Persian Gulf Futures
Shaky monarchies, strategic pressures, and threats to energy and shipping
The failure to date by oil- and gas-rich Persian Gulf states to respond seriously to the demands for governance reforms sweeping the Middle East and North Africa poses, alongside potential hostilities with Iran, the most immediate threat to the security of the region’s energy production and international shipping. It raises the question of when – rather than if – revolts that have already driven the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen from office, pushed Syria into civil war, and are simmering in Jordan and Algeria, will disrupt domestic politics in the Gulf and, consequently, oil and gas production in the region. With US and other policy-makers focussed on terrorist threats and region-wide trends, rather than intra-state, domestic threats – not least because they realize that they have little influence in shaping the Gulf states’ internal policies – we now face the spectre of the international community being caught off guard and unprepared for significant turmoil and far-reaching change in the region.
The lack of focus on potential change has allowed Gulf leaders to perpetuate the myth that Arab monarchies are more immune to popular uprisings than their republican counterparts. The region’s oil- and gas-rich unelected, neo-patriarchal royals pride themselves on having so far largely contained widespread discontent bubbling at the surface with a combination of financial handouts, artificial job creation – particularly in the security sector – and social investment. The exceptions are the two monarchies – Jordan and Morocco – that have not been blessed with energy riches. They have instead resorted to elections and a modicum of reform (on which the jury is still out) in a bid to avert mass protests.
It is, however, only a question of time before politically unreformed monarchies like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Oman, Jordan and even Kuwait, in charge of increasingly liberalized economies, move into the front lines of the region’s convoluted transition from autocracy to more open societies and political systems. The indications thus far are that, with the exception of Jordan, these monarchies will resist rather than embrace change. In doing so, they are likely to fuel rather than calm tensions, and put current levels of oil and gas production at risk. That risk is amplified by the rulers’ encouragement of sectarian tensions through the identification of their Shiite populations with predominantly Shiite Iran in a bid to rally people against a perceived common enemy, and to ensure support from an international community worried about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
To be sure, the situations in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Oman, Jordan and Kuwait differ substantially. Yet, individually and taken together, they feed the worst fear of monarchs and their Western backers – to wit, that a successful popular revolt in one monarchy will open the door to serious challenges to autocratic royal rule in the rest of the region’s mostly energy-rich monarchies. Underlying the differing circumstances is a deeply felt sense of social, economic and political disenfranchisement that Gulf citizens share with those in the larger Arab world who have succeeded in ridding themselves of the yoke of autocratic rule. This discontent cannot be exclusively addressed by increased employment in the police and security forces, handouts and social investment. Warns Saudi journalist Abdul Rahman Al Rashed: “[O]il-producing countries have greater responsibilities, for they have no excuse when one of their citizens has no job, or when a citizen is sick but cannot get treatment, or when a citizen lacks insurance or does not feel safe in his home. It is the government’s duty to provide citizens with these services. When officials are upset [about] being criticized, they forget that it is their job to serve the people and the budget is how a government expresses its plans to serve the people.”
The facts on the ground contradict the notion that Middle Eastern and North African revolts threaten republics more than monarchies. Indeed, that notion would be true only if monarchs were able to lever the one real asset that they have: a remaining degree of legitimacy that comes from truly addressing real, practical concerns, rather than hiding behind security forces and repressing political expression. This is in contrast to the republican leaders in the region, who have so far been deposed in part because they lost all legitimacy, and protesters were unwilling to give them a last chance.
At this point, the writing is on the wall. Bahrain is a revolt calling for regime change in waiting. The country has arguably passed the point of no return in the protesters’ call for regime change. Saudi Arabia is headed for a similar fate in oil-rich, largely Shiite Eastern Province, the country’s most vital economic region. (Social media analysis shows that deep-seated criticism of the Saudi royal family goes far beyond the Shiite minority.) Kuwait is hanging in the balance, with the position of the emir increasingly dependent on whether he can credibly demonstrate his sincerity in wanting to root out corruption. Jordan, for its part, has said that it acknowledges the need for substantive reform, but has yet to say what concrete reforms will be put into place.
Riyadh has sought to fend off popular protest with a US$130 billion programme to shore up public services (including housing) and create employment – particularly in the security sector. In a commentary in Arab News, columnist Khaled al-Dakheel warned that economic reform and addressing social needs should “be followed by other steps of reform dealing with political issues, such as elections, representation, the separation of powers, activation of the Allegiance Commission, freedom of expression, the independence of the judiciary, and equality before the law. The necessity of political and constitutional reform [stems from] the fact that the positive impact in people’s economic reforms, especially financial, is usually temporary because of the variable nature of their economic and social circumstances.” Al-Dakheel laid out a programme for political and constitutional reform in a country that identifies the Koran as its constitution. The programme called for overhaul of the country’s bloated bureaucracy; longevity and tenure for long-serving officials – many of whom are members of the royal family – to be based on merit; expansion of the powers of the country’s toothless Shoura or Advisory Council in order to gradually transform it into an elected legislature; tackling issues of unemployment, foreign workers’ rights and corruption; and diversification of the Saudi national economy.
