Revisiting the dynamics of imperialism in the Middle East

Issue: 182

Anne Alexander

More than six months into the greatest crisis to grip the Middle East for a generation, it is sometimes hard to find words that adequately describe its scale and intensity.1 As I write, Israeli troops are poised to invade Rafah in southern Gaza, while Palestinians starve under relentless blockade and bombardment. Britain and the United States are raining missiles down on Yemen, a country already pulverised by nearly a decade of war and famine. Newspapers are full of shrill denunciations of pro-Palestinian protests as the handiwork of the alleged “Islamist” and “Iranian” conspiracies projected by the Conservative Party’s Donald Trump wannabes such as Liz Truss. Beneath all this lies the terrifying feeling that not only is the Middle East tipping towards a period of even more protracted and bitter wars (likely to dwarf the death toll in Gaza by several orders of magnitude) but that these conflicts risk morphing into another active frontline in the global inter-imperialist conflict that our rulers seem desperate to steer us towards.2

There is thus an urgent task: building a movement that stands with the Palestinians and lays the basis for mass resistance to the warmongers and prophets of a new age of militarism. This article argues that effective strategies for developing that resistance must be rooted in an understanding of imperialism that goes beyond analysis of the geopolitical competition at the top of the global system; we must also plumb further into the system’s depths to reveal how the drive towards war is rooted in the dynamics of capital accumulation itself.

I will outline how shifts in the centre of gravity of global manufacturing and the circuits of fossil capital not only underpin the changing balance between the major powers (in particular, the historic decline of the US and the rise of China, as well as other potential Asian competitors) and have also worked their way into escalating imperialist competition between the regional powers of the Middle East. It is essential to locate the driving forces behind this regional imperialist competition, in which the main players are currently Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. To avoid an account based simply on the “puppet mastery” of the global powers, we need to look at how these regional players are striving to become independent centres of capital accumulation as they attempt to compete in the cut-throat world of the capitalist ruling classes—what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels called the “band of warring brothers”.

Leon Trotsky’s mapping of the laws of uneven and combined development can provide the key to grasping the outcomes of asymmetrical contests in this system of multiple states and capitals, which are locked in patterns of reciprocal interaction and repulsion.3 Seizing the opportunities caused by historic vulnerabilities in the defences of the larger powers has long been a crucial tactic for national liberation movements and armed insurgencies. However, I argue here that we can think about uneven and combined development in a different way: as laying the basis for forms of resistance that are rooted in the struggle against capital itself, which provides a firmer foundation for the fight against imperialism than the fickle, self-serving interests of any existing or aspiring ruling class. This requires building on Trotsky’s insight that uneven and combined development creates opportunities for the working class to assume the leadership of revolutionary, anti-capitalist movements even in contexts where workers are not the majority in society.4 It also demands the development of radical currents within mass anti-war and anti-imperialist movements, wherever they are in the world, which insist in a principled fashion on maintaining their political and organisational independence from, first and foremost, their “own” state, and second, from any dependence on alliances with other states.

Regional powers’ role in intensifying imperialist competition

Three key aspects of recent developments in the political economy of the Middle East and wider world may help to illuminate points of weakness and contradiction that can create opportunities for struggle from below against war and imperialism.

First, the long-term decline of the US, the central power in the Western alliance, continues both at a global level and in the Middle East.5 Many key indicators that this decline may be accelerating can be seen beyond the region, most importantly in Ukraine, where the tides of battle are shifting in favour of Russia.6 Another sign is the growing instability at the heart of the US political system, symbolised by the renewed popularity of Trump’s reactionary adventurism. Of course, the converse of US decline is the rise of China as both an economic and military competitor. The reciprocal action between US decay and Chinese growth is also accelerating trends towards “deglobalisation”, “onshoring” and “friendshoring”: in other words, the partial disentangling of the highly interpenetrated global processes of production created within many industrial sectors over the past three or four decades.7

The power of China’s manufacturing base has reshaped the global economy, and one of the effects of this is a reorientation of the Middle East’s fossil fuel production and export infrastructure towards Asia. Around 40 percent of global crude oil trade passed through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow channel between Oman and Iran that connects the Gulf to the Arabian Sea; between January and October 2023, around 70 percent of it was bound for Asia.8 Middle East scholar Adam Hanieh notes that there are several interlocking historical processes at work here, including the long-term eclipse of the Western “supermajor” oil firms by national oil companies, located mainly in the Global South, and an emerging trend towards the creation of two partially “decoupled” energy blocs at a global level—one centred on the US and the other on China.9

At a military level, the US’s strength in the Middle East has failed to recover from the twin disasters of its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the regional great game of global power politics, the primary beneficiary of these catastrophes has been Russia. As a result of its alliance with Iran, Russia has retained a naval base on the Mediterranean Sea in the Syrian city of Tartus. Moreover, thanks partially to Iran’s cordial relations with the Houthi movement in Yemen, Russia has also retained a trouble-free route for its tankers carrying crude oil to India.10 There is a direct feedback loop here between the war in Ukraine and the dynamics of imperialist competition in the Middle East; Russia’s resilience in the face of US support for Ukraine is undergirded by its success in shifting its oil exports towards Asia, away from traditional export destinations to the US’s European allies, who have loyally slapped sanctions on the Kremlin in response to the Russian invasion.

