Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and Great Power Competition
Remarks to the Gulf International Forum
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
Washington, DC, 17 October 2019
There is a rhythm in the affairs of men, a pattern shaped by enduring interests. It echoes through the ages. So, it is no surprise that empires and external great powers have regularly found themselves drawn to the Red Sea, Arabian Peninsula, and Persian Gulf region. Afro-Asia is where Africa, Asia, and Europe come together. It is where modern man first exited Africa to populate the world. It is the mother of all strategic choke points. From time to time, the region has dominated markets for specific commodities in great demand, like perfumes, pearls, and petroleum. And, for fifteen centuries, its holy cities have been destinations for pilgrimage by the world’s Muslims.
Rome looked to the region for frankincense and myrrh, which were essential to its funeral practices. Early in the 7th century Afro-Asia was united under Islam. Zealous Muslim warriors then exploded outward, creating an Arabic-speaking empire that stretched from Central Asia across North Africa to the Iberian Peninsula. This Arabian awakening led to the creation of a vastly more populous Islamic domain, which in 637 embraced Iran and, in time, much of sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia.
Those Arabs who emigrated with the conquest prospered. Those who remained in the Afro-Asian region did not. It is true that, for a millennium, the silk and spice trade between Europe and Asia was monopolized by Arabs and Persians, acting independently or, for a century or so, under the Mongols. Nevertheless, the great centers of Arab and Islamic civilization were not in its Afro-Asian epicenter.
In 1414, China reached out directly to the region, as the first of three great Chinese fleets arrived to buy pearls, fine horses, and precious gems in Hormuz. In 1507, seeking to flank the Ottoman Empire and monopolize the Indian Ocean spice trade, the Portuguese took Hormuz and Muscat. Soon thereafter, they garrisoned Bahrain and other trading centers in the Gulf. In response, the Ottomans pushed south into Al Hasa, now Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. A decade of fierce skirmishing between Turks and Portuguese followed.
Regional powers reacted to the increasing foreign presence in their midst. Safavid Iran took Bahrain from Portugal in 1602. As the 17th century proceeded, Oman expelled the Portuguese from its territory and built an empire spanning the Indian Ocean. But the power of Iran continued to grow, as did that of the first Saudi state, established near Riyadh in 1744. As the Saudis expanded from the Arabian interior, the Persians captured Muscat, throwing the Omani Empire into disarray. By the early 19th century, Britain had recognized Iran as the sovereign authority in the Persian Gulf and the Ottomans had invaded Arabia from Egypt to overthrow the Saudis and contain Wahhabi fanaticism.
As this happened, the British were swallowing up India. British shipping in the Indian Ocean expanded apace. The raids of the so-called “pirate kingdoms” on the southern coast of the Gulf – present-day Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates – threatened British India’s strategic lines of communication. Efforts to suppress this piracy came to naught.
In 1819, a massive British-commanded Indian force crushed the formidable Qasimi Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah with help from its Qatari and Omani rivals. The “Raj” had effectively dominated the Gulf. The British rulers of India were able to compel all the Gulf Arab statelets to renounce slavery and to fly “white pierced red flags,” signifying their abandonment of piracy. But these statelets continued to fight with each other, disrupting the pearl trade and again appearing to menace freedom of navigation in their region. In 1835, Britain intervened to broker an uneasy truce between the ten warring emirates of the Gulf, which were thereafter known as the “Trucial States.” The Indian rupee became the regional currency.
Britain found oil in Persia in 1908, then more in Iraq (1927) and Bahrain (1932). The discovery of these geological riches set off a race between British and American companies to secure oil concessions. Britain used its imperial privileges to keep the Americans out of Iran, Iraq, and the “Trucial States.” But, in 1938, in Saudi Arabia, an American consortium found and began to develop what turned out to be the world’s largest oil field. In that same year, the British discovered huge deposits of oil in Kuwait. In the 1950s and ‘60s, oil began to be exported from Qatar, the UAE, and Oman. After World War II, the countries of Afro-Asia began an abrupt transformation from poverty to wealth and technological modernity.
In 1947, India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain. This greatly reduced London’s interest in securing passage through Afro-Asia to points East and South. The British remained intensely interested in the region’s oil – as their CIA-assisted overthrow of Iranian democracy in 1953 demonstrated – but they divested themselves of the burden of protecting access to the Gulf’s energy supplies. This task was taken up by the United States as part of its Cold War assumption of responsibility for the security and prosperity of the so-called “free world” beyond the Soviet sphere. The United States itself was not then dependent on energy from the Gulf, but its commitment to protect access to the region’s oil and gas reserves symbolized its assertion of global primacy.