The cautionary warnings notwithstanding, in December of last year, Saudi authorities arrested prominent novelist Turki al-Hamad for criticizing Islamists and calling for reform in a series of tweets. Al-Hamad charged that the Islamists “have distracted us with nonsense [such] that we forgot the important issues.” He effectively called for reform of Islam, tweeting: “Our Prophet has come to rectify the faith of Abraham, and now is a time when we need someone to rectify the faith of Mohammed.”
Activist and website designer Raif Badawi was arrested in June 2012. He is on trial for violating Islamic values, breaking Sharia law, blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols on the Internet. Badawi allegedly insulted Islam by allowing debate on his website – Free Saudi Liberals – about the difference between popular and political Islam.
Similarly, the UAE ushered in 2013 with an announcement that it had arrested 10 people on suspicion of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In late December of last year, the UAE said that it had arrested a group of Emiratis and Saudis on charges of belonging to a terrorist group. And in July of last year, Abu Dhabi said that it was questioning an unspecified number of people for having formed “a group aimed at damaging the security of the state[,]” “rejecting the constitution and the founding principles of power in the Emirates[,]” and having links with foreign organizations.
Even Qatar, widely viewed as the most progressive state in the region, is cracking down. In November 2011, a Qatari poet, Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, was sentenced to life in prison in what legal and human rights activists said was a “grossly unfair trial that flagrantly violates the right to free expression” on charges of “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime.” Al-Ajami’s crime appeared to be a poem that he wrote, as well as his earlier recitation of poems that included passages disparaging senior members of Qatar’s ruling family. The poem was entitled “Tunisian Jasmine.” It celebrated the overthrow of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
A draft media law approved by the Qatari cabinet would prohibit publishing or broadcasting information that would “throw relations between the state and the Arab and friendly states into confusion” or “abuse the regime or offend the ruling family or cause serious harm to the national or higher interests of the state.” Violators would face stiff financial penalties of up to one million Qatari riyals (US$275,000).
Of course, the Gulf states’ unwillingness to separate domestic Shiite concerns from the interests of Iran is a misreading of a reality in which Shiites view themselves, first and foremost, as nationals of the states of which they are citizens. That fact was more than evident in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, in which Iraqi Shiites were the ones that fought Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran. Shiites occupy a strategic geography in the Middle East, where the region’s energy and water resources are concentrated. Addressing their justified grievances – including an end to job and religious discrimination – is a key pillar in ensuring energy security and the safety of international shipping. The same is true for Jordan, where preoccupation with security and counter-terrorism – including the discovery of a major terrorist plot in the fall of 2012 – threatens to undermine the equally important emphasis on reform.
Leading up to the January parliamentary elections, Jordan saw protests in a number of cities demanding that King Abdullah step down. The King responded with a series of discussion papers urging citizens to be politically more involved in the electoral process, and also to judge candidates on their merits, rather than on their tribal and family affiliations. However, the general refusal by the Gulf states and Jordan to address head-on genuine popular concerns, and to treat Shiites as full citizens rather than as a fifth wheel, highlights the underlying strategic dilemma of the US and the international community: the concurrent need to ensure energy security and safe shipping in the short- and medium-term based on the status quo in the Gulf, the need to be prepared for likely disruptions of the flow of oil and gas as a result of domestic and regional developments, and the need to anticipate longer-term significant political change in the region. This basic strategic dilemma makes the linkage between Iran’s dispute with the West and Israel over its nuclear programme and domestic stability in the Persian Gulf even more intractable than it already is. And the dilemma is sharpened for most Gulf states by uncertainty about how committed the US will be to ensuring regional security as it becomes ever less dependent, in the coming years, on Gulf energy and emerges as the world’s largest oil exporter.
Gulf rulers perceive the Iranian dynamic – the nuclear question, and also Iran’s growing strategic footprint in the region – primarily as a threat to domestic stability, and only secondarily as a threat to energy production and international shipping. These threats have the potential of becoming self-fulfilling as a result of the rulers’ refusal to accept certain realities on the ground. Gulf opposition to perceived Iranian nuclear ambitions is, for instance, tempered by concerns about the possible domestic fallout of military action against Tehran. In response, Gulf states have responded to Shiite unrest with force, and to Iran’s nuclear posture by opting for international and regional security arrangements, as well as through massive arms purchases. Both approaches have thus far aggravated rather than alleviated the threats.
The ability of the US to act as the region’s defensive umbrella by emphasizing defence and deterrence could further be affected by an eruption of popular discontent in the Gulf. Gulf leaders are proving increasingly reluctant to reinforce perceptions that they are out of touch with public sentiment, and therefore dependent on the US in order to maintain their grip on power. This is all the more true given that the US will have to balance its interests in the Gulf with those in the wider Middle East and the Muslim world – especially because unrest in Saudi Arabia, Islam’s heartland, will resonate more than events in other Middle Eastern countries and across the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world. The most obvious way of compensating for political vulnerabilities would be the expansion of the Gulf’s security umbrella to include other interested parties, such as China and India. However, these parties are, in terms of military capabilities and focus, years away from being able to contribute significantly.
