Sources of instability in the Middle East 

Brian M Downing 

The Middle East has been unstable for most of the past hundred years, but it’s more so today. Some reasons are long-term, others more recent. Long-term reasons include hostilities between the Shia and Sunni sects, artificial boundaries drawn by Britain and France after the Great War, the establishment of Israel, and steep rises and falls in the price of oil.

There are recent causes of instability too, though, and President Trump and PM Netanyahu are pointing to Iran and implying remedial action is at hand. Neoconservatives have warned of Iran for years, and many in the American public are coming to agree or remaining uninterested. Single-cause explanations are attractive. Institutions pitch them, publics catch them. Iran has played a role in the present instability, but it’s only one of many causes.

Old regimes, new youths 

Middle-eastern rulers are oligarchs, colonels and their sons, populist dictators, and monarchs of recent and dubious vintage. Rulers with strong public support are rare – and Iran might be near the top of the short list.

Economic success depends less on entrepreneurial talents than on reliable connections to the regime. More affluent countries, despite decades of strong oil prices, have failed to diversify their economies. They placate publics with subsidies and gifts. Belated efforts to diversify are underway but in the meantime, largesse is less forthcoming.

The Middle East has experienced a population boom. In many countries, two-thirds of the population is under thirty. They look around and see little opportunity for jobs and marriage. They see other countries where opportunity is more plentiful and criticism of government is acceptable.

Triggering events in Tunisia and elsewhere brought young people into the streets to demand change. Hopes have diminished and the Arab Spring has given way to winter. Discontent and instability remain.

Saudi Arabia 

Riyadh has used its wealth to propagate its own variant of Islam, Wahhabism, in many Islamic countries. The creed is austere, repressive, and hostile to foreign ideas and institutions. Wahhabism’s hostility toward Shiism has worsened sectarian tensions and brought the Gulf to the brink of war. The Saudis build schools, mosques, and social agencies in the region which preach Wahhabism. While they have garnered popular support in the countries, they have also caused resentment from moderate and nationalistic people.

Wahhabism opposes westernization which includes the putative sins of secularism, tolerance, and democracy. This of course has a destabilizing effect as the Kingdom seeks to industrialize and sides with the West and Israel on security matters.

Sunni royal families are akin to the Habsburgs and Romanovs, who collaborated against democratic movements in the mid-19th-century – and who collapsed a half century later. Statist clergy issue fatwas forbidding peaceful protest and condemning liberalization. Abroad, the Saudis assisted the Egyptian military in ousting an elected government and in restoring the old regime. Many young people turned to more militant approaches to change.

The murderous apocalyptic visions of ISIL and al Qaeda draw from the Saudi state religion. Most Wahhabists pursue an inner war for virtue and salvation, though others march off to join horrifyingly brutal bands ranging from the Maghreb to Central Asia.

The Iraq wars

The 2003 invasion of Iraq jarred the entire region. Reverberations continue. It led not to the proliferation of democracy in the region, as the neoconservatives assured the public, rather to murderous sectarian strife and a political vacuum that Islamist militants eagerly filled. ISIL is a potent coalition of al Qaeda in Iraq and embittered soldiers from Saddam’s disbanded army.

In northern Iraq, the Kurds strengthened their autonomy from Baghdad and have become all but independent. This has raised the prospect, if only the unlikely one, of independent Kurdish states created from adjacent countries, or at least to emboldened insurgencies.


Following the shah’s ouster in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini called upon Sunni and Shia alike to rise up against unjust rulers. Little came of it, save for more hostility and fear in Sunni countries. This led to a Sunni invasion of Iran (1980) and eight years of internecine warfare.

Relations worsened with the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the empowerment of a Shia majority. Though a foreseeable consequence of American policy, a Shia Iraq further alarmed Sunni states – all the more so as Iran’s nuclear program proceeded. The instability was brought on less by Iranian actions than by American missteps.

Syria became a Shia-Sunni battleground. Iranian special forces patched together Shia militias that help roll back rebel forces. However, the militias also destroyed Sunni neighborhoods in western Syria and helped turn a popular uprising into a sectarian war.

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The US and Israel are determined to weaken Iran. Attacks on Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria are in their early stages. Insurgent groups inside Iran will be encouraged to become more aggressive. Politicians and think-tanks claim this will improve regional stability, but fifteen years ago the same sources were confident that Iraq would become a model democracy.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs.