Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East

By Christopher M. Davidson | (Informed Comment) | – –

Swept along on a tidal wave of euphoria, by spring 2011 many had cautiously begun to believe that the wave of Arab uprisings that had already managed to topple the regimes of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak would herald the dawn of a new era in which more progressive, secular, and perhaps even democratic states could finally be built from the ruins of tyranny. But hopes were dashed almost as soon as they were raised, and any remain­ing optimism quickly gave way to shock and dismay as resurgent religious politics, bloody counter-revolutions, and sectarian wars began to take hold. To make matters worse, not only were the ideals of the so-called “Arab Spring” left lying in tatters, but its failures somehow seemed responsible for the rise of ever more repressive dictatorships, the return of Al-Qaeda and, with the “Islamic State,” the emergence of one of the most brutal incarnations of Islamic extremism the world had ever seen.

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Christopher M. Davidson, Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East Order now

Forlorn, dispirited, and resigned to an Arab world doomed to fail, activ­ists and scholars inevitably began to ask, “What went wrong?” After all, if parts of Europe, Latin America, and even Africa once managed to cut the shackles of authoritarianism, then why not the Arabs? Moreover, and more urgently, many asked why the region’s predominant and essentially peace-promoting Islamic faith had once again proven so vulnerable to co-option and subversion by powerful fanatics, even in the twenty-first century. Both are important questions deserving responses and an explana­tion, not only because an honest and thorough post-mortem of the Arab Spring is needed, but because those who genuinely aspire to a brighter future for the region must be better prepared to identify the real root causes behind its perennial afflictions.

Beginning at the beginning, the answers put forward in Shadow Wars first take the readers on a little time travel, not only to establish the causes of the Arab Spring, but also to help understand how it sits in history. Drawing on hundreds of recently declassified and leaked files, court subpoenaed documents, and interviews with former intelligence officials, I demonstrate that the events of 2011 and the subsequent counter-revolutions were in many ways nothing new, and I show how important elements of each have frequently surfaced in what is best understood as a centuries-old and worldwide pattern of popular challenges and autocratic reactions. Importantly, these struggles were rarely limited to just one country or a region’s elites and their opponents, but instead were often a function of the inextricably interlinked interests of influential foreign powers and their local clients. In some cases, when threats to the status quo were especially severe, this even led to multinational counter-revolutionary coalitions involving volatile mixes of competing empires allied to on-the-ground despots, feudal dynasties, and conservative clerics. Tragically for the resource-rich and strategically vital Middle East, such efforts have been particularly pronounced, especially in the wake of its first major oil exports – crucial to global energy supplies – and its subsequent centrality to Cold War proxy power struggles.

With the stakes getting ever higher, and arguably now still greater than in any other part of the developing world, it is a little easier to appreciate the considerable lengths taken by those both inside and outside the region to protect their positions and their unfettered access to its wealth. In some cases, the familiar fingerprints from covert campaigns littered across the twentieth century, from Malaya to Iran to Nicaragua, can easily be found in the Arab world today. In others, however, there are signs of older and much darker strategies having been rekindled, including those that have enlisted and wilfully cultivated the most fundamentalist religious forces so as to suppress progressive movements and reverse efforts to found independent nations more capable of controlling their own resources and destinies.

In this context, Shadow Wars’ most forceful argument, and the one that will prove most unsettling for citizens of the Western world, is that the primary blame for not only the failure of the Arab Spring, but also the dramatic and well-funded rise of Islamic extremist organizations since the late twentieth century – including the deadly al-Qaeda and now the blood-curdling Islamic State – must rest with the long-running policies of successive imperial and “advanced-capitalist” administrations and their ongoing manipulations of an elaborate network of powerful national and transnational actors across both the Arab and Islamic worlds. As I also contend, the post-2011 threat to present-day Western states and their con­stituent corporations from potentially self-determining revolutionary Arab nations such as Egypt and Tunisia has not only been largely foiled, but has also been covertly redirected into a pretext for striking at other enemies such as the historically antagonistic Libyan and Syrian regimes, both of which have long sought to disrupt and block Western involvement in the region. In this sense, hidden behind ever more carefully layered veils of agents and local proxy powers – which has helped reduce the need for further direct interventions – the same powers that have distantly ruled the region for more than a hundred years are now making sure their grip gets even tighter.

Christopher Davidson is a reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University in the UK. His new book, SHADOW WARS, will be published in the US on November 15 by Oneworld Publications. Follow him on Twitter @dr_davidson.

