Four aspiring hegemonic powers currently contend for influence and power in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel. Their mineral wealth, military power and economic development, as these were available to them, has enabled these states to develop their own spheres of influence and form their own alliances. These alliances have influenced, and, sometimes acted in opposition to, major global powers, including the USA, France and Russia. In their actions and behaviour, these states illustrate the understanding of hegemony as the political, economic, or military predominance or control of one state over others, or the ability of a particular state to command certain material and symbolic resources that influence the behaviour of other states and actors.
The past four years have also seen uprisings and citizens in the region demanding greater participation in governance. This led to the transitions in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, and violent rebellions in Libya and Syria. These shifting developments have spawned new alliances and undermined old ones, with various state actors positioning themselves against each other. Currently, we might refer to three main axes in the region: one led by Saudi Arabia; another by Iran; and the third by Turkey. Middle powers such as Qatar and the UAE have also punched above their weight, influencing the stances of the bigger powers and through their financial weight altering the paths of local struggles such as those in Libya. The US pivot eastward, increased Russian assertiveness, and the Iranian nuclear deal will influence these dynamics and the region’s short to medium term future.
Three historical events have played a key role in shaping the region’s trajectory. The 1979 Iranian revolution upended the status quo in the region, especially as the new regime headed by Ayatollah Khomeini sought to export its revolution. Fearful of the threat this might pose to their rule, the gulf monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, formed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981. Two blocs were thus to crystallise; one led by Iran and the other by the Saudis. Various conflicts in the region saw the involvement of these blocs, supporting opposing parties in attempts to increase their spheres of influence. This was exacerbated by the actions of outside actors which supported or withheld support from different parties, and became militarily and economically involved.
The third event was the rise to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, and that country’s subsequent attempts to rebuild relations with its Levantine neighbours, catalysing many regional developments. Especially after the 2011 uprisings, which saw dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya being forced out, Turkey sought to increase its influence, particularly through its links with Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia. Turkey attempted to form a bloc with Qatar that would maintain amicable relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran.
A fourth aspirant hegemon, Israel, is not part of any of these blocs, but has attempted to dominate the region since its establishment in 1948. Not possessing the means for cultural hegemony, it sought to expand territorially. Buoyed by its powerful military and superpower patronage, Israel controls all of what was Mandate Palestine, and has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan that are very beneficial for it.
The three axes converged in Syria wherein each supported different factions. Israel played a more contradictory role, maintaining relations with some rebel groupings, yet fearing the regime’s fall. An unfortunate consequence has been that the initial struggle for increased rights by ordinary Syrians has been eclipsed, and the conflict is now a geopolitical one, with the USA and Russia also involved. Syria’s instability also resulted in the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group. The three axes are also challenging each other in different ways in Yemen and on the issue of Palestinian reconciliation.
The Afro-Middle East Centre’s conference will seek to make sense of these dynamics as experts and political role-players will discuss these issues. Among other issues, the conference will discuss:
the intentions, motivations and aspirations of the main regional alliances;
how these unfold in influencing the current conflicts engulfing the region;
the role of IS within these developments; and
The role of foreign powers.
MONDAY, 7 December 2015
Banquet Dinner & Keynote address
Hegemon formation in the MENA region – Lina Khatib
TUESDAY, 8 December 2015
Session 1: Theoretical Overview of hegemons and counterrevolutions
What makes a hegemon? – Steven Friedman
Transitions and counterrevolutions in the MENA region: 2011-2015 – Ayesha Kajee
Session 2: Major axes in the MENA region: Interests and impacts
A new lease of life for the ‘Resistance Axis’? – Reza Marashi
An assertive ‘Moderate axis’ – Jamal Khashoggi
An embattled Brotherhood axis –
Session 3: Other MENA powers
Middle state powers: the roles of Qatar and the UAE – Khalid al-Mazeini
The growth of the Islamic State group and the redrawing of borders – Omar Shaukat
The Kurdish resurgence and its regional impact – Cengiz Gunes
WEDNESDAY, 9 December 2015
Session 4: The interventions of foreign powers in the MENA region
Enduring involvement of the United States and the European Union – Phyllis Bennis
Not letting go: Russia and the BRICS countries – Irina Zvyagelskaya
Session 5: A constant fact in Middle East politics – Palestinians and the Israeli occupation
Israel’s hegemonic aspirations in the Middle East – Ran Greenstein
Palestinian politics reflecting a clash of axes – Rabab Abdelhadi
Palestinians beyond axes – Na’eem Jeenah
Session 6: Future of the MENA region: Convergences and divergences
The increasing integration of the GCC and its impact on the actions of Gulf monarchies –
Iran after the nuclear agreement: eventual acceptance or continued resistance – Emad Kiyaei
What future for ‘Islamist democrats’ after the Egyptian coup – Abdul Mowgoud Dardery
Session 7: Closing Session