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IDENTITY AND FOREIGN POLICY IN THE MIDDLE EAST Yalcin Diker

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(First Draft, please feel free for recommendations)
IDENTITY AND FOREIGN POLICY IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Yalcin Diker
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INTRODUCTION


The Middle East is the cradle of major civilizations, has huge economic potential, a unique
social structure, and the capability to directly influence the rest of the world. Three major
monotheistic religions, powerful empires and, throughout history has been an area of constant
struggles. Furthermore, it is a conflict zone between: global actors, Arabs and Israelis, Shia and
Sunni Muslims, secularism and Islam and ethnic conflicts. Finally, the Middle East has currently
been an arena for Arab people’s uprising against the autocratic regimes. These demonstrations
may be an indication that a fourth wave democratization is occurring. (Grand, 2011)
The purpose of this research is to analyze the relationship between “identity and foreign
policy in the Middle East”. This paper uses the Middle East as a case study to understand the
relationship between foreign policy and identity.
As a part of identity, questioned will be whether or not culture, narrative, social attitude and
even imagined history affect the key players’ foreign policy and, if so how? In this paper Egypt,
Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel are accepted as “the key players” in the Middle East. Other
important actors, such as the United States, Russia or the European Union are exempted in order
to better focus on the facts relating to ‘identity and foreign policy’.

1
E-mail: yalcin_diker@carleton.ca
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This research paper has two major sections. The first section begins by briefly analyzing the
quantitative and qualitative details of the typical identity of the region; then continues to examine
the major actors’ relationships. Basically, this first section aims to answer the question: “What is
the identity of the people of the Middle East?” It is important to understand the background of the
Middle Eastern identity and to analyze the relationship (if any) between the concepts of identity
and foreign policy.
The second section of the paper explores whether or not there is relevance between “identity”
and “foreign policy” in the Middle Eastern countries. To do that, this section first questions the
definition of identity, the influencing factors in foreign policy and finally, examines how identity
can affects foreign policy in the Middle East.

PILLARS OF IDENTITY IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Today, the Middle East is associated with monarchies, authoritarianism, serious human and
women’s rights abuses, terror and chaos, oil rich but underdeveloped countries, Arab-Israel, Iran-
Israel, and Iran-Western conflicts, risk of nuclear and chemical mass destruction weapons, ethnic
and sectarian conflicts, civil wars, radical Islam and Zionism, and Palestinian’s occupied lands by
Israel.

History and Identity
It is impossible to deny that without the Middle East, the world and human history would be
entirely different from what it is today. Civilization would be totally different without Ancient
Egypt, Ancient Greek, Assyrian, Persian, Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid, Byzantium, Seljuk and
Ottoman Empires. Without the Middle East six of the seven world wonders would not exist today.
We wouldn’t know about Chess, Backgammon, Noah’s ark, Santa Claus, Tulips, Iliad, Troy and
the Trojan War, Diogenes, Homer and others.
Many of the world's most important inventions such as the first solar calendar, first wheel,
and Time system (sixty second, sixty minutes and twenty four hours) come from the people of the
Middle East. Many say the Middle East played the biggest role in shaping the world and
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civilizations up until the industrial revolution. Another fact which diminished the importance of
the Middle East was geographical discoveries.
Despite the negative thought and regardless of the well-known problems in the Middle East,
the history mentioned above makes the Middle Eastern peoples (including Jews) proud heirs of
their enormous empires and inventions which shaped the world. This is why the historical
background of the Middle East is one of the most important pillars of the Middle Eastern identity.
But the importance of the Middle East can’t be limited to the past.
Geopolitical advantage, cultural and economic richness
The Middle East is geographically placed in the center of the world. “Middle East” is a term
invented by Europeans to describe the geographical region that lies between Europe and distant
parts of Asia (the Far East). Many parts of North Africa have strong cultural and geographic ties
with the Middle East. According to Hall cultural identities reflect the common historical
experiences and shared cultural codes. (Hall, 1989)
The Middle East (including Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) has an area of 2,385,315
square miles or 6,177,937 square kilometers. (CIA, 2009) The region lies at the crossroads of the
three continents of the World Island.
Since ancient times, the Middle East has been a bridge on the major trade routes (Silk Road)
between Asia (China and India), Europe and Africa over land and seas. Middle Eastern traders
traded goods between East and Western markets.
Caravans not only carried the goods across continents but also cultural values and
innovations. Immigrants, traders and conquerors spread ideas, behaviour and inventions via the
Middle East. It is important to know all these facts in order to understand the Middle Eastern
culture, attitude and identity. The geo-strategic position of the Middle East has the biggest effect
on the Middle Eastern people’s history, culture, social attitude and identity.
Furthermore, the Middle East’s geo-strategic values, both economically and culturally are
more important and effective today than in its past. Additionally, it will continue to be a strategic
centre of the world in the future.
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Recently 56% proven oil and 40% proven natural gas reserves in the world are located in the
Middle East. (CIA, 2009) This means that the Middle East will continue to be one of the most
strategic locations in the world - at least for most of the 21st century. Approximately 130 trillion
dollars from the sale of oil and natural gas will flow into the region during the next 50 years.
(Ramazan, 2012) Naturally, even only this makes the region the center of conflict for the global
powers. 
The ordinary people of Middle East are aware of the strategic, economical and geo-political
value and importance of their land, even though they do not profit much from it. They are
acquainted with their non-democratic governments and foreign patrons’ power. The Middle
Eastern people are not happy and furthermore they are either already upset or agitated or may
become so by extremists.
Geo-strategic reality and its effects is another building block of the Middle Eastern
identity.