A crucial second feature of the evolution of imperialist competition both globally and regionally is the increasing assertiveness of lower-ranked powers in the global hierarchy of states. This phenomenon is based on the rise of independent centres of capital accumulation outside the historic core of the capitalist system. It is part of a long and complex historical process, which plays out at different levels. One example of this is how, following Stalin’s counter-revolution, the Soviet Union was able to emerge, alongside the US, as the lynchpin in one of the two rival state capitalist blocs competing economically and militarily with at global level. Another example is the more recent rise of China.11

A similar process has also repeated itself among the second, third and fourth-ranked powers. The fusion of economic and military competition, which characterises capitalist imperialism, is not confined to rivalries among the largest powers, but is also structured into how smaller states and capitals interact. The changing balance between the global powers and the retreat of old empires, far from creating opportunities for a more peaceful international order, has instead acted as a spur to even more frenzied competition as the middle-sized predators muscle in and fill the gap.12

A third feature of the political economy of imperialist competition is the way in which uneven and combined nature of capitalist development works its way out not only across the global system but also within each of its constituent states. This insight is key to the analytical approach outlined here. In addition, grasping how unevenness and combination across social and political forms are concentrated in particular locations—and activated by historical processes, including social, political and military struggles—helps map out the potential for the recovery of agency from below. This is crucial because it shows the possibility that actions by ordinary people—especially by workers at critical locations in the circuits of capital accumulation (from the extraction of raw materials to the production of commodities and their exchange on the market)—can detonate what Trotsky saw as an inherently unstable “amalgam” of archaic and contemporary social and political forms.13 In circumstances where such explosions sap the defences of the state, this can create possibilities for building movements from below that can start to imagine the creation of genuine alternatives to capitalism.

The Palestinian case stands out within the Middle East (and, indeed, to a large extent globally) because of the complexity of its political and social formations, composed of sedimented layers from different historical periods of capitalist development and held together by an extraordinary force field of imperial violence. For example, the state institutions and practices that sustain Israeli settler colonialism and apartheid are simultaneously relics of an outdated era and are reinforced by developments in the most “modern” and “advanced” sectors of the Israeli economy and society, such as the military-fuelled growth of the high-tech sector.14 Seen from this perspective, is it any wonder that the opening of temporary gaps in the Israeli defences at the Erez Crossing into Gaza on 7 October has unleashed a vortex of conflicts with huge destructive power?

Israel’s armoured semiconductor foundries

Just a few miles from Gaza, Intel’s semiconductor chip production “fab” in the city of Kiryat Gat provides a striking example of how these global, regional and local processes of development are welded together into complex and unstable patterns.15 Built on the site of two Palestinian villages razed to the ground during the Nakba—the violent expulsion of some 750,000 from the newly created State of Israel in 1948—the facility has been producing Intel’s 7 nanometre processing chips for several years. In June 2023, the Israeli government announced that Intel had committed to invest a further $25 billion in new chip fabrication facilities, set to open in 2024 and 2027.16 The firm confirmed the deal in December, signing a formal agreement with the Israeli government in return for a $3.2 billion grant.17

Intel’s massive investment in Kiryat Gat will have been a relief both for the government of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and for a growing number of Israeli government agencies and think-tanks who argue that the cycle of profitable innovation in software development, which generated most of the recent growth in Israel’s high-tech sector, is now being overtaken by hardware-driven competition, especially in the production of semiconductor chips.18 This largely reflects the growing importance of artificial intelligence (AI) to the tech industry. AI systems represent vast concentrations of capital, relying on complex architectures that integrate the data centres, submarine cable systems and power networks required by the cloud infrastructures needed for computation at vast scale.

Unsurprisingly, it is the largest states and corporations that dominate this market at a global level, with the US and China both seeking to control production of specialised semiconductor chips either on their own territory or via supply chains across their political and military allies. Israeli chip designers have played an outsized role in key products for major Western tech firms such as Intel, which set up shop in Haifa due to its proximity to Technion, the major Israeli science and technology university, in 1974. Apple, Amazon and Microsoft also have Israeli chip design facilities.19 However, having a hand in the design phase of the chip production process is insufficient to guarantee Israel’s continued competitiveness in the market. In January 2024, a report by Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli security think-tank, warned that keeping up with development demands means deploying enormous resources:

Investment in research and development in emerging production technologies is a crucial element and affords Israel a relative advantage, but it is only a partial solution… Israel needs a national plan that addresses industrial planning aspects across the full value chain of development, production and trade of chips.20

The relationship between Intel and the Israeli state embodied in the Kiryat Gat plant is still a long way from national Israeli production “across the value chain”, but it signals an intent to cement Israel’s high-tech sector as a key node in the global network of US-allied chip manufacturers, stretching from the US itself to Taiwan.