For its part, Iran is not oblivious to opportunities created by domestic Gulf policies. Tehran has sought to pressurize Gulf states into adopting a neutral stance in respect of its dispute with the West and Israel, as well as a more conciliatory attitude to their Shiite populations. Iran’s war games in April 2010 highlighted the threat that the country could pose to international shipping in case of an Israeli and/or US military attempt to take out Iranian nuclear facilities. During the games in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) swarmed, seized and destroyed hypothetical enemy vessels. Moreover, Iran has made clear that, in case of real conflict, it could target tankers with coastal anti-ship Silkworm missiles, patrol boats and short-range aircraft launched from nearby bases, or fast in-shore attack craft packed with explosives.
The assumption that Iranian verbal threats to shipping in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz as a response to a possible Israeli and/or US attack may be little more than bluster because of Tehran’s interest in keeping sea lanes open for its own exports is questionable. US and European sanctions have already reduced Iranian oil exports by about two thirds, and could force further cutbacks. Iran’s vested interest in keeping shipping lanes open has therefore been considerably diminished. By the same token, the effect of an Iranian attempt to shut down shipping lanes is to some extent counterbalanced by the building of new pipelines and the conversion and expansion of existing ones in the Gulf that circumvent the Strait of Hormuz. More serious, however, may be the likelihood of Iranian retaliation against Gulf oil and gas facilities using both its conventional military and cyber capabilities.
The risk of military conflict with Iran (and with it the risk to international shipping, as well as the fear of Tehran exploiting Gulf discontent) turns on the fact that efforts to achieve a negotiated solution to the nuclear issue are undercut by deep-seated prejudices on both sides. Iran is convinced that the strategic goal of US Iranian policy is regime change. It views past offers to reward Iran for agreeing to comply with international demands as efforts to portray it as weak, and as having caved to pressure, rather than as an incentive to reduce its international isolation. For its part, the US believes that Iran is not serious about negotiations, and also that it has Iran increasingly cornered. Washington further assumes that the US can succeed with a big stick and limited carrot policy, and that Iran will ultimately only succumb if it has no choice.
Washington’s analysis could prove correct. The question is whether the Americans’ purposes could be achieved in a more equitable way – that is, one that would allow Iran to save face, help put US-Iranian relations on a more healthy long-term footing, avert the potential fallout of relying primarily on a stick, reduce the cost to ordinary Iranians, and remove at an early stage the threat to energy security and international shipping. The proof will be in the pudding if and when the threat of a US (and/or Israeli) attack becomes imminent. At that very last one-minute-to-twelve moment, Iran is likely to concede.
Governed by middle-aged revolutionaries with vested interests that have been accumulated in the more than three decades since the overthrow of the Shah, Iranian leaders effectively maintain, at best, a revolutionary façade with their provocative hostility toward Israel and their anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric. Traditionally a nation of traders, Iranian leaders, when faced with the real and imminent threat of losing their grip on power or accepting humiliation, will most likely opt for the latter.
Whether the American stick will truly remove the threat to Gulf energy production and international shipping is debatable. Military action would deepen anti-Western resentment among Iran’s elite. Popular sentiment would be split between those who share that resentment and those who see opportunity to exploit the regime’s weakness. This could make potential change messier and ultimately more dangerous. Alternatively, an international effort to resolve the nuclear issue such that Iran is allowed to save face – rather than one aimed at weakening Tehran – could avert the prospect of Iran turning into a cornered cat that jumps in unexpected ways. This could potentially ease and usher in a process of change.
Resolving the nuclear dispute with Iran and addressing popular concerns in the Gulf are two sides of the same coin. Evolutionary transition in the Gulf is feasible, provided rulers address political, and not only economic and social concerns. A first step would be a more inclusive approach by Gulf rulers toward all segments of the population, and a liberalization rather than a crackdown on freedom of expression. Simultaneously, the US would have to adopt a policy that convinces Iran with deeds that it is serious about achieving a negotiated solution – rather than regime change.
Of course, changing policies among Gulf states and in Washington will not be easy. The alternative, however, is less palatable. It would involve a festering of popular discontent in the Gulf to the point that the region’s rulers lose all legitimacy, and are confronted with demands for their demise. Popular agitation for change would intensify, as would violence fuelled by Iranian exploitation of opportunities. Forceful governmental repression would soon follow, and the cycle would resume, with escalating consequences. The bitter pill that Gulf rulers and Western leaders would have to swallow now in order to avert escalation is likely to be a lot less painful than the consequences of failing to grab the bull by its horns.
James M. Dorsey is a former New York Times foreign correspondent and author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.