In 1961, Britain granted Kuwait independence and withdrew its protection of it. In 1968, the British announced their intention to do the same for the rest of the Gulf. Oman declared its independence in 1970. Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates followed in 1971. In 1979, Persia threw off Western tutelage, conducted a referendum, and asserted a revolutionary Shi`ite identity as the Islamic Republic of Iran. Two years later, the Gulf Arab states – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – responded by forming the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
This brief history serves to underscore the importance of both the strategic position and natural resources of the independent kingdoms, emirates, and republics of the Afro-Asian region. Both the powers on their periphery and those farther away are interested in their affairs. The Gulf Arab states, once poor and backward, are now wealthy and able to use their wealth to entice external partners to back them in their quarrels with each other and with Iran.
In many respects, today’s contentions among the states of the Afro-Asian region and their foreign protectors echo those of the past. To get from Asia to Europe without circumnavigating Africa, one must pass through Afro-Asia. One-fifth of the world’s trade traverses the region. It produces about half of the world’s oil and gas and contains about two-thirds of its reserves of hydrocarbons. The members of the GCC have become significant capital exporters. As tensions among them have risen, they have come to account for two-fifths of global arms purchases. One fourth of the world’s people revere the Saudi cities of Makkah and Medina as the birthplace of their faith.
The world’s great powers remain vitally interested in assured passage through the Afro-Asian region as well as in access to its oil, gas, and capital. They also seek to moderate its export of religious fervor and funds that sanctify and support violence against other peoples, faiths, and cultures. The evolving United States relationship with the region reflects shifting balances between these interests.
At the outset, in the eyes of the Gulf Arabs, Americans’ main virtues were that we weren’t the British, didn’t have an empire, and didn’t want anything except easy access to their oil and gas. The apparent disinterest of the United States in changing the region’s political and social systems resembled that of China today and facilitated U.S. replacement of Britain as the dominant power in the region. Initially, the United States left the control of strategic lines of communication to Britain. Americans knew and cared little about Islam or its local manifestations. But, as Britain retreated, the United States stepped in to replace it as the guarantor and regulator of the region’s stability.
In the late 1940s, the United States began to acquire a global sphere of military influence that included the Gulf. In 1980, Washington declared that “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” The American focus on outside threats to the Gulf was almost immediately displaced by concerns about the region’s internal dynamics. The United States feared that the Iran-Iraq War might enable whoever won to dominate the region and use its monopoly to dictate global energy prices.
As the Cold War ended and the 1990s began, Iraq’s attempt to annex Kuwait led to the formation of a UN-authorized, US-led, ad hoc military coalition of NATO and Islamic countries that was able to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. But neither the United States nor its coalition members had a war-termination strategy. They failed to follow up diplomatically either to reconcile Iraq to its defeat or to build a viable post-war Gulf security architecture. So, despite the successful liberation of Kuwait, the first Gulf war did not end. Instead, it sputtered on. The United States kept its armed forces in the Gulf.
In 1993, America abruptly abandoned its longstanding policy of offshore balancing in the Gulf. This approach had relied on Iraq and the Gulf Arab states to join in balancing and containing Iran, while Iran balanced Iraq. Offshore balancing had avoided any requirement for the United States to maintain a military presence ashore in the Gulf. In its place, Washington embarked on a policy of so-called “dual containment” aimed at unilaterally containing both Iran and Iraq.
“Dual containment” significantly raised the cost to the United States of assuring stability in the Gulf. It required American troops to be stationed there, to the extent possible at the expense of the countries that hosted them. The Gulf Arab countries accepted “dual containment” without enthusiasm. Iran saw it as a threat. But Israel welcomed it. After all, as its authors intended, it established a permanent US-manned defense perimeter and tripwire between Israel and its two most capable regional opponents – Iran and Iraq.
The substantial ongoing U.S. military presence in the Gulf irritated ordinary people in the region, especially in Saudi Arabia, where it was resented by both religious zealots and the welfare recipients whose benefits were reduced to pay for it. This irritation, joined with Arab backlash against U.S. support for Israel’s ongoing oppression and dispossession of Palestinian Arabs, helped stimulate the traumatic terrorist attacks on the United States of “9/11.” Increasingly thereafter, force protection requirements drove U.S. policies and relationships in the Gulf.
