Polarization in the Arab world fuels war. The much-cited clash between a vulnerable Saudi Arabia and a resurgent Iran—each supported by its respective allies—has fostered proxy wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen and hindered collective solutions to pressing regional security challenges.
Yet power in the Middle East is dispersing, too. In many ways, the heightened polarization is a reaction to this dispersal. The lighter U.S. footprint in the Arab world and the decreasing influence of traditional regional powers have left a leadership vacuum that others—such as Russia, Iran, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State—have taken advantage of in most damaging ways. Saudi Arabia pushes hard to rally Sunni allies around its cause. But many smaller and midsize powers, while benefiting from close collaboration with big regional players, are not necessarily keen on being parts of any cohesive, hegemon-led bloc.
The dispersal of power allows smaller states to take on bigger roles. There has emerged a new layer of ambitious small and midsize powers, each of which has sought to carve out an independent foreign policy profile and clout. These swing states—including widely diverse powers with often clashing interests, such as Qatar, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, and Egypt—can tilt the balance of power in the Middle East, for better or worse.
The strengthening of the geopolitical middle ground represents a structural change in the regional order—and an opportunity for European diplomacy. Policymakers in Brussels and across Europe are worried by how further polarization in the Middle East will affect regional security. At the same time, Europeans would like to see greater agency and commitment among regional powers to tackle Middle Eastern security challenges. In both respects, swing states can play important roles. Notwithstanding Europe’s very limited political influence in the Middle East, there are a number of entry points for the EU and its member states to help channel swing states’ ambition in constructive ways.
Profiling Swing States
A “global swing state” has been described by researchers Daniel Kliman and Richard Fontaine as a power whose “precise international role is . . . in flux” and whose mixed political orientation gives it a greater impact than its sheer size, population, or economic output would suggest. “Together,” the two authors argue, “these ‘global swing states’ hold the potential to renew the international order.”
Transferring some of these elements onto the regional level, the term “regional swing states” suggests neither the emergence of a new bloc nor any coherence in these states’ projected actions. Instead, the concept serves as a loose umbrella for the growing layer of middleweight state actors in the region that, despite their vast differences, share a number of characteristics.
Middle Eastern swing states represent a heterogeneous pool of the geopolitical middle ground, including both established and emerging powers. These states combine a certain geopolitical clout with a self-confidently proclaimed independence in foreign policy that potentially allows them to turn the tide on specific crises or dossiers. Some swing states may channel this potential in more constructive ways as balancers and partners for multilateral endeavors, while others may take on roles as spoilers.
Although they fall short of claiming regional dominance, these states have the determination (and often the means) to go their own way. Each country possesses important geopolitical assets that grant it a certain weight in regional matters, in a specific niche, or on a concrete issue. These assets may include traditional geopolitical strengths such as wealth in natural resources, a strategic location, control of key trade corridors, or military might as well as soft assets like religious authority, cultural influence, or ideological and political connections. Middle Eastern swing states walk a tightrope between appeasing traditional allies and exploring new options. Their precise regional role is in flux, swinging between allies as they seek to reposition themselves often in more prominent and, ultimately, more flexible ways.
Although many states in the Middle East display some features of swing states, five countries in the Middle East stand out as notable examples: Qatar, Turkey, the UAE, Oman, and Egypt.
Qatar, a Repentant Maverick
Seen by Doha as an opportunity to shape a nascent order, the 2011 Arab uprisings marked a turning point in Qatar’s foreign policy role from a regional conflict broker toward a decidedly interventionist actor, bolstered by the country’s booming gas industry. Now, five years on, Qatar is concentrating on damage control.
Doha has found itself on the losing side of geopolitical shifts. Discredited in transition states as an unwelcome meddler in others’ internal affairs and isolated in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) due to Doha’s regional support for Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, Qatar is reverting to a quieter, more conciliatory profile, building regional consensus and trying to reclaim some of the ground as a regional broker the country readily abandoned in 2011. Qatar’s falling out with the GCC is leading Doha to act more cautiously and avoid overstepping Saudi Arabia’s redlines—as witnessed, for example, in Doha’s close cooperation with Riyadh on Syria. A change of leadership in Doha in June 2013 has also helped ease Qatar’s ties to Saudi Arabia. The young Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani has adopted a more reconciliatory line than his father.
