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Understanding the Maintenance of Rivalries and Causes of Wars in the Middle East
The Korean Journal of International Studies 20-3 (December 2022), 359-384
Published online December 31, 2022
© 2022 The Korean Association of International Studies.

Akbar Khan and Amjad Ali [Bio-Data]
Received June 12, 2022; Revised October 14, 2022; Accepted December 9, 2022.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License ( which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
When assessing the rivalries and wars, understanding their causes is essential. Employing panel regression model, this article examines the data from 1962 to 2001. We find that arms races, contiguity, and joint autocracy play an essential role in making states rival in the Middle East. Rivalry among these states develops and persists when proximate authoritarian states are involved in building their armed forces, suggesting that in the presence of military buildups, autocratic states deliberately manipulate the issues at stake, making the rivalry increasingly hostile. This study also reports that military buildup and contiguity increase the probability of war among the regional rivals. This is because proximity enables states to project their limited military prowess within the periphery, leading to escalation. Howbeit, this study also argues that high level of authoritarianism does not correlate with wars. Instead, autocrats are wary of shaking their fragile states, using armed rivalry only as an outlet of inner tensions.
Keywords : Rivalry, War, Middle East, Contiguity, Arms Race, Authoritarian states

The Middle East has garnered considerable attention because of its geography, oil wealth, and instability. The combination of these and a set of other political and cultural forces have affected interstate relationships and strengthened regional upheaval. Over time, rivalries have become increasingly hostile even though these states are relatively weak militarily and economically. However, not all states in the Middle East are weak either economically or militarily. Some of them are powerful sates while others can be categorized as middle powers, such as Israel and Turkey respectively. In line with this, Saudi Arabia is economically strong whereas Iraq and Lebanon are economically weak. My response.

One of the most striking characteristics of rivalries in the Middle East is their persistence. These states failed to put an end to interstate rivalries over time despite wars, negotiations, regime changes, and international mediations. Nonetheless, rivalries in the region have endured, adopting the shape of strategic and enduring rivalries (Colaresi et al. 2008). Moreover, Middle East has witnessed numerous nascent and enduring conflicts in the context of rivalry, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most enduring conflicts in the international politics; the Arab-Israel wars; and wars in the Gulf. These wars have devastated the regional structure, increasing the threat perception and distrust.

A large and growing body of empirical studies have explored the causes and consequences of rivalries and made significant empirical contributions to the scholarship (Diehl and Goertz 2000; Colaresi and Thompson 2002; Colaresi et al. 2008). It has been established that rival states are more likely to be engaged in militarized disputes and wars than non-rivals given that contiguous states have issues at stake, and are involved in military buildups (Senese 2005; Maoz and Mor 2002; Diehl and Goertz 2000). These studies have focused on rivalries and/or onset of wars among great and a combination of great and other states (Lemke and Reed 2001; ; Daxecker 2011; Dreyer 2012), including the Middle Eastern rivalries and conflicts (Schayegh 2013; Hinnebusch 2017). In line with this, the debate over “Middle Eastern exceptionalism” has received much attention (Rubin 2002; Bellin 2004). It is uniquely employed and deemed responsible for the rivalries and conflicts in the region. However, others are convinced that there is no need to invoke “Middle Eastern exceptionalism” (Sorli et al. 2005). Apart from this conceptualization other factors – arms races, regime type and their proximity – may play a significant role in the persistence of interstate rivalries and wars in the Middle East because conceptualization of rivalry and dispute escalation is based on threat perception, competitiveness, duration and hostility (Thompson 2001; Hewitt 2005). Therefore, understanding the causes of rivalry among minor states is pertinent.

Some of the states in the Middle East are relatively weak because of their poor military, unsophisticated economy, porous boundaries, corrupt institutions, and stagnant political-cum-social structures. Despite these attributes, the regional states have failed in fixing their deteriorating relationships. With these points in mind, the present study attempts to address and focus on these questions: what are the factors that induce minor states to become rival? To what extent and how do the characteristics of arms races, contiguity, and joint autocracy pave the way for interstate wars? We address these questions and concerns through an empirical investigation of the persistence of rivalries and the likelihood of wars among the minor states in the Middle East region.

Considering some of the escalating steps, this study would appropriately help us in understanding the behavior of minor states also, how these escalating factors make states rival and instigate war among states (Khan 2020). This article elucidates that when the military capability of proximate states increases, then autocratic regimes manipulate their existing grievances and past animosities, providing more space for the development and persistence of rivalry and making it increasingly hostile. Also, proximity provides an opportunity for minor states to project their power in their periphery. However, the main contribution of this piece of paper to the existing literature is that authoritarian regimes and being a big power’s client state do not correlate with wars. Instead, autocrats are wary of shaking their fragile states, using armed rivalry only as an outlet of inner tensions. Furthermore, it is also important to mention that some of the rivalries turn to war while others do not follow the same line, indicating the reluctance of authoritarian regimes to war. Moreover, these important variables paly a lead role in making states rival and instigate them to escalate their conflictual relationship, affecting other key factors, such as ethnic divide, sectarian issues, historical context, political missions, etc. These factors have deep roots with the Middle Eastern societies are the actual fault lines. Policy makers should think about and avoid unnecessary militarization of the authoritarian regime and securitization of the region. This would have a positive impact and states would not try to exploit and manipulate fault lines at least in the foreseeable future. This is because deliberate securitization and destabilization are correlated.


The interest in understanding the rivalries and wars in the Middle East stems from the observations of the behavior of autocratic and quasi-democratic states. Rivalries in the Middle East are rooted in contesting issue claims, which has instigated them to building their militaries, aiming to address their security concerns. In such an environment, states failed to terminate their existing rivalries. The rivalry between Israel and other Arab states, for instance, began following the establishment of Israel and rivalry became increasingly intense over time. Also, the Iranian-Iraqi rivalry has followed the same path and they fought a bloodiest and the most protracted war in the history of the Middle East. Studies have consistently demonstrated that issue claims make states rival, making them enduring. Meanwhile, scholars are convinced that territorial disputes prompt states to build their militaries (Rider 2009), making interstate wars more likely (Senese and Vasquez 2008).

When thinking about rivalry persistence, understanding the causes of rivalry is essential. In line with this, military buildups may be one of the building blocks that trigger interstate rivalry. If a dyad is engaged in military buildup, then this action might provoke the rivals to exacerbate the issues at stake, making them more salient. If dyad is not engaged in building its military, then the issues at stake may die or would become less salient, and also the persistence of rivalry would be difficult because mutual arms races make rivalry more aggressive. Another aspect of rivalry is that if states are militarily and economically relevant, then it makes sense that they can be competitors. In this context, the power equation plays an essential role in making states rivals. However, an imbalanced power equation may give a different picture of rivalry. Scholars have argued that states with equal capabilities (Thompson 2001; Vasquez 2013) coupled with a history of conflictual relationships can be rivals (Vondracek 2014). Other studies have regarded rivalry as a process that proceeds through different stages and the conceptualization of history matters (Diehl and Goertz 2000; Thompson 2001). However, if the history is full of disagreements, then it matters a lot in shaping the rivalry process. Thus, in the rivalry context states always consider the past behavior and try to assess the future interactions (Klein et al. 2006), suggesting that grievances and expectations shape and reshape the behavior of states.

Scholars have deemed arms races, regime type, and proximity to be critical factors in making states rivals and war more probable (Gibler, Rider and Hutchison 2005; Colaresi et al. 2008; Carter 2015; Mohan 2016), but these studies have mainly focused on great powers or combination of great and other states. The Middle East is comprised of states with different attributes, and this region has seen multiple devastating interstate wars and intrastate wars. The amalgamation of these types of conflicts have converted the region into a conflict zone (Collier and Sambanis 2002). Within this trap, the changing and worsening political atmosphere provoked them to invest in building their armed forces, aiming to mitigate their security concerns (Zielinski et al. 2017), which increase the likelihood of war (Thompson 2001). Past studies also suggest that military imbalances play a significant role in instigating wars (Hinnebusch 2017). Meanwhile, a significant number of scholars agree that arms races and near-power parity increase the probabilities of war (Gibler et al. 2005; Senese and Vasquez 2008; Hinnebusch 2017; Lemke 2002: 118–25). But, contradictory to prior arguments, scholars have argued that military buildups decrease the chances of war by balancing and deterring the rival (Diehl 1983; Intriligator and Brito 1984).

However, the arms race is a phenomenon that may take place within and without rivalry context, suggesting that rivalry is not a necessary condition for building military forces. Moreover, studies suggest that if states are involved in arms races, then the probability of rivalry development is highly likely (Valeriano 2003; Bausch 2018). Also, scholars argue that states can be rivals without military buildups (Wohlstetter 1974), but “arm race-war relationship is conditional on rivalry process” (Rider et al. 2011). However, arms races create a sense of fear and insecurity in the neighborhood. Thus, states maneuver to improve their security either by building their military or by seeking relevant political alliances. Therefore, a set of these actions and counteractions increase the probability of rivalry and war (Vasquez 2013; Hinnebusch 2017).

The Middle East is home to the world’s strongest authoritarian regimes. In the region, only two states – Israel and Turkey – are close to democracy, but not established democracies (Jamal 2017). Contrary to democracies, despotic regimes do not hesitate to use force. Autocratic regimes manipulate the grievances, providing a level playing field to the development of rivalry and hunting regime related interests (Valeriano and Marin 2010). Studies have shown that autocratic regimes structure foreign policy objectives, favoring their regime’s goals (Nassif 2017; Spindel 2011). In the region, states have been justifying the autocratic norm, linking it with the region’s dominant religion – Islam (Fish 2002). This robust association provides a ground for leaders to proliferate autocratic norms to justify their position in the region and, in turn, these unnecessary norms provide more space for rivalry development. Hence, authoritarian states are more likely to be rivals than democratic states (Hensel et al. 2003; Romero 2015). Additionally, others also claim that the link between democratic deficit and conflict in the Middle East is uncertain (Dalacoura 2006).

