Middle East Uprisings: Impact on US Regional Influence

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Shireen T. Hunter


Since January 2011 the countries of the Middle East and North Africa have experienced popular uprisings. In two countries Egypt and Tunisia these have led to the unseating of the ruling elites and departure of long ruling autocrats Bin Ali and Mubarak. The Yemen dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh who clung to power also has gone to Saudi Arabia after being wounded.

Meanwhile, the uprisings in Libya against Mu’amar Qadhafi have led to western military intervention and the onset of a civil war without Qadhafi still clinging to power. In Syria, Basher Al Assad’s rule is also being threatened by large scale protests which have led to the death more than a 1000 civilians by the government forces and have raised the possibility of external intervention in Syria as well.

In Bahrain popular uprisings were brutally suppressed by the government with the help of Saudi Arabia, and a tense calm has returned.

Meanwhile, the US unwillingness to defend its allies to the end has upset its other key allies, notably Saudi Arabia and has undermined its confidence in US reliability. Because of this and the fact that most of the departing leaders were supported by the US and the West, most observes have predicted a significant decline in US regional influence. Yet, while a degree of erosion of US and western influence is likely because of recent changes, its extent is not clear as of yet. Much will depend on the type of governments that come to power in these countries. A victory for Islamist forces would be more damaging to US position. But even Islamist governments would face many economic and other challenges and would need US, Western and international support. This fact most likely would moderate their foreign policies, including their approach to the US. Also successor governments in places like Libya and possibly Syria could be more pro-US than the current leadership and thus compensate in the diminishing influence in places like Egypt.

Moreover, a degree of the erosion of US influence has been the result of systemic changes triggered by the Soviet collapse, notably a greater degree of asymmetries in interests of great powers and their regional allies, as well as the improvements in the power of regional countries and the emergence of new actors on the international scene.

In short, it is very unlikely that the US will remain as the sole hegemon in the region, but it will still be key player.

Key Concepts

1) Middle East Uprisings have changed the dynamics of regional politics and affected the balance of power and influence in the region, including the US position.

2) The ultimate state of regional politics and the position of various international and regional actors in the Middle East are not yet clear, and will depend to a large degree on the shape of successor governments and leaders.

3) All successor governments irrespective of their ideological proclivities, Islamic, liberal, nationalist, will face daunting economic and social challenges and rising popular expectations for better conditions.

4) Successor governments’ economic needs most likely will exercise a moderating influence on their foreign policies.

5) US position will likely suffer from these events. However, the US will continue to be a key player in the region if no longer the sole hegemon.

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Keywords: Middle East, US, Popular Uprisings, Islamist, Successor Governments.

Source: International Peace Studies Centre (IPSC)

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