Iraq could have been a winner, had it been able to translate the recovery of its oil industry and the withdrawal of US troops into political stabilization and regional influence. However, with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government widely considered to be another authoritarian and sectarian regime, Iraq has not been able to gain any soft power.
Moreover, the chances that Iraqi Kurdistan will achieve de facto or de jure independence are greater than ever.
Iraq’s Kurds may even be able to extend their influence into Kurdish-populated northern Syria, thereby becoming a more influential regional player than the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
Iran seems to be the quintessential survivor. It has coped with the international community’s increasingly stifling sanctions, while maintaining its nuclear program and continuing to participate in the diplomatic process with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany).
Iran has strengthened its influence in Iraq, and has helped to keep the al-Assad regime, a key ally, in power much longer than expected.
However, rising political polarization in the region could undermine Iran’s standing. As regional conflicts are increasingly defined along Sunni-Shiite lines, it is becoming more difficult for Shiite-dominated Iran to gain influence in Sunni-majority countries.
And Iran’s support for al-Assad’s brutal regime in Syria is damaging further its once-considerable soft power in other Arab countries.
Saudi Arabia can also be counted as a survivor, as it copes with deep strategic insecurity stemming from Iran’s efforts to undermine its position, social unrest in its neighbor and ally Bahrain, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt.
Saudi leaders have also become increasingly suspicious of their US allies, on whom the country’s security depends.
At the same time, the Saudi leadership is facing significant domestic challenges, including vast economic disparities, inadequate services, growing frustration with the lack of political freedom and a difficult succession process within the royal family.
Nevertheless, though Saudi Arabia’s soft power is waning, its massive oil wealth will likely ensure that it remains a regional heavyweight.
Non-state actors also play a crucial role in the Middle East’s balance of power. Religious minorities have become more insecure. The once-oppressed Kurds are gaining ground. Of the main transnational political groups, the Muslim Brotherhood has been the clearest winner.
However, success brings new challenges. Islamist-led governments must deliver on the socioeconomic front, while building democratic institutions. (Ironically, they will be able to claim success in having built a better state only when they accept their first electoral defeat.) Indeed, the challenge facing all of the region’s current winners is to translate today’s gains into credible, long-term power.
Volker Perthes is chairman and director of Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, in Berlin.
Copyright: Project Syndicate