Regional Powers in the Middle East

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 10
Words: 2857
Reading time:
11 min
Study level: PhD


Regional power is among the most important concepts of modern geopolitics. Among the criteria of regional power is self-conception, serious impact on the regional geopolitics, resourcefulness, being interconnected with the regional countries, great influence on the local affairs, impact on the local governance structures, being respected as a regional leader, forming the regional security agenda and assuming a diplomatic role as a regional leader. In the Middle East, the following countries can be named regional powers: Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The regional affairs of the Middle East are strongly affected by the foreign policy of the USA. The USA strives to maintain the power balance in the region. As a part of such policy, it is likely that they will support Iran instead of Saudi Arabia in the foreseeable future. Another important future prospect is that the danger from ISIS will unite the countries of the Middle East.

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How to Identify Regional Powers: Criteria

To be considered a regional power, a state has to meet certain criteria. A regional power can be determined as a state is a geographic part of the examined region, which can present resistance to a political union of other states in this region, has a significant impact on the local affairs, and, finally, counts as a notable power on the international scale in addition to the regional one.

Regional powers are concerned with the problems of security in their region and are responsible for the preserving status quo or certain order in the region. Such a state should have the ability to be a regional leader and a stabilizer, relying on its internal dynamics. A regional power also should visibly demonstrate its ambition, ability, and capacity to become a regional leader and stabilizer, as well as assume responsibility for keeping or making peace.

In addition to the mentioned criteria, the neighbors of such a state should recognize it as a leader, who bears responsibility for the regional security since they are the members of the security complex existing in the region. It can be also considered that a regional power should be recognized and, perhaps, supported by global powers unless it is a global power itself.

Regional powers typically combine leadership and power over resources. It means that regional powers both operate the resources and execute political influence through their diplomatic role. Not only does it apply to material resources but also to organizational and ideological ones, for the latter enables a state to fulfill a leadership role.

Another important criterion is self-conception, which means that a state recognizes and positions itself as a regional power, i.e. defines itself as a “rule maker.” A regional power also has an impact on the political outcomes of the processes that are going on in the region.

To summarize, a regional power is a state-part of the considered region that claims to be a regional power, supporting its claims by power over military, demographic, ideological, administrative, and economic resources, has a serious impact on the political, geopolitical, and economic situation in the region, enjoys strong connections with the other states of the region, has an impact on the political outcomes, seriously influences regional security, is recognized as a regional power by its neighbors and other regional powers and global powers and has assumed a diplomatic role to secure its position.

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What Regional Powers Are Present in the Middle East

Prior to defining the Middle Eastern Regional Powers, it is necessary to explain what exactly the Middle East is. It is commonly agreed that the Middle East consists of the Arabic states and Turkey, Iran, and Israel. The Middle East is a regional security complex, which is, though, often penetrated by the USA. The countries of the Middle East lie in three different parts of the world (Europe, Asia, and Africa), have different histories and languages, and not all of them are predominantly Muslim. The concept of the Middle East is often enforced by Western countries, which perceive the Middle East as an oil-producing region. Thus, the definition of the Middle East is ambiguous, which should be taken into consideration while studying the Middle Eastern regional powers.

It is essential that the regional powers of the Middle East do not fulfill all the criteria of regional powers defined above. As Beck states, no Middle Eastern country possesses the needed military, demographic, organizational, ideological, and other resources to claim the leadership position, is strongly interconnected with the other countries of the region in the economic and political way, or has a decisive impact on the regional security. Furthermore, no Middle Eastern state is recognized and respected as a regional leader by its neighbors and global powers, as well as no one fulfills a diplomatic role to secure its leadership position. However, it is hardly possible for more than a few regional powers that fulfill every single criterion.

Even though no Middle Eastern state fulfills all the requirements, I believe that the concept of regional power is theoretic and does not necessarily reflect the real situation. As I am convinced, such states that fulfill part of the requirements can be considered regional powers. In the Middle East, such states are Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey. Therefore, these states can be considered the regional powers of the Middle East. Some other states, such as Lebanon, Kuwait, and Tunisia have the potential to become regional powers in the future but cannot be considered ones since they do not have sufficient resources to resist the current regional powers yet. Even though there is no such thing as an uncontested regional power in the Middle East, the dispersion of regional power is especially high here.

