SOAS University of London

Department of Politics and International Studies

International Relations of the Middle East

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Full Year

This year long, interdisciplinary course provides an in-depth introduction to the international politics of West Asia and, to a lesser extent, North Africa or what is commonly known as the “Middle East”. It links the study of international relations as a subject matter with the empirical understanding of transnational ideologies (e.g. pan-Arabism, pan-Islamism), inter-state conflict (e.g. the Persian Gulf Wars, the conflict in Israel/Palestine etc.), foreign policy of major regional states (Iran, Turkey, Iraq etc.) and “superpower” politics. The course thus investigates both the factors involved in the making of international politics in the area, and the way we can analyse them. To that end, it introduces students to the discourse of “Orientalism”, theories of international relations such as (neo)realism and social constructivism and other approaches in IR. Beyond this conceptual focus, themes such as Islam, gender, democracy, civil society, globalisation, fundamentalism, terrorism, revolution etc. are also covered.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of this course a student should be able to 

  •  analyse the state formation process in West Asia and North Africa;
  • explore meta-theoretical frameworks for the analysis of regional conflicts and foreign policies
  • examine the role of political cultures and transnational loyalties, especially in its pan-Arab and Islamic manifestations;
  • evaluate historical dynamics, including colonialism and its impact on the politics in- and discourse about the region.
  • investigate the preconditions for regional integration and communitarian interaction between states;
  • compare regional politics and global processes with a particular emphasis on the impact of superpower politics on the region.
  • analyse the historical, strategic and international dynamics of the major inter-state wars amongst regional actors including the three Persian Gulf wars and the conflict in Israel/Palestine.
  • critically evaluate the impact of globalisation on economic and political liberalisation.
  • appreciate the transnational dynamics of civil societies in the region including NGOs, women’s rights movements and human rights organisations.


  • 1 hour lecture per week 1 hour tutorial per week

Scope and syllabus

1 – What is the ‘Middle East’?
How can we define a ‘region’? What is the geo-political background of the term ‘Middle-East’? What are some of the controversies in the field?

2 – Methods, Concepts, Theories of International Relations
What are some of the theoretical tools to analyse the region? What is the difference between them? How does theory affect analysis?

3 – Post-Colonial approaches
How has colonialism affected the Middle East and what have some of the responses to colonialism been? What are some of the strategies of resistance to Eurocentric theories? How has the region been represented in European and American scholarship and media?

4 – State versus Nation
What is the appropriate unit of analysis when studying the Middle East? Evaluate critiques of the state as the basic unit of analysis. How can we define the state, what are the delimitations of the ‘nation’?

5 - From the Cold War to the New World Order
What were the determinants of international politics in the region during the Cold War and thereafter? In what ways did superpower politics set the stage for future alliances and conflicts, institutionalise particular relations, and affect changes? Since the end of the Cold War, what international trends, ideologies and strategies have been on the ascendant?  

6 – Power, Resistance, Violence
In what ways do wars affect the formation of states and politics between them?

7 – Gender Politics
How does understanding gender advance our understanding of international and regional politics?  

8 – Civil Society: National and Transnational
What are the basic questions/problems development policies and scholarship hope to address?  Evaluate the effectiveness and persuasiveness of the critiques of development policy/literature.

9 – Transnational Loyalties
The emergence of pan-Arab nationalism and political Islam as transnational ideational systems. What are the intellectual precepts of Arab and Islamic nationalisms? How do they interact with the state formation process? How does political Islam reveal itself? What was its relationship with the state? How “Islamic” is political Islam?  

10 – The International Politics of Islam
What is the relationship between Islam and Democracy? Are Islamic tenets reconcilable with democratic norms? How pluralistic are Islamically legitimated political movements? What is the past, present and future of Islam in different political contexts? Is Islam a threat to Western democracies?

11 – Globalisation: Cultural and Economic
In what ways and to what extent have forces of economic globalization affected Middle East politics and economies? In what ways and to what extent have forces of cultural globalization affected Middle East cultures, societies and identities? What is the role of petroleum in interstate relations and international policies of states in and beyond the region?

12 – War and Peace in Israel/Palestine
What are the causes and consequences of the various Arab-Israeli wars? What are the outstanding issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? How have various efforts at diplomacy between Israel, Palestinians, and various Arab states fared?

13 – War and Peace in the Persian Gulf
What are the sources of conflict and cooperation in the Gulf? What were the causes and consequences of the three Gulf wars? What are the determinants of inter-Arab politics?

14 – The (international) politics of Iran
What are the grand strategic preferences of the Iranian state? What is the foreign policy process in the country? How do domestic changes affect the foreign affairs of the state?

15 – The (international) politics of Turkey
What is the relationship between Turkey and the rest of Western Asia? What are the main determinants of the domestic politics in the country?

16 – Regional politics after the Arab revolts I
What are the changes in the regional system after the successful revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya?

17 – Regional Politics after the Arab revolts II
How do the unsuccessful revolts in Bahrain and Syria impact the regional system?

18 – Course Project: Towards a theory and practice of regional peace
Students will be encouraged to write a policy paper on one of the conflicts in the region.

19 – Course summary I: Empirical conclusions

20 – Course summary I: Empirical conclusions

Method of assessment

Assessment is 50% unseen examination and two pieces of coursework accounting for 25% each.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules