyped-up media claims, a Shi'a theocratic model of governance has little attraction for most Arab Shi'a, despite Tehran's best attempts. In the early 1980s it failed to gain ground among the Kuwaiti and other Gulf communities, and Hizbullah remains its only proponent outside Iran (aside from some Iraqi Islamists elements co-opted over the years).

Nowhere has revolutionary Iranian Shi'ism eroded the legitimacy of secularism, largely because secularism is itself such a contested issue and arguably doesn't exist in the way Hugh thinks of it. Syrian and Iraqi Ba'thism at the highest levels ended up serving as cover for the political dominance of a minority community over the majority. The concept of political secularism is a recent phenomenon and a thin patina covering what are highly sectarian societies. Religious identity matters, and it always has.

Time and space precludes me from touching on the other areas of Hugh's piece that portray a region that simply doesn't exist as he describes it. I agree with Hugh's view that we are living in interesting times in the Middle East, a variation on a Chinese proverb that he is undoubtedly familiar with.

Photo by Flickr user davecito.

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