Qatar and Turkey both play important regional roles and prefer issue-based cooperation over structural alignments. Both have assertively followed their own agendas over the past decade, often against the tide and the preferences of dominant regional and global powers. And both have reached the limits of their expansionism.
Turkey’s decade of remarkable ascension in the 2000s has led to overstretch that Ankara now struggles to revert. Having positioned itself as a mediator in the region’s conflicts, Ankara shifted toward a more assertive, interventionist regional role in the wake of the 2011 uprisings—a move that did not pay off.
Like Qatar’s rulers, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) unsuccessfully placed its bets on the lasting establishment of political Islam as a governing force across the Middle East. Ankara’s relations with Iran, Russia, and the United States have also deteriorated. Analysts Soli Özel and Behlül Özkan have outlined how Ankara managed to waste much of its hard-earned geopolitical capital and unmask the once-hailed Turkish model of Islamist-led democracy in just a few years.
Turkey’s domestic plunge into increasingly overt authoritarianism is making global headlines. Ironically, however, the Syrian crisis and the refugee exodus it has produced, as well as the emergence of the Islamic State, have opened up new regional leverage for Turkey. Ankara’s gatekeeper role in regulating refugee flows from the Levant into the EU presents Turkey with an opportunity to regain some of its lost geopolitical ground. Turkey’s new marriage of convenience with the EU embodied in the March 2016 refugee deal, its key role in NATO, and its gradual rapprochement with Saudi Arabia since mid-2015 all point toward a Turkish reversion to pre-2011 foreign policy traditions, focused on mending ties with key allies as a means, not an obstacle, to a more prominent Turkish regional role.
The United Arab Emirates, an Emerging Power
The UAE initially followed Riyadh’s lead and backed Saudi counterrevolutionary efforts in the wake of the 2011 uprisings. Eventually, however, Abu Dhabi moved out from under the Saudi umbrella with diplomatic and military interventions, flanked by soft power tools such as financing think tanks, universities, and media outlets. Dubai is the Gulf’s financial and economic hub.
In advancing its profile as a regional player, the UAE has promulgated an image of itself as a successful governance model for the Arab world and a security partner for the West. Having developed military capabilities and shown their willingness to deploy them (including as the only Arab country to have sent troops to Afghanistan since 2007), the UAE’s leaders have adopted a new role that has been appreciated in Washington and Brussels. The emirate’s goal of countering Islamists, however, continues to strain relations with Qatar, most blatantly in the ongoing Libyan conflict, in which Abu Dhabi and Doha back opposing factions. The UAE is also a main sponsor of the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt and an active contributor to the Saudi intervention in the war in Yemen that began in 2015.
Saudi-Emirati ties, however, have grown tense as disagreements and broader Emirati concerns over Saudi Arabia’s regional role have intensified. Abu Dhabi is now willing to go its own way when interests diverge, so in many ways the development of relations will depend on how the Saudi leadership will deal with the emirate’s emancipation. The UAE’s downgrading of diplomatic ties with Iran in the wake of the severing of Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations in January 2016 reflects Abu Dhabi’s balancing act between Riyadh and Tehran.
Oman’s Quiet Diplomacy
While Oman lacks the others’ resources, geopolitical weight, and broader aspirations, its traditional neutrality in the Gulf has earned the sultanate an outsize significance as a mediator. Researcher Ana Echagüe has described how Oman has stood out as an outlier in Gulf foreign policy for decades. Choosing neutrality as a means to protect domestic stability, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, in power since 1970, runs a personalized, pragmatic, and largely bilateral foreign policy.
Unlike its fellow GCC members, Oman has upheld diplomatic relations with Damascus, has not joined air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria, and has been the only Gulf country not involved in Riyadh’s intervention in Yemen. Alongside long-standing security relations with the United States, Oman enjoys cordial relations with Iran and has used them to facilitate dialogue between Tehran and Washington. From 2013 onward, Oman quietly hosted U.S.-Iranian bilateral meetings that paved the way for the negotiations leading up to the June 2015 international deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Muscat has also played a vital role as a mediator in Yemen by searching for common ground among the parties to the conflict there.
