Symbolic struggle for the Arab Spring: political fields and foreign policy in the Middle East
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date21/09/2023
In the past decades, the Middle East has attracted the attention of media and researchers all over the world. The balance of power is fluid, state borders are fragile, and national identities are being contested. Thus, the study of the regional political dynamics has always been a stimulating challenge for International Relations (IR) scholars, making the Middle East a potential “laboratory” for testing the alleged universality of IR theories. This debate has been enriched by the outbreak of the Arab Spring. The impact of the regional upheavals on the international relations of the Middle East has been a source of intense debate within the discipline. Surely, these developments, by questioning state-society relations, creating new cleavages and reinforcing old ones, have affected the regional status quo. This thesis analyses the changes in regional politics through the analysis of foreign policy behaviour of three key states: Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The governments of these three states reacted differently to the unfold of the events. First, the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey supported the uprisings and the following rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in the name of “democracy”. Moreover, it promoted its own political experience (the so-called “Turkish model”) as a model for the emerging democracies in the Arab world. This strategy was adopted even at the expense of Turkey’s good relations with its Arab neighbours (including Syria). On its part, the Iranian regime initially encouraged the overthrown of authoritarian regimes in the region, framing the regional movement as a continuation of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. However, this enthusiastic rhetoric dissipated when the revolutionary wind hit Syria. Finally, the Saudi regime, initially silent and concerned with its own internal problems and contestations, supported the restoration of the Ancien Régime in Egypt in the name of ‘political stability’ and ‘fight against terror’, while encouraging a sectarian mobilisation against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In order to make sense of this complex picture, this thesis suggests that the foreign policy behaviour of these countries was influenced by domestic considerations, namely the political struggles within their respective political spheres. This consideration emphasises the need to re-evaluate the relationship between foreign policy, internal political struggles and the making of Middle East regional politics, both empirically and theoretically. In doing so, this thesis builds on the works of Pierre Bourdieu. In particular, it deploys Bourdieu’s concepts of political field, political capital and principle of vision and division, as well the Bourdieu-inspired concept of doxic battles. Through these theoretical lens, this work argues that foreign policy discourses can be traced to the position of foreign policy actors within internal political struggles. In other words, as the Arab Spring paved the way for a redefinition of principles of governance and of the relationship between politics and religion in Middle East politics, political agents in Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia responded by mobilising symbolic resources that were the products of their own historical experiences in their respective national political arenas. Moreover, building upon a Bourdieu-inspired conceptualisation of the international realms, and of its relations with domestic politics, this thesis provides an analysis in how the foreign policy discourses in Turkey, Iranian and Saudi Arabia have changed since the Arab Spring, thus trying to assess the influence of the regional uprising in the strategies of reproduction of dominant political groups.