Environment does matter
The region displays a great variety in climate differences. The Northern part of the Middle
East (Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Western Syria) is significantly different from the rest of the region of
which is nearly all desert. Climate not only dictates where people live but also has a large
influence on the economy, habits, culture and productivity in the Middle East.
The lack of water and the desert conditions resulted in scattered settlements and the creation of
many tribes and separate nations which, in turn contributed to the shaping of the culture and social
attitude.

Religion:
It is true that religion is one of the major pillars that carry the Middle Eastern identity;
therefore, it can be presumed that in the absence of religions and religious values from the region,
the Middle East and the Middle Eastern identity would be totally different. The religious
distributions of the Middle East are shown in Table-1: (Library, 2012)

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Table – 1
Middle East Religions' Statistics (2009)


Million Sunni Shea Christians Jews Other**

State Total Million % Million % Million % Million % Million %
Egypt 77.4 67.2 86.8 2.24 2.9 7.89 10.2 neg

0.07 0.1
Iran 74.9 8.09 10.8 64.94 86.7 0.77 1.03 34k 0.03 1.08 1.44
Turkey 71.6 57.35 80.1 14.1 19.6 0.08 0.01 18k 0.02 0.05 0.07
Iraq 30.7 9.92 32.3 19.4 63.2 0.71 2.3 neg

0.97 2.16
Yemen 23.6 13.3 56.36 10.27 43.51 Neg

Neg

0.03 0.07
Syria 21.9 15.98 73.0 3.29 14.7 2.04 9.3 Neg

0.59 2.7
S. Arabia 28.7/17.3 9.0 52.0 4.33 25.0 -

-

3.97 23.0
Israel 7.3 1.17 16.1 -

0.39 5.3 5.49 75.21 0.11 1.5
Jordan 6.3 5.76 91.5 0.03 0.5 0.40 6.3 -

0.11 1.8
Lebanon 4.2 1.22 29.0 1.93 46.0 0.78 18.7 Neg

0.26 6.3
Palestinian 3.7 3.14 84.8 Neg

0.29 7.84 Neg

neg

Oman 2.8/1.95 0.27 14.0 0.1 5.0 Neg

Neg

1.58 81.0
Kuwait 2.9/0.92 0.69 75.0 0.20 21.0 Neg

-

0.04 4.0
UAE 4.6/0.76 0.29 39.0 0.08 10.5 Neg

-

0.39 51.5
Bahrain 1.05/0.53 0.12 21.0 0.39 73.0 neg

Neg

0.03 6.0
Qatar 0.97/0.32
0.11
36.0 0.06 18.0 -

-

0.15 46.0
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Totals 343.28 193.61 56.4 121.36 35.4 13.32 3.91 5.76 1.7 9.47 2.76

