The Middle East as a Gordian knot

Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, Research Fellow at the Thomas More Institute

December 12, 2011 • Analysis •

Text of the speech of Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier at the conference « Change In The Middle East », organized in Hatay (Turkey), 7-9 December 2011.

Firstly, I would like to thank the organizers of this important congress for their invitation. This is the second meeting in Hatay and I hope that it will become a tradition. I am very happy and honoured to be back in this place. We have been invited to debate about links and interplay between change in the Middle East and the International system. I therefore read thoroughly the Strategic Vision Document and even more listened to my honourable colleagues.

I shall give a few reflections on this issue and try to underline some fundamentals about change in the Middle East, range and limits of a regional integration project and the geopolitical deal.

About Change in the Middle East

De facto, until the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Western powers were rather reluctant to change in the Middle East. They feared disorder and Islamism. This was maybe even more true for the French foreign policy, which was committed to maintaining a regional status quo and was focused on relations with the “strong men” in the area. However, it started to change with the evolution of the situation in Iraq, before the “Arab Spring”.

It must be said that things were not exactly the same within the framework of the Barcelona Process (the Euro-Mediterranean partnership) impulsed by the European Union.

The first idea was to submit assistance and financing to conditions of political and economic reforms but, in the Southern and Eastern countries of the Mediterranean Basin, the conditional nature of the European assistance has been denounced as a political intrusion.

In Europe, many people thought that it was naïve and a factor of blockage of cooperation, so it was abandoned when the Union for the Mediterranean was settled. This is an example of what can be called “irony of History”.

When the « Arab Spring » started, the surprise effect in France and Europe has not been very long. Very quickly, suspicion towards the events and fear of the worst were denounced as a Western phantasm. The “Arab Spring” has been showed as a tardive consequence of the “Velvet Revolutions” in Eastern and Central-Europe, 20 years ago.

However, I must add that some people are still rather skeptical about that interpretation. In their opinion, the events could take another course and forced optimism would no longer be topical. More generally, it is not sure that a linear conception of History (all the peoples of the World should pass through the same historical steps) is right and true. There could be several possible ways in a polycentric world.

In fact, it is an old intellectual debate that was opened by Johann Gottfried Herder, the “German Rousseau”.

The Middle East as a world crossroads

Now we have to talk about the Middle East as a part of the world and about the possibility of carrying a political and economic project of integration in this geographical area. This is my second point.

In long-term History, the Middle East is an area at the intersection of Eastern and Western dynamics. Let us just think of the “Silk Roads” and their importance in the Ancient World.

With the discovery of the American continent and the turnaround towards the Atlantic Ocean, the Middle East became a sort of periphery. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, then the discovery of oil, changed the situation. All of that gave a new major importance to the Middle East.

On the one hand, the Middle East and the Gulf are part of a « Great Mediterranean Sea”. This wide space is delimited by the exchange flows and threats that link together its different and antagonist parts. So, this big space sprawls far beyond the shores of the Mediterranean Basin.

On the other hand, the Middle East has access to the Indian Ocean. Its links with South and East Asia should (India and China) increase even more with the growing needs of the emerging countries.

Thereby, the Middle East is at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, between East and West. The name of this part of the world is full of sense. This is an intermediate East between the West and the Far East, a world of isthmus and straits.

Maybe this situation does not fit a project of regional integration: as things stand, the logics of circulation and “global hub” are stronger than the factors of integration.

A view on geopolitics around the Middle East

I shall finish with a few points about the balance of power and geopolitics around the Middle East in the present context. The course of events, the Egyptian priority for its own problems and the Syrian question highlight three regional powers able to play a more important role in the Middle East. They would be Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the summits of a sort of geopolitical triangle. All of them are implied in the development of the Syrian situation. That last country is in touch, geographically, with all the regional actors including Israel. Indeed, this question is very sensitive but there is no more time for the “wait and see”.

Each one of these three powers is linked, and even allied, to more or less global powers. It concerns Russia, jostled by the events, but overall it concerns the US and some NATO member states, strongly involved in “Middle East and North Africa” (France, UK, Italy to some extent, Germany in the economic field). Other global powers will probably try to reinforce their presence in the Middle East. Of course, we think of China and the so called strategy of the “pearl necklace” from the “Asiatic Mediterranean seas” to the Arabic-Persian Gulf. India’s ambition in the former “British Lake” (i.e. the Indian Ocean) must be taken into account.

Thus, the Middle East is at the intersection of several strategies that are led at various levels (regional and global strategies). That’s the game and it is so since Sumer and Akkad, even more since the Megalithic Age. This situation is due to the high geopolitical value of Middle East, a global hub, as we said. So, the Middle East is sometimes considered as a “Gordian knot”.

Consequently, the Middle East’s polycentrism, the strong regional rivalries and the involvement of global powers don’t seem to go in the direction of integration.


In conclusion, I would say that avoiding the worst case and reach a regional security agreement with all the stakeholders, the regional but also the global stakeholders would be a lot. At last, what is at stake in Middle East is peace or war. Peace cannot rely on the idea of an absolute conflict, demonization and invocation of a past or future Eden. In temporal affairs, there is no peace without any reciprocal acknowledgement and compromise. An eternal and absolute peace is a metaphysical idea but not a political concept.