Building on its long-standing reputation of neutrality (which is largely accepted by its neighbors), Oman is the swing state that has best managed the tightrope walk between Riyadh and Tehran. More recently, however, Muscat’s vocal opposition to Saudi Arabia’s push for greater political and military integration among Sunni Arab states and its cordial relations with Tehran have strained relations with Riyadh. Crucially, Oman’s mediation role is tied to the person of Sultan Qaboos, and it is uncertain whether a successor to the seventy-five-year-old ruler would continue on the same course.
Egypt on the Brink
In contrast to Qatar, the UAE, or Oman, Egypt is a large state playing a smaller role than its size and history would suggest. Although successive leaders in Egypt have vowed to restore Cairo’s lost regional standing and diversify its international alliances, independence in foreign policy has remained more aspiration than reality. Egypt’s swing state potential and agility are currently limited by the country’s pressing domestic problems and significant dependence on external patrons. Egyptian regional influence is therefore frequently exaggerated.
Despite its many ailments, however, Egypt retains a geopolitical standing that is reflected in large political and financial investments by major global and regional players. While short of material resources, Egypt has substantial geopolitical assets, notably its control of the recently widened Suez Canal, which has increased in importance as a key maritime trade route thanks to the upgrade; its position as a broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; its symbolic weight in the Arab world; and its leverage as an active backer of the internationally recognized Tobruk government in the Libya conflict.
In many other ways, Egypt is in decline. Sisi’s unprecedented clampdown on domestic dissent has called into question Egypt’s worth as a regional stabilizer. Cairo’s unveiled hostility toward the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas has been undercutting Egypt’s brand as a mediator in the peace process. Not having maintained diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980, Egypt is pushed into Riyadh’s corner. More recently, Egypt’s main Gulf patrons Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have grown increasingly unhappy with Sisi’s performance and have come to question whether they are receiving proper returns on their political investments. As the low oil price takes a serious toll on Gulf states’ coffers, a major question mark for Egypt’s regional role is how long Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will be willing and able to buy Sisi time—and which countries will step in after them.
Balancers and Free Radicals
The swing state layer further increases the unpredictability of Middle Eastern geopolitics. It adds complexity to the growing influence of nonstate actors pinned against a myriad of weak states, flanked by the relative withdrawal of the United States from the region and the expanding role of global revisionist powers China, India, and Russia. What niche will each of the swing states choose to occupy in this competitive panorama?
Whenever swing states’ ambition is translated into interventionist expansionism, proxy warfare, and the use of sectarian identities to achieve political goals—as in Libya, Syria, and Yemen—it will further exacerbate Middle Eastern crises. Some swing states may also feel under pressure to back their former patrons’ geopolitical adventures, as was the case with Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Furthermore, Chinese, Iranian, and Russian efforts to build ties with influential regional actors under notably more transactional, pragmatic terms than the West’s are likely to decrease European leverage and make values-based foreign policy with these states even more difficult.
By contrast, those swing states that use their growing leverage to ease, rather than exacerbate, polarization in the Middle East and raise their regional profiles in the process—such as Oman in the Iranian nuclear negotiations—can play a positive role. A stronger role for mid-level regional powers could have a positive impact in a number of areas affecting European interests. These powers could help foster depolarization by balancing Saudi Arabia and Iran. They could use their intermediary role to broker solutions to the region’s mushrooming conflicts and help untangle concrete policy impasses. And they could provide complementary partnership options on specific dossiers of European interest.
Several factors speak in favor of a constructive, depolarizing role for swing states. The GCC states have (at least in theory) a pressing interest in reducing polarization as they fear sectarian spillover into their own domestic contexts. Both Turkey’s and Qatar’s volte-faces to scale down their expansionism, mend ties, and revert to more accommodating roles improve the conditions for regional consensus building. Most swing states seek to position themselves as partners for the West—namely for the United States, which remains the sole external security provider in the region, as well as for Europe. And some swing states see conflict mediation as attractive branding to raise their international profiles.
Conversely, a number of factors may lead Middle Eastern swing states to take up an unconstructive role in the region. Those swing states that have freed themselves from their former patrons may seek to become patrons themselves and build their own patronage networks. Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia is keen on mediation, and both resent being pushed to the negotiating table—as became clear by their rejections of numerous mediation offers, including from Iraq, Oman, Russia, Turkey, and Pakistan, in January 2016.
