I had the pleasure this week of speaking at the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University on a panel titled “Continuing Tensions in the Levant.”
The panel made me realize two related things. First, all major players in the Middle East – the Arab states, Israel, Turkey, Iran, the European Union and the United States – are undergoing major changes in regional relationships. The Arab citizen revolts across the region continue to drive epic developments, making this a major moment of historic change that involves more than the mere replacement of authoritarian regimes by more democratic systems.
Second, given the changes under way, it is time perhaps to put an end to the use of the term “Levant” or “Levantine,” because the historical lineage of this term is being invalidated by the Arab revolts. The “Levant” term recalls an era when Europeans were enchanted with our region, dealt with it in colonial and Orientalist fashions, and devised terminology that reflected the subordinate role that our region played in relation to the more powerful and advanced Europeans. The “Levant” refers to the region to the east where the sun rises, while the “Middle East” similarly gives our countries a label that reflects the view from Europe and the United States.
I suggest we declare the death of the “Levant” label because the citizen revolts across much of the Arab world capture the fact that Arab citizens are now in the very early stages of rewriting their own history and crafting their own national narratives. The region where they are acting deserves to be called something reflecting this fact, namely the “Arab world.” If one is talking about the wider region that also includes non-Arab Iran, Turkey and Israel, the “Middle East” will probably stay in use for a long time. However, “Western Asia” is perhaps equally useful, balancing as it does the prevalent East Asia, Central Asia and South Asia designations that are merely geographic and not linguistically quasi-colonial.
The fact that Arab men and women are fighting for their rights as citizens and human beings is the central drama of the moment across the Arab world, but this is likely to spill over and influence the roles and relationships of non-Arab states in the region. The most significant ones in my mind are the following:
First, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council states have behaved in novel ways in the past year, shedding their traditional reticence and low-key foreign policy style in favor of more daring moves. Four of the GCC states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar) have moved their troops or provided military aid around the region (in Bahrain and Libya), some have withdrawn their ambassadors from Damascus, and some have confronted Iran openly. All this is very unusual for GCC states, suggesting they are beginning to act on their own volition, rather than relying on foreign intervention while acting as as protectorates of foreign powers.
Second, Turkey for several years has expanded its profile and adopted more robust policies across the Middle East. It has sought to enhance its national interests while expanding its sphere of influence in the Arab region, and this in different ways in its relations with Arabs, Iran and Israel.
Third, Iran for its part is one of the big losers from the current Arab revolts, as its various attempts to develop more influence in the region fall victim to the other changes under way. Its export of the Islamic revolutionary spirit of 1979 has been deflated by the fact that Arabs have taken the lead in challenging their own regimes. Iran’s challenge of Israel has been taken over much more credibly by Turkey. Iranian allies Syria and Hezbollah face new problems in view of the unpredictable situation in Syria. And the Arab quest for democratic freedoms makes the Iranian theocratic and top-heavy governance system deeply alien to Arab populist aspirations.
Fourth, Egypt is slowly reviving its traditional role as a leading Arab power, both as a trend-setter in domestic changes in the region and as a leader in speaking out against Israeli policies. The successful mediation of the Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange is only the latest sign of this, coming right after Israel formally – and unusually – apologized to Egypt for killing several Israeli soldiers in Sinai.
Fifth, Israel is increasingly isolated and challenged in the region. Some three decades ago Israel counted Iran, Turkey and Egypt as strategic allies or close partners. Today, its relations with all three are much more difficult. Egypt’s evolution in recent months suggests that a more democratic Arab world will see foreign policies that are harder on Israel because they reflect Arab public opinion. Israel’s greater isolation is coupled with more frequent mentions of Israel, apartheid and sanctions in the same breath.
The exact impact of these and other changes to come are hard to identify now, and in some cases they will include new forms of short-term sectarian or ideological strife within and between countries. This is the nature of momentous and historic change, but in due course the benefits of democratic governance will far outweigh the price to be paid in the transition period.
By Rami G. Khouri