After 9/11, Islamophobia quickly became as American as the Ku Klux Klan. No longer facing a great power rival for influence in Afro-Asia, the United States began to pursue an expanding list of exclusively American agendas there, including ill-considered calls for democratization and other efforts to impose contemporary Western values on Gulf Arab societies. In 2001 and 2003, the Gulf became the staging area for poorly planned American invasions, occupations, and pacification efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The main beneficiary of these regime change operations was Iran. The main losers from them, other than Afghans and Iraqis, were Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E.
America’s regime-change wars eliminated vital checks on Iran’s influence in the region. This facilitated the Islamic Republic’s consolidation of a sphere of influence in the Fertile Crescent and the Levant. In time, Iranian client states and non-state actors came to encircle both Israel and the Arab Gulf states. Meanwhile, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen remained mired in seemingly endless civil strife abetted by American intervention.
As long as Iraq remains aligned with Iran and thus unavailable as a security partner, the Gulf Arabs have no choice but to seek the backing of a powerful external power to balance Iran. The only country now capable of projecting enough force to the Gulf to deter and defeat Iran is the United States. But the Gulf countries have come to see Americans as demanding but unreliable patrons. Like others in West Asia, North Africa, and elsewhere, they are hedging against over-reliance on Washington.
Since the U.S. launch of its “Global War on Terror” in 2001, the institutionalization of Islamophobia in America, and repeated demonstrations of American fickleness as successive governments in Egypt were overthrown, the United States has carried a lot of awkward political baggage in the Middle East. The Trump administration’s Muslim visa bans and something-for-nothing appeasement of Israel have added to this awkwardness. America’s erratic treatment of Iraq’s and Syria’s Kurds has reinforced the judgment of Arab rulers that it is unwise to rely on the United States.
Meanwhile, the importance of transit through Afro-Asia to the global economy and its great powers, including the United States, has, if anything, increased. The recent expansion of the Suez Canal and its inclusion as an East-West waypoint in China’s Belt and Road Initiative are leading to large increases in goods traffic through the region. The Persian Gulf has become a major air travel corridor. Dubai International Airport is now the world’s busiest. The Bāb al-Mandab Strait is the fourth busiest waterway in the world. Despite China’s sponsorship of land routes connecting Europe and Asia and the opening of the Arctic to shipping, this trend seems certain to continue.
The Strait of Hormuz now ranks as the world’s most important energy chokepoint. About 80 percent of Saudi and all of Bahraini, Iraqi, and Qatari oil exports pass through the Strait. So do Qatar’s exports of natural gas – about 30 percent of global supplies. Iran’s oil ports and terminals are all within the Gulf. Its oil and gas exports transit the Strait, as do about 70 percent of the UAE’s. In 2018, the daily oil flow through the Strait of Hormuz averaged 21 million barrels per day, or the equivalent of about 21 percent of global consumption.
Of course, the United States is once again a net exporter of hydrocarbons and no longer itself dependent on imports from the Gulf. But the world market relies on Gulf energy exports to avoid or mitigate volatility in global energy supplies and prices. Were these exports throttled, energy prices could surge to levels that would cripple global prosperity, including that of the United States.
While protecting the free flow of oil and gas from the Gulf and Red Sea may no longer be a direct interest of the United States, it remains an important indirect U.S. interest and an essential element in America’s claim to be “the indispensable nation.” If the U.S. armed forces ceased to protect the global economy from interruptions of access to Afro-Asian energy supplies, the world would no longer defer to Washington as the manager of the global or regional political-economic orders.
Frankly, this outcome would suit many Americans just fine. War weariness and a sense that foreigners are free riding on American willingness to take sole responsibility for sustaining global stability – if you will, “empire fatigue” – contributed significantly to the election of President Trump. Many in the United States would welcome a debate about whether our country should continue to bear the burdens of global leadership. Some, like Mr. Trump, would answer no, it should not.
Any doubt about the reality of empire fatigue should have been erased by Washington’s limp-wristed response to this June’s apparent Iranian attacks on ships from Norway and Japan, both U.S. allies. In the 1980s, when tankers in the Gulf were threatened, the U.S. Navy unilaterally intervened to protect the world’s oil supply from disruption. But the response of the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the June 2019 attacks was to point out that “the circumstances are very different now than they were in the 1980s. . . . Ensuring freedom of navigation and the movement of oil in and out of the Gulf . . . [is no longer] a U.S.-only responsibility,” he said, and called on other “nations that benefit from that movement of oil through the Persian Gulf” to share the burden of protecting shipping from Iranian attack.
A subsequent failed effort by Secretary of State Pompeo to organize a US-led naval coalition for this purpose exposed how disinclined America’s allies and security partners are to support the current U.S. confrontation with Iran. It also underscored the diminished ability of the United States to convene global backing for its politico-military initiatives. One of the few great powers to suggest it might participate in protecting tanker traffic in the Gulf was China. Given Washington’s present animus against that country, there was no audible response from it to this offer, if indeed it was an offer.
