The Causes of Political Instability in the Middle East: A Constructivist Approach

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If we are to analyze properly regions of the world which are historically religious anomalies, it would seem precarious to apply normative principles across various societies. The Middle East possesses a unique characteristic which makes it vulnerable to instability. That is the underlying logic of this research article. The common trend of analyzing the Middle East has focused largely on variables that neglect this consideration. As a result, most research connects Middle Eastern instability with variables such as regime type, natural resource abundance, (sectarianism, religiosity) or ideological conflict. The aim of this research is to fill the gap in the literature by focusing on foreign interventionism in the Middle East as the most significant variable influencing stability. In the post-9/11 era, the US has become more entangled in the region than ever before (Said 1997). US foreign interventionism has largely taken the shape of coercive democratization efforts in the Middle East, as in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. In Syria, protests for democratic reforms resulted in full fledged war and unprecedented terrorism. In other countries, like Lebanon, Israel, and Turkey, where a tradition of democratic pluralism ran deeper, an increasing trend of terrorism is exhibited, particularly after 2003 (START 2015). Drawing from two particular databases, evidence suggests a trend between democratization efforts in the Middle East and increased instability in the form of violent terrorism. I conclude by offering the implications of the findings, in theory and in policy.


The tradition of western scholarship has in the realm of international relations been dominated by the schools of rationalism and realism. Where the individual and cost-benefit is the motive of human behavior, the trend of international relations has always been explained through the scope individual self-interest and the pursuits of power and security. But emerging schools of thought have challenged this assumption, such as constructivism, by offering a new outlook on relations betweens states (Wendt).

Theoretical Argument: Hypothesis & Historical Support

This research focuses on a particular region of the world, the Middle East, considered one of the most violent, volatile and unstable. Its goal is to explain the causes of instability through the international relations approach of constructivism, challenging the conventional paradigms of realism and liberalism by emphasizing the importance of “social constructs” to explain variance in cultural values and political institutions across states, by analyzing data on levels of democracy and terrorism in the region.

While some state’s exhibit individualistic cultures, others practice collectivized traditions that preserve age-old customs and traditions embedded within society (Said 1997). The emergence of globalized democracy in the twentieth century limited conventional imperialism, which relied heavily on military capability. In today’s world, where technology and freedom have made information more readily accessible, democratic states are more pressured to conform to order. But instead, the US, leader of the democratic world, has embarked on foreign military adventures under the premise of both preserving and spreading democracy. Because of its successes in the West, it was expected that reluctance to such institutional changes would be absent relative to resistance towards non-democratic interventionism throughout the twentieth century. But despite democracy’s triumph in the 21st century there still remains a specter of arbitrary interventionism which violates the sovereignty of vulnerable nation-states by global hegemonies. I argue that the modern form of this interventionism is the insistence of the US-led West on spreading democracy abroad, in this case, the Middle East.

The purpose is not however to pinpoint democracy as the cause of violence, nor to dismiss authoritarianism as a viable source of instability, but rather to analyze the increase of Western interventionism in the post-Cold War era, despite the demise of the USSR and the so-called communist threat. This tradition of exporting democracy, or neoconservatism, I argue, ignores the constructive distinctions between states (their political culture) and thus leads to conflict. Whether or not democracy is a comparable nemesis to communism in the sense of its imperial capacity isn’t the focus or assertion here then. The Middle East, particularly the Arab World, has been under foreign dominion for ages. Its struggle for sovereignty has resulted in immense grievances, expressed violently, domestically and internationally. I argue that in today’s world, foreign presence in the Middle East has taken the form of democracy.

The main premise of the research rather is to associate destabilization in the Middle East with violations of sovereignty and negligence of the distinctions in political culture between East and West, usually perpetrated by global hegemonies, which in today’s case, would be the United States. Historically, the UK and Russia were much more interventionist, but the twentieth century replaced these two world powers with a unipolar global dynamic led by the US. Since the end of WWII, the Middle East has endured unstable periods of regime change, terrorism and war. The literature on this subject has focused primarily on domestic causes of this instability, pointing often to variables such as the oil-curse, Islamism or authoritarianism, however little to none of the literature focuses on non-domestic actors. This research seeks to fill this gap.

