Ideational and material forces in threat perception Saudi and Syrian choices in Middle East wars
Darwich, May Ayman Hassan
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How do states perceive threats? Why are material forces sometimes more prominent in shaping threat perception, whereas ideational ones are key in other instances? This study aims to move beyond the task of determining whether material or ideational factors offer a more plausible explanation by arguing that threat perception is a function of the interplay between material factors and state identity, the influence of which can run both ways. Based on ‘analytical eclecticism’, I develop a two-layered conception of security as both physical and ontological, in which the interaction of ideational and material forces can be analysed. Ontological security is intimately connected with identity; its pursuit, therefore, requires distinctiveness and differentiation from the ‘Other’ as well as a coherent and consistent identity narrative at the domestic level. Physical security, on the other hand, involves the identification of threats that constitute a danger to the survival of the state. While ontological and physical security spheres have distinct dynamics and processes, they constitute two interrelated layers. Accordingly, I argue that states can suffer from ontological insecurity while their physical security remains intact, and vice versa. In some instances, physical security and its corresponding material forces condition identity narratives while in other instances the causal arrow points in the other direction. To illustrate these processes, I present a ‘structured, focused’ comparison of Syrian and Saudi threat perceptions during three major wars in the region: the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the 2006 Lebanon War, and the 2009 Gaza War. While providing novel insights for explaining the dynamics of threat perception in the Middle East, this study contributes to the broader IR literature by proposing a conceptual framework that links the literature on Self/Other relations, ontological security, and realism in IR theory. This study thus demonstrates the potential utility of bringing IR theory and the Middle East as an area study into closer dialogue.