Besides these, contiguity is another important factor. It is argued that contiguous dyads are more likely to be rivals and prepare the ground for war than non-contiguous states (Colaresi et al. 2008) because proximate states are more likely to be entangled in disputes, thus, they build security structures to meet any eventuality (Chand 2019). Security concerns increase in the presence of contentious disputes, making the autocratic contiguous states skeptical about the intentions of other states. The issues at stake create security concerns, and autocratic states fear more about the survival of regime than overall security of the state. At this juncture, the autocratic states accumulate arms and also manipulate the historical grievances. Subsequently, these steps provide fertile ground for them to push their rivalries further and prepare a ground for military confrontation (Stinnett and Diehl 2001). However, it is also argued that contiguity diminishes the likelihood of war (Lemke and Reed 2001).

In sum, significant progress has been made in sorting out the empirical relationship between three important factors – arms races, contiguity, and joint autocracy – and rivalry, and war among great powers or combination states. Much remains about understanding the causes of rivalry and war among the Middle Eastern states. We aim to address the causes of rivalries and wars among states in the Middle Eastern by considering three important variables. This study would appropriately help us in understanding the behavior of minor states, and also the role of three escalating factors in making rivalry and even instigating war.


We have taken into consideration three important factors and deem them responsible for the persistence of rivalries and outbreak of wars. In what way do these factors affect rivalries and cause wars. In the Middle East, states are being ruled by military dictators or autocrats. This governing body has not only failed in mitigating their differences over policy issues, but strengthened in-house rivalries among the Middle Eastern states, for example, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Iran, etc. The fierce competition for power enabled dictators to overthrow monarchies (Buzan and Weaver 2003; Dawisha 2009; Schayegh 2013) and they started building their military to meet the challenges in an uncertain environment which, subsequently deteriorated interstate relationships. This is because, on the one hand, military buildups increased the confidence in the leadership that they can defend their regime or state against any hostile force. On the other hand, military buildups created fear in the neighboring states, prompting them to take reciprocal measures. As a result, mutual arms races started, giving more energy to the development of rivalries. Further elaboration suggests that if contiguous authoritarian states are embroiled in internal and external disputes and engage in military buildups, then it is more probable that interstate rivalries may get momentum. That is what happened in the Middle East. This might be because they wanted to prolong their regimes and increase the prestige of their regimes at home and in the region alike. At this juncture, they sometimes deliberately exacerbate their relationship and issues with their neighbors.

In the same vein, arms races, joint autocracy, and contiguity may have the same effect on war. It is probable that arms races might boost the morale of military junta that they can inflict a devastating blow on their enemy, pushing them to influence the decision-making body (Noel-Baker 1958), while imposing their own decisions. These perceptions might have worked in instigating wars because military junta has always held a powerful position in the history of Middle East than kings. To impose their own prophesy, military may exacerbate the desire for pre-emption and escalate the conflicting relations in the presence of mutual military buildups (Bove and Brauner 2014). Another aspect may be that proximate disputes prompted autocratic states to be engaged in wars in the presence of arms races more than in their absence. Therefore, understanding the causes of rivalry and conflict is essential, given that the former is the base of the later.

Furthermore, states adopt arms races as a strategy for addressing security concerns. In the presence of militarized disputes and arms races, the intensity of rivalry increases, making the proximate disputes more salient and contesting (Carter 2015) than those taking place in the absence of mutual military buildup. This suggests that the outcomes of previous dispute and presence of salient issues give momentum to rivalry development and, in turn, arms races make the issues at stake and other disputes more salient. Thus, arms races have a propensity to escalate to war (Colaresi et al. 20087; Hinnebusch 2017). In the case of states in the Middle East, it seems reasonable because these states can only project their power in their periphery. This is true because of the lack of sophisticated technology and limited ambitions. Therefore, these states cannot project their power in distant places. No matter how issues at stake are salient.

The hardliners have their interests. They care more about their regime durability than overall state security because autocrats have little trust in their institutions, and they are highly suspicious of their adversaries. Also, autocrats use force at will to deal with domestic upheavals or prepare the ground for war with the rivals, aiming to strengthen their position at home. This might be the case that issues at stake prompt autocrats to take hard steps. However, once these three factors combine, then they make issues at stake more striking and increase the probability of war, providing an opportunity for opportunist states to intervene in the internal affairs of other states, thus, escalating the militarized disputes (Cashman 2014; Vondracek 2014).

Most of the States in the Middle East are weak. They are weak, and they often copycat the behavior of great powers when it comes to rivalry, for instance, Iran, Iraq, etc. These states have often been intimidating each other as well as other other states while manipulating the grievances, and preparing their military for mobilization. These kinds of notions are more noticeable in rivalry context (Carter 2015), suggesting that the changing structure affects the general perception of states regarding threat from rivalries. Thereby, enabling them to invest in military buildup. Howbeit, the military buildup is a time taking process, but autocrats make explicit and quick decision to allocate more budget to increase their military prowess. Autocrats do not care about any decision-making processes and take decisions favoring them. In this way, they speed up military buildup to address immediate and future threats, creating distrust within the contiguous states and provoking them to take reciprocal steps. This is how arms races give momentum to rivalry process while amplifying competition. Thus, it can be said that the arms race is a time taking process that gives momentum to the development while increasing the hostility.