According to given numbers approximately 91% of the people in the Middle East
practice Islam. Christians are 5.76% and Jews 1.7% of the total population. Islam is the dominant
religion in all of the Middle East area except for Israel.  
Further, there are a number of different sects within Islam. Most people in the Middle East
are either Sunni or Shea Muslim. Roughly Sunnis are 60% and Shiites are 40% of the total
Muslim population.  Shea is the majority religion in Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain but minority
in Syria, Kuwait, Yemen and Lebanon; the rest of the Middle East, excluding Israel Sunni forms
the majority. Some smaller sects also exist within Islam such as the Alawites, the Druze, the
Ibadis, the Ismailis, the Shafis, and various Sufi orders.  
Over the centuries Islam spread throughout the world. As a result Islam started becoming the
dominant religion in other areas of the world such as Middle and South-East Asia. Also, there are
a great numbers of Muslims in Asia, Africa, Europe and even in Northern America.
The proliferation of Islam increased self-esteem and self-confidence in the Middle East.
Muslim intellectuals and Islamic leaders are now consolidating national and religious identities of
the people of the Middle East.  
On the other hand, the Jews (Judaism) maintain the belief that the Jews have been chosen by
God for a purpose. Hence, for Jews, being chosen and living in the promised lands has been the
main character of their particular identity.  
Religion appears to be one of the most dominant forces driving politics and daily life in the
Middle East not only for Sunni Muslims but also Shiites and Jews. This situation shapes the
identity of the people of the region.

Ethnicity
Various established ethnic groups live in the Middle East. These ethnic groups are, Arabs,
Turks, Persians, Kurds, Jews, Assyrians, Armenians, Azeris, Turcomans, Syriacs, Maltese,
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Greeks, Circassians, Greeks, Gagauz, Shabaks, Yazidis, Mandeans, Georgians, Roma, Mhallami,
Egyptian Copts and Samaritans.
Ethnicity is a group of people who have a sense of belonging to an ethnic group which shares
a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, or the like. (Dictionary.com) Four major
components of an ethnic identity are: ethnic awareness, self-identification, attitudes and
behaviours. (Horowitz, 1985)
Arabs constitute the majority of the ethnic groups in all of the Middle East states excepting
Iran, Israel and Turkey. Following the spread of various Arab-Islamic empires throughout the
Middle East and Northern Africa, the people who speak Arabic are commonly referred to as
“Arab”. Currently, approximately 60% of the total population in the Middle East identify
themselves as Arab. The other dominant ethnic identities are Turks, Persians, Kurds and Jews.
Ethnic identity is a solid part of the people of the Middle East.

Nationalism: Parallel Identity
Even though they seem similar, ethnicity and nationality are not the same. Nationality is not
related to common traditions, the same culture and language, religious or similar characteristics.
People with the same national identity can have different ethnicities, such as Quebec in Canada.
Similarly, the Middle East’s ethnic and political maps are quite different from each other.
During colonialism, several nationalist ideas for sovereignty sprung up in the Middle East.
Formerly Arab nationality was based on the Islamic religion defined as Ummah which generally
used to mean the collective community of Islamic peoples. First, Egyptian leader Abdel Nasser
had brought up the idea of Pan-Arabism. The idea flourished for a short period of time especially
in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Eventually the Pan-Arab ideology perished starting with oil
rich Arab countries. Typically, a common enemy promotes and consolidates nationalism;
however, the Arab-Israeli wars did not unite Arabs as would be expected, instead, Arab
nationalism was replaced by radical Islam.
When it comes to Israel; Jews nationalism: Zionism was founded by Theodor Herzl in the late
19th century. It is defined as a nationalist ideology of the Jewish people that sought to re-establish
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a Jewish homeland in Palestine. After the Second World War, the first Israeli Prime Minister
David Ben-Gorion promoted Zionism as a nationalist movement.
On the other hand, Iranians have a strong nationalist identity. Even the leader of the Islamic
revolution, Khomeini, was considered a nationalist leader because although he forced changes in
favour of religion, he did it in the best interests of the Iranian people.
Even though Nationalism and national identity exist in the Middle East countries, generally
religion plays as important a role as that of nationalism; therefore, identities are nested in religion
and nationality. Arab nationalists are proud of being Arab and their Arabic language because God
revealed the Qur’an in Arabic. (Kramer, 2013) The Jews also considered being both an ethnic
group and a religious group. Similarly Iranians are proud of being both Shea Muslim and Persian
equally.
This paper will argue in the next section that individuals and groups may have multiple
identities and identities may have multiple dimensions.

