Just over a decade ago, the Arab Spring uprisings brought hope for a democratic transformation across the Middle East. The uprisings in the Arab world were preceded by the 2009 Green Movement in Iran, raising regional expectations for more popular participation in their respective political systems. As this sentiment spread from Iran to Tunisia to Egypt to Syria and beyond, it became evident that the inhabitants of a diverse and fractious region were uniting in their demands for more democratic governance.
However, the trajectory of democratization has proved less than straightforward. Many democratic movements have faced stern resistance, if not outright suppression, from their respective elites. In other instances, such as Egypt, the initial success of the pro-democracy movement was short-lived and quickly supplanted military coups. Tragically, countries like Syria and Libya descended into devastating civil wars, becoming battlegrounds for competing radicalized factions rather than transitioning into democratic states. Even Tunisia, where a democratic system began to take shape, has experienced setbacks.
In essence, the Middle East has witnessed three parallel and intersecting trends. First, the democratization efforts following the Arab Spring have been stymied by entrenched elites and praetorian militaries. Second, authoritarian regimes increasingly cooperate in upholding the status quo despite their fierce rivalries. Third, external great powers now have a greater incentive to maintain non-democratic regimes
2023 as a Turning Point
In 2023, a series of diplomatic shifts and political developments in the Middle East point toward the potential emergence of an authoritarian regional order. In March, the geopolitical landscape shifted dramatically when Iran and Saudi Arabia, long-standing rivals, agreed to normalize their relations. This surprising detente followed the successful suppression of nationwide protests in Iran, significantly challenging the regime’s legitimacy. Notably, during the 2022 Iran protests, Riyadh refrained from explicitly supporting the protesters, a decision influenced by its concern about the potential domino effect of a regime change in Iran. This conscious refrain from intervening directly against its rival marked a notable shift in Riyadh’s approach, eventually contributing to improved bilateral relations.
At the same time, Iran has been forging ties with the United Arab Emirates. The normalization of relations with Bahrain is expected to follow suit. These developments are intriguing, considering Iran had posed a severe threat to the UAE and Bahrain due to its support for the Yemeni Houthis and Shia opposition within their respective countries. Moreover, Iran’s prospects of normalizing relations with Egypt have become more likely. Authoritarian regimes are leaning on each other through regional reconciliation—an approach that could foster stability and insulate governments from domestic opposition.
In another striking turn of events, Syria was welcomed back into the Arab League in May, more than a decade after its suspension. This occurred even though the government of Bashar Al-Assad maintains its rule by force following a bloody civil war. It appears that Arab states have acquiesced to the regime’s stubborn survival and allowed Damascus to regain its status in the Arab League.
The same month, Turkish elections resulted in another victory for Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), dashing opposition hopes of ousting the long-serving incumbent. The prospect of Erdogan’s continued rule into a third decade raises serious concerns about the further erosion of democratic institutions in Turkey.
Interestingly, the normalization of relations between Ankara and Damascus had also begun just prior to the Turkish elections. Russia and Iran, the primary supporters of Bashar al-Assad, have encouraged this process. Despite lingering disagreements, such as the continued presence of Turkish military forces in Syria, full normalization between Turkey and Syria seems inevitable.
Meanwhile, between April and June, Qatar marked the official end of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s diplomatic crisis by reopening its embassies in Bahrain and the UAE. While the crisis erupted in 2017 and effectively ended in 2021 during the Al-Ula summit, the embassy reopenings were symbolic gestures signifying the complete normalization of relations.
Lastly, the potential expansion of the Abraham Accords looms on the horizon as Saudi Arabia considers joining the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco in normalizing relations with Israel.
The meaning of these developments is clear. 2023 marked a surge in the consolidation of authoritarian order, a shift toward regional reconciliation, and a pragmatic acceptance of geopolitical realities by different regional actors.