The rivalry is not spontaneously generated, but it is a long process (Thompson 2001), indicating that there are several stages through which rivalry passes, such as inception, maturity, maintenance, and termination (Diehl and Goertz 2000). Similarly, competition between rival dyads is also a process; it may be mild or severe. However, mutual arms races and despotic regimes manipulate the rivalry process and conceptualization of competition, which consequently make the issues at stake more salient and rivalry hostile. Another aspect is that if states do not have contentious issues, they build their military to meet any unwanted challenge in the future because, in an uncertain environment, states may face a threat at any point of time, suggesting that arms races also takes place in the absence of rivalry. In sum, it indicates that military buildup increases the hostility of rivalry and, also the probability of military confrontation (Maoz and Mor 2002). Thus, arms races augment rivalry and rivalry in the presence of arms races and challenging issues accelerate the war process (Senese and Vasquez 2005; Senese and Vasquez 2008).

If we confine the scope of this article to the Middle East, then it becomes clear that Arab states raised different slogans, such as Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism, but failed to bridge their conflictual relationships. Instead, these conceptions created distrust, effecting and deteriorating interstate relationship. In the case of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), both proximate states were governed by absolute autocrats and were deeply involved in building their militaries (Badie 2011). The arms races made their rivalry increasingly intense, and proximity provided a level playing field for states to project their power. Similarly, after the war, Iraq intensified its relationship with Kuwait, making war more probable. Thus, if states have strong military, land connections and salient disputes, then war becomes inevitable. It also seems reasonable that military imbalances and opportunities push despotic regimes to take irrational decisions and aggressive steps without caring about the consequences, for example, the Iraq-Kuwait war.

However, how these factors independently affect rivalry and war. Studies have consistently demonstrated that arms races potentially escalate the conflictual relations and increase the likelihood of war (Diehl and Crescenzi 1998; Vasquez and Henehan 2001; Skogstad 2015; Carter 2015).

The Middle East is a region where the peace has not prevailed yet. In such an uncertain environment, the regional states have been structuring their preferences and also trying to ascertain the preferences of their adversaries, providing more space to uncertainties and crises (Leng 2000). At this juncture, states started building their armed forces, ultimately making the issues more complicated and rivalry hostile (Hinnebusch 2017). However, what is more interesting about the Middle Eastern states is that they try to hurt and create obstacles to their peer-competitors more than benefiting themselves (Vasquez 2013; Hinnebusch 2013). The failure to meet the structural changes at individual and collective level push states to be rivals and ignite the conflict.

Over the course of time, The Middle Eastern region has experienced multiple upheavals. The dramatic (territorial and regime) changes potentially supplanted the position of states in the region, drastically effecting interstate rivalries and igniting wars (Rabi and Mueller 2017). With these changes, the autocratic regimes infused and legalized the notions of despotism in the region, and also the autocratic regime potentially mobilized the resources for military confrontation (Carter, Bernhard and Palmer 2012). With the passage of time, the authoritarian state system was imposed on the people and Arab society embraced the authoritarian regime under extreme pressure. Dictators denied the general masses of their fundamental rights and heavily relied on the traditional tribal politics to solidify their position and could not cope with the evolving challenges. Subsequently, states started behaving like rivals. In other words, the changing circumstances and the stagnant social and tribal political narratives could not walk side by side. Thus, with the passage of time, rivalry gained momentum. The formation of King alliances, the rise of revolutionary Arab nationalism, and other covert alliances (Yahel 2016) all worked well to drag the states onto the rivalry stage, creating division instead of unifying the regional actors for greater cooperation (Schayegh 2013). Instead of cooperation, the adjacent weak authoritarian states started purchasing weapons to meet their objectives. Thus, an arms race gained momentum, becoming a stimulus to the rivalry process. Arms races might have encouraged autocratic contiguous states to take some irrational decisions, increasing interstate rivalries and instigating wars.


The Middle East is a region which has garnered considerable attention in academia. The region hosts a combination of states . It is highly likely that numerous forces might have worked in making them to rivalries and pushing them to fight militarily. However, what causes rivalry and what prompts these states to fight. The purpose of this work is to understand the underlying causes of rivalry and war by employing the same set of independent variables. We would make it clear that the article does not attempt to find a direct link between rivalry and war.

Our first concern is that arms race affects the rivalry process and also pave the way for states to fight wars. This phenomenon has been demonstrated by great and minor states alike. States develop their military in the presence and absence of rivalry. In line with this, if no arms race develops, the development of rivalry would be rare or rivalry would not be belligerent. Thus, our first two hypotheses are:

(1) Arms races are more likely to induce states in the Middle East to become rival.

(2) Arms race significantly increases the probability of war.

