A Marathon Runner’s Guide to Middle Eastern Politics, part 1

This year marks the 20th anniversary of running my first marathon*. It was the London Marathon in April 1997. Over the same period of time, longer in fact, I have also been an observer and analyst of Middle Eastern politics. Reflecting on two obsessions that have been important in my professional and personal life, what have I learnt from marathon running that can be applied to my analysis and observation of Middle Eastern politics?

I have now completed 23 marathons, including five run in the Middle East. From all of these, I have learnt the importance of stamina, a structured approach, long term thinking, integrating a wide range of variables, training, support of others, listening to advice, being adaptable and above all, keep going when things get tough.

The more I reflect, marathon running has more in common with Middle East politics than at first glance. The precise origins of the marathon are lost in Greek myth but the most widely accepted legend is that a messenger, Pheidippides, ran the approximately 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Marathon to Athens to announce victory over the invading Persians. Another myth is that he actually ran the much longer distance from Athens to Sparta to ask for help against the invading Persians. The modern marathon has its origins in the founding of the modern Olympic Games when Pierre de Coubertin demanded an event that captured public imagination, reflected the strength of modern Western civilisation and was classical in origin.

Today, concern about “invading Persians” or at least the spread of Iran’s influence in the region and concern about attempts to impose Western political models on the region are both strong undercurrents in Middle Eastern politics. Since classical times, Persia or Iran, has been a regional power and played an important role in the region, sometimes for good, sometimes not. The start of oil production gave Iran renewed regional and global importance in the twentieth century even before it embarked on a campaign to spread its political agenda following the 1979 revolution. Iran, of course, was not the only state in the region to emerge as an oil producer of global importance last century. Saudi Arabia also emerged as a regional power. Their competition for regional influence reflects a centuries long antagonism between the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia. The Iran/Saudi rivalry has take on an extra edge in recent years as both become more confident in their regional position. Antipathy towards Shia Islam forms a key part of the ideology of groups like the Taliban and Daesh.

One of the longest standing Western impositions on the Middle East is the organisation of the region into nation states, created in the eye (rarely perfectly) of European mandate holders and colonisers. Over the course of recent decades, various movements have attempted without success to reverse this imposition by appealing to a shared Arab or Islamic heritage. The Pan-Arabists under Nasser, the Baaths, the Muslim Brotherhood and more recently Daesh have this thread (in very different colours) running through the fabric of their all-enveloping vision for the region. Conversely the events of the Arab Spring of 2011 gave hope to those who believed that some of the states in the region where ready to turn to Western forms of political organisation and discourse and were starting on the path towards pluralistic democracies. For the moment, those hopes appear to be misplaced. Tunisia may prove to be an exception. As it stands, past performance appears to be a good indication of future performance. Much like my experience in running marathons.

Finally, what of the future as we embark on the Trump presidency? It feels like standing on the starting line of a marathon. Like at the start of any marathon, there is nervous waiting and anxious anticipation but also a sense of excitement. It is going to be an adventure. We think we know what could happen over the next four years. We think we know where the easy straights and difficult hills are located. But, there are also so many variables over which we do not have control. We can plan and stick to it; call on our training but be prepared to adapt if circumstances change. The best advice I was ever given about running a marathon was: continuous forward motion or just keep going.

This is the first of what I plan to be a frequent blog on Middle East political topics though the lens of a marathon runner.

I am an independent consultant specialising in navigating businesses and other organisations through the politics of the Middle East.

*By a marathon, I mean a running race along a course that is 42.195 kilometres (26.2 miles) in length.

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