Dark Signs in the Persian Gulf

by Graham E. Fuller  

The political and economic assault against Qatar by a Saudi-led coalition so far shows no signs of succeeding in bending Qatar to its will. More seriously, it raises ominous signals for the future of geopolitics in the Arabian Peninsula. That future may have less to do with Iran and more to do with a Saudi Arabia that is demonstrating a newfound aggressive drive towards hegemony in the Arabian Peninsula.

Saudi Arabia is now the de facto leader of a counter-revolutionary—one might even say counter-evolutionary—bloc dedicated to quashing any replay of the kind of tumultuous regime change we witnessed in the Arab Spring of 2011. In those events four autocratic regimes bit the dust—Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen—and Syria nearly so. Autocrats of course place top priority on retaining power. 

More disturbing however, is that Saudi Arabia seems engaged in a long-term process of expanding its authority, and eventually its sovereign control across the Arabian Peninsula in fulfillment of a kind of Wahhabi “Manifest Destiny.”  Saudi Arabia is the chief promoter of narrow and intolerant Wahhabi-Salafi interpretations of Islam from the UK to Indonesia to South Africa. Riyadh does not support terrorism as such, but bankrolls the schools and mosques from which ideological justification for terrorism almost invariably proceeds. Saudi territorial expansion of dominance in the Peninsula will only increase that problem.

Gulf Arab politics have traditionally been characterized by conservative social mores and cautious autocratic rule that abhors any form of political radicalism—at least at home. Saudi Arabia, as the overwhelmingly largest Gulf state, has long sought to dominate the fringe of small states and shaykhdoms that ring the Peninsula’s coasts—from Oman, in the south, to the federation of small shaykhdoms now under the federal umbrella of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the north, the island of Bahrain just a few miles off the Saudi coast, and the very small peninsula of independent Qatar attached to the Saudi mainland. Kuwait at the top of the Gulf, too, in principle belongs to this grouping within the Gulf Cooperation Council, but has fairly successfully managed to maintain its distance from Saudi pressures. Impoverished Yemen, with its feisty political culture on the southwest corner of the Peninsula, has for centuries fiercely struggled to fight off Saudi domination and is still doing so.

But circumstances on the Peninsula have recently been changing. The stately choreographed succession politics of Saudi Arabia were recently overturned by the emergence of a brash young prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), who jumped the generational queue and will shortly succeed his sickly father as King. MbS has drawn attention to himself even before becoming King in proclaiming a new vision that aspires to wean the Saudi economy off total oil dependency, and to modestly relax a some features of strict religious rules of public behavior and a new work ethic. These are laudable goals, but not likely to be achieved. More notably he has adopted an untraditionally aggressive new foreign policy in which the Kingdom is abandoning quiet backdoor diplomacy for highly assertive, militarily-oriented, and ill-considered foreign policy adventurism. Small Gulf states take note.

MbS gave an initial early indication of this new game in launching a war in 2015 against neighboring Yemen on the southwest corner of the Peninsula to rid it of what the Kingdom claims is dangerous Iranian influence. The reality is of course that Saudi Arabia has always hated the independent character of Yemen that has maintained some semblance of elected parliaments—an institution that Saudi Arabia detests. Yemen is currently under brutal military assault from the Kingdom and the UAE, and with logistical support from the US resulting in widespread casualties, destruction and disease.

The Gulf Cooperation Council was established under Saudi leadership in 1981 to establish common policies on regional and oil issues in the Arabian Peninsula. These states have armed themselves heavily through ever-eager American, British, and sometimes French and even Russian arms manufacturers. Up to now however, all these bristling new armaments have served primarily as a financial earnests and down-payments to ensure that western states would come to their rescue in the event of a crisis.

But what kind of crisis? External? From Israel? Russia? Iran? Or does it also entail protection against internal uprisings? This touchy question has, diplomatically, been left unspecified. But the Kingdom, since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, has particularly singled out Iran (and Shi’íte Islam) as ostensibly the greatest threat to Gulf security. Yet Iran has never invaded GCC territory. The sole exception are three tiny Gulf islands which the Shah of Iran successfully commandeered away from what is now the UAE nearly half a century ago. And Iran lends some indirect modest military support today against Saudi-supported forces in Yemen.

