When Will the Middle East Settle Down?

Sigmund Freud suggested that psychoanalysis could convert one’s neurotic misery to everyday unhappiness. Leaping to geopolitics from psychoanalysis leads to the question of when the Middle East will be converted from massive chaos to everyday turmoil.

Thinking about that reminds me of one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons. An important executive is sitting at his mammoth desk and barking into the phone, “How about never? Is never soon enough?”

Is “never” when the Middle East settles down? In the case of the Middle East, never is probably too long a time. But don’t expect any return to conventional states and normal inter-state relations for the next two decades at the earliest. More likely, it will be closer to fifty years.

Just look at the issues.


The elected government of President Ashraf Ghani held talks recently with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar where the Taliban were allowed to open an office in 2013. The Taliban stated they no longer opposed the education of women while the government agreed to allow the office to remain open. The Taliban weakened their insistence that no peace was possible until all foreign troops had left the country. (The 10,000 U.S. troops and 3,000 from other countries are trainers and would leave were the Taliban to stop fighting.) President Obama has set 2017 for the end of all U.S. military action in Afghanistan – suggesting the Taliban’s best bet would be to wait! Both sides agreed to future talks.

The major Taliban response has been the launch of a spring offensive, killing policemen in the province of Badakhshan and attacking Kunduz city. For the first time, non-Afghan fighters have joined the offensive under the banner of the Islamic State.

Despite the inconclusive talks and the ongoing offensive, hopeful signs exist. But hopeful for just what? Everyday turmoil in Afghanistan would be a return to the years before the king, Zahir Shah, was overthrown (by his cousin) in 1973. Under his rule, little modernization occurred and factionalism and political infighting guaranteed that the country was largely untouched by the central government.

In fact, Afghanistan has never had a meaningful national government. The pundits referred to the previous president, Hamid Karzai, as the ‘Mayor of Kabul’ because that was the limit of his reach.

As of yet, there is absolutely no sign that the Taliban would be willing to accept an Afghanistan in which they were relegated, like the country’s many ‘warlords,’ to controlling a province or two. Nor is there any reason to believe they would accept such a role any time soon.


In March 2011, 1,000 members of the Saudi National Guard and 500 troops from the UAE entered Bahrain via the causeway that the Saudis had built to connect the island to the mainland. The troops crushed the uprising against King Hamad and his ruling Sunni dynasty. Unfortunately for the island, while the rulers are Sunnis, some 60-70% of the population of 1.2 million are Shiites.

No progress has been made in resolving the demands of the majority for a greater role in governing. The ruling Khalifas were initially conflicted on how conciliatory to be towards the Shiites. But the Sunni-UAE occupiers ended any tendency to accommodation. The basic split in the island remains deep and utterly unresolved and periodic demonstrations turn violent.


The repressive military regime under President and former General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi continues to meet out death sentences to Muslim Brotherhood leaders, street protesters, and other actual and alleged opponents. Meanwhile, stalwarts of the Mubarak regime see the charges against them dropped.

In 2013, Sisi deposed his predecessor, Mohammad Morsi, the first democratically elected president in the country’s history. Ever since, Islamic groups, now allied with the Islamic State, have conducted regular attacks in the Sinai Peninsula. Sisi’s military response has been brutal.

A stuttering economy in a repressive country with ongoing problems of political violence and a burgeoning population pushing 85 million suggests ever greater problems in the future.


The persisting ills of Iraq are all too clear:

— The destruction of the country’s political, physical, and economic infrastructure

by the U.S. military onslaught;

— A government strongly influenced by Iran that has monopolized its benefits for the country’s majority Shiite population;

— Kurdish leaders who seized the opportunity of the weakness in Baghdad to achieve a strong measure of autonomy;

— Senior Sunni officers of Saddam’s military, unwisely dismantled by U.S. ruler Paul Bremer, disgruntled at their loss of status;

— Sunni tribal leaders resentful of Shiite dominance;

— Jihadi Sunnis, intent on restoring greatness by a return to the Islam of the Prophet in the 7th century.

What has emerged is the Islamic State that controls a substantial portion of Iraq, the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government that controls another major portion and a rump central government facing a country beset by violence.

How these forces work themselves out, if they ever do, and whether the geography of Iraq can remain intact are questions that will produce answers, but only over decades.


France and the U.S., using the guise of NATO, lunched a war against Colonel Ghaddafi in 2011. With the help of local militias, his regime collapsed and he was killed. Ghaddafi had seized power in a coup in 1969 and had kept the country divided and in turmoil. He vigorously maintained an east-west divide and strengthened tribal identities, all done to prevent any concerted attempt at his over throw.

The results are all too obvious. Four years after his ouster, Libya is in a state of virtual civil war. Dozens of militias compete for power and for control of oil exports. Jihadists are among them, joined recently by members loyal to the Islamic State.

A centralized Libyan state that can control its territory and force its militias and jihadists into subservience is nowhere to be seen. Nor is there a clue as to what might bring that about.


Sultan Qaboos came to power when he overthrew his father in 1970. He has run a benevolent dictatorship that has transformed his country. In 2010, the United Nations Development Program named Oman “the most improved nation in the world.”

But the Sultan has been spending long periods in Germany for medical treatment and is, allegedly, dying. He never married and has not publicly named a successor, promising to leave his wishes in writing to be opened after his death.

