By: Amanda Jarrett

In traditional International Relations theories, there is a disregard for the importance of identity. Neglecting this has made it incredibly difficult to categorize conflict in the Middle East. Thus, the introduction of identity politics as a concept allows for a deeper, more accurate discussion of  Middle East conflict. The question that this essay will be addressing comes from Calculli and Legrenzi’s chapter, which asks “To what extent can ‘identity politics’ help explain the conflict in the Middle East?” Identity politics are not the main source of conflict within the region. The first example will examine the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia whereas the second will discuss the Arab Spring.

Calculli and Legrenzi describe the emergence of the Sunni-Shia rivalry in the region. Saudi Arabia has been a long standing regional Sunni power. With the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s, there was an establishment of a Shia government. Once oil was discovered in Iran, the state’s regional influence exponentially increased. Saudi Arabia began seeing Iran as a major threat to its own hegemony. Additionally, along with the rise of Shia Iran, there was a rise in other Shia actors which included Syria, Iraq, and Hezbollah. These powers were referred to as the ‘Shia crescent,’ which then encouraged the Sunni monarchies to band together (Calculli and Legrenzi, 228). Though on the surface it may seem like tensions are rising between the two different Islamic identities, but in reality the rise of the rivalry after the Iranian Revolution was actually about restoring a balance of power and the status quo that Saudi Arabia had initially established. In fact, it was the insecurity of Saudi Arabia’s power that lead to the creation of the GCC. The identity politics in this case do contribute to the rise in tensions but do not cause power grab for regional hegemon.

Furthermore, Kao and Lust describe six different factors that lead to outbreak of the Arab Spring. Islam, being one of the six factors, plays a small role in the revolts. The authors discuss how the Islamist-secularist political divide is to blame for the failures to democratize throughout the region, instead of Islam as a religion. Instead, there is a ‘twin tolerance’ that allows the secular state be accepted by its religious communities and the state to accept the religious practices of its communities (Kao and Lust, 2). Therefore the supposed conflict between democratic institutions, liberal progress, and Islam as a religion is not as significant as the West makes it out to be. One of the larger factors that lead to the Arab Spring was the oppression of populations that a regime deemed a threat to their own security. Monarchies throughout the region used ‘protection-racket politics’ to capitalize on the fears of their internal threats to overturn any form of revolt and prevent the call for institutional reform (Gengler, 4). In order to reestablish security and order among states, monarchies used self-preservation tactics. While using methods of securitizing identity, they were not the overall goal of their strategy.

In conclusion, identity politics have influenced conflicts throughout the Middle East. Though significant, they are not the main cause for the current state of the region and therefore cannot get entirely blamed.



Calculli, Marina and Matteo Legrenzi. “Middle East Security: Conflict and Securitization of Identities,” International Relations of the Middle East, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 219-235.

Gengler, Justin. “The Political Economy of Sectarianism in the Gulf.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Henry Luce Foundation, 2016.

Kao, Kristen and Ellen Lust. “Why Did the Arab Spring Uprisings Turn Out as They Did?: A  Survey of the Literature,” Project on the Middle East Democracy (2017).