International Relations (IR) scholars, including those committed to ‘globalising’ the discipline, have habitually approached the Middle East as a shining example of the salience of identity politics. The supposed centrality of Islam and ethnosectarian identities, has, according to many analyses, distinguished politics in the Middle East from those in other regions. The Arab Uprisings revealed divisions over political values to be at least as important as culture and identity in shaping Middle Eastern history, but the regional counter-revolution saw sectarian discourses return in force. Ten years on, both identity and politics appear to have left the terrain of contestation as regional rivalries increasingly centre on economic issues. The current paper asks why this is the case and explores the significance of these regional discursive shifts for our understanding of international relations in the Middle East and ‘Global IR’ as a whole.
In addressing this question, the paper examines a spectrum of Arab political discourse over the decade 2013-2023, an historical conjuncture characterized by counter-revolution, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and the waning of US hegemony in the region. The paper analyses traditional and new media content dealing with regional politics from the perspectives of two opposing coalitions of state and non-state actors—the self-styled ‘Axes’ of Resistance and Moderation. It finds that discourse on religio-cultural identities and political values has progressively given way to one more focused on economic issues. The paper traces the nature of the discursive shift and argues that it flows from a range of factors related to the global geopolitical and geoeconomic environment; the changing character of the rentier state model and regional inter-state dynamics; deteriorating socioeconomic conditions across the region; and the widespread regional recognition of the Arab Spring’s socioeconomic drivers.
The paper elaborates a theoretical framework that combines insights from social psychology and Gramscian political economy to illustrate and explain the ways in which categorisations of ‘self’ and ‘other’ within Middle Eastern hegemonic projects have increasingly come to revolve around actors’ economic visions and capacity. Although political, geopolitical and cultural issues have not disappeared from Arab political discourse, the paper concludes that they are increasingly viewed through the prism of socioeconomic concerns and that in significant aspects, and for historically revealing reasons, the structure of Arab political discourse today resembles that of the 1950s and 1960s more than it does that of the intervening decades.