11 Responses

  1. Sad to say, none of this surprises me.
    One phrase that I wish was clearer, “…the post-2011 threat to present-day Western states and their con­stituent corporations..,” Does this mean that corporations are constituents of government, as I, a voter, am a constituent of a legislator? Or is the meaning more that the corporations constitute, make up the government?

  2. The author of this piece is following in a long line of pundits who think the failure of states to come to terms with modernity and political reform “rests with the long-running policies of successive imperial and ‘advanced-capitalist’ administrations,” as he puts it. This argument has become stale and doesn’t begin to analyze the internal dynamics that have led to the present stasis (and retrenchment) in the Near East.

    All one has to do is look at the political and economic modernization of much of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and even Vietnam, as well as the many countries of Latin America, e.g., Colombia, Chile, Peru, Mexico, and others, to recognize that a history of Western imperialism and intervention has not held them back. The author would be well-advised to drop his knee-jerk mantra that the “West” is responsible for the failings of the Near East and apply a more rigorous critique of what ails the Near East when so many other regions have advanced.

    • There is a difference between overcoming the colonial heritage, as Singapore did with massive effort, and not being held back by it. The British created a seedy little crime-infested port. The Singaporeans have made a modern nation in the aftermath.

      • But that’s my point. Countries like Singapore (as well as Malaysia and the other examples) have a history of imperialism, colonialism, and (in the case of Latin America), intervention. yet, they have created modern states. The author of this piece does not seem to question why this has not occurred in the Near East, other than to blame the “West” again. My question to the author is: “If other regions overcame the West’s imperialism and intervention to create modern states, why not the Near East?” My suggestion would be to look a little more rigorously at the internal dynamics, not just blame the “West.”

        • Time delay and an over abundance of oil . . .

          The middle east is lagging Asia and Latin America by about 40 years due to the unique characteristics of the middle east.

          Asia and Latin America had to develop new social structures without having the excessive wealth created by oil. That is, they had to work everything out with limited resources.

          If you take the long view of history, and power shifts, you can see a parallel for much earlier times in Asia and Latin America with where the middle east is today.

          The middle east started later and has moved slower because the ruling class had so much wealth they could ignore the structural problems.

          I think in the next 50 years the middle east will evolve in a similar manner as the other post-colonial areas.

        • We seem to be in agreement, spyguy, that the author has missed the boat by his simplistic mantra that the “West” is responsible for the failure of the Near East to modernize and develop. As I suggested above, the author should apply a mre rigorous study of the internal dynamics of these societies and not just blame the “West.” That’s just intellectual laziness.

        • Read what the commenter below your reply says. He’s right. The world runs on oil. The oil part of the world is the very last place corporate and imperial dominance will recede. Southeast Asia had rubber, which the world partly ran on, but synthetic materials can take its place. And it still took 100’s of years for imperial power to withdraw from Southeast Asia. The oil world and attendant and surrounding regimes are relatively newly dominated and will need much time and for us to finally get the hell out of their faces before even beginning to approach change. And we ARE still in their faces – more than EVER really. One has to understand the scope and historical currents to form the best opinions. Yes, internal dynamics, as you say, are important, even now, but they’re overwhelmed by the Mordor-like Western dominance still and going forward.

        • “One has to understand the scope and historical currents to form the best opinions.”

          Agreed. And for starters how about four centuries of Ottoman rule as one major factor that explains the Near East’s apparent inability to come to terms with modernity. There are other cultural factors, but four centuries of the Ottomans is a good starting point.

      • I blame the Arab world’s backwardness on OZAD (Oil, Zionism, Aridity and Diglossia).

        “Diglossia” refers to the fact that Arabic isn’t really a single language: the spoken Arabic dialects have the same relationship to standard Arabic (fusHa) that the Romance languages have to Latin (with the classical Arabic of the Qur’an being like classical Latin, while MSA is more like medieval Latin).

  3. What are the policy implications? Withdrawal? Intervention? Domestic reforms on US corporate law? And is it too late anyway?

  4. Oil has enabled a few Near Eastern countries to coast without having to develop modern political and economic systems. Their lack of development is not due to Western interference. It is a product of buying their populations off.

    Oil certainly has little to nothing to do with the failure to embrace modernity one finds in Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Yemen, and other Near Eastern societies. For that one must critically assess their history and culture in order to fully understand the internal dynamics that are responsible for their largely self-inflicted wounds.

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