The Reasons for the Presence of Regional Powers in the Middle East

First of all, some inherent political reasons are responsible for the emergence of regional powers in any geographical zone. Regions are geographical zones defined by physical characteristics, human geography, and environmental features. Therefore, states in a region share the same concerns, contest over physical and demographic resources, and, consequently, are natural rivals to each other. Since states differ in economic development, demographic resources, and military strength, some of them become more successful in this rivalry and assume a leading role to secure their strong position, maintain the geopolitical status quo and prevent non-regional states from interfering in the local affairs or, if impossible, control the way and extent of their interference. In addition, in our globalized, interconnected world global powers inevitably affect regional affairs, thus producing new regional powers and subverting the current ones. Regional powers can be found in any region of the world.

These considerations are applicable to the situation in the Middle East. To make the situation more understandable and transparent, it is necessary to mention that among the significant reasons, for which regional powers now exist in the Middle East, is the influence of the Western powers. After World War II, the Middle East was defined as a source of valuable oil for the West. The USA and the UK then took care of the Gulf monarchies so that they could be the distributors of oil for the West. Thus, the countries, which could influence oil prices and maintain contact with (and influence over) the Gulf monarchies gained the ability to become regional leaders. Among such countries is Iran. In the same way, the Gulf monarchies won the opportunity to become a regional power, as in the case of Saudi Arabia.

The other important historical reason for the presence of regional powers of the Middle East was the series of revolutionary even, particularly the Arab Spring. The latter has served as a catalyst for the forming of a specific power balance in the Middle East, thus creating an opportunity for assuming the regional leadership, which some states, particularly Egypt, have successfully used.

The other important factor influencing the power balance of the Middle East is the current impact of the superpower – in this case, the United States.

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The Role of the Superpower in the Region

The USA, the current global superpower, is seriously interested in the Middle East as a region. The extent of its involvement in the affairs of the Middle East is so high that all the countries of the region have to pick a side; they have to either be a US ally or team with the potential regional power. In theory, a possibility exists for Middle Eastern states to create a powerful anti-US coalition, but in fact, they prefer being allies with the US rather than being close to any potential regional leader. The reason for such behavior is that each state expects a potential regional leader to use its benefits against this state. Furthermore, states prefer taking the US side to be able to overcome potential regional leaders. For instance, when Egypt had to choose whether ally with the US or Saudi Arabia, it meant submission in any case, so Egypt selected the US due to its ability to protect Egypt from any conflicts.

Generally, the US strives to maintain positive relations with all the regional powers of the Middle East. The US rarely undertook direct interference previously to the ending of the Cold War; the invasion of 1953 that overthrew the shah regime was one of the few examples. The superpower prefers to use the rivalries between regional powers for its own sake. Such a method allows the United States to remain the most powerful force in the Middle East and prevent regional powers from challenging their role. For instance, their continuous support of Israel since the 1970s along with the support of its rivals, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, helped the US to prevent the rise of either of them to the next level of power. Another example is the case of Iraq: when in 1979, it attacked Iran, it was supported by the US, who planned to tame the ambitions of Iran. Conversely, when Iraq attacked Kuwait in 1990, it did not receive the support of the superpower since this time the attack looked like a claim for regional leadership, which the US could not tolerate.

To summarize, as a superpower, the USA considers it its responsibility to maintain a certain power balance in the Middle East. While keeping a positive relationship with the countries of the Middle East, the US continuously shift their support from one regional power to another.

Analysis of the Capabilities of Each Regional Power

To explain the capabilities of each Middle Eastern regional power, the following short brief was prepared.

Iran. Being a geographic part of the region, Iran considers itself a local leader. With the abolition of the sanctions, Iran begins to execute a significant influence on the geopolitical situation as a US ally. Iran is the second-largest economy in the Middle East and the fourth Middle Eastern country by population. As for the ideological resources, they are limited since Iran is a Shia country. Iran used to be isolated, but now it is becoming interconnected with the region due to the absence of sanctions. Its leading position is yet to be recognized by other states of the region.

Egypt. Egypt is a part of the region and has claims on regional leadership. The country is less influential than the other members of this list. Its material resources are currently in decline since the country is facing a severe economic crisis. Nevertheless, it is strongly interconnected with the region and is a strong player in regional institutions. In addition, Egypt has a serious opportunity for Sunni religious leadership; for instance, Al-Azhar University in Cairo is considered one of the highest Sunni authorities. Even though Egypt has assumed the role of a voice of the region in the international arena, it is not recognized as a regional power by other states of the region.