The story of the Israeli high-tech economy illustrates the decades-long processes whereby the US has helped to incubate Israel as a new centre of capital accumulation.21 Flows of state and private capital investment have complemented each other to nurture the sector, and the Israeli economy gained an enormous boost at Palestinians’ expense during the years of the so-called peace process and the Oslo Accords. Yet, alongside the hype and self-congratulation in Israeli analysis of the tech sector’s recent performance, there have also been increasing signs of anxiety about the sector’s vulnerabilities. These found political expression in the bitter ideological battles over Israeli state institutions between far-right religious Zionists and the more “liberal” Zionist mainstream, which shook Israel during 2022-3.

In 2022, overall Israeli GDP growth was 13 percent higher than pre-pandemic levels, but the high-tech sector was largely responsible for this. The sector accounts for 17 percent of total GDP, 10 percent of total employment and 56 percent of total exports. Israel’s high-tech firms were also extraordinarily successful at attracting foreign capital flows, capturing the equivalent of 6 percent of GDP in foreign capital in 2021; the corresponding figure for the US tech industry was 1 percent of GDP.22 Israel’s dependence on foreign investment to fund research and development is dramatically higher than other OECD countries; over 49 percent of national research and development is financed by foreign capital.23 This means, however, that Israeli tech companies were not spared the impact of contraction in the US tech sector in late 2022, with falling profits among major companies, large-scale redundancies and cutbacks in investment. Moreover, Israeli firms failed to join the US sector’s recovery the following year. Indeed, 50-80 percent of new high-tech firms were registered abroad in 2023, compared to 20 percent in 2022, and some tech companies moved funds out of Israel.24 This perhaps helps explain why tech sector employees (and their bosses) were a prominent part of protests against the judicial reforms imposed by Netanyahu and his far-right religious Zionist allies during 2023.

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) assessment, published in June 2023, emphasised both how much the Israeli economy relies on the high-tech sector and pointed to the imbalances created by “highly unequal economic performance across sectors”.25 Of course, the starkest form this inequality takes lies between the massive accumulation of wealth in the Israeli tech sector and the enormous accumulation of poverty in Gaza, which lies just a few miles away from Intel’s multi-billion dollar plant in Kiryat Gat and the Gav-Yam Negev Advanced Technologies Park in Beersheba. This fact is systematically obscured in the IMF’s analysis by its refusal to consider the economy of historic Palestine as a whole.

The Israeli ruling class has also succeeded in materialising two other key elements in the digital architecture of contemporary Western capitalism on the territory it controls: data centres and the subsea and terrestrial cables connecting them. Google is expanding its plans for data centres after winning the so-called Project Nimbus contract to deliver public cloud infrastructure, along with Amazon Web Services, for the Israeli government in 2021.26 Complementing the data centres, Google has also announced that it will build and operate two land and submarine cable systems linking the Middle East with Southern Europe and India, which will be the company’s first foray into building cable networks in the region. A key feature of this investment strategy is its promise of infrastructure connecting Israel, the Gulf and India through a land-based route, bypassing the already crowded submarine cable networks passing through Egypt, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea.27

The language of “cloud” infrastructures invites ideas of ethereal immateriality, but just like the chip fabs, data centres are enormous, energy-hungry factories, filled with extremely costly machinery and tethered to Earth by gigantic cables that are vulnerable to both accidental and deliberate damage.

Disrupting commodity circuits in the Gulf and Red Sea

Google’s Raman cable project is one of many attempts to circumvent the “chokepoint” in circuits of regional and global capital accumulation represented by the congested trade routes and communication infrastructures passing through the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea and into the Indian Ocean. It is unclear when and how the land-based route will actually be integrated into the network.28 Nonetheless, its intentions align neatly with a long-standing obsession of Netanyahu and his far-right allies with forging partnerships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which are viewed as the missing middle link in a value chain connecting Israel to India.

