Pursuits of Pyrrhic Prestige in the Middle East

By July 17, 2017

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 532, July 17, 2017

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: As demonstrated by Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s letter of 1536 to French King Francis I, the clout of absolute political prestige finds legitimacy in the power of religion. The prestigious absolutisms animating the claim to fame of most states in and around Arabia today could become the reason why the Middle East may soon have to unite or disintegrate.

Throughout history, men have fought each other in the name of their deities. The last man standing at the end of a pyrrhic victory would praise his divinity for slaying the rival god.

Industrialization, urbanization, modernization, and democratization led to secularization and, in places, even to the wisdom of separating religion from politics. Democracy individuated and technology atomized the citizen. Worldly prestige began to be drawn not from God’s wrath on the battlefield but from mortals’ achievements in the arts and sciences, through discoveries, inventions, and innovations that improved the human condition on earth.

Once a source of wisdom in letters and science, Islam has not qualified for the Nobel Prize as frequently or diversely as other systems of belief have managed to do.

Distances separating the earliest and highest targets of attainment from the latest and lowest points of departure can be breached at both ends: by piercing virtual ceilings and by raising false floors. Semblance can come to challenge substance, and false appearances can remain relatively safe for those eager to save face in the name of prestige, even at exorbitant cost, for a little more time.

Some have devised the means to send humans to the moon; others have built the globe’s tallest skyscrapers on desert sand. There were invisible prices to be paid, costs to be sustained, and errors to be corrected at both ends. Wealth conquered wherever it gushed up as if there were no tomorrow – but the future did arrive, far sooner than anticipated, menacing all residual presents still enslaved to their past.

From their elevated vantage point, standing on stilted floors, those anticipating their legitimacy to be eventually challenged became wary of losing their highly subsidized virtual heights. They started funding dark projects, not toward relativizing their ascent, but to prevent their fall. They sought to extend their authoritarian reach to project their accumulating self-arrogations.

Built on no less virtual heights, but more amenable to modernity within the normative bounds of the same faith (notwithstanding their smaller size in terms of numbers and real estate), others chose to open up to the world in ways simultaneously affirming their serendipitous financial clout, their capacity to challenge their bigger competitors’ false prestige, and their overt and covert ability directly and indirectly to fund dark forces to do their dirty work for them (discrediting their rivals in prestige). Chronic reliance on superpowers for fallback assistance, in exchange for special privileges, buttressed this strategy.

All the stakeholders in the neighborhood having been conspirators of some kind at one time or another, an uninitiated observer might well marvel at the contradictions that thicken the often bafflingly interconnected plots of intrigue.

It would be naïve to surmise that one could resolve a relational or transactional conflict among prestigious actors as if it were a rare instance of a discrete crisis without first grasping the contextualized perspective along which the root cause(s) may likely re-emerge again and again, each time in a new, perplexing guise. Most often, one finds more than two players engaged in more than one iterative game, each perched in its own artificially elevated penthouse, all solemnly declaring commonality of purpose despite strong divergences in self-interest. This is why clashes among individual versions of prestige continue to impede the strategic design that must characterize any coalition, compact, or defense alliance worthy of the name.

It is no secret that Qatar, Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhood (in Egypt, Gaza, and elsewhere) vie for a “modern” caliphate from which to command the greatest prestige, not only among young revolutionary forces across the developing Muslim nations and throughout the Umma (the 57 nations of the OIC, or Organization of Islamic Conference) but also, and especially, in the perception of the West.

Iran would prefer the seat of such a rival super-caliphate to be in Istanbul rather than Riyadh. It views history as a cyclical process ready to be primed every hundred years or so.

Whether for the size of its territory and population, its resources and resourcefulness, or its high visibility from all four directions, Turkey would qualify for this highest mark of absolute prestige in the Muslim world. Turkey was once the Sublime Porte, the long-time historical seat of the fourth major Sunni Caliphate, yet it is a modern G-20 member country today. It hosts foreign military bases within the Muslim world – and is led by a president who is an imam-orator and supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, “the Palestinian cause,” and the Syrian rebel forces trying to dislocate the minority Alawite regime of Assad.

Ankara has put to good use its two-term secretariat of the OIC to establish intimate links with most of its members. It has fostered civil neighborly relations with Iran, which is now reinforcing a solid military foothold right next to Saudi Arabia as it belatedly and desperately tries to install reforms that will require much time before they are fully integrated. Egypt, which daily opposes the Brotherhood and Hamas both inside and outside its territory, was once the most prestigious Arab League member. It is now trying to recapture that prestige by pledging subservience to the Saudis, who, like Bahrain and the UAE, find reason to fear Tehran’s power over their Shiite constituencies.

With Iraq on one side and Iran on the other, Kuwait, too, must nurse a “double conscience” while continuing to display its traditional prestige. Oman, by keeping to itself, has avoided being dragged into its neighbors’ internecine problems. Its prestige has thus far remained intact both at home and abroad.

Under the circumstances, unless Riyadh and Qatar urgently hold a closed-door meeting aimed at once and for all ironing out their opposed senses of pyrrhic prestige, it is entirely possible that Tehran, with Ankara’s and Doha’s blessing and perhaps even covert connivance, will seize the opportunity to incite turbulence inside Bahrain, UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Should this occur, the Middle East will not be the same. With Tehran and Riyadh continuing to stare at each other across the Strait of Hormuz like two dragons waiting to pounce, a super-caliphate in Istanbul, and a stronger-than-ever Imamate now governing in Qom, day-to-day life for residual Middle Eastern Christians in general, and for Israelis in particular, might become very tough indeed.

View PDF

Jose V. Ciprut is a social systems scientist and international political economist with professional and academic focus on peace and war econometrics, interregional geopolitics, and regional/local conflict. He has served as an international industrial marketing development engineer on several continents and in a wide variety of countries.                

BESA  Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family