The Middle East is a region where autocracy is at its zenith. This form of government is considered to be power thirsty, and autocrats want to be in power for a loner time. Thus, it seems that to strengthen their position at home, they instigate the rivalry and war, unlike democracies (Ghatak and Prins 2018). In line with this, we hypothesize:

(3) Joint autocracy significantly increases the development and persistence of rivalry.

(4) Joint autocracy is more likely to be the reason for the war between the states in the region.

Keeping in view the significance of proximity and its impacts on the behavior of states in formulating its strategy we have hypothesized that:

(5) Contiguous states in the Middle East are more likely to be rivals.

(6) Proximity potentially increases the probability of military confrontation.

We argue that contiguous states have a lot to disagree and nearness provides an opportunity for states to deploy forces quickly and project their military power. We have developed hypotheses against the backdrop of important factors. Our findings may enable us to understand the causes of rivalry and conflict in the Middle East.


We have developed six hypotheses. We test and analyze them to understand their association with dependent variables. First, it would be our quest to know what factors induce states in the middle East to become rivals. How we have identified the rival dyads, it is important. Although the region hosts states, ranging from weak to middle powers. Some of the states have the potential to maneuver within the region while influencing their near abroad, for example, Iran, Turkey, and Israel. We have selected the rival dyads from the rivalry lists provided by scholars.1 However, if a rival dyad has not been listed in the above-mentioned lists, we have assigned a non-rival status to the dyad. Similarly, we have considered a dyad to be rival if the dyad has experienced rivalry at any time. For example, Kuwait has experienced rivalry only with Iraq and with no other country. Thus, we have given non-rival status to Kuwait with all other dyads. This typology is being employed to all dyads to investigate that what factors make the Middle Eastern states rivals. We also ask: what factors cause wars in the Middle East? However, it is a matter of great concern that the rivalry selection, small sample size, and limited data may affect the results.

Our cases of observations are the dyad years. We have selected those countries, which are believed to be regional players. However, these states are weak as compared to great powers. Though all are Muslim countries, recognized by the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), except Israel.2 We have observed each year for each dyad, whether the dyad is engaged in rivalry or not at any point with any one of the selected countries for the 1962-2001 period. We have selected this period because the merger of Egypt and Syria ended in 1961. However, the endpoint is 2001, which is dictated by rivalry lists. We have selected nine countries and the dyadic combination is forty-five.

Moreover, another major reason for selecting this period is that the Middle Eastern states have not fought any major interstate war in the aftermath of 2000 against each other. Though in the 2000s and 2010s multiple domestic, regional and international politics took place, affecting the Middle Eastern region directly, including Arab Spring, civil wars, Abraham Accord, etc. These events don not affect our results because we have only considered interstate wars and rivalry in the Middle East. We are interested in understanding the causes of rivalry and war among the states of the Middle East because the region has experienced unprecedented conflicts and rivalry. This region is unique because most of the states are authoritarian and the region conflict ridden.

Dependent Variables

We have identified binary dependent variables: rivalry and war, as explained before. To identify whether the questing states are rivals; we employ Goertz & Diehl’s (2000), Thompson’s (2001) and Colaresi, Rasler & Thompson (2008) lists of enduring as well as strategic rivalries. However, Diehl and Goertz have set certain conditions for the enduring rivalry: the severity of competition (military to military) and time, and they also argue that competitors engage in at least six militarized disputes over the period of twenty years with no more than five years between disputes. While, Thompson’s list of strategic rivalries is based on competitor status; “threat perception, enemy status and information extraction about the decision maker perceptions.” However, we would like to take them as rivals without considering them as strategic, enduring, or interstate due to insufficient rivalry data in the Middle East on any single rivalry. We extract the rivalries from the lists and make a list for Middle Eastern rivals. We code the rivalry as 1 if states in a dyad have experienced rivalry in a given year according to at least one data source, otherwise 0. Past studies have also followed the same coding mechanism (Schrock-Jacobson 2012).

Our second dependent variable is an interstate war. We define interstate war as the direct military confrontation between states. The Middle East has experienced six interstate wars for the period 1962-2001.3 However, before the 1962, two wars have been recorded: the 1948 Arab-Israel war and Suez war (1956). We have dropped them. Our coding method of this dependent variable is: we code it 1 if any dyad has fought the war, 0 otherwise.

Independent Variables

We have selected three independent variables to investigate their relationship with the dependent variables. Our first independent variable indicates arms race/military capability. For this purpose, we have considered “military expenditure” as arms races/military capability and data are taken from the Correlates of War Project National Material Capabilities (NMC) Data version 5.0. The military capabilities can be seen as the military buildup and are coded according to Horn’s (1987) definition. “This procedure defines build-ups as years when two states have above average arm expenditure, and the rate of arms expenditure is increasing over the time. Each year expenditure will be compared with the baseline, if the expenditure is above the average in a given year, and increases over the last six year, will be coded as an arm race” (Dean 1987). Otherwise, the arms race will be absent. This measurement technique was also employed by others as well (Sample 1998; Colaresi et al. 2008).