Socio -Political issues
Historical experiences and other details about shared cultural codes have been previously
mentioned; but, to better understand the identity of the people of the Middle East, we need to
address the political systems, military coups, educational issues, human rights violations, gender
gap problem etc. in the region.
The Middle Eastern countries’ political systems are generally archaic by world standards.
These countries are being ruled by either authoritarian regimes (cliques and juntas) or monarchies;
in the region only Israel and Turkey have democracies. (Richards, 1996)
According to Freedom House Middle East’s (included in North Africa) freedom score is only
2%. (Freedom House, 2012) Middle East leads with the most jailed journalists – 118 out of 232
worldwide (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2012); Sexism is one of the biggest problems nearly
all over the Middle East. Traditional, religious and social regulation privileges give males and
elders legal and economic power in the region. The patriarchal system is ruling (and ruining) the
social life both at home and in public. This in broader terms is an extension of male dominance
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over women in general. As a result of this discriminative approach the status of the women in the
Middle East is even worse than in non-Arab Africa. (World Economic Forum, 2013)
In the Middle East the socio-economic conditions ranges from the very poor, such as in
Yemen and Sudan, to the very rich such as in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. (World Economic Forum,
2013) Regardless of the social challenges, religious and sectarian identities remain the most
important values in the Middle East.
When it come to democracy; democratic institutions and democratic culture are not ready yet
and Arab world seems in the throes of transformation since 2011. Arab national identity has been
undergoing a process of radical political change. Arab Spring has failed to achieve its goal so far
and Arab worlds’ struggle to achieve political and social transformation may take time. The route
of uprising may help to make Arab’s political identity stronger or take them to the land of radical
Islamism.
Jewish and Iranian national identities seem consolidated, although, some argue that Israeli’s state
identity is in crisis because there is conflict between secular democracy and the State’s Jewish
character. (Reynolds, 2013) Still others argue that this is more likely a conceptual conflict than an
identity conflict.

Foreign Policy in the Middle East
Foreign policy in the Middle East is complicated. Often it is not easy to understand the
logic behind decisions in foreign policy. In democracies foreign policy is influenced by domestic
concerns and criticized by the media; but, the Middle Eastern administrations are not democratic
regimes and their diplomatic decisions are made by a limited number of groups/person(s) and
these decisions could be in favour of the decision maker(s) rather than national interests. When
we look at the Middle East’s foreign policies this reality has to be taken into account.
Looking at the international relations in the Middle East we can summarize as follows:
Saudi Arabia-Iran: Saudi Arabia is Iran’s number one enemy among the Arab countries,
and it is ready to support Israel by any means in the event it is attacked by Iran. This conflict
arises from Saudi Arabia being dominated by the Sunnis while Iran’s Ayatollahs are the Sunni’s
sworn enemies. (Staff, 2012) Saudi Arabia and Iran are not only in sectarian competition, but their
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national interests also conflict with regional and western policies. Although Saudi Arabia is
governed under strict Islamic law, it generally provides support to secular Arab autocrats.
Saudi Arabia – Israel: Saudi Arabia and Israel don't have official diplomatic relations and
Saudi Arabia naturally supports Sunni Islamists. Both countries have close and strategic
partnerships with the United States of America and Iran is a shared concern for both countries;
however, Saudi Arabia and Israel relations are handicapped by the Palestinian issue. (Phillips,
2013)
Saudi Arabia – Egypt: Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the most important Arab countries.
While Egypt is the most populous (nearly 80 million) and center of Arab nationalism and the
Sunni sect, Saudi Arabia is a member of the G20 with its $576,824 billion GDP. (Trading
Economics , 2012) According to PEW Global Opinion poll, 78% of Egyptians express positive
views of Saudi Arabia. (Pew Research Centre, 2013) Saudi Arabia has provided 5 billion dollars
in aid to Egypt's new military-backed government. (Al-Awsat, 2013)
Iran – Israel: Iran and Israel had good relations and common interests between 1948 (when
Israel was established) and 1979 (Iranian Islamic Revolution). Both Israel and Iran are non-Arab
and proud heirs to their ancient civilizations. (Pereltsvaig, 2013) However, in the post revolution
era the Islamic Republic of Iran refused to recognize Israel, instead supported anti-Israeli militant
groups in Southern Lebanon and in the West Bank. Israel has serious concerns about Iranian
nuclear research and threatened to stop them from further research with military force.
Egypt – Iran: Egypt and Iran did not have formal diplomatic relations for almost 30 years
during Mubarak’s administration. Following the 2011 Egyptian revolution when the Muslim
Brotherhood came into power, Iran and Egypt reconciled and subsequently assigned Ambassadors
to each other countries.
Egypt – Israel: After several wars and in particular after the 1978 Camp David Accords,
Israel and Egypt maintained good relations. Egypt has been heavily involved in the Israeli-
Palestinian peace process. Relations soured during the Muslim Brotherhood’s government but
close ties appear to have resumed since Egypt's military-led takeover in July.
When we look at the bigger picture in the Middle East, basic foreign policy issues are
related with Israel, ethnicity or sectarian conflicts and major concern is protecting the status-quo
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of the regimes, borders and oil reserves. In this picture it is expected that national identity must
play an important role.






