The Future Security Environment in the Middle East: Conflict, Stability, and Political Change

The Future Security Environment in the Middle East: Conflict, Stability, and Political Change

by Nora Bensahel

Surveys several Middle East security issues and their implications for U.S. foreign policy.


Surveys several Middle East security issues and their implications for U.S. foreign policy.

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The Future Security Environment in the Middle East

Conflict, Stability, and Political Change

Rand Corporation

Copyright © 2004 RAND Corporation
All right reserved.

Chapter One


Nora Bensahel and Daniel L. Byman

The security environment in the Middle East has become increasingly complicated during the past decade. Up to and including the 1991 Gulf War, the regional environment was largely shaped by fears of interstate aggression, either by superpower intervention or by regional states against each other. Fears of interstate aggression certainly remain today, but they are manifesting themselves in new ways. The Arab-Israeli conflict has been a persistent source of tension for decades, for example, but it has taken on new dimensions in the aftermath of the failed Oslo process and the recent explosion of violence that shows no signs of abating. These traditional issues have been joined by several more recent problems that defy easy solutions. Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) continue to spread throughout the region, despite international nonproliferation efforts. Terrorists recruited and trained in the Middle East are now carrying out attacks far beyond their own borders, creating strong global interests in countering the sources of this phenomenon.

Many of these security issues are profoundly affected by the many domestic changes occurring in the Middle East. A new generation of leaders is taking power, their skills untested. Social change is transforming the rolesof women and the traditional hierarchy in the region. Oil revenues are lower than they were in the 1970s, causing economic problems that range from reduced budgets to rapidly escalating debt. Structural economic problems remain profound, while demands on the state are increasing throughout the region as a result of rising expectations and population growth. New information technologies are providing ordinary citizens with a wider range of viewpoints than they have ever had before, while in a few states, attempts at political reform are increasing their ability to express their views and influence the decisionmaking process.

This report seeks to identify the trends that are likely to shape regional security and their implications for the United States. Each chapter addresses a different substantive area, ranging from political and economic trends to energy policy and weapons proliferation, in an effort to assess each area's long-term impact on regional security. This chapter sets the stage for these issues by identifying U.S. national interests in the region and the potential threats to those interests.


The United States has many vital and enduring interests in the Middle East. Six important U.S. interests include countering terrorism, countering WMD proliferation, maintaining stable oil supplies and prices, ensuring the stability of friendly regimes, ensuring Israel's security, and promoting democracy and human rights.

Countering Terrorism

After the devastating September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the suppression of terrorism rose to the fore of U.S. concerns in the Middle East. Al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups draw heavily on the Arab and Muslim world for recruits and funding. In addition, much of their violence and propaganda is directed at destabilizing Middle Eastern regimes that are friendly to the United States. Thus, the United States must confront risks on a governmental level, helping its regional partners secure themselves against terrorist-generated instability, and at a popular level to ensure that nationals in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, or other states in the region do not join terrorist groups or provide them with financial or other assistance.

In addition to such transnational groups as al Qaeda, state-sponsored terrorism has long been a problem in the Middle East. Iran for many years supported radicals throughout the region in an attempt to spread its Islamic revolution. In addition, Iran has been connected to terror attacks against U.S. forces in Lebanon and was implicated in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 Americans. Over time, Tehran's ardor has waned, but it still supports anti-Israeli groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestine Islamic Jihad. Libya and Syria have also provided limited support to radicals, helping them sustain their organizations.

Countering WMD Proliferation

The United States has a strong interest in preventing, or at least managing, the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. WMD in the Middle East pose a threat to U.S. partners in the Gulf, to Israel, and to U.S. forces. Adversaries employing WMD might offset the vast superiority of U.S. conventional forces by enabling foes to inflict significant casualties on U.S. forces. As a result, they also threaten to undermine confidence in the U.S. security guarantee.