Israel already had secret military contacts with Indian National Congress governments from the 1970s onwards, but its relationship with India burgeoned in the 1990s and 2000s. This was intimately bound up with the rise of current prime minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP; Indian People’s Party). It is also linked with India’s aggressive expansion of its military capabilities, symbolised by its successful nuclear tests in 1998 and the so-called Kargil War with Pakistan in 1999. International isolation of the BJP regime after the nuclear tests provided an opportunity for Israel to step in with supplies of much-needed ammunition. Indian state officials pivoted towards deeper collaboration in manufacturing, and bilateral trade also surged over the following decades.29

The high-tech sector has been a central area of joint interest between the two countries, with Modi and Netanyahu signing memoranda of understanding for cooperation in research and development in technology, water, agriculture, energy, space and science during a set of reciprocal visits in 2017 and 2018.

Relations with India are also key to economic developments in the Gulf states. In mid-February of this year, Modi’s visit to the Gulf was met with characteristic fanfare and provided a number of important clues about the future shape of this relationship. Modi signed an investment treaty, addressed a rally of 40,000 Indian expatriates and opened a huge new Hindu temple in UAE. His next stop was Qatar, where he sprung eight former Indian naval officers, who had been accused of spying for Israel, from death row. This probably had something to do with the $78 billion deal to extend Qatari natural gas exports to India until 2048. Meanwhile, Indian navy ships prowled the coast “helping to protect global shipping under threat from pirates and Houthi missiles”.30

The UAE is India’s second-largest export market, and Emirati investment in India has tripled in the past five years, with the UAE’s sovereign wealth fund pledging a $75bn investment in Indian infrastructure. Meanwhile, the Saudi fund has committed $100 billion.31 This is not at all a one-way street, but rather a joint project between two capitalist ruling classes. Indian infrastructure firms are winning Gulf contracts and, although most Indian immigrants in the Gulf are workers, there are growing communities of middle-class and wealthy Indians joining them—key constituents for the BJP’s Hindu nationalist project.

The deepening intimacy between some of the big regional powers (Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE) and an emerging player on the world stage (India) is shaped by global patterns in the circulation of commodities. The most important exports to leave the ports and pipelines of the Gulf states are oil and gas. However, both the Gulf and the route through the Red Sea and Suez Canal are also vital conduits for the circulation of the manufactured goods shipped from the “workshop of the world” in South and East Asia to markets in the Middle East and Europe.

Attacks by Houthi forces on ships from countries allied with Israel have massively impacted world trade routes. The campaign began on 19 October, escalating in November with the seizure of the Galaxy Leader car transporter by Houthi commandos who rappelled aboard from a helicopter. Arrivals by container ships in the Gulf of Aden were 92 percent down on the average in the first half of December 2023. Car carrier arrivals dropped by 91 percent, and overall traffic fell by 73 percent.32 Most major shipping lines have shifted to the much longer route around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, sending costs skyrocketing. Shipping rates from Shanghai to Europe more than tripled in response, according to a warning in January by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, which also noted that the impact was compounded by restrictions on shipping in the Panama Canal due to falling water levels caused by climate change.33

The disruptive power of the Houthis’ asymmetric warfare against Israel and its Western allies is, in one sense, a kind of geographical accident, enabled by their proximity to the narrow shipping lanes of the Bab el-Mandeb. Yet, it is also an example of how processes of uneven and combined development work their way out into unstable social and political formations, generating explosive possibilities. Yemeni history contains many “nested” examples of uneven and combined development, which have been intensified precisely by the geopolitical importance of the Red Sea shipping routes. The Houthis’ origins as a social and political movement lie in the area of northern Yemen that was once the site of the Zaidi Shia Imamate, which survived as an independent kingdom into the 20th century. In 1962, the Imamate was overthrown in a military-led revolution by army officers inspired by the Arab nationalism of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. The relatively “archaic” political institutions of northern Yemen at the time contrasted strongly with the southern port city of Aden, which had been appropriated as a coaling station for the British Navy in 1839. Aden’s early integration into the global economy by British imperialism incubated a modern and combative working class, which eventually played a key role in the uprising that forced British withdrawal in 1967.34

The Houthi leaders have mobilised a form of Zaidi revivalism, welding this to a model of political and military movement-building inspired by Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Houthis took power as a result of the catastrophe wrought by the disastrous intervention of the Gulf states (with US and British backing) in Yemen after the revolution that overthrew President Ali Abdallah Saleh in 2011.35 It would be an oversimplification to suggest that the Houthis’ success represents some kind of nostalgia for the dynasty that ruled the Imamate (for a start, the royalist forces were backed by Saudi Arabia and aided by Israel during the bitter and protracted civil war after the 1962 coup). Rather, it illustrates once again how combinations of social relations, political institutions, cultural practices and ideologies from different periods of historical development (both between pre-capitalist and capitalist eras as well as across different periods within capitalism) produce novel forces able to seize moments of crisis and upset the calculations of the powerful.36