ANALYSIS

Theoretical Frame
After focusing on the Middle East and its pillars above, this section will seek to explain the
relationship between foreign policy and identity using the Middle East area as a case study.
Because the topic is about “Identity and foreign policy in the Middle East”, the analysis needs
to include three distinct areas: Identity, foreign policy and the Middle East. Analysis can be done
two ways, either at the intersection of these three areas (Figure -1) or the Middle East can be used
as background with the analysis focusing on the relevance between foreign policy and identity.
(Figure – 2) In this analysis the second option was chosen.








Middle East Identity
Foreign Policy
Foreign
Policy
Identity
The Middle East
Figure - 1
Figure - 2
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In order to effectively analyze the relevance between foreign policy and identity some basic
questions must be asked: “What is identity?” and “What is the relationship between identity and
foreign policy?” Or should the question be: “How does identity affect foreign affairs?”
What is identity? The simplest definition of identity answers the questions: “Who am I?”,
“What am I” and “How am I?” There is not one single answer to these questions. Answers could
be “I am a human being, I am a man, I am a father, I am an officer, I am catholic, I am a
Canadian” etc.
When this question is asked in a plural form such as “Who are we?” the answers will be
similar: “We are men, we are orthodox, we are soldiers, we are Northern American” etc.
The multifaceted aspects of identity means, that the same person or groups have several
identities at the same time. For example in the Middle East a person can be a Muslim (religious
identity) and Shea (Sectarian identity), at the same time living in Syria (Syrian citizen = National
identity) and Kurd (Ethnic identity). This person can support President Assad or the separatist
Kurdish movement and be a member of PYD (Politic identity).
Every person (and all groups) actually carries several identities at the same time. In Figure -3
below is a model showing multiple dimensions of identity. (This model is adapted from James
McEwen’s, The Inter-sectioning Circles of Identity) (McEwen, James, 2000, p. 409)