In terms of military hardware the Saudi coalition overwhelmingly dominates the Gulf against Iran with their spanking new western military equipment. But Iran possesses a powerful cultural identity and backbone that gives it the confidence, boldness and the will to politically challenge the Gulf monarchies, particularly through Iran’s long-term call for greater democratic governance in the Gulf, for an end to monarchy, and for fair treatment of the largely oppressed Shi’íte minorities in the Gulf states. (Shí’ites are an oppressed majority under the harsh rulers of Bahrain.)

Riyadh may trumpet Iran and Shi’ism as the chief threats in the Gulf. But smaller Gulf rulers now have increasing reason now to fear the Kingdom’s growing assertiveness under its new young Saudi king-to-be. This is a key reason why most Gulf states have always shown some reluctance to sign on to Saudi schemes for centralized military control in the Gulf, fearing erosion of their own sovereignty in the face of Saudi power.

The current crisis over Qatar now raises stakes in an unprecedented fashion for small Gulf monarchies. The joint Saudi-UAE insulting ultimatum to Qatar in May essentially called for Qatar to abandon all pretenses of sovereignty and to bow to the Saudi diktat regarding Qatar’s foreign policy. It has already visited devastating sanctions upon Qatar to try to force it to fully align its more independent policies with the Saudis and the UAE—or else suffer major consequences. In this new display of Saudi aggressiveness and vengefulness against Qatar, we gain flashes of insight into what the shape of things to come in Peninsula geopolitics might be.

Significantly, Kuwait, a partial democracy and the farthest Gulf state away from Riyadh, is the best established Gulf state to maintain its independence from Riyadh. It has long-time (nervous) ties with Iran and Iraq, both of whom have a stake in a Kuwait not controlled by the other. Indeed, Kuwait must constantly maintain a delicate balancing act among all three states—Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia—to maintain its sovereignty. Significantly Kuwait has not signed on to the cabal against Qatar.

Bahrain, a island a few miles off the Saudi coast is already under total de facto Saudi control as Saudi troops there prop up the beleaguered minority Sunni regime.

Oman, a larger state on the southern coast of the Peninsula, is culturally and historically quite distinct from the other desert monarchies of the Peninsula; they represent a seafaring Arab people with longtime historical ties even with the Indonesian archipelago and east African coast. Oman over the years has discreetly but firmly worked to establish a clear distance from Riyadh’s hegemonic ambitions.

Yemen is the most culturally distinct Arab state of all on the Peninsula—a vigorous but dirt-poor mountainous nation with no oil but with a vivid sense of  its own distinct identity and ancient historical culture that creates a bulwark against all outside domination. Yemen will almost surely never be swallowed up in any future mega-state on the Peninsula. Saudi Arabian longstanding efforts to tame Yemen’s independence over half a century have come to naught. Even today Saudi Arabia’s brutal war against Yemen—this time in the name of deterring the “Iranian threat”—is in the process of destroying the country and its people through starvation and disease. But MbS’s policies represent a major political failure.

Most of the emirates along the Peninsula’s coast have been deferential to past Saudi preferences and have generally gone along with many Saudi-sponsored GCC policies. But the smaller Gulf states also know their history: Wahhabi bedouin forces have history of expansionism north up along the Gulf right up to southern Iraq in 1801, and later,  after World War I, expansion up to the Red Sea, up to today’s Jordan and Kuwait. One has to be careful in declaiming historical determinism, but it is not too far off the mark to speak of an inherent Saudi-Wahhabi Manifest Destiny—both territorial and ideological—to control the entire peninsula. It has the wealth and the weaponry to do so. It has only lacked the imperial drive under its cautious monarchs in past decades, but that is changing under the new King-to-be.