The Houthis’ current dominance of the Yemeni state, and their military victories over the Saudi and Emirati-led military coalition that has devastated Yemen through war and famine since 2014, are also a product of the disastrous decisions by the leadership of nationalist movements based in southern Yemen to ally themselves with those regional powers. This crushed the space that had briefly opened in 2011 for movements to emerge from below and to challenge the cyclical alternation of government between “northern” and “southern” elites as well as their gyrations between regional and global powers. The 2011 uprising showed that the contradictions of uneven and combined development in Yemen had the potential to turn in a different direction, pointing towards novel visions of social and political liberation as women activists led the chants in the festival atmosphere of Change Square in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. Massive protests brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets, dockers stormed the offices of the Gulf of Aden Ports Corporation, oil workers threw their bosses out of buildings, and teachers and civil servants organised strikes.37 This was still a deeply “uneven” process, with revolutionary mobilisations concentrated in sectors of Yemeni society unrepresentative of the majority of the population, which is largely rural. Nevertheless, the 2011 revolution did briefly unite many ordinary people across different parts of Yemen’s fractured social terrain with a vision of social justice and democracy inspired by the wave of uprisings crashing across much of the region.

Quartermasters of war

The history of Aden’s insurgent workers shows us how the “hothoused” development of a modern working class via the creation of military bases and modern ports, allowing the integration of coastal regions into global capitalist markets, has long been a spanner in the works of the imperial machine. Indeed, the potential disruptive power in workers’ hands, far from disappearing with the eastward shift of manufacturing, has become more concentrated in the era of globalised supply chains and “just in time” logistics. This is as true along the Suez Canal as it is in Port Sudan and Dover. Moreover, the seafarers and dockers whose labour keeps trade, passengers and profits flowing are increasingly likely to face off against the same bosses due to the concentration of ownership of maritime infrastructure, fleets and capital in the hands of a shrinking number of global firms.38

The importance of these companies to the global economy, and their reliance on relatively small numbers of workers, was dramatised by the grounding of the Ever Given, the 220,000-tonne megaship that got stuck in the Suez Canal in 2021, holding up nearly $60 billion of trade.39 Overall, the numbers of people directly responsible for the stricken ship and the rescue operation was probably a few dozen, including the 24-person crew on the vessel itself plus the Suez Canal pilots, tugboat operators, dredging vessel crews and workers from the Dutch salvage company SMIT, which was brought in to oversee the efforts to refloat the ship. Containerisation, which makes possible the eyewatering profits generated by “floating skyscrapers” such as the Ever Given, has been contested by workers across the globe as a threat to existing traditions of dock-side workers’ organisation. One example of this is the long-running struggle, including mass strikes, by dockers at Port Sudan against attempts to privatise the docks, which fed into the uprising against dictator Omar El Bashir in early 2019. A January 2019 strike also showed inventive uses for shipping containers—instead of picketing the port, the crane operators just blocked the entrance with one.40

The UAE’s role as aspirant global maritime power is the thread knitting together the stories of the workers in Port Sudan and Dover. DP World, the state-owned Emirati company that ordered mass sacking of P&O seafarers at British ports in 2022, is deeply invested in the scramble for control of the Red Sea ports, with an expanding portfolio of operations in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Djibouti, Somaliland and down the whole of the East African coast.41 Despite having flouted employment law in Britain, DP World was awarded a role in the new “freeport” on the Thames by the Tory government last year.42

As Middle East scholar Laleh Khalili points out, ports are locations where the fusion of economic and military competition takes concrete form: “Just as easily as military bases become emporia of trade, they can be reconverted into military outposts”.43 Writing in 2020, she noted the fierce competition between Qatar, Turkey, UAE and Saudi Arabia over port facilities around the Horn of Africa. By that time, the UAE had already constructed military bases in Assab in Eritrea, Mogadishu in Somalia and Berbera in Somaliland; meanwhile, Djibouti was hosting bases for China, France and Japan as well as the largest US military base in Africa.44 The struggle to control African ports runs alongside efforts to recruit young African men as cannon fodder for the Gulf states’ wars. Thousands of Sudanese soldiers were drafted as mercenaries by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the war on Yemen, thereby vastly enriching the leaders of the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces militia, which are currently waging a grim civil war against one another in Sudan.45

Drone fever: from electronics production lines to battlefield supply lines

Capitalism is not, and never has been, simply driven by the exchange of commodities via the market. The system’s dynamism is firmly rooted in the realm of production, and the outcomes of protracted wars between capitalist powers are likewise often decided by what happens on the factory floor as much as on the battlefield.46 Still, economic muscle does not always win out; powers with the most expensive and advanced weapons can sometimes face setbacks and even defeats. Hamas and the Houthis have both made effective use of drones to turn the tables on militarily superior enemies through the element of surprise. For years, the drone strike was the hallmark of US imperial impunity, but there is now more than a whiff of panic in the analyses penned by Western think-tanks and defence correspondents at how drone fleets have become “the poor man’s air force”. From being auxiliaries to the F-35 warplane, the aircraft carrier and the military satellite, drones have switched into a potential substitute for these hugely powerful—and hugely costly—pieces of equipment. In reality, the military balance is not quite so easily overturned, but the asymmetric expense of replacing a drone compared with a cruise missile does matter, even to forces with legendarily deep pockets, such as the US Army.