In the Middle East, the use of WMD is not a hypothetical threat. The Iran-Iraq war witnessed the repeated use of chemical weapons by Iraq and their occasional use by Iran. The 2003 war against Iraq was largely justified as an effort to prevent Saddam Hussein from further developing WMD programs. Iran is pursuing nuclear and biological weapons. Syria and Libya possess vast stocks of chemical weapons, which are used as a strategic deterrent against Israel and, more generally, to compensate for the weaknesses of their conventional forces.

Maintaining Stable Oil Supplies and Prices

The Persian Gulf is a particularly critical region for the United States given its importance to the world oil market. States in the Gulf will remain leading oil exporters in the next decade, although the degree of their dominance will depend heavily on the price of oil. Saudi Arabia alone contains a quarter of the world's total proven reserves; Iraq has the second largest reserves in the world, possessing more than 10 percent of the world's total; and Iran, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Kuwait contain about 9 percent each. By the end of the decade, Iraq's sustainable production capacity could easily double, and perhaps triple, with sufficient foreign investment.

Ensuring the Stability of Friendly Regimes

In addition to its long-standing ties to Israel, the United States has developed close relations with several states in the region. After the 1991 Gulf War, the United States augmented, or at times forged, security ties to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman. Although these states' possession of, or proximity to, large oil reserves was the initial reason for U.S. efforts to build ties, these relations have taken on a life of their own. The United States also has tried to cultivate Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco as moderate Arab voices that are willing to cooperate with the United States on counterterrorism and support the U.S. agenda on a range of issues.

Ensuring Israel's Security

Israel is a democratic, pro-Western country in a turbulent region. Its armed forces and intelligence services are highly competent, increasing the country's value in fighting terrorism and, more generally, in responding to military threats in the region. Many Americans also strongly back Israel, making its security an important political issue for any administration. Continued violence in Israel and Palestinian areas has contributed to anti-U.S. sentiment throughout the region and made it more difficult for friendly Arab and Muslim governments to cooperate openly with Washington on a host of issues. This problem has gotten significantly worse since the outbreak of violence in late 2000. The Bush administration has put forth a road map toward a permanent two-state solution and is working with Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations to persuade the parties to adhere to its provisions; yet the violence continues. The United States has an interest in reducing the level of violence in the short to medium term and helping to find a sustainable long-term solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Promoting Democracy and Human Rights

The United States has a broad, worldwide interest in democracy and human rights that has implications for U.S. actions in the Middle East. However, this interest is honored more in the breach than in reality because Israel is the only democratic state in the region. Saudi Arabia, for example, has no free press or free elections, and Saudi women face a variety of restrictions on their travel, employment, and daily lives. Even Egypt, which has had a parliament for decades, has bans on organized political activity and on free speech, and has other basic impediments to democracy. These restrictions elicit at most mild criticism from Washington. As Jon Alterman notes, "American officials have tended to accede to official requests to downplay calls for democratization and to shun extensive contacts with those working against the ruling governments." As a result, even liberal Middle Easterners question U.S. support for democracy. As Murphy and Gause contend, "There is a pervasive sense in the Middle East that the United States does not support democracy in the region, but rather supports what is in its strategic interest and calls it democratic."

In the wake of September 11, the U.S. public may be less tolerant of government support for authoritarian states in the region. For example, a survey conducted in November 2001 found that 57 percent of those polled stated that it was "very important" for the United States to press for more democracy in Saudi Arabia, an enormous increase over the 10 percent who responded similarly in a June 1999 poll. To the extent that these trends continue, the United States may have to increase its support for political reform in the region.

Concerns over democratization and human rights often limit U.S. actions and could affect the type of support it would provide in a crisis. For example, if unrest in a Gulf state led to mass demonstrations and the government responded by killing large numbers of unarmed protesters, the United States would have to reconsider arms sales to that country and might otherwise limit ties at least temporarily. Even if unrest arose that threatened the flow of oil or the stability of a friendly regime, the United States would be not very likely to use its own forces to directly assist a regime that used torture, arbitrary arrests, and other forms of repression that would be widely condemned in the United States and the West in general. Furthermore, the U.S. public may grow more cautious about cooperating with autocratic Middle Eastern regimes in the wake of September 11, particularly those that are not seen as cooperating in the war on terrorism, further limiting the U.S. scope of action. Thus, although human rights and democratization are not interests that the United States actively seeks to advance or protect in the Middle East, they are broad concerns that may inhibit U.S. attempts to defend its other interests. _____________


In recent decades, several different types of threats have emerged to the U.S. interests described above. Examples of these threats are presented in Table 1.1.

