GIGA Working Paper

An Unsettling Similarity

Saudi Arabia opposes the rise to power of Islamist movements in the Middle East - despite sharing similar norms and values. May Darwich explains why similarity can also be a source of divergence, especially in international relations.

It has long been argued that identity matters in international relations. Yet, how identity impacts enmity and conflict among states remains an issue of debate. The existing literature asserts that differences in identity and culture can be a source of conflict, whereas convergence and similarity can lead to cooperation (Huntington 1993, 1996; Horowitz 1995).

Likewise, constructivists in international relations (IR) argue that states will identify positively with those with a similar identity (Wendt 1999). As Haas has argued, ‘the greater the ideological similarities among states’ leaders, the more likely they will view one another’s interests as complementary, and thus the greater the incentives pushing these individuals to form an alliance’ (2003:36). Nevertheless, empirical evidence from the Middle East has long defied this hypothesis.

As Walt observed in his study of alliances in the region, ‘certain ideologies are more a source of division than of unity, even though the ideology explicitly prescribes close cooperation among the adherents’ (1987:170). Pan-Islamism, which overtly aims to overcome national territorial differences and unify different entities in the region, has paradoxically been a source of fragmentation and division.

This article extends upon, and goes beyond, the existing literature to argue that similarities in identity can be a source of conflict and enmity. Largely based on the adaptation of ‘ontological security’ to IR theory (McSweeney 1999; Steele 2005, 2008; Mitzen 2006), this article proposes a theoretical framework to explain how similarity can generate anxiety and identity risks.

Building on the assumption that states have a basic need for ontological security, which refers to ‘the need to experience oneself as a whole’ (Mitzen 2006:342), I argue that security is enforced through a stable conception of self-identity. The essence of such a conception of self-identity is the distinctiveness of the self vis-à-vis the other.

Accordingly, critical situations leading to the erosion of such distinctiveness trigger anxiety and insecurity, as the regimes’ identities become equivocal. As a reactionary imperative, actors attempt to restore a secure self-identity through two mechanisms: counter-framing the other in a demonizing manner and reinventing a new self–other distinction. This argument is illustrated through a close comparative examination of Saudi foreign policy in 1979 and 2012.

Despite its pan-Islamic nature, the Islamic revolution in Iran was perceived as a threat to the Saudi Kingdom, a monarchy which itself asserted a broad pan-Islamic identity. This anti-Iranian stance was often couched in sectarian terms, with the kingdom defining its identity as ‘Sunni’ vis-à-vis a ‘Shiite’ other. Following the 2011 Arab uprisings, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its political offshoot the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt brought up several uncertainties within the Saudi royal elite, who could not hide their relief at the Brotherhood’s quick downfall a year later.

The Saudi reactions to the ascendance of this Sunni movement to power in Egypt went beyond the conventional sectarian polarization in the region to reveal a fundamental truth: the rise of any Islamic regime with a pan-Islamic vocation is a source of anxiety to the kingdom. This article addresses the resulting puzzle: why does Saudi Arabia, a monarchy that prides itself on its pan-Islamic identity and for ruling according to shari’a, oppose the rise of Islamist movements to power in the Middle East? Why and how can ideologically similar regimes be considered sources of identity risks?

This article largely moves beyond the regime-security-based approaches as well as the sectarian accounts predominant in explanations of Saudi foreign policy to argue that the kingdom not only feels that its physical security is threatened but is also experiencing anxiety due to the similarity between its identity and that of other Islamic models.[...]

Read on: May Darwich, The Ontological (In)security of Similarity: Wahhabism versus Islamism in Saudi Foreign Policy, GIGA Working Paper, No. 263, December 2014


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