This is where the question becomes one of access to drone production lines. Iran’s success in developing the Shahed-136 drone, which has purportedly been adapted by both the Houthis and (more significantly) by Russian forces during the invasion of Ukraine, is a testament to the military capacity of the Islamic Republic’s ruling class. Moreover, it demonstrates the country’s relative economic resilience despite the punishing impact of US sanctions. Reports in 2023 suggested that Iran and Russia have agreed to build a large drone factory near Yelabuga, a town inside the Russia Federation, with the aim of supplying 6,000 drones for use in the war against Ukraine.47 For decades, Middle Eastern states have been some of the world’s largest consumers of weapons on the planet; now, as journalist Stasa Salacanin notes, drone production is playing a key role in accelerating the creation of “indigenous military industries”.48 Unsurprisingly, Israel leads the field in this area, but Iran is seeking to emulate its success. So is Turkey, which has also developed a thriving locally manufactured drone industry, with the Bayraktar TB2 being sold to a range of customers including Ukrainian forces. Indeed, Ukraine deployed it during the Russian invasion in 2022 with some spectacular successes, including involvement in the sinking of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet flagship, the Moskva.49 The face-off between Turkish and Iranian drones on the battlefields of Ukraine indicates that—like Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE—these middle-ranking powers are also key players in imperialist competition at a regional level.

The drones made by Turkey and Iran have also been battle-tested much closer to home. Kurdish military and political leaders in the autonomous authority of Rojava in north eastern Syria and the Kurdish regional government in Iraq have been targeted by Turkish forces using the Bayraktar TB2.50 Meanwhile, Iranian drones have also reportedly been supplied to Syrian forces and Iraqi armed groups allied with Iran.51 The story of the Shahed-136 and Iran’s other military technologies underscores the degree to which the exercise of military power has been central to the relative success of the Iranian ruling class in positioning itself as a regional contender with powerful global allies. The longer-term picture is one of slow recovery from the defeat by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime, which was backed by the US, in the late 1980s. Since then, Iran has emerged as the main beneficiary of the defeats suffered by the US during its disastrous occupation of Iraq. Iran has also acted as the regional sponsor of the regime in Syria, making it the co-architect of Bashar al-Assad’s victory in the counter-revolution and civil war that tore the country apart after the Syrian Revolution of 2011.

Both pro-war Western commentators and Iranian government media currently like to interpret the Shahed-136 drone as an indicator of a vibrant, home-grown Iranian manufacturing industry, improvising to fill the supply chain gaps caused by US sanctions. Writing for the Atlantic Council website in February, former Israeli intelligence commander Danny Citrinowicz claimed that Iran is on the way to “becoming a world leader in arms sales”, basing this claim on the success of its drone marketing. He goes on to say that Iran “is apparently not afraid that these products will fall into the hands of dangerous foreign parties”.52 The hypocrisy of such claims would be laughable if they did not also have the more sinister aim of cheerleading for US military action against Iran. The value of Israel’s arms exports doubled in the decade up to 2022, reaching some $12.5 billion, with drone sales making up a quarter of this total. Significantly, UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, all of which normalised relations with Israel through the Abraham Accords, accounted for 24 percent of the arms purchases in 2021.53 The UAE’s track record in stoking war in Yemen and Sudan is well known and has left a trail of famine and destruction that affects tens of millions.54 Israeli-made drones and mortars are also fuelling the deepening conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia, with Azerbaijani forces taking a large order from Israel in September 2023.55

There is also a deeper, underlying connection between the “drone diplomacy” of contenders in the regional contest for supremacy and the relative strength of their indigenous manufacturing industries. For instance, the increased assertiveness of Turkey’s authoritarian regime under President Recep Erdoğan is underpinned by the economic growth driven largely by the manufacturing boom of the past two decades.56 The resulting confidence imbues its brutal policy of bombardment of Kurdish areas of north eastern Syria and Iraq (despite the fact that the targets include the Kurdish-led Syrian Defence Forces, which are allied with the US, Turkey’s senior NATO partner). It is also represented by Turkish military intervention in Libya and Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the articulation of the “Mavi Vatan” (Blue Homeland) doctrine, which is used to justify Turkish domination over the Eastern Mediterranean.