American geopolitical priorities are visibly changing. The end point of their evolution remains unclear, but it is obvious that the stability of the Persian Gulf is no longer at the center of U.S. foreign policy concerns. There are 45,000 American troops and legions of DOD contractors deployed in and around the Persian Gulf. But their declared mission is no longer primarily to ensure oil security or the protection of friendly Arab states. Increasingly, their presence is justified as menacing putative Iranian nuclear programs, defending Israel against Iran, combatting Islamist terrorism, or denying influence to China and Russia (with which all the states of the region, whether Arab or Persian-aligned, nevertheless have burgeoning relationships).
Thanks largely to coordinated Israeli, Saudi, and Emirati pressure on the United States to aggressively oppose Iran and its proxies, America’s confrontation with Iran has escalated. Its policies of “maximum pressure” on Iran now resemble those that panicked Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941. The United States has no dialogue with Iran that might influence its decisions. And America’s muddled response to the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry was followed by its abrupt abandonment of Syria’s Kurds.
Not surprisingly, the Gulf Arabs states are stepping up their efforts to reduce reliance on American diplomacy and military power projection to defend them, increasing purchases of weaponry, diversifying their international economic and arms procurement relationships, building their own military industries, and exploring rapprochement with Iraq. They have largely ceased to defer to the United States in formulating their policies and managing their relations with other great powers like China, India, and Russia. They see themselves as increasingly on their own.
The recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais illustrate the vulnerability of Gulf Arab societies to foreign or terrorist attack. Their prosperity depends on the production and export of oil and gas. Their viability as societies depends on their ability to desalinate water. Imagine the consequences if the attacks had focused on desal rather than oil facilities!
Security anxieties in the Arab Gulf countries have been aggravated by divisions over Iran and future models of governance of Sunni Muslim societies. These have split the GCC and suspended most politico-military and economic policy coordination among its members. The UAE and Saudi Arabia do not accept that Qatar’s geographical situation dictates that it maintain a stable relationship with Iran. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh consider the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist movement. Doha is aligned with Ankara in support of the Brotherhood and other democratic Islamist movements, like Hamas. To Iran’s delight, the Emiratis and Saudis remain engaged in a largely ineffectual blockade of Qatar.
Meanwhile, the United States is making no apparent effort to help the GCC reunite, though it has continued inanely to call for some sort of “Arab NATO” built on it. Meanwhile, Iran has proposed a regionwide pact to combat terrorism, advance cybersecurity, protect energy production and exports, and assure freedom of navigation. Neither of these proposals has any real prospect of success. But risk reduction is now an imperative.
The best that might be hoped for is that all sides might agree to a temporary stand-down from violent confrontation, as was the case with the British-brokered truce of 1835. This would leave the issues driving their rivalries to be worked out later and give diplomacy a chance to enable an acceptable non-violent status quo to emerge in the Persian Gulf as it did in the mid-19th century. Something like this seems to be the core of the Iranian proposal. It different from but is compatible with the Gulf security architecture advocated by China and Russia. Despite its suspect origins, it deserves exploration. It would buy time for a reduction in tensions of benefit to all in the region, while reducing risks to the global economy.
But GCC disunity, the U.S. inability to communicate convincingly with Iran, and American diplomacy-free foreign policy together ensure that any such détente in the Gulf will be made in Moscow or Beijing, with possible assistance from Islamabad or a European capital or two, rather than crafted locally or by the United States. The GCC was once described by an American diplomat as “a large shell inhabited by a small and indecisive snail.” It is now vivisected and on life support. If the Gulf Arabs wish to control their own destiny, they would do well to restore the GCC to health. This is the prerequisite for collective defense, diplomacy supporting common interests with the world’s established and emerging great powers, intelligent management of relations with Iran, and influence in the broader Arab and Islamic worlds. All these things, I submit, are very much in the interest of the United States as well as the Gulf Arabs.
If the GCC can get its act together, there is a fair chance that it can continue to enlist American support. It if cannot, the Gulf Arabs must reconcile themselves to the new reality of Iranian primacy in their region. America is now a war-weary and reluctant global hegemon, riven by constitutional crises, and intent on reducing its overseas commitments. Without unity, the ability of the Gulf Arabs to court support for their security from outside their region is gravely impaired. In the famous words of Benjamin Franklin, the Gulf Arabs “will all hang together or hang separately.”
On that cheery note, I wish this conference every success!