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For many centuries, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been a theatre that foreign powers have sought to control and gain influence in. In the twentieth century, with British and French attempts to destroy the Ottoman empire, the 1918 Sykes-Picot agreement saw these powers seek to divide the region into their respective spheres of influence. The region’s importance to foreign powers increased as oil became the primary energy source over coal, since the MENA region possessed some of the world’s largest oil reserves.
By the mid-twentieth century, the Cold War, in which the USA and the Soviet Union fought for ideological and global superiority and employed proxy states and forces in various parts of the world, saw these powers and their allies battle for the support of MENA states and non-state actors in attempts to extend their influence over a critical geostrategic region and to exert control over energy resources. Western powers such as the USA and Britain supported Arab monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, while Arab republican states such as Egypt and Syria were, in the main, supported by the Soviet Union. Two powerful non-Arab states in the region, Iran and Turkey, were both in the western camp for much of the Cold War era.
The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 added a new dimension to foreign intervention as a number of western powers sought to bolster and protect the new entity and ensure the easy flow of Jewish immigrants to it. Israel effectively became the bulwark of western interests in the MENA region.
Despite the end of the Cold War in 1989-1990, the region’s geostrategic significance and oil resources ensured that it would remain the target of various forms of intrigue and intervention. The discovery of large gas reserves gave even more reason to foreign powers to jostle to win influence. More recently, emerging powers, such as India and China, have also sought to access the resources in the MENA region and exert influence over state and non-state actors there. For China, the region is also critical in its belt and road initiative, which aims to tether China’s growth to an opening up of trade routes and markets with Middle East countries.
In the past decade, the involvement of a number of foreign powers in the region has been massively militarised in some countries. The shock of the MENA uprisings in 2010-2011 persuaded many foreign actors to increase their role in the region. Indeed, Syria and Libya serve as good examples of the large number of foreign actors intervening, and of the scope and scale of their interventions. The USA, Russia, a number of European states, as well as non-state military outfits from these countries have been active in military training, strategic planning and advice, on-the-ground military activity, and air attacks that have left thousands of citizens of MENA countries dead or injured. Many of these countries are also key suppliers of weapons to state and non-state actors. The rise of the Islamic State group provided a further excuse to foreign powers who wanted to maintain a presence in the region, and it became the cited reason for the increased military activity of Russia and the USA, as well as other foreign powers.
In many instances in the region, the influence and interventions of these foreign states have often led to the suppression of the popular will, facilitated the violent clampdown on dissent, and generally empowered elites against the citizenry – often with serious implications for the violations of human rights.
In the past decade, the foreign role in the MENA region has taken new and different forms, from seeking to influence youth activists through funding to largescale military intervention. These interventions have also played a role in reconfiguring political alliances and axes in the region. While current politics in the region are extremely fluid, this reconfiguration could produce developments that upset the manner in which state-to-state relations have been conducted within the region in the past half a century, and could also see radical changes in which external states exercise what influence on which state and non-state actors in the region. Will the US role continue along the same trajectory as it had been in the past? Is Russia poised to play a much larger role and develop its own set of MENA proxies and allies? How will fluctuating Turkey-USA relations affect the role of NATO in the region? Will Turkey’s and Iran’s mostly warm relations with Russia result in a new regional-foreign bloc? How will the Saudi-Israeli-American alliance play out in future and how will it affect the future of the Palestinian struggle? These and numerous other such questions are relevant in any discussion on the role of foreign actors in the MENA region.
The above themes and questions will be interrogated at a two-day conference organised by the Afro-Middle East Centre. Academics and experts from the region and globally will discuss these issues and assess the region’s future trajectory.