The growing prosperity of middle-sized Turkish manufacturers has also been a major component in Erdoğan’s electoral success, laying the social foundations for his challenge to the old “Republican” military establishment’s grip on the state. Of course, he has done this by adopting, rather than rejecting, the old Turkish “deep state” policy of perpetual war against the Kurdish people as well as its authoritarian methods of rule. Erdoğan has also inherited membership of NATO and strong bonds of military cooperation with Israel, which he has willingly embraced, despite his political history as leader of an Islamist party that partly built its popularity on strong rhetorical support for the Palestinians. Although Erdoğan continues to make fiery speeches denouncing Israeli war crimes, the continued flow of Turkish ships owned by his close business associates into Israeli ports tells a different story.57

Iran’s manufacturing growth is much more modest than Turkey’s, but it has still provided an important cushion to soften the blow of renewed US sanctions on the oil industry in 2018. Indeed, the sector added nearly a quarter of a million jobs between 2018 and 2019, which is very significant in a context of chronically high unemployment. Non-oil manufacturing exports also provided a lifeline during the massive drop in state earnings caused by the collapse of Iran’s foreign oil sales from $119 billion in 2009-10 to $8.9 billion in 2019-20.58 However, the shifting geopolitics of oil and the rise of new markets in the East have changed the picture again, with Iranian oil exports recovering significantly. In August 2023, oil industry experts claimed, “Iran is on the path to recover its pre-sanctions oil production”.59

Turkish and Iranian manufacturing growth also underscores the difficulty faced by Egypt’s rulers in achieving more than “also-ran” status in the race for regional domination. Like Turkey, Egypt has historically had little access to oil and gas reserves of its own (although this has changed to some extent since the discovery of the massive Zohr gas field off the Egyptian coast in 2015) but does possess a large manufacturing base. This includes historic industries, such as textiles, as well as newer additions (including capital tied up with largely unsuccessful attempts to break into electronics manufacturing and car production).60 Yet, despite access to massive economic and military subsidies from the US since the 1980s—thanks to the Egyptian leadership’s staunch support for Israel through the Camp David Accords of 1978—Egypt’s industrial capital remains far weaker than its counterparts. The economic policies of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime have done nothing to correct this problem, instead concentrating on a strategy of debt-fuelled construction mega-projects, which have primarily served to line the pockets of generals from the military and security services.

Fractures in the state and strategies for resistance

An important feature is common to Turkey, Iran and Egypt: the social weight of the working class in all three countries. Moreover, all three governments have been engaged in a tortuous balancing act. On the hand, they have sought to dump the economic pain of lost export markets, currency collapses and global commodity price spikes directly on workers and the poor through rises in food, fuel and service costs. On the other hand, they understand the risks of provoking resistance from below that might spiral into an sustainable political challenge to their rule. Turkey’s policies of tolerating extremely high levels of inflation drew criticism even from an IMF delegation, while frustration over huge hikes in food and housing costs has been eating into the voter base of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party.61

Iran’s regime has faced multiple waves of popular rebellion in recent years, the most important of which was the “Woman, Life, Freedom!” uprising in 2022. As Iranian scholar Peyman Jafari explains, the difficulties faced by this “revolt with a revolutionary perspective” when trying to mount effective resistance to state repression and make a political breakthrough lay largely in its failure to connect systematically with the economic grievances of workers and the poor. Nevertheless, every surge in inflation in Iran causes worry among officials that the next revolt will breach the barriers separating economic and political struggles and set in motion a genuinely revolutionary dynamic similar to the great popular revolution of 1978-9.62

Egypt is clearly the weakest link in the chain in this respect. The past few years have seen the mass impoverishment of huge layers of the population, while rising levels of state debt have reduced the regime’s room for manoeuvre and limited its capacity for short-term interventions to quell popular discontent through quick-fix boosts to food subsidies and public sector wages. At the time of writing, there were signs that workers’ resistance might start to destabilise the regime’s precarious balancing act at the very same moment that events in Gaza move towards a bloody climax in Rafah. Women textile workers in the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company’s Mahalla el-Kubra complex, Egypt’s largest textile factory, kicked off a strike on 24 February. Their demands included payment of bonuses to offset the surging cost of living, the implementation of a long overdue rise in the national minimum wage and renewed investment in the firm, which is a public company.63 The firm’s initial response to the strike was to refuse to hand over workers’ monthly pay packets, prompting enraged workers to allege that their bosses were using the weapon of hunger against them, “just as if we were in Gaza”.64 Rather than risk a larger conflagration of strikes across state-owned companies, the regime conceded a pay rise across the public business sector, leading the Misr Spinning strikers to return to work a few days later.65

The political pressures on el-Sisi’s regime due to its shameful alliance with Israel are a key part of the backdrop to the renewal of workers’ confidence to take action. The history of revolutions and revolts across the Middle East is also interwoven with examples of mobilisation by workers and the poor in solidarity with Palestinian resistance that can then transform into confrontations with their own states.66 This shows the importance of the Palestinian struggle and the myriad forms of resistance it generates.

