Hypercharged and wreathing, power in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is continuously coiled with concepts of coercion, crisis, and carnage. Discourse in the media and in public diplomacy often echoes the notion of ‘Middle East Exceptionalism’, a simplified dismissal of the perceived failure of MENA states to transition into democracy on their own. This (mostly) Western perspective patronizes in its disregard of the legacy of colonialism and scars of imperialism across the nascent region. Public rhetoric has strategically provided the justification for foreign military involvement to help redress the balance of power and regime changes. It is linked to global debates of power vacuums and proxy wars in an attempt to exert control and dominance. Foreign intervention has become normalized across large swaths of the region, often at the expense of national sovereignty. This can be exemplified by the ongoing tensions – interstate and intrastate – that have swept countries like Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran into economic spirals and civil unrest.
In the region’s simmering war of attrition, there needs to be a strategic re-examination about how foreign intervention can affect the relentless power competition. Soft-power positioning can provide political and economic advantages for a region like MENA where loyalty is dispersed and divided for political leverage. Moreover, although some MENA states are not fiscally strong enough to contribute meaningful impact with regards to trade activities, there are intrinsic benefits to cultivating political relationships based on reputation. For instance, Japan is very active in exerting influence by enhancing the effectiveness of its soft power assets in the MENA. With the absence of a coercive military force, Japan can leverage perceived political neutrality to protect its economic interests and strengthen its diplomatic relationships with the conflict-impacted countries. Japan is allowed to deploy navy destroyers in strategic positions in the Arabian and Red Seas – independent of the “potential flashpoints” triggered by or targeting the American military’s Operation Sentinel. This is beneficial for Japan, as it can guard its commercial shipments, secure the vital oil tanks, and gather intel away from a potential maritime confrontation between America, Iran, and their respective coalition allies. Other countries who lack the influence and political clout to intervene might find it difficult to replicate this logistical manoeuvre to protect their assets.
Both direct and indirect approaches can achieve this diplomatic persuasion – the key is to help support a favourable environment where the intangible assets of goodwill and trust can flourish. Development aid programs, although problematic, can enable pragmatic change by stipulating mandates that promote a specific agenda, such as increasing women’s empowerment. This might have been a national objective, but arguably the foreign program funding might have pushed its prioritization. To extend the case of Japan, the Japanese government has spent decades investing and infiltrating nation-building processes, including investments in healthcare and hospitals. Aware of the emotive power of economic hope mobilizing its population, Jordan lauds its “solid ties”10 with Japan and is happy to collaborate in the “political, economic, cultural, security and defence fields”. Even so, benign economic assistance can become coercive with consequences. The Trump administration’s ever constricting budget cuts to the American foreign development programs ultimately created “panic”, resentment, and mistrust by August 2019. By November 2019, Jordan committed to considering strategic realignment of its interests with a new ally – Russia.
The media highlights the aggressive hard power exerted by foreign and regional powers who have vested economic, ideological, and territorial interests in the MENA. The strategic indirect influence of emerging external powers is not addressed enough. Their activities in the region are overshadowed by sensationalism and media bias of bloodshed and blame. As the hegemonic powers compete to be the dominant regional intermediary of the cacophonic and frustrated MENA, it is easy to forget that foreign intervention can still be unassuming and seductive; strengthening regional ties via a domestic perception of a ‘benevolent’ presence. The complex reality has a high barrier to entry as a primary strategic partner, but a variety of dynamics could trigger cooperative diplomatic arrangements with countries that have less of a historical track record in the MENA. In the right circumstances, it could ultimately manipulate negotiations to the foreign nation’s advantage by exploiting the cracks wrought from other countries’ abrasive approach. This type of soft-power foreign intervention is important to take into consideration when deliberating the future of a resource-rich region currently comprising of over 410 million people. There can be ripple effects that influence local politics and impact generations through endless, legitimate, invisible persuasion tactics.
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