Turkey. Turkey is considered part of the Middle East. It definitely positions itself as a regional leader. Turkey possesses a rich economy and military is economically developed and has a strong, well-equipped army, the second largest in NATO. Its latest conversion to the Islamist camp under the leadership of Erdogan adds an ideological component to its already strong economic interconnection with the region. The country has a serious impact on the geopolitical situation and local affairs. The country certainly influences the regional security agenda since it is a NATO member. Turkey is a notable international representative of the Middle East. It is also recognized as a local leader by other states of the region and the world.

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Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a part of the Middle Eastern region. The country considers itself a regional leader and challenges Iran in this role. The kingdom has a serious influence on the geopolitical, political, and economic situation in the region. Saudi Arabia is materially resourceful: its economy is the first in the Middle East, and its army is one of the most powerful and modern in the region. The country is politically and economically connected with the other regional countries. Its rigid religious system makes it a religious leader only for certain countries. Saudi Arabia is a strong member of the regional structures. Its leading position is acknowledged and respected by the Middle Eastern countries.

Israel. Israel is a part of the region and claims to be a regional leader. It has a strong impact on the situation in the Middle East. Israel is economically developed: its economy is one of the most technologically advanced economies in the world. Israeli army can be considered the strongest in the Middle East. Its interconnectedness with the other countries of the region is rather weak, as well as its participation in the regional governance structures. Instead, Israel enjoys a stable alliance with the US, which gives it numerous opportunities to fulfil a leading role in the Middle East. However, Israel appears as an isolated state. Furthermore, it views neighbours as a threat to its independence. These factors undermine its position as a regional power.

The following table summarizes the information on the regional powers of the Middle East.

Regional power Connections with other states Promotion of welfare in the region Ideological leadership Allies Resources
Iran Not a considerable power in regional institutions Promotes neoliberal economic values
Promotes good relations with the West
Promotes Islamism Supports Assad’s regime in Syria
No longer perceived as a threat by the West
Weakened because of the long period of isolation Limited soft and smart power
Egypt Wide participation in regional institutions Supports regional institutions Serious religious leader Alliance with the US and regional countries Resources currently at a decline
Turkey Serious participation in regional institutions Fulfils developmental aid
Is a military ally for some countries
Serves as a mediator and a developmental model
Used to serve as a democratic model
Has a potential to become a religious leader US, EU (currently in complicated relationship), Iran Rich economic and military resources
Saudi Arabia Serious participation in regional institutions Developmental aid and support for regional institutions Limited religious leadership US Rich economic and military resources, limited amount of soft power
Israel No participation in regional institutions
Limited regional connections
Promotion of economic stability Serves as a model of economic success as democracy US, EU Strong power in the fields of economy, defence, security
No soft power

Future Prospects

The future distribution of power in the Middle East depends not only on the internal situation of the region but also on the actions of the global players. In the closest future, it is not likely that new regional power will emerge. It is also unlikely that the tension between Israel and Egypt will weaken. It is hard to predict whether Turkey will lose its leadership status completely or, alternatively, will strengthen its position; it depends on the ability of its current administration to maintain successfully a balance between the country’s interests, the interests of the EU, and those of the US. It is possible that the US, being faithful to their usual policy of maintaining the power balance, will suspend their alliance with Saudi Arabia and support Iran instead. ISIS is becoming a strong force in the Middle Eastern arena. It is highly likely that the common danger (ISIS) will strengthen the ties between the countries of the Middle East and help form a coalition. It can be said with a high degree of accuracy that the country, which would lead the defense against ISIS, would thus be able to strengthen its position as a regional power. The strong positions of Russia in the Middle East can be undermined because of its latest conflict with Turkey. If the regime of Assad in Syria is overthrown, Russia will lose its position altogether.


To define the concept of regional power, several criteria were developed. Among the Middle Eastern countries, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran can be named regional powers since each country fulfills most part of the criteria. The power distribution in the Middle East is seriously influenced by the US. It is likely that they will continue to maintain a power balance in the region. Additionally, it is possible that the threat from ISIS will unite the regional powers.


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