Only two things stand between Saudi expansionism and annexation of the small Gulf shaykhdoms. One would be the massive violation of international law before the court of world opinion that such annexation would represent. The other would be the interests of other large states in the region—Iraq, Iran and Turkey to block Saudi expansionism. Egypt too would normally strongly oppose such Saudi moves, but is now so desperately poor and incompetently run that it might stand aloof from such a Saudi territorial grab if offered cash on the barrel.

Most Gulf shaykhdoms are also demographically vulnerable. They have tiny native populations—some 85% or so of its residents are expats, either western professionals or Arab and South Asian clerks and laborers.

Just contemplate the name of a future post-monarchical state in today’s Saudi Arabia? Sa’ud is the name of the ruling family—the only country in the world to be named after its ruler. Will it eventually become the Islamic Republic of Arabia? What kind of policies will such a Wahhabi-driven state, armed and newly ambitious, extend across the Peninsula?

These thoughts are admittedly speculative. But events have been moving quickly in the region. Moves towards Saudi de facto hegemonic control of the Peninsula have become a whole lot more real. They make such speculations far more credible than other Gulf monarchs might ever want to admit.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle). Republished with permission from grahamefuller.com. Photo: Muhammad bin Salman

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  1. “Riyadh does not support terrorism as such”??? Hard to believe. Remember the Saudi Intelligence chief being replaced few days after 9/11 (a scapegoat?)

  2. Iran should never trust any of the Arab states or groups including Saudi, Qatar, Dubai, UAE, Iraq, Hezbollah, Syria, Hamas, Kuwait, Jordan and so on! They all are holding a dagger in hand awaiting an opportunity to stab Iran in the back! Arabs should never be trusted for one second because they have been tested for thousands of years and and have failed many times!

  3. In my opinion, the author fails to factor in much of the nouvelle line of thinking being generated by the new generation of Arabian peninsula thinkers. The author’s suggestion that the newly found Saudi desire for “empire,” is driven by a “Wahhabi-Manifest Destiny” might be misplaced analysis based on an increasingly stale paradigm which casts too much emphasis on the old Saud-Wahabbi alliance, forged to enable the birth of the Kingdom, back in the early 1900’s (1924-1932).

    While the Wahhabis (salafis) still hold important sway, their forward looking political clout might be waining — in the minds — of the new generation of political leaders who seem to be looking beyond that old alliance: recognizing its impractical rigidity, not to mention the militancy it has espoused or its obstacles against the reforms they have in mind . . . Instead, any such ambition for “empire,” as the author suggests, is most likely based on a newly forming sense of nationalism, rooted in their perception of the need to survive, principally by countering what they view as Tehran’s desire for Empire. Following the author’s terminology, their view is that only an empire can hold the line against another.

    Right or wrong, MBS’s generation is attempting to develop a form of Saudi Nationalism, a “Pan-Arabism light,” viewing the peninsula as the center of a so-called Arab empire . . .

    The big question is the race against time v.s. tradition v.s. depleting resources.
    Hence: TicToc! ;)

  4. Thoughtful reply by the author to my comment on his article:

    “Hi Hunter,

    Insightful comments and I don’t disagree. But it will be impossible to separate neo-arab nationalism from Islam since the Holy Places define the country.

    It may be a “stale paradigm” of the Saudis vs the clerics, but fact is, SA is still exporting Wahhabism in terms of theological thought to all the rest of the Muslim world and overseas communities and nowhere does it represent enlightened modern thinking, even if the Kingdom (maybe) lightens up a bit. That is their ace-in-the hole, the center-piece of SA foreign policy, and I can’t see how that will change either, they have too much invested in it. And it is very baleful — looking even as far away as Indonesia.

    whether we call it empire or not, small shaykhdoms need to be very worried.

    Iran can never be an empire as such, altho it can and does increase its influence, especially via unhappy and often maltreated Shia populations in the gulf. That is the biggest element of insecurity to most gulf regimes, and the biggest gift SA can give to Iran—which has never really expanded territorially in centuries, esp not in the gulf. But Iran is beating them diplomatically and is far more adroit.

    But will be interesting to watch if MbS can introduce some true elements of reforms at least to keep his own people happy.

    Feel free to paste this into the lobelog discussion if you’d like, or not.

    best, graham”

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