The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is often perceived as being largely defined by crises, terrorism, and war. Ariel I. Ahram, Associate Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech, presents a much more nuanced perspective in his latest book, “War and Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa.”
After having analyzed numerous databases on war and terrorism, Ahram graphically presents how regional trends compare with global dynamics. Thus, he comes to assert that “the patterns of conflict in MENA are mostly unexceptional” in the post-World War II era.[i] Nevertheless, the 21st century has witnessed a considerable increase in the prevalence of violence and warfare in the region.
Modern states in MENA are the product of two historical phenomena. On the one hand, Western colonialism decisively shaped this area of the world. On the other hand, the period of regional interstate rivalries and wars that followed the attainment of political independence had a durable impact as well.
Conflict has weakened MENA states to the extent that many of them do not hold the monopoly of violence over their territory. This notwithstanding, wars against external enemies have also contributed to state consolidation in countries such as Israel, Iran, and Egypt. As Ahram succinctly explains, wars “had a double role in making and breaking statehood in MENA.” [ii]
Exploring the drivers of conflict in such a wide and diverse region as MENA is certainly an incredibly difficult task. It requires striking the right balance between comprehensiveness and attention to detail while avoiding overgeneralizations. Ahram succeeds in finding this delicate equilibrium, and it is closely related to the balanced approach to discussing conflict he employs in the book.
The author identifies three powerful conflict traps in MENA: oil, identity, and geopolitics. The concept of a conflict trap is defined as a condition that renders war and conflict more likely, especially when a country has suffered from widespread violence before. Whereas the three conflict traps examined in the book are not exhaustive as Ahram himself recognizes, they provide a useful framework to delve into related topics.
Ahram explains that direct interstate conflict over the control of oil has been relatively rare in MENA. As he interestingly argues – and contrary to the conventional wisdom that natural resources are an obvious driver of violent state behavior – in some circumstances oil has decreased the likelihood of regional conflict. The management of pipelines and fields of oil and gas that extend beyond a single country’s national borders can foster regional cooperation. The creation of an Israel-Egypt pipeline following the 1979 Camp David Accords is a paradigmatic example.
The benefits that states accrue from natural resources empower them to build national security forces directed against other states and internal protesters.
Nevertheless, oil remains a powerful source of conflict. The benefits that states accrue from natural resources empower them to build national security forces directed against other states and internal protesters. In some countries, such as the Gulf monarchies of Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, oil revenue has been used to hire foreign mercenaries.
The existence of large reserves of oil and gas has not always favored state consolidation, however. Insurgent groups have grown powerful after obtaining control of oilfields and pipelines, while separatist movements in resource-rich regions have often pushed for more autonomy or complete independence seeking to obtain larger benefits from natural resources. Consequently, while interstate conflicts over the control of oil are seldom, oil remains an important driver of intrastate conflicts.
Ahram provides key insights on the role of identity in shaping clashes in MENA. He challenges primordialist perspectives of identity according to which ethnic disputes in the region are nothing but the last expression of millennium-old struggles. His approach is based on an analysis of how states in MENA have adopted different strategies to manage the diversity of identities, which can be summarized in three main categories: assimilation, consociation, and domination.
Assimilation aims at “eliding or eliminating differences themselves,” [iii] whereas consociation takes a divergent approach by granting recognition to different societal groups and allowing them to conduct their own affairs with a certain degree of autonomy. Since Reza Shah Pahlavi’s reign in the 1920s, Iran is an example of an assimilationist state, whereas Lebanon is the paradigmatic example of a consociational system (at least since its independence from France).
Finally, domination is not a different strategy per se but can be viewed as the expression of the dangers inherent to assimilation and consociation. Assimilation can degenerate into the majoritarian ethnic group dominating minorities rather than integrating them. Consociation may pave the way for the state to offer special benefits to some key members of the different social groups in order to have the whole societal groups under its control. The pursuit of domination by the state is one of the main causes of ethnic warfare in MENA, together with the internal disputes of different ethnic groups and the destabilizing effects of foreign intervention.
The role of extra-regional powers in influencing war and conflict in MENA is discussed when Ahram presents geopolitics as the third major conflict trap. The author offers convincing arguments to explain why he does not examine the ways geography affects MENA. The main reason is that “geopolitics is something enforced or imported from without.” [iv] It is difficult to understand, however, why Ahram does not abandon the concept of “geopolitics” altogether considering how skeptically he handles the term.
What Ahram describes as hybrid peace is based on the importance of creating opportunities for communities to address conflict in accordance with local customs and priorities.
The book covers with special attention the conflicts that followed the Arab Spring — Yemen and Syria in particular —in the penultimate chapter. Ahram concludes his work with a discussion on peacekeeping and mediation efforts in MENA. He advocates for an unorthodox understanding of peacebuilding that makes bottom-up and top-down approaches compatible. What Ahram describes as hybrid peace is based on the importance of creating opportunities for communities to address conflict in accordance with (their) local customs and priorities.
Throughout the book, Ariel I. Ahram elegantly combines up-to-date description and analysis of ongoing conflicts in MENA with a rich theoretical and empirical background that equips the reader with the tools to understand how decades-long dynamics impact the current regional battles. In this sense, the inclusion of case studies in most chapters is especially useful.
“War and Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa” is likely to become a reference work for both students and scholars of the region because of its nuanced exploration of a complex but often-stereotyped topic, and its ability to provide solid foundations for further research on specific conflicts in MENA.
[i] Ahram, Ariel I. War and Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa. Cambridge: Polity, 2020: 26
[ii] Ibid: 49
[iii] Ibid: 85
[iv] Ibid: 105