Our second independent variable is the joint autocracy. The reason for selecting this variable is simple; most of the countries in the region are being ruled by dictators for decades. However, Israel and Turkey have been oscillating between democracy and autocracy, and studies have considered it an important factor for rivalry and war (Hensel et al. 2003). We have employed the well-reputed polity IV political regime characteristics and transition (1800-2015) 4 data type. Autocratic dyads are those in which both parties possess a – 6 or below – 6 score after subtracting the (1 – 10) autocracy score from its (1 – 10) democracy score. If the score of both countries in the dyad is – 6 or below is coded 1, otherwise 0.

The third variable indicates whether the dyads are contiguous or not. Here, contiguity means common land border or within 150 miles by sea. If the dyad members are connected by land or by sea, then dyad is coded 1, otherwise 0. This coding system is also employed by Colaresi, Rasler, and Thompson (2008). We have identified this variable because contiguity provides an opportunity for interaction between governments and people from both sides frequently, which is a necessary condition for disagreements and can provoke them to escalate interstate relations.

Control Variables

To evaluate a reliable relationship between dependent and independent variables, control variables are included, such as ethnic kin, alliance with big powers, and regional shocks. The first variable – Ethnic kin – is important because the Middle East is embedded in ethnic politics for decades. We consider Arabs, Persian, Turks, and Jews as different ethnic groups in a broader prospect (Alesina et al. 2003). If dyad is made up of the same ethnic group, it is coded as 1, otherwise 0. This cultural variable is associated with a previously employed cultural variable (Lu and Thies 2013). We expect that this cultural variable is positively associated with our main variable.

Previous studies have focused on the importance of shocks (Goertz and Diehl 1995; Diehl and Goertz 2000) and have listed various shocks.5 Systemic shock is one of them. We have taken “dramatic changes in territorial sovereignty” as a regional shock. In the Middle East, we found two regional wars, which could be categorized as regional shocks, i.e., the Six-Day War (1967) and the Gulf War (1990-91), which have significantly changed the sovereignty of the states. In the case of Gulf War, Iraq annexed Kuwait, and then multiple countries invaded Iraq, and in the Six-Day War, Israel occupied Golan Heights, Sani Peninsula, and the West bank from three Arab countries, expanding its size dramatically and affecting the vanquished state’s sovereignty badly. Shocks equal 1 for any year and (ten years after the shock), 0 otherwise. Shock variable is also used in previous studies as a control variable (Dreyer 2012). Also, we include alliances with the great powers as a control variable. It is because the big power rivalry during the cold war (1945-1990) has affected the region in one way or another. This might be because they needed their support to balance through the formation of alliances (Mearsheimer 2010: 70–94; Kuo 2019), which might have augmented the in-house rivalries and escalated their conflictual relations (Diehl 1983; Vasquez and Rundlett 2016). We have considered three big powers viz. the USA, Russia and the United Kingdom. Data for the alliance system are taken out from Correlates of War Formal Interstate Alliance Dataset, 1816-2012 (Gibler 2009). Also, we have considered dyads as an alliance if they have signed at least one of the treaties: neutrality, non-aggression, defense, and entente. Each year is coded 1 for alliances if dyads have remained in alliance for at least four months in a given year, 0 for non-alliance, and also for those who have remained allied for less than four months. For coding (see Vasquez and Rundlett 2016).


Studies have demonstrated that the causes, magnitude, and intensity of each war differ from each other war (Vasquez and Valeriano 2010; Valeriano and Vasquez 2010). Meanwhile, the same logic may be reasonable when it comes to rivalry. If states are entangled in rivalry for an extended period and issues remain contentious than the probability of military confrontation increases. Table 1 and Table 2 show the results of rivalry and war. Our first concern is the effect of arms races on the rivalry. As the arms race is a process, which takes much time. States do not build their armies, purchase weapons, and deploy them at once, but they need to allocate budget and process the procedure form both sides. In the case of the Middle East, distrust and fear among states may push the states to build their military prowess. The findings of a basic rivalry model with dummy variables are presented in Table 1 (Model 1). This model elucidates that the arms race is positively significant in the case of rivalry. The significant relationship suggests that states build their military to meet the growing immediate and future security challenges. It also suggests that arms races provide a window of opportunity for rivalry development and increase the intensity of rivalry among the states. In the case of the Middle East, military buildup may also help autocrats retain their position at home. Thus, we may say that arms races increase the threat perception and provide more energy to rivalry among the authoritarian states. So, our study supports hypothesis 1. This is consistent with previous research (Valeriano 2003). Furthermore, arms races may necessarily pull and push states to be rivals. Further elaboration reveals that states in the Middle East also behave in line with the great powers regarding arms, but with limited goals and ambitions.