Political forces, long suppressed, will be unleashed with his incapacity with perhaps disastrous effects.

Saudi Arabia

Long the most stable of Middle Eastern states, the Kingdom faces a period of uncertainty, although nothing like the chaos of other states. Newly crowned King Salman, 78, underwent spinal surgery in the U.S., has had a stroke that left his left side weak and is alleged to suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s. He is a noted conservative in both social and political matters, arguing that any change in the powers of the Saudi family would lead to the rise of tribal power and internal chaos.  He fired the chief of the religious police – too lax for the King – as well as the only woman in the government, a deputy minister.

King Salman recently changed the Kingdom’s succession plan. His full nephew, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, 55, is the new Crown Prince and his own son, Prince Muhammad bin Salman, age uncertain but somewhere between 27 and 35, is the new Deputy Crown Prince. With Salman’s demise, rulership will pass to the next generation, the grandsons of the Kingdom’s founder, King Abdul Aziz.

Perhaps more significantly, power will pass, eventually, to Salman’s own family. The new Crown Prince has two daughters and no sons. He will likely not change the succession plan towards his own descendants and away from Muhammad bin Salman.

Meanwhile, Prince Salman appears to be exercising extraordinary power. Despite his lack of any relevant credentials, he is the Minister of Defense (the youngest in the world), the chair of the newly formed Council for Economic and Development Affairs and the chief of the Royal Court. He controls access to his father and interprets his father’s wishes to the outside world.

That is a situation fraught with peril. It is not clear who is in charge and whose wishes are being communicated.

The young Muhammad unleashed the Saudi air force on Yemen, by far the most aggressive move in the history of the Kingdom. The bombing runs, joined principally by planes from the UAE, have destroyed much of the infrastructure of Yemen, killed more than 1000 Yemenis and not yet brought the Houthis to the negotiating table. So Muhammad’s reputation is on the line and he clearly has no choice but to continue the military campaign. The risks of an Arabian peninsula wide war are immense.


The heart of the regions’ chaos is here. All the elements that have brought a fire storm to the region can be found in Syria: Sunnis vs. Shia. Salafists vs. secularists. Jihadists vs. mainstream Muslims. A ruthless ruling family willing to kill its own citizens in staggering numbers in order to hold onto power. Radical Islamic groups that kill other competing extremists. Foreign fighters and military advisers. Interference from regional and extra-regional states.

President Assad has faced recent setbacks, especially the loss of the northern provincial capital, Idlib. Uncharacteristically, he has publicly acknowledged its loss. Speaking on May 6, he warned against “despair at a loss here and there” and concluded, “Today we are fighting a war, not a battle. War is not one battle, but a series of many battles. . . So when setbacks occur, it is our duty as a society to boost the morale of the soldier and not wait for him to raise ours.”

Setback or not, it does not appear that the Assads will disappear anytime soon. But when they inevitably do, the country will further disintegrate into regions controlled by competing Islamic factions and Assad loyalists. The governing infrastructure will face further collapse and the prospects in the next two decades for a restoration of a meaningful, non-violent Syria appear to be zero.


Never a fully unified state under the control of the capital, Yemen has further fractured. A large contingent of radical Islamic extremists – Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — control part of its territory and a port city allowing them to receive supplies. The Islamic State, not to be outdone, has sent in its own troops.

Whatever central power had existed has collapsed with the war between the Houthis, local Zaydis who are a sect of Shiites joined by the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, Saleh’s successor, President Hadi plus his new allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Iran has been a supporter of the Houthis but its precise role, particularly the extent to which it has supplied them with weapons, is uncertain.

What is certain is that the violence will not subside any time soon, let alone the building of a central government that controls the entire country.


Israel and Hamas fought a July-August war in 2014 that killed 2,256 Palestinians and 85 Israelis with thousands more injured. That war is over. But the essential conditions of the Israeli occupation and suppression of the Palestinians continues. During his election campaign, Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “How about never? Is never soon enough?” for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Later he suggested he didn’t really mean it. But with the creation of a new far right ruling coalition, Palestinians prospects are dim.

As long as that is true, the plight of the Palestinians will serve as an important humiliation and goad to Arabs and Iranians across the entire region.

The ‘Perfect Storm’ the Middle East

William Peace Thackeray first used the phrase in his novel, Vanity Fair:

“I have heard a brother of the story-telling trade at Naples preaching  and. . . work himself up into such a rage and passion. . . that the audience could not resist it; and they and the poet together would burst out into a roar of oaths and execrations against the fictitious monster of the tale that the hat went round. . .in the midst of a perfect storm of sympathy.”

The Middle East is in the midst of the ‘perfect storm.’ No group seems able to resist the pull of the region’s ills: the historical failures of its authoritarian rulers to build national identities or meaningful economies; the sectarian conflicts within Islam driven by Iran and Saudi Arabia; the rise of radical Islamists; the over reaching of Iran’s leaders; the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq by the U.S. and its subsequent effort to rebuild both countries in its own image as market driven democracies; the

reliance on oil revenues and the rise of rentier economies;

The ‘perfect storm’ will eventually subside – as do all storms. The Middle East will settle down. But it will not for decades.

Marvin Zonis is Professor Emeritus, Booth School of Business, The University of Chicago.