The generational leadership change under way in the Gulf brings to the fore a new league of rulers. These leaders, who were brought up with a distinctive self-confidence during the Gulf oil boom years since the mid-2000s and are keen on leaving their mark, may lean toward revisionist rather than conciliatory interpretations of regional ambition.
And perhaps most importantly, the dispersal of power reflected in the rise of swing states is met with a backlash from traditional regional powers. In the current environment, even a gradual rapprochement of Sunni Arab states (or key external players) with Iran will likely increase the threat perception in Riyadh and risks making well-meant approximation counterproductive.
Europeans are ill-equipped to single-handedly exert meaningful influence over the regional policies of swing states—with the possible exception of Turkey, the only swing state eligible for EU membership. While the UK has traditionally had the strongest European presence in the Gulf, in recent years France and Germany have also gone to great lengths to expand their ties with GCC states. Emblematic of Europe’s engagement with the Gulf is the way in which France’s increasing closeness to the GCC, hailed by some observers as a sign of Paris filling some of the gaps left by Washington, results in increasingly uncritical support for Gulf states’ volatile regional policies rather than greater leverage.
In Egypt, EU diplomats acknowledge with resignation that European leverage is negligible. An example was the limited tangible impact of the case of Giulio Regeni, an Italian student who was found dead in Cairo on February 3 after being tortured, on European policies toward Egypt.
Despite some nuances in European security engagement, geopolitical shifts in the Middle East have not changed the main premise of this engagement: Europeans continue to look to Washington to provide the backing for the regional order on which their security, business, and energy interests depend.
Europe—including the EU institutions and EU member states—should use its power to bestow international recognition on the roles swing states can play in the world. Despite significant trade ties and some EU member states’ close bilateral relations, Europe has hardly any leverage over Egypt, the GCC, or Iran. To Tehran, one EU diplomat admitted in an interview with this author that the EU was a “useful idiot,” but one that Iran needed for its international rehabilitation. This also applies to ambitious swing states: one of the EU’s most powerful, undervalued assets is its ability to bestow international recognition. The EU needs to lever this asset consciously and with care.
Europe should encourage constructive agency and mediation. The rationale for EU relations with Iran applies to volatile swing states as well: active engagement is better than containment. Europe should informally but systematically engage swing states on all regional issues and try to enhance predictability by defining overlapping interests and increasing interdependencies. European governments should encourage swing states’ drive for responsible mediation and provide cover to vulnerable mediators such as Oman.
Europe should focus on North Africa, which is where both Europe’s main interests and its primary leverage lie. In seeking to expand their influence, swing states have extended their reach to North Africa, where the Iranian presence especially is less perceptible. Europe could play an important role in engaging swing states on the Maghreb, in particular in curbing their influence in Libya, working with them to reduce security spillovers into Tunisia, and, crucially, preventing the next proxy war following the looming succession in Algeria.
At the same time, Europe needs to pull Turkey back in. The EU-Turkey deal struck in March 2016, although heavily criticized for its response to the plight of refugees, has two larger purposes beyond regulating the influx of asylum seekers: to help patch up the EU, and to pull the geopolitical key player Turkey back from the brink of turning from an ally to a spoiler. The closer engagement with the EU entailed in the deal, its defenders argue, is a chance for the union to entice Turkey to move back toward the EU, not farther away.
Europe should also support the economic transformation of the Gulf states. An awareness among regional leaders of the unsustainability of their rentier regimes is driving much of the panic that currently underpins Gulf states’ interventionist regional policies. It is only if the political economies of swing states are transformed that these countries will become stable, predictable, and constructive players regionally. Here, the EU has a crucial role to play by investing in gradual political and economic transformation, including by empowering the private sector, increasing access to capital, fostering entrepreneurship, and reforming the financial system.
Finally, Europe must invest in the swing states of the future. With the possible exception of Turkey, all the swing states discussed above are authoritarian regimes, some sustained by oil windfalls, others by a mix of personality cult, foreign patronage, and coercion. For stability to last, those countries that embrace a vision of political and economic sustainability at home and abroad—such as Tunisia—should be regarded not as third-tier priorities but as Europe’s most desirable partners. Europe needs to work with the swing states of today, despite their rotten business models. In parallel, Europe must invest much more, politically and economically, to empower the swing states of tomorrow.