Historically, the Middle East has fallen prey to foreign ideologies like communism. The conflict in Afghanistan in this perspective can thus be seen as a struggle between Arab sovereignty and the imperial nature of communism. Today, there is no USSR and communism has been essentially made irrelevant. Instead, foreign presence in the Middle East is now in the form of democracy, led by the US. The emergence of the neoconservative doctrine, or coercive democracy, has prompted the US to intervene in the internal affairs of nations for the sake of its interests, whether they are to contain ideologies, remove unfriendly leaders or to preserve economic assets. For this reason, many Islamists who regarded the US as an ally in the struggle against communism turned against the US for exhibiting the same behavior as the USSR in Afghanistan, but under a new guise. It was not until the second half the twentieth century, during which the Middle East was divided by european colonialists, Israel was established, and the ensuing wars on terrorism manifested. It was also during this period that the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism emerged and would eventually become a norm (Moghadam 2006). As a result, this research has focused on the linkage between foreign interventionism via democratization in the Middle East and political instability measured by the frequency of terrorist incidents. Through a hybrid method of qualitative anecdotal evidence as well as quantitate data analysis, this research argues that violence in the Middle East, both domestic and exported, is caused mainly by foreign occupation (Pape 2003). The goal is to challenge the idea that democracy is universally applicable, and universally stabilizing, and perhaps more importantly, to establish a link between violations of sovereignty in the Middle East and the heightened level of political instability, in the form of terrorism, in the region altogether. By controlling for the variables of oil, islamism and authoritarians, it aims to dispel the myth that the Middle East is a so-called backwards society with tyrannical leadership across the board – and to suggest the notion that the Middle East is in fact culturally unique, especially due to its history, and that violating its sovereignty on a political and cultural level have destabilized the region.

In this research design, I argue that, though many variables are offered in the literature as potential causes of instability, I focus on the variable of foreign intervention, which has relatively little focus in the literature. In today’s world, international relations can be characterized by the global dominance of liberalism and democracy. In many parts of the world, these institutions are absent, for a variety of reasons. The objective is to demonstrate how modern foreign interventionism as largely taken the form of pressured democratization via regime change, particularly in non-western societies, and how this has coincided with a simultaneous increase in the trend of terrorist incidents in the Middle East.

Research Method

The US has not always been thoroughly involved in Middle Eastern affairs. After WWII this changed (Said 1997). In the post-9/11 world, US foreign policy has focused on the Middle East, particularly challenging authoritarianism. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq can be seen as the beginning of this endeavor. This would be followed by regime change in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen; the ongoing war in Syria. My argument is that the significant rise in terrorism is due to these campaigns. More specifically, pressures for regime change through forced-democratization have resulted in instability and the increase of terrorism. Instead of explaining this through power-struggles as per the prevailing schools of thought in international relations, I focus on democratization as a form of neocolonialism, violating both the political sovereignty of Middle Eastern states as well as challenging their norms and institutions which have been historically reluctant to democratization, and foreign interventionism altogether.

The purpose of this research paper is to demonstrate how terrorism has increased rapidly in tandem with the US-led democratization efforts in the Middle East. It seeks to show how modern foreign interventionism as largely taken the form of pressured democratization via regime change, and how this has coincided with a simultaneous increase in the trend of terrorist incidents in the Middle East.

To demonstrate this, I employ the quantitative method of cross-country analysis, gaging both incidents of terrorism as well as instances of democratic evolution, or democratization, over time in the Middle East, drawing from two databases, the Global Terrorism Database, which measures terrorist trends in each country in the world over time between the periods of 1970 and 2013, and Our World In Data, which covers global democratization trends ranging from 1800 to 2012.

Data Findings

Terrorist incidents in the Middle East were at a steady and constant low from 1970 until 2003, the year of the US invasion of Iraq, the country with the highest terror threat in the Middle East (START 2015). Terrorism increased from about an average of 1000 incidents per year from 1970 until 2002 to 4000 incidents in 2003, and 8000 in 2013 (START 2015). The trend is increasing. Is there a positive relationship between democratization and terrorism in the Middle East, contrary to the conventional arguments in the literature? Democracy in the Middle East is relatively scarce, and where it does exist, it is new. Only Iraq, Turkey, Tunisia, Israel, Lebanon and Yemen are even partially considered democratic. Prior to 1985, this was not the case (Roser 2016). Since its inception, as evidenced by the data, terrorism has reached unprecedented heights in the Middle East (START 2015).

The more democratic countries in the Middle East, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq exhibit the highest rates of terrorism in the region (IEP 2013). Tunisia is an outlier in this case, because its global terrorism index is measures lower than the previously mentioned countries, however other sources suggest that despite its low occurrence, the trend of terrorist threats continuous to increase even in Tunisia, particularly after 2010 (START 2015).

On the contrary, the most autocratic countries of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Iran & the UAE have drastically lower levels of terrorist attacks (IEP 2013). As mentioned previously, the main focus of the research is to reveal how foreign interventionism results in instability in the form of terrorism, and that in today’s world, foreign interventionism largely takes the form of forced democratization and regime change. The data indicates that at the height of democracy in the Middle East, terrorism is most rampant.

