In shifting sands of Middle East, who will lead?

Leadership in the Middle East is up for grabs as the Syrian war intensifies, the Arab Spring changes regional power dynamics, and Israel's airstrikes and Hamas rockets again roil Gaza. Last year, Turkey was the assumed role model for the region. But it has fallen down on the job.

Hatem Moussa/AP
Smoke rises following a strike from Israel on Gaza City Nov. 15. Op-ed contributor Steven A. Cook writes: 'The issue of leadership is critical for the region. States with prestige and financial, diplomatic, and military resources can drive events in the Middle East – hopefully for good, but potentially for bad.'

Even before the recent round of Hamas rockets and airstrikes from Israel in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian enclave was in the news as the diplomatic destination of choice for the leaders of the Middle East. Last month, the emir of Qatar visited Gaza. Bahrain’s embattled king is also weighing such a trip. Turkey’s prime minister, too, announced his intention to travel to the strip.

News reports speculate that the leaders' attention will further legitimize Gaza’s militant Hamas at the expense of Mahmoud Abbas’s secular Palestinian Authority, which is based in the West Bank. Yet the sudden diplomatic interest in Gaza has more to do with prime ministers, kings, emirs, and presidents seeking to burnish their legitimacy – or importantly, their credentials as potential regional leaders.

The uprisings, revolutions, and civil wars that have dramatically altered domestic politics in the Arab world have had a profound effect on regional power dynamics – including Iran. The Middle East is up for grabs, yet which country or countries will lead is as unclear and complex as current efforts to build new political systems in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and elsewhere.

The issue of leadership is critical for the region. States with prestige and financial, diplomatic, and military resources can drive events in the Middle East – hopefully for good, but potentially for bad. In the 1950s and ’60s, for example, Egypt’s leadership under Gamal Abdel Nasser shaped regional politics around the myths of Arab nationalism, which led to intra-Arab conflict and regional war. The Arab Spring provides an opportunity for a power or group of powers to usher in a new era of peace, prosperity, and perhaps democracy.

In the spring of 2011, some observers believed that Turkey was a model for countries in the Arab world that aspire to democratic politics and successful economies. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s triumphal tour of Cairo, Tunis, and Tripoli in September 2011 reinforced the idea that Ankara was the natural center of a new emerging regional order.

Turkey certainly has much to offer the region. It is more democratic than any country in the Arab world and boasts the 16th largest economy in the world. The din of various Arabic dialects spoken by Egyptian, Libyan, Saudi, and other tourists at passport control at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport or in the famous Grand Bazaar speaks to Turkey’s regional pull.

However, a little more than a year after Mr. Erdogan’s regional tour, Turkey’s popularity – while still strong – is softening. In a recent poll, the respected Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation uncovered a creeping ambivalence among Arabs about Turkey’s regional role.

For example, across 16 countries surveyed, 69 percent of respondents reported a positive impression of Turkey. But the number of Arabs who regard Turkey as a model fell to just over half from the year before. Approval of Turkey’s regional influence was 60 percent, also lower. In the abstract, these are all enviable results, but they represent a slide of eight to nine percentage points in just one year – a significant drop.

Deteriorating relations with Iraq and alignment with Saudi Arabia and Qatar on Syria are taking a toll on Turkey’s regional standing. It is true that the Turks are helping the Syrians free themselves from a brutal dictator, but few in the Arab world trust the Qataris, and especially the Saudis.

Ankara’s approach is also fueling suspicion – if only by circumstance – among Arabs that the Turks are pursuing a sectarian strategy that will sow conflict in the region, which in some ways has already begun in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Turkey’s regional prominence before the uprisings was based in part on its ability to be a neutral arbiter and problem solver in the region. That esteem seems to have been lost in the maelstrom of Syria and the complexities of Arab transitions.

And forgotten in all the romance about neo-Ottomanism is the fact that while the Turks are geographically adjacent to the Middle East and are overwhelmingly Muslim, they remain outsiders given their own colonial legacy in the Arab world. This view of Turkey is common among older Arabs and even younger activists who took to the streets to depose dictators in the name of national empowerment and dignity as well as democracy.

Finally, observers have tended to conflate Turkey’s soft power with an ability to shape regional politics. The posters of Erdogan in Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps may be a testament to the Turkish leader’s stance on the Palestinian issue. But this kind of grass-roots popularity cannot hide the fact that Turkish efforts to cool hot spots like Libya, Syria, and Gaza have failed. Erdogan was unable to influence his ally Muammar Qaddafi, the former Libyan dictator, to reform. Neither was he able to pressure his once friend and protégé in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, to call off his murderous attacks on peaceful protesters. And he also failed to force an end to Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.

If not Turkey, then who will emerge as the Middle East’s regional power or powers?

The other contenders – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Iran, and even Israel – have their own deficits in soft power and limited capabilities that will make it hard to establish themselves as the region’s undisputed leader.

It will even be difficult for a coalition of countries to lead given differing interests and regional rivalries. It is no secret that the Qataris and Saudis dislike each other, and Arabs are unlikely to submit to Turkish leadership even in partnership with Arab countries. Cairo, for example, has been lukewarm to strategic relations with Ankara.

These problems are abundantly clear in the failure of the Qataris, Saudis, and Turks to forge a broader, more unified Syrian opposition – something that required US pressure to achieve.

Without a clear leader, regional states will continue to maneuver around each other, seeking advantage and influence wherever they can until some diplomatic or geopolitical change – perhaps the fall of the Assad regime, or a strike on Iran’s nuclear program – provides an opportunity for one country to step forward and lead.

Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of “The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square” (Oxford University Press).

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