These experiences hold lessons for us too. They underline the urgency of rooting anti-imperialism in working-class organisations, rejecting all attempts by our “own” government and its allies to expand their wars, whip up racism and make ordinary people pay for their system’s failures. Transnational solidarity and working-class internationalism have objective foundations in the opposition to the systems of exploitation that pit our children against each other in endless wars for profit.

Anne Alexander is the author of Revolution is the Choice of the People: Crisis and Revolt in the Middle East and North Africa (Bookmarks, 2022). She is a founder member of MENA Solidarity Network, the co-editor of Middle East Solidarity and a member of the University and College Union.


1 The arguments here build on my previous article published in this journal in 2018 on the dynamics of imperialism in the Middle East, my book Revolution is the Choice of the People, and my previous analyses of the struggle against Israeli apartheid and occupation in Palestine—see Alexander, 2018, 2022a, 2022b and 2024. Thanks to Simon Assaf, Joseph Choonara, Rob Ferguson and Sascha Radl for comments on the draft.

2 Shapps, 2024.

3 Marx described competition as “nothing more than the way in which the many capitals force inherent determinants [of capital] upon one another and upon themselves”—Marx, 1973, p651. For a more detailed discussion on this point, see Callinicos, 2014, p117.

4 See Trotsky, 1997.

5 The relative decline of the US as a military and economic power should not obscure the fact that it retains both an enormous military “footprint” in the Middle East, embodied in its systems of bases and alliances, as well as huge economic influence. Its economic might is wielded through trade and aid, but also via the role of international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

6 For a detailed analysis of the war in Ukraine, see Tengely-Evans, 2023.

7 Economist, 2023.

9 Hanieh, 2022 and 2023.

10 Reuters, 2017; Mohanty and Dutta, 2024.

11 See Cliff, 1996; Callinicos, 2009.

12 Thanks to Joseph Choonara for highlighting this point.

13 Trotsky, 1997, chapter 1.

14 Alexander, 2022b.

15 A “fab” or “fabrication” is a semiconductor production facility.

16 Dobberstein, 2023.

17 Scheer, 2023.

18 Israel Innovation Authority, 2023.

19 King, 2023.

20 Sobelman and Z, 2024, p6.

21 Alexander, 2018 and 2022b.

22 International Monetary Fund, 2023, p26.

23 Israel Innovation Authority, 2023, p35.

24 Reuters, 2023.

25 International Monetary Fund, 2023, p4.

26 Gilead, 2021.

27 Brodsky, 2021.

28 In 2021, Google announced the Raman cable would connect “Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Oman and India”. Yet, TeleGeography’s submarine cable map shows it running from Eilat in Israel, down the Gulf of Aqaba, along the congested cable lanes of the Red Sea, through the Bab el-Mandeb strait and around Yemen before splitting into one branch connecting UAE and another making landfall in Mumbai. See

29 Essa, 2023, pp41 and 49.

30 Economist, 2024.

31 Economist, 2024.

32 Wright, 2024.

33 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2024.

34 Newsinger, 2024.

35 Riedel, 2017; Alexander, 2022a.

36 Choonara, 2011.

37 Alexander, 2022a, pp58-59.

38 Five companies control 50 percent of the global container trade. Three are ultimately state-owned: PSA International (owned by Temasek Holdings, an investment company controlled by the government of Singapore), COSCO Shipping Ports (owned by the Chinese state) and DP World (owned by Dubai’s royal family). See Ziadah, 2023, p51.

39 Christian, 2021; Sánchez, 2023.

40 Alexander, 2022a.

41 Ziadah, 2023; Ochieng, 2023.

42 Nanji, 2023.

43 Khalili, 2020, p265.

44 Khalili, 2020, p255.

45 Alexander, 2023.

46 Of course, economic factors other than the absolute size of the military competitors’ economies can also be key. A state’s diplomatic and trade relations with its allies can substitute for having control over production within its own national territories.

47 Iddon, 2023.

48 Salacanin, 2022.

49 Hambling, 2022.

50 Azeez, 2023.

51 Information taken from the Royal United Services Institute—see

52 Citrinowicz, 2024.

53 Fabian, 2023.

54 Alexander, 2023.

55 Dowling, 2023.

56 Alexander, 2018 and 2022a.

57 Turkish Minute, 2023.

58 Batmanghelidj, 2020.

59 Lawler and Gardner, 2023.

60 Alexander and Bassiouny, 2014.

61 Kucukgocmen, 2023.

62 Jafari, 2023.

63 Al-Shaikh, 2024a

64 Al-Shaikh, 2024b.

65 Revolutionary Socialists, 2024.

66 Alexander, 2022a; Alexander, 2024.


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