The greatest danger to regional security in the past was outright aggression by a hostile state. Israel fought wars with its neighbors in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982. In addition, for much of this period it regularly skirmished with Egyptian and Syrian troops as well as Palestinian guerrillas. In the 1970s, Iran and Iraq engaged in a proxy war over the Shatt al-Arab waterway and then fought a brutal eight-year war with each other in the 1980s, which led to disruptions in the flow of oil and destabilized the region. In 1971, Iran occupied several islands claimed by the UAE. Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and was only expelled by the U.S.-led coalition's massive military effort. For more than a decade afterward, Iraq repeatedly announced its view that Kuwait was an integral part of Iraq, built up troops near the Kuwait border, and made numerous threats against Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other regional states.

Aggressive regimes have also attempted to subvert pro-Western countries. When outright invasion failed to defeat Israel, several Arab governments at times provided limited support to Palestinian radicals seeking to undermine Israel. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, Iranian leaders regularly called for the overthrow of Gulf rulers. During the anti-regime demonstrations in Bahrain from 1994 to 1996, Iran tried to take advantage of the unrest by training and supporting Shi'a radicals.

Internal instability also poses a threat to U.S. interests. Palestinian groups have long used terrorism to weaken Israel. In 1987, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza began a series of riots and demonstrations against Israeli occupation, the first intifada. Violence continued sporadically in the 1990s, surged after the collapse of peace talks in 2000, and remains intense. In 1979, Saudi and other Arab religious extremists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, holding off Saudi security forces for two weeks. Angered by long-standing discrimination and inspired by the Iranian revolution, Shi'a in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia rioted against their governments in the early 1980s. In 1995, Islamists destroyed the Office of Program Management/ Saudi Arabian National Guard office in Riyadh killing seven, including five Americans. It also appears that Saudi, Egyptian, Yemen, and Algerian nationals are a major component of al Qaeda, and many Gulf state citizens provide financial support to a range of anti-U.S. Islamist causes. In general, many states in the Middle East face economic problems and demographic pressures and have few institutions for incorporating public sentiment into decisionmaking, a combination that suggests that the potential for unrest remains acute.


Broad strategic, social, and political trends are reshaping the Middle East. These changes will pose new challenges and offer new opportunities for the United States.

For most of the 1990s, Middle East politics, and particularly decisions on security, remained the preserve of elites. Although no regime's decisionmaking was completely immune from public opinion, in general the public had little input into foreign policy decisionmaking and leaders could mostly cloak their actions. Increases in popular input into decisionmaking and the explosion of new and freer media are expanding the range of viewpoints that are considered while policy is being formulated. True democracy remains far away, but the scope and scale of debate have increased and regimes are less free to pursue unpopular policies without constraint. Moreover, the composition of the elite itself is changing because of the deaths of aged leaders. Since 1997, new leaders have taken power in Iran, Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, and Bahrain, raising the possibility that these countries' policies will change as well.

The United States may also confront other major power rivals in the Middle East in the coming years. Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union competed fiercely for influence, arming their proxies and backing their causes. In the 1990s, however, Russia, China, and the major European powers limited their involvement, largely confining themselves to commercial transactions, including arms sales. During the coming years, the possible emergence of China as a world power and perhaps renewed competition with Russia may lead to greater extraregional meddling. It is also possible that the campaign against terrorism will unite the major powers and that they will subordinate their other objectives to this shared interest. Much will depend on the extent to which the United States is able to form a durable international consensus on the scope of the counterterror campaign.


Excerpted from The Future Security Environment in the Middle East Copyright © 2004 by RAND Corporation. Excerpted by permission.
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