Literature Review – Filling the Gap

To explain instability and the rise in terrorism in the Middle East, the literature generally focuses on either natural resource abundance or regime type. There are few regions in the world like the Middle East, imbued with some what a gift and a curse: a unique religious history and the presence of oil (Ross 2001). This has been coined the resource curse. The presence of oil in the Middle East has made it the focal point of global hegemonies competing for power and assets. However oil is not present in some of the most terror-inflicted countries in the Middle East and in the world, such as Israel, Lebanon and Turkey in the Middle East, and Uzbekistan and Pakistan in the broader scope. Equally, terrorist incidents in the Gulf region are significantly lower than North Africa and the Levant (START 2015).

The majority of fighters in Syria are currently Iraqi (Roser 2016). This implies that without US intervention in Iraq, there would be no vacuum of power to form the terrorist-network of ISIS. Furthermore this suggests that sudden overthrowing an authoritarian regime in the Middle East produces dire consequences instead of increasing hopes for democratization.

Another aspect of the literature points to civilizational conflict as the driving source of instability in the Middle East. The premise here is that Islam is at war with competing ideologies and institutional norms. To counter this claim, I argue that, in some of the most homogeneously Islamic societies, there are significantly less cases of instability and terrorism, such as in Malaysia and Indonesia, compared to the frequency of terrorism in the Middle East. In a sense, terrorism is viewed as a response to occupation (Pape 2003). In this case, occupation is viewed as coercive democratization.

The final case in the literature review focuses on authoritarianism as the primary cause of anti-americanism (Bush et al.). But even in countries like Lebanon, where authoritarianism is relatively low, anti-americanism persists, and the terrorist threat is at its highest in the region.

The common denominator missing from the literature is the variable of foreign intervention in its influence on stability in the Middle East. Furthermore, empirical approaches have neglected the relationship between democratization and instability in the Middle East, primarily because of the domination of international relations theory by neorealist schools of thought. This theory presumes that self-interest and materialism rule the world universally. I argue that this presumption has justified modern “imperial overreach” by the US, particularly in the twenty-first century, in the form of coercive democratization. This had led to increased instability in the Middle East, and the rise in terrorism both regionally and globally.

Setbacks in My Approach

As with most research designs, there are setbacks suffered in this approach. Firstly, the lack of empirical data on Middle East politics makes it difficult to test claims. Secondly, the volatility of the region makes it even more challenging to innovate new methods and gather original data. Finally, the Middle East’s unique religious history challenges both the methods and approaches of the prevailing schools within political science, as well as the foreign policy traditions of major power players in global politics, in this case, the United States. The social constructs which distinguish the political cultures of the Middle East, a more collectivized society, from the West, the beacon of liberalism, make it difficult to understand and analyze the causes of violence.


The data gathered demonstrates that even where democracy endures in the Middle East, in the slightest form, it often exhibits extreme cases of political instability in the form of terrorism. Since 2003, terrorist attacks spiked in the Middle East (START 2016). The rise of ISIS has further intensified the terrorist threat in the region and abroad. It is mind boggling then that such an important variable as foreign interventionism, be it in the form of democratization or not, is largely unconsidered in international relations theory, considering the data which reveals a significant increase in terrorism immediately following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 (START 2016). But the neoliberal and neorealist traditions which dominate international relations theory leave little room for discussion of culture and religion, what constructivism calls “social constructs” in explaining the international political dynamic, because it emphasizes self-interest and profit-incentives as universally applicable principles. This assumption is the source of tension between the US and the various political forces in the Middle East. A continued negligence of these differences will likely perpetuate the increasing trend of terrorism in the Middle East, while a recognition of them would result in the opposite – a sort of stability that characterized the Middle East prior to the 2003 War in Iraq.


Bush, S. S., & Jamal, A. A. 2015. Anti‐Americanism, Authoritarian Politics, and Attitudes about Women’s Representation: Evidence from a Survey Experiment in Jordan. International Studies Quarterly: 59(1), 34-45.

Global Terrorism Index. 2015. Institute for Economics and Peace: Visions for Humanity.

Huntington, S. P. 1993. The Clash of Civilizations? Foreign Affairs: 22-49.

Max Roser 2016. Democratisation. Published online at Retrieved from: [Online Resource]

Moghadam, A. 2006. Suicide terrorism, occupation, and the globalization of martyrdom: A critique of Dying to Win. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism: 29(8), 707-729.

National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). 2015. Global Terrorism Database:

Pape, Robert 2003. The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. American Political Science Review. 343-361.

Ross, M. L. 2001. Does Oil Hinder Democracy? World Politics: 53(03), 325-361.

Said, E. 1979. Orientalism. 1978. New York: Vintage.

Wendt, A. 1999. Social Theory of International Politics. Cambridge University Press.


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