Just days into 2016, the world is witnessing a new stage in the unraveling of the Middle East. The enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia exploded last weekend, after the Saudi execution of a prominent Shia cleric along with dozens of other citizens accused of terrorism. In response, Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, and Saudi Arabia has cut off diplomatic relations with its rival across the Persian Gulf.
Beyond the severing of diplomatic ties, the Saudi-Iranian confrontation has already led to a cessation of air travel, mosque bombings, mutual accusations and social media warfare between thousands of partisans on both sides.
Dangerous as it is, the Saudi-Iranian confrontation is only the latest manifestation of a convergence of disruptive forces that promise to keep the region destabilized for years to come. These include military actions by regional and foreign powers, alongside indigenous ailments such as militias, tribal warfare, terrorism, aggressive ethnonationalism, frail and fragmenting states, sectarian tensions and religious politics and violence.
But the Saudi-Iranian face-off is not just a leading example of these regional troubles; it directly influences localized conflicts in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere.
The ambitions of strong regional powers Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey hasten the slow collapse of traditional forms of statehood and sovereignty in other, weaker countries where more durable institutions have yet to emerge. Half a dozen Arab countries have become proxy battlefields for Riyadh and Tehran.
The continued contraction of the power, legitimacy and reach of many states in the region creates a vacuum to be filled by powers such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and the United States. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, Libya and Yemen are all vulnerable. Beyond the major powers, these weak states play host to a variety of nonstate actors — militias, ethnosectarian parties and social movements, tribal forces and anti-government rebel groups. Iran and Saudi Arabia are usually the most active external supporters of such groups across the region. Riyadh and Tehran often fight each other through local proxies, such as the Saudi-backed Hariri group and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and or the Iranian-backed government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Saudi-backed Sunni rebels seeking to unseat him.
The reality is that all state and nonstate parties across the Middle East — Arab and non-Arab, regional and foreign — use violence at will, totally ignoring sovereign borders, international humanitarian law and notions of legitimacy and accountability. This leads to state fragmentation, criminalized economies and huge refugee flows. All of these and other ailments will be exacerbated by the current Saudi-Iranian crisis.
Saudi and Iranian actions have contributed to transforming political violence and turmoil that once occurred within countries into confrontations among two or more countries. Very few violent ideological battles within individual countries are confined to domestic actors. They almost always include active external instigation, funding, arming or other forms of support.
Even smaller countries that previously played low-key regional roles such as Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates now sometimes send their armed forces into action across the region or support local parties that do the fighting, as in Syria, Yemen and Libya. World powers such as the U.S., Russia, the United Kingdom and France do not hesitate to directly jump into these local wars or to provide arms, funds and diplomatic cover for local proxies.
As some Arab central governments weaken or collapse into civil war, new states or quasi-states pop up across the region. This trend started with Somaliland in the 1990s, the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq a decade later and the independence of South Sudan in 2011.
But the most frightening entity to emerge in the region in recent years has been the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which occupies a large territory straddling the Iraq-Syria border. It has developed political and military links with small local “emirates” in other Arab countries that pledge allegiance to it. Al-Qaeda likewise now controls some territory in Yemen, where it shares in local governance with indigenous tribes, further fragmenting the once unified Yemeni state. Iranian- and Saudi-stoked warfare that weakens some Arab governments clearly contributes to the spread of chaos and ungoverned areas, which are the most fertile terrain for the birth of groups like ISIL and Al-Qaeda.
If these trends continue unabated, it is possible that more of these mini-states could take shape in Yemen, Syria, Libya and Iraq in the years ahead. Already, millions of civilians despair of living decent, secure lives under the existing states in the region. The six-month-old Saudi-led war in Yemen — which Riyadh says is mainly aimed to push back Iranian influence — points to southern Yemen’s seeking independence from a unified Yemeni state, perhaps with portions of that battered country falling under ISIL or Al-Qaeda rule.
In today’s fluid and dangerous Middle East, global and regional powers make war at will. Their largely unachieved aims continue to generate chaos and state fragmentation. This will not stop until a new regional order emerges. Regional powers must learn to live with one another in nonthreatening ways. Global powers must adjust to the new roles of emboldened regional powers. Nonstate actors and militias must integrate their identities and capabilities into new structures of statehood that are more stable and legitimate. All this will require a genuinely negotiated social contract that is more participatory, equitable and accountable than anything the Middle East has experienced in recent history.