Theorizing the future of the Arab Gulf states and the broader Middle East requires a proper assessment of the state of power distribution in the region. Is there a new balance of power emerging in the Middle East, or is the distribution of power heading in a more dangerous direction?
This paper argues that a traditional, realist, balance of power concept is outdated given the realities of the Middle East today. This is because the nature of the competition between the major regional powers, namely Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran is not in direct competition but rather indirect rivalry through proxy engagement in the states currently or previously ravaged by civil war (Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq). Because of these civil wars and the proxy involvement fueling them, the Middle East has become a degraded state system, not a state-centric system envisioned by balance of power theory. Winners and losers in this rivalry will be determined more by coalitional and hybrid warfare capabilities, and less by conventional military power indicators. Furthermore, since the greatest danger to the region is posed by this proxy competition in the civil war zones is unintended escalation, collective security and regional stability should be the endgames.
The U.S. not only has interests at the national level with allies Saudi Arabia and Israel but also at the regional level. Washington seems intent on bringing Iran to its knees and back to the negotiation table by re-imposing sanctions and using its relationships with Saudi Arabia and Israel as cudgels to this end. Its support for the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), otherwise known as the “Arab NATO” is part of this initiative. This response is likely to further escalate tensions in the region by incentivizing Iran and Russia to deepen their ties, likely undermining US interests in regional stability. This paper suggests instead a more balanced and nuanced approach that works towards an internationally supported collective security framework.