We have discussed before that autocrat govern most of the states in the Middle East over the decades. It is presumed that regime type matters a lot in making states rival and also in ending rivalries. Despotic regimes are more likely to be rivals as compared to democratic states. Model 2 in Table 1 reports that joint autocracy significantly increases the rivalry within the region. Dictators often raise revolutionary slogans, intimidate the neighboring states and suppress internal rebellions to prolong their status quo vis-à-vis neighboring dictators, increasing the prospects of rivalry because the autocratic political system is based on absolutism and has a less pacifying effect on termination of rivalry. In addition to this, it is a known fact that states in the region are autocrats, but not all. Some of them are democracies, for example, Israel and Turkey. Statistical results show that autocracies do provide a space for rivalry building. So, the results pertaining to autocracy are confirmed in the analysis.

Meanwhile, the democratic political system has a pacifying effect on the rivalry (Cornwell and Colaresi 2002; Ghatak and Prins 2018). Also, contiguity significantly increases the probability of rivalry among countries in the region. In other words, contiguous countries are more likely to be engaged in rivalries than non-contiguous states. It is highly likely that proximate states keep an eye on and worry about the activities of proximate states more than that of distant states. Also, proximity provides a chance for states to formulate strategies to counter the actions of the neighboring state in an uncertain environment, pushing and pulling contiguous states to be rivals. Thus, the results of Model 2 in Table 1 support our hypotheses 3 and 5 respectively. This finding is consistent with previous studies (Hensel et al. 2003; Colaresi 2001; Cornwell and Colaresi 2002).

Control variables in Table 1 report that regional shock is negatively significant with military capability, but with others, it is insignificant. This result is against our expectation. Empirical studies have demonstrated that shocks have a positive impact on rivalry initiation and termination (Goertz and Diehl 1995; Diehl and Goertz 2000). However, our results indicate that authoritarian states might be engaged in rivalry without any abrupt changings in the region. Another reason might be that our selection of rival dyads, coding, and the limited number of observations have provided us with a different result. Also, it may be the case that shocks do not have any impact on the persistence of rivalry, rather affects initiation and termination.

Moreover, ethnic kin is highly significant across the models in Table 1. This finding supports the perspective that ethnic kin tends to increase the likelihood of rivalry in the Middle East. Meanwhile, alliances are designed to address long term and even short-term security concerns, but it is easier to arrange a partnership with other countries, and therefore, it may have quick impacts. Our study in Table 1 suggests that alliances with great powers are negatively significant concerning military capability and joint autocracy, but it has no effect in another case. These controlled variables show mixed results.

Table 2 explains what factors cause wars in the region. The statistical result in Table 2 (Model 1) shows that arms races are significant with respect to war. In other words, arms races increase the likelihood of war among states. This is consistent with other studies (Gibler et al. 2005; Senese and Vasquez 2008; Carter 2015; Rider et al. 2011). This finding supports hypothesis 2. Previous studies have empirically found a link between arms races and the onset of war among the great powers (Lemke and Reed 2001; Rider et al. 2011). This study does not consider the arms races and onset of war but carefully maintains that in the presence of arms races war outbreak is more likely than in the absence of arms races between states. As great powers have higher ambitions, interests, and their way of engagement with each other is different from those of countries in the Middle East. Our study supports that mutual military buildup and conflict escalation are likely among the states.

Model 2 in Table 2 shows that joint autocracy has no relations with the outbreak of interstate war. One explanation for this insignificant relationship may be that autocratic states care more about their regime durability than any other issues. Moreover, it may be that autocratic states fear that if a war erupts, then it might go beyond their control and may localize war, which could endanger their position at home. This result fails to support hypothesis 4. Dalacoura (2006) has suggested similar results. Table 2 shows that contiguity and war are closely associated. This result indicates that weak states can project their power easily when rivalries are at proximate distance, and it might be impossible for them to project their power away from home because of their unsophisticated military structure. Thus, this finding supports our hypothesis 6. The result is also consistent with past studies (Vasquez 2013; Senese 2005; Colaresi et al. 2008).

We have controlled two variables to make results clear. However, the variable “regional shock” is omitted because this variable is linked to rivalry initiation or termination. Ethnicity is positively significant and seems to play an essential role when it comes to the war in the region, which is consistent with past studies (Kadercan 2018). Moreover, the variable alliance with big power is negatively insignificant.

If we look at the estimates of Models in Table 1 and Table 2 simultaneously, then it becomes clear that states behave in line with the great powers within the region despite being weak. Models in Table 1 and Table 2 report that, the arms race has a positive relationship with both rivalry and war. It might be argued that arms races create fear, increase uncertainty, and intensify interstate rivalries. At this juncture, the growing rivalry paves the way for the opportunist states to be engaged in military confrontations. It also makes it clear that states build their military in the absence and in the presence of contentious issues because the level of distrust among states always remains above the trust. These military buildups increase the threat perception in the neighborhood, instigating mutual race. Furthermore, it might be the case that arms races are independent of rivalry process, but arms races accelerate the rivalry pace while making sure the rivalry persistence. Moreover, in the presence of arms and salient issues, states escalate their conflicting relationship. Thus, a careful estimation divulges that arms races, rivalry, and war may be sequential.

