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Contested Multilateralism: The United Nations and the Middle East


In the Middle East, multilateralism has often been associated with intervention and creating order (or disorder), rather than being a positive force for integrating the region in an equitable manner. Many of the regional struggles and their attendant multilateral implications that have taken place have played out in international institutions, and particularly in the United Nations, through its resolutions, agencies and emissaries. This paper explores how conflicts in the MENA region are dealt with within the context of this (contested) multilateralism, focusing on the UN as its main institutional embodiment and as a site of competing claims of legitimacy. The paper uses concepts from critical realism and constructivism, and claims that the Middle East is a central site in which both the world order and many of the UN institutions have been produced or contested. The paper first sets out the context for multilateralism and world order, and explores how this has played out in the Middle East through the UN during the main phases of contemporary international order, from the Cold War to the immediate post-Cold War period, to the war on terror and beyond. It concludes by briefly evaluating the UN during the Arab uprisings, arguing that the organization’s ambivalence reflects an evolving and contested multilateralism.

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