External Powers as Enablers
Although not unprecedented, the recent upswell in cooperation and understanding among authoritarian regimes in the Middle East does mark a significant departure from previous norms. This shift is primarily influenced by two fundamental changes in the global landscape: the increasingly insular priorities of Western powers, particularly the European Union (EU) and the United States, and the growing influence of non-democratic powers such as China and Russia.
Over time, democratic powers have reduced their presence in the region or rebuked their emphasis on democracy and human rights in favor of pragmatism. Amid the war in Ukraine, European nations have sought to secure their energy needs by turning to the petro-kingdoms of the Arab world as an alternative to Russia. In doing so, they overlook poor human rights records. The United States, too, has put its criticisms of Saudi Arabia’s domestic conduct on hold, seeking instead to convince Riyadh to reconsider its relations with Russia and China.
Meanwhile, the rising influence of China and Russia—two major non-democratic powers—has presented Middle Eastern regimes with an alternative. Unhindered by preconditions related to human rights or democratic practices, these Eastern powers have offered regional governments the opportunity to bolster their authoritarian regimes while still enjoying beneficial economic and political relations.
For instance, Iran’s increased authoritarianism, mainly since the 2021 presidential elections, has led to strategic cooperation with China and Russia, establishing a kind of authoritarian empathy that has become a cornerstone of its foreign policy. Both China and Russia feel comfortable working with an Iran devoid of any significant reformist presence seeking improved relations with the West, and Tehran, grappling with its strained relations with the West, finds solace in the relationships it has cultivated with its Eastern partners.
The Arab states of the Persian Gulf, though differing from Iran in their approach toward the West, are nonetheless reaping similar benefits. They welcome China as a viable alternative since Beijing does not judge the internal policies of its economic partners. Unlike the United States, they have adopted an approach based on balancing the interests of major powers. Yet, the result is the same: authoritarian regimes are gaining greater confidence to act as they please.
In summary, two factors have significantly influenced the recent changes: First, the intensifying competition between the United States and China on the international stage, and second, the Ukraine war and the consequent search by Western powers for alternative energy resources.
The world is witnessing a new arena of competition between the East and the West. Unlike the Cold War era, when the competition bore a stark ideological contrast that forced regional partners to adopt the ideology of their superpower patrons, the current contest is purely geopolitical. This situation allows regional powers to maneuver for their optimal position and secure maximum benefits while consolidating their preferred form of governance. This evolving geopolitical landscape has given the regional powers greater room to maneuver and further entrench their authoritarian practices, highlighting the nexus between global power shifts and regional political dynamics.
From authoritarian understanding to authoritarian order
In the rapidly evolving political landscape of the Middle East, the pieces seem to be falling into place to form a new paradigm—an authoritarian order. This order stems from a series of mutual understandings among various regional actors to normalize and stabilize their relationships. If this shared understanding quells regional conflicts and disputes, it could usher in a new era of authoritarian stability.
Characteristic of this emerging order is the implicit understanding among regional authoritarian governments that there is an advantage to non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. This understanding is, in part, driven by fear of a domino effect if one regime were to fall and, on the other hand, by the interests of external powers in preserving the status quo. Consequently, the idea of democratic regime change has become an increasingly unpalatable concept within the region.
A new sense of inclusion also marks this order, extending its reach to Shia Iran and its allies in the so-called “axis of resistance.” Iran’s recent steps toward normalizing relations with its Sunni Arab neighbors indicate Tehran’s perception that these countries are no longer mere “proxies” of the United States. Iran now feels that regional actors recognize and respect its position and interests.
Another defining feature of the emerging order is its place within the competition of external great powers, with the West on one side and Russia and China on the other.
For instance, Iran relies on China as its primary economic lifeline amid Western-imposed sanctions. Simultaneously, Saudi Arabia has set its sights on attracting significant Chinese investment and actively participates in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The strategic alignment between Saudi Arabia and China holds considerable importance as Riyadh seeks to diversify its economy and strengthen its global partnerships. China’s growing interests in both countries could increase mutual caution against escalating conflict.