Cultural
Multiple Dimensions of Identity
Religion
Gender
Ideology
Sectarian
Tribal
Core Identity
National
Identity
Political
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Considering that people have multi-dimensional identities, how can a national identity be
determined? This model shows us that the core identity is an aggregate of other identities. Each
sub identity is a different size and travels at its own particular speed. Therefore each sub-identity
affects the core identity (national identity) differently.
Ideological differences also bring different dimensions to identity. For example, liberalism
and its alternatives may define or value the concept of identity in a different context. (Young,
1990)
Now the question is: “Why we should care about identity, does identity really matter to
foreign policy? Although there are some opposing arguments, reservations or difficulties in
defining national identity, the concept of identity does matter because identity:
 Plays a central role in work on nationalism and ethnic conflict (Horowitz, 1985)
 Makes the groups like ‘one people’ (Hall, 1989, p. 223) and acting like one people is
important for political stability, domestic support and the foreign policy (power of
unification)
 Also may hold the groups in power and prestige within society. (Sherif and Sherif, 1969)
 The idea of state identity is at the heart of constructivist critics and analysis of state
sovereignty. (Wendt, 1992)
 Defines the personality, orientates the people and affirm the groups common desires,
interests, and helps to create joint action.” (Barakat, 1993, p. 1)
For the reason stated above, most scholars accept the effects of national identity on politics;
however, others disagree this for two important reasons. Firstly, the effects of national identity on
politics are not clear cut and secondly even if identity has a role, it cannot be exaggerated.
(Chafez, Spirtas and Frankel, 1998) Even if identity does matter, it is hard to explain how identity
influences the Middle Eastern countries’ foreign policy in this volatile region. Telhami and
Barnett assert that in the Middle East area, the state’s identity and national identities can be very
different. (Telhami, Barnett, 2002, p. 9)
Figure- 3
Ethnic
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Foreign policy and influencing factors:
How do the foreign policy decision makers make their decisions? What factors influence
foreign policy? Is identity one of the influencing factors of foreign policy?
Foreign policy is a government’s policy with other international actors by using foreign
affairs tools such as diplomacy, sanctions, and force (war). It is under the influence of external
factors such as; International system, norms, legitimacy etc. and internal factors such as Public,
social Groups, Government organization and leadership. (Beasley, Lantis and Snarr, 2013)

Beyond these factors foreign policy is directly related to national interests, national power
and geography. (Figure–4) However all factors have different levels of importance on the
conditions.










Figure – 4

As seen in Figure–4 foreign policy can be influenced by identity via domestic and national
power factors. These factors are in bold print below. In democratic countries public opinion
influences governments’ foreign policy decisions (more so in democracies), but public opinion is
FOREIGN POLICY
Policy
National Interests
National Power Decision Maker(s)
International System
Geography
Domestic Factors
 Public Opinion
 Bureaucracy
 Media
 Interest Groups
 Parliament
 Military
 Economic
 Industrial
 Man Power
 Technology
 Natural sources
 Int’l System
 Legitimacy
 Global Powers
 Alliances
Etc.
 Individual
 Democratic
 Oligarchic

 Rational
 Irrational
 Emotional
 Hatred

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manipulated by governments (more so in authoritarian states). National identity influences foreign
policy by using public opinion and interest groups. (Kinninmont, Stansfield and Sirri, 2013, p. 23)
When we have a closer look at the Middle East case, non-democratic governments either
don’t have a parliament or parliamentarians are led by dictators/monarchies , media is guided or
suppressed, civil and military bureaucracies do not have enough experience and under the
autocratic control, interest groups such as NGOs, lobbies, corporations. National interests nested
in the religion. Under these circumstances it is hard to argue that identity is an important factor in
the non-democratic Middle East governments’ domestic and foreign policies.

CONCLUSION:
The building blocks of the identity of the Middle Eastern people are many. Middle Eastern
identity is nested with historical background, geo-strategic reality, environmental conditions,
religion, ethnic or sectarian background, ideology, nationalism and culture.
Although some scholars argue that national identity in policy (here foreign policy) is not very
clear and shouldn’t be exaggerated. Theoretically the state is an open system therefore there is a
correlation between national identity and foreign policy and even international affairs may be
hindered by historical facts, identities and narratives. (Kinninmont, Stansfield and Sirri, 2013)
Countries’ national policies (Grand Strategy) aim to meet the state’s national security,
established/determined goals and national interests. Foreign policy is just one of the strategic tools
of the state’s grand strategy and influenced by internal and external factors. National identity is
not a direct factor but is capable on influencing foreign policy via domestic factors such as
interest groups, man power, public opinion etc.
As a final point, identity is applicable when the system allows the people to participate in
political life. (Kinninmont, Stansfield and Sirri, 2013, p. 23) But the Middle East authoritarian
regimes don’t allow the civil societies to have enough influence on foreign policy.



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