In the decades after the end of foreign domination, much of the greater Middle East witnessed numerous ethnic, religious and territorial conflicts. However, the Arab Gulf region has remained during this period an oasis of relative stability. Yes, this region too has seen its share of violence, with the 1980-90 Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait, Desert Storm and constant turmoil in Yemen as the most notable examples.
Reacting to the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran War and in an effort to maintain a “Pax Arabia” at least within their narrow region, the six Arab Gulf states formed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981. In the first decades following the establishment of the GCC, the Gulf States concentrated on maintaining domestic and regional stability and building their economies. When they did extend power abroad they generally used financial, social, religious and diplomatic tools. All this changed with the so-called “Arab Spring” which saw the Gulf States, largely under a new generation of leadership, inserting themselves into Libya, Syria, and Lebanon, while also banding together to protect one of their own during Bahrain’s iteration of the Pan-Arab protest movement.
The shared GCC worldview began to fray and then fracture in 2011, ironically because wealthy, intellectually dynamic and sophisticated cities, such as Doha and Dubai, became the meeting centers of intellectual ferment for dissidents repressed in Egypt, Syria, and the other countries that eventually went up in smoke.
Different GCC countries found themselves on opposite sides of the revolts sweeping the Arab World that they had, in part, helped to foment. These differences came to a head with the Gulf Crisis that began in June of 2017. It has developed into a shocking rift that has severely damaged any sense of common Arab Gulf security and economic solidarity. An earlier 2014 diplomatic row between Saudi Arabia and Qatar preceded the current blockade. The current row appears so deep that even if the GCC is reunited, Gulf economic and military unity will never be the same. At the same time as the intra-GCC crisis boils over, the greater Middle East confronts turbulence it has not encountered in almost a century. Following the US withdrawal, a newly-empowered actor, ISIS, defeated the Iraqi Army, took control of nearly a third of that country and advanced to within miles of Baghdad. Desperate, the Iraqi Government turned for help to both the principal regional rivals, the United States and Iran. Simultaneously, Yemen’s Arab Spring morphed into an international conflict, motivating Saudi Arabia and the UAE to intervene directly to counter what they saw as a major Iranian threat. American President Trump introduced a further potentially destabilizing factor into the region by his decision withdraw unilaterally from the multilateral agreement to limit Iranian nuclear programs.
To say that the past year has been complicated for the nations in and around the Arabian Peninsula would be a grand understatement. Years of internal disagreement within the Gulf Cooperation Council finally boiled over, as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and The United Arab Emirates, severed all ties with Qatar and instituted a land, sea and air blockade of that nation, (A move Egypt enthusiastically endorsed). This “Gulf Crisis” certainly has disrupted what up until this point was viewed as the most stable bloc of nations within the greater Middle East. With no reconciliation in sight, actors on all sides of the schism are now adjusting to a new regional status quo.
While this diplomatic crisis has perhaps been the most discussed regional development, it is simply an added complexity to a region already undergoing a great transformation.
Historically the GCC States relied on the wealth from natural resources that made possible the rapid modernization that gave the region its luster. Changing economic realities have spurred the realization that diversification represents the only safeguard available to the rulers of these nations to protect their ailing economies.
As a hedge against declining oil and gas revenues, GCC governments have tried to steer their way towards “knowledge economies,” to develop a capable citizenry and reduce a reliance on foreign innovation. Of course, such economic change must be accompanied by the social change that frees dynamism and encourages innovation by their peoples. To move forward, leaders must be willing to relax restrictions on free expression, women’s roles and other facets of modernization. However, tensions arise in that what may be a welcome development for many youth is simultaneously an uncomfortable change for those who fear the old ways may be slipping away.
Certainly, the Gulf does not exist in isolation and its internal conflicts cannot be viewed independent of the wider world. Tensions released by the Arab Spring led to an internal conflict that has empowered Iran and led to tragic proxy conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain as Tehran’s traditional rivals in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi compete for supremacy. This is not to speak of the near-disintegration of Iraq, which only three decades ago had the strength to launch a full-scale invasion of Gulf territory.
Meanwhile, the growing and newly assertive Asian economies of China and India have noticed the chaos facing Gulf monarchs and have looked towards extending their influence by taking advantage of these regional shifts and engaging the Gulf states as new partners. The decision by the Obama administration to break with traditional policies and reach out to Iran did much to fray GCC confidence in the US relationship. By negotiating a diplomatic end to the Iranian nuclear program through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action the US appeared to end Iran’s isolation. President Trump delighted some GCC regimes by pulling out of the JCPOA. By reinstituting Iranian sanctions he allowed some regional leaders to once again consolidate power internally by elevating Iran as the regional boogeyman. Now, the Europeans, Russia, the UN, and China are trying to reassure Iran of the agreement’s viability and prevent a new nuclear threat, but their success will depend on the US’s willingness, (or lack thereof), to add secondary and tertiary sanctions to its trade war against Europe.
What were once small British protectorates that, after independence remained dependent on Western support to maintain sovereignty, have now become global players in their own right. The region’s path forward is certainly fraught with challenges, both internal and external. However, the future of the Gulf is certainly one that goes beyond mere “Crisis.” Can peace be reached in Yemen and can Iraq rebuild its economy and society? How might Saudi Arabia respond to Iran’s nuclear relapsing? Could China or Russia replace the USA’s position as regional kingmaker? Does Turkey have a role to play? How will all these countries adjust to the fact that the US will replace them as the principal energy exporter to the world? While many of these questions may not have satisfactory answers, Gulf International Forum’s assembled panelists and experts will certainly tackle these uncertainties, giving a possible glimpse of what lies ahead for the Gulf.