The story of the Arab uprisings of 2010-11 has typically been told as a series of loosely related national stories, happening simultaneously but whose successes and failures were essentially determined by internal factors. Over the past few years, political scientists have made great progress evaluating the success or failure of each country’s uprising in terms of country-specific qualities such as types of domestic institutions, the nature of opposition movements, the wise or poor decisions made by leaders and access to oil revenues. The comparative politics literature on the uprisings has demonstrated real theoretical progress, sophisticated empirical analysis and useful — if too often ignored — policy advice.
This comparative politics approach to the uprisings has always been problematic, though. The Arab uprisings began in transnational diffusion and ended in transnational repression and regional proxy wars. Put simply, there is not a single case in the Arab uprisings — with perhaps, as Monica Marks argues, the very partial exception of Tunisia — in which international factors were not decisive to the outcome. It is remarkably difficult to accurately explain the course of events in Egypt, Yemen or Libya without reference to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar or Iran. However, with but a few notable exceptions, the academic literature on the uprisings has been dominated by comparative analysis and country case studies, with international factors included as one among several variables, if at all.
This seems odd. Why has there not been an efflorescence of international relations scholarship comparable to the impressive outpouring of comparative politics scholarship on the Arab uprisings? And if there were, what would it look like? To begin rectifying this gap, the Project on Middle East Political Science teamed up with Danish scholar Morten Valbjørn of Aarhus University to bring together nearly two dozen American, European and Arab international relations scholars in May. The result of the workshop was an astonishingly rich set of essays from a wide range of theoretical perspectives, which are now available for free download here as a special issue in the POMEPS Studies series.
It is generally accepted that the uprisings themselves were very much a region-wide phenomenon. For all the accumulated grievances and internal politics that characterized the situation in each Arab country circa late 2010, it is difficult to conceive of each simultaneously erupting in protest without the highly publicized example of successful uprisings overthrowing long-entrenched dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. There is now abundant evidence and an increasingly sophisticated theoretical literature detailing the diffusion and demonstration mechanisms by which the Arab uprisings spread. The initial uprisings, then, clearly cannot be understood without an appreciation of their regional and international dynamics.
Then, consider the outcomes in most of the key countries that experienced turmoil in the early days of the Arab uprising. The military coup that ended Egypt’s attempted democratic transition July 3, 2013, received massive support from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states—aid which replaced Qatari backing for Mohammed el-Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government. Morocco, Jordan and Oman received significant Saudi financial assistance to resist popular pressure for change. Bahrain’s uprising was crushed with the support of Saudi and other GCC military forces. Qatar and the Arab League pushed successfully for an international military intervention in support of Libya’s rebels, which ultimately decided Moammar Gaddafi’s fate. Yemen’s transition was carefully managed by a Gulf Cooperation Council plan that installed Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi as president in place of the long-ruling President Ali Abdullah Saleh, while granting the latter immunity from prosecution. The resurgence of the Arab security state has been a transnational phenomenon. None of these outcomes can be explained solely through domestic factors.
And, of course, there are the wars. A Saudi-led coalition is six months into a grinding, bloody military campaign in Yemen designed to roll back the advances of Saleh and the Houthi movement. Libya’s failed transition and spiraling war has been deeply shaped by external backing for its rival forces and episodic Egyptian military strikes. Syria’s uprising has long since transformed into a horrific war fueled by massive direct and indirect intervention by multiple Arab states, Iran and Turkey.
The Arab uprising’s initiation and outcomes, therefore, have been manifestly and profoundly shaped by international factors, with which international relations theory has yet to fully engage. This diverse group of scholars addressed a wide array of issues raised by reconceptualizing the Arab uprisings in terms of international relations.
Some of the contributors seek to bridge levels of analysis, focusing on traditional forms of statecraft, alliances and institutions. Sarah Bush and Etel Solingen examine the different forms of international pressure on the Middle East and the role that Western actors have played in blocking meaningful democratic change. Gregory Gause and Curtis Ryan highlight the ongoing centrality of regime survival concerns in shaping the foreign policies of Arab states, locating unusual new foreign policy gambits in the heightened or transformed sense of the threats to their rule. Erin Snider brings international political economy back into frame. Bassel Salloukh examines how the proliferation of weak and shattered states has changed the structural dynamics of the region’s politics. Matteo Legrenzi explores new forms of regionalism and the prospect for greater institutionalization of state cooperation.
Others focus on the importance of ideas. Ewan Stein explores the relationship between the regime legitimization formulas and their regional foreign policies, while Lawrence Rubin similarly looks closely at how the ideational security dilemma created for these regimes by the Islamic State. Helle Malmvig evocatively asks how sectarian identity politics can be taken seriously without giving in to the cynical manipulations of powerful elites. Zeynep Kaya considers the efforts of Kurds to achieve genuine sovereignty. Stephan Stetter incorporates social evolution theory and political communications to assess the extent to which 2011 represented genuine change in regional affairs.
A final set of authors, led by workshop co-host Morten Valbjørn, reverses the sights by using the Arab uprisings to challenge international relations as a discipline. Pinar Bilgin investigates the parochialism of IR theory, manifested in its difficulty to incorporate the ways in which non-dominant actors conceive of their own security concerns. Nora Fisher Onar pushes for the serious inclusion of feminist and critical scholarship and a broader engagement with the emergent literature of “global international relations.” This should not be seen simply as the metatheoretical prejudice of European and Turkey-based scholars: Their case for seriously incorporating human security and critical scholarship could hardly be more urgently relevant given the horrific and enduring human cost of the wars raging across Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
The thoughtful essays in this outstanding collection only begin to scratch the surface of what international relations theory should contribute to the study of the Arab uprisings. Much remains to be done with the implications of a perceived decline in U.S. power and commitment in the region, the potential emergence of new alignments between Israel and Arab regimes, the role of transnational networks in a system still structured by states, the possibilities raised by joint Arab military action in Yemen, the long-term effects of population displacement and human trauma caused by the region’s wars and so much more. Download POMEPS Studies 16 International Relations Theory and a Changing Middle East for a remarkable survey of current thinking and a great introduction to the analytical debates to come.