SPHERES OF INFLUENCE

Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens is the Research Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). He is also the Head of the Institute’s office in Qatar. Michael has published extensively on issues of security and society in the Middle East, most recently focusing on UK policy towards the Gulf and coalition policy against Daesh.

The results of the 2016 ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey reflect a decidedly mixed picture of political outlooks and trends, which clearly indicate that the Middle East region is sub-dividing into differing spheres of perception on issues of foreign policy and security.  

Overall the data is revealing, but not altogether surprising. The Middle East regional order is in a state of deep change, and instability.
The retrenchment of US military power, and political attention toward the Middle East has opened up a space for competition between regional powers, hastening the breakdown of state structures in both the Levant and North Africa. In the Levant, sectarian and religious affiliations have replaced loyalty to the state as the primary vectors for social and political identity. The more homogenous Gulf states, free from conflict and civil turmoil, are more fearful of Iranian influence and its status in the region as a rising power.

Indeed, youth in the GCC states show a high level of ideological cohesion and shared outlook on foreign policy issues. This is no great surprise; Riyadh’s assumption of a regional leadership role to combat the growing presence of Iran has necessitated a stronger outlook on shared foreign policy priorities from its regional partners. With the exception of Oman, which largely views both the Iranian nuclear deal, and Iran’s position in the region, in more sanguine terms, the youth of the GCC look to the historical US-Saudi Arabia axis as guarantors of security and prosperity.

The Middle East regional order is in a state of deep change, and instability. The retrenchment of US military power, and political attention toward the Middle East has opened up a space for competition between regional powers, hastening the breakdown of state structures in both the Levant and North Africa.

The disparity between perceptions of Iranian enmity in the Gulf versus the more positive perceptions of Iran in Iraq and the Levant can be largely attributed to the macro-forces that are currently buffeting the region. Iraq, Lebanon and Syria are all shaken by regional instability, conflict and the rise of Daesh, all of which have heavily impacted upon the wide mosaic of communities and religious groups that live there. It is sadly the case that sectarian affiliations have begun to manifest in political choices and preferences, reflecting the deep social and political divides which have opened up in recent years. 

In addition, the ruling elites of these countries possess close ties to Iran, and have sold the notion of Iranian support as being crucial to the survival of the existing regional order and of their populations. Accordingly the view of Iran as a protector, rather than as an agent of regional destabilisation, is far more prevalent. Logically, support for Saudi Arabia as a friend and ally is also still a salient feature of the Levant’s politics, as the Sunnis of the region chafe at the increased presence and activity of Iranian backed non-state actors. Indeed this sentiment is likely to continue into the medium term, at least until the conflicts in the region subside, and deep sectarian and social divides begin to heal. 

These divides are largely reflected by the opinion of Arab youth to the two big questions that dominate regional security; the nuclear deal with Iran, and the five year war in Syria. It is notable that in Qatar and the UAE, the strongest perception remains that the war is a revolution against the tyranny of Bashar Al-Assad, in contrast to Levantine countries who are more predisposed to see the conflict as a proxy war between regional powers, and their great power allies. Once again the social and political mosaic in the Levant affects perception. It is also interesting that a significant proportion of youth in Libya and Egypt (47 per cent and 45 per cent) – countries largely unaffected by sectarian politics, or the spillover effects of the Syrian conflict – see it as a contained civil war between Syrian parties, and are less likely to view it as an arena of regional power competition. 

Despite this, the view of North Africans towards Iran in particular is extremely negative, with just 21 per cent of those surveyed believing that Iran is an ally. Additionally opinion is deeply divided over the costs and benefits of signing the nuclear deal with Tehran. Iran’s relative absence from the North African region and the relatively few contact points between Maghribis and Iranians would suggest that these statistics are largely informed by stereotypes and perceptions of Iran gained through media. Nevertheless it is interesting to note that Iran’s regional ambitions would be largely checked by a population that is unlikely to see great benefit in Iranian leadership, nor welcome its influence.

Lastly, no analysis is complete without considering youth attitudes to the United States, still the most powerful external actor in the region, but under the leadership of Barack Obama growing more reluctant to maintain its hegemony with each day. Worn down through years of war and failed attempts at state building, the US has attempted to pull back its influence, with dangerous consequences for the region. 

“Divides are largely reflected by the opinion of Arab youth to the two big questions that dominate regional security; the nuclear deal with Iran, and the five-year war in Syria.”

Youth in Iraq, Yemen, Palestine, and Lebanon – countries which are all in their own ways deeply politically unstable, and have been impacted by the application of US military power either directly, or through US allies – understandably possess deep misgivings about the presence of the US in the region. In contrast the more prosperous, and stable nations of the GCC; with large expatriate populations of Westerners, and a youth population largely able to speak English, have more easily absorbed specific aspects of US soft power, whilst experiencing little of the downsides of the US military machine. 

The decrease of US influence, the rise of Iran, and the associated strategic competition that has engulfed the region, have resulted in a widely differing set of survey results. Although in a region as large and diverse as the Arab world this can hardly be unexpected, it is clear that sub-national identities, closely associated with geographical location, colour outlooks on foreign policy questions, most notably between the Gulf and the Levant. It is a trend that looks set to continue as the region promises to change dramatically in the coming years.