It is believed that democracies do not fight both internally and externally because of fewer grievances, and democracies usually resolve their disputes through dialogue. Therefore, they are less prone to rivalry and conflict. However, the Middle East is a region where the democracy is absent. All the selected countries are being ruled by dictators in one way or another. Contrary to democracies, autocracies are more likely to be rivals and engage in conflicts. Our study reveals that joint autocracy and rivalry have a positive relationship, but it has no significant relationship with the war. This suggests that a high level of authoritarianism and war in the Middle East may not be associated with each other. Authoritarian regimes could be rivals, but may not necessarily be engaged in wars. Also, contiguity highly increases the probability of rivalry and provide an opportunity for states to project their limited hard power in their proximity.

It may be the case that states which are contiguous and are ruled by authoritarians might feel fear of localization of conflict escalation, and it may also provide a chance to the marginalized section of society to rise against the government, endangering their position at home.


The Middle East has garnered a great deal of attention in international politics and policy domain, owing to its destabilization. One approach may be to emphasize that dyads in the Middle East offer an ideal testing field to evaluate theories of state behaviors. Similarly, the dyadic observations in this region are relatively homogenous compared with studies of other regions or those that include all countries in the world. This is what the region provides us a good picture to study the behavior of regional states.

Since 1960 the region has witnessed six interstate wars, which have devastated regional structure. The Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) was the bloodiest and longest war in the history of Middle East; Six-Day war was brief but devastating, and the Gulf War (1990-91) invited multi-nation coalition which inflicted a devastating blow on Iraq. However, much progress has been made in sorting out the relationship between certain important factors and rivalry persistence and war among great powers or a combination of states. This study helps us understand the behavior of weak states and, also the role of three escalating factors in making rivalry and instigating war among minor states.

Previous empirical studies indicate that states build their military to meet the growing immediate and future security challenges (Stinnett and Diehl 2001; Yesilyurt and Elhorst 2017). Minor states feel fear in an uncertain environment and develop their military to improve their security. At this juncture, mutual arm race starts, providing a window of opportunity for rivalry development and persistence. Furthermore, when military capability develops, states deliberately manipulate the issues at stake, make them more salient. It also makes sense that proximate states might have a lot of disagreements and grievances, which, in turn, affect interstate relations because autocratic states sometimes instigate the disputes with neighboring states as a strategy to retain power. Our study suggests that autocratic contiguous states are more likely to be rivals than other states. However, the study provides an account of how arms races and proximate autocratic increase the persistence of rivalry.

The analysis also demonstrates that the presence of arms race exacerbates interstate rivalry and pushes states closer to war. This may happen because arms races make the proximate disputes more salient and contentious, thereby increasing the probability of war. Moreover, rivalries rooted in competition over challenging issues provoke states to increase their military prowess and contiguity provides an opportunity for them to escalate their conflictual relations. This is more likely to happen in the case of states in the Middle East. However, our study reveals that joint autocracy and war connection is insignificant, suggesting that autocratic states care more about their position at home. This may be the case that fighting a war may bring war back home because, in controlled societies, people are marginalized and frustrated with the system. Any miscalculation abroad may localize war at home.

This article does not attempt to find a direct link between rivalry and war onset instead attempts to look at the role of the same variables in making states rival and cause war. This study suggests that military buildups play a major role in making issues more contentious, thereby affecting interstate relationship and making the direct confrontation more likely. Meanwhile, contiguity increases disagreements and provide an opportunity for states to project their limited hard power. However, the high level of authoritarianism and war in the Middle East may not be associated with each other. Authoritarian regimes could be rivals but may not necessarily engage in wars. Autocrats are wary of shaking their fragile states, using armed rivalry only as an outlet of inner tensions. Some of the authoritarian rivalries turn to warfare while most of them in the region do not follow the same line, indicating the reluctance of authoritarian regimes to war.


1For detail lists see: Paul F. Diehl and Gary Goertz, “War and Peace”, (2000); also see the rivalry list provided by Thompson “Identifying Rivals and Rivalries” (2001), and Colaresi, Rasler and Thompson, “Strategic Rivalries” (2008).

2The states are Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait, Israel, and Turkey.

3The first war of our study is Six-Day war followed by War of Attrition 1969-1970; October war 1973; Lebanon war 1982; Iran-Iraq war 1980-1988; and Gulf war 1991. These interstate wars are COW-recognized wars. Six interstate wars data are extracted from interstate war data, version 4.0, Corelates of War (COW).

4Marshall, Gurr and Jaggars 2016, standardized authority scores (i.e., - 66 = interruption, - 77 = interregnum, and - 88 = transition). These standardized scores are being dealt according the rules provided in the Polity IV project.

5Goertz and Diehl (1995) and Diehl and Goertz (2000) have emphasized the importance of shocks in termination or initiation of rivalry. However, our aim is to understand the persistence of rivalry, not initiation or termination of relevant rivalry. So, regional shock is included as a control variable.

Table. 1. Results of Logistic Regression Model, Interstate rivalry in the Middle East Models for Rivalry
Table. 2. Results of Logistic Regression Model, Interstate war in the Middle East Models for Rivalry
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