Brian M Downing
The United States has naval and air force bases across the Gulf – in Kuwait, the Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and to an uncertain extent, Saudi Arabia. Iran was once a staunch US ally but after the Shah’s downfall and failure at rapprochement, it’s now firmly aligned with Russia and sells more and more oil to China. The US nevertheless dominates the Gulf, at least for now.
The US faces determined challenges in the world. Russia is reasserting itself, China is rising, and both want to expand their influence in the world and decrease that of the US. The Persian Gulf is an important part of their strategy. The struggle is underway.
American oil companies have been keenly interested in the region since the 1930s when oil was found in eastern Saudi Arabia. But it wasn’t until after World War Two that geopolitical significance came. The allied effort had relied greatly on American oil and victory brought concern that US reserves had been overused. Better to use foreign oil for European needs, which would climb as postwar recovery proceeded. The US developed Saudi fields and those of smaller principalities, the British did the same in Iran. Prosperity in Europe and America caused tremendous demand for oil. By the late 1950s, the US had become an importer.
The OPEC price hikes from the 1973 Yom Kippur War caused balance of payments troubles for the US. The Nixon administration responded by convincing Gulf rulers, Sunni and Shia alke, that they should beef up their defenses by purchasing American arms. Other oil importers joined in on the arms bonanza.
The US pursued a “Twin Pillars” policy that maintained good relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Oil flowed out, weapons flowed in. Sectarian conflict was contained. No power presently has sufficient influence in both Riyadh and Tehran to contain sectarian hostilities. Russia and China may change this.
First, sectarian tensions have worsened. The tranquility of the Twin Pillars era has given way to conflict, proxy wars, and a lengthy bloodletting between Iran and Iraq – the latter backed by other Sunni powers. Most of the Iran-Iraq War was a costly stalemate. Peace came after eight years, with little land changing hands.
The US invasion of Iraq brought new sectarian problems. The Sunnis were ejected from army and state; oppressed and vengeful Shias took their place. Iranian influence increased, though it never became dominant, as often claimed. Baghdad has steered a neutral course between Washington and Tehran, awarding oil leases and military contracts to the former, much to the latter’s dismay. And when ISIL routed Iraqi forces three years ago, Baghdad asked for American troops, not Iranian ones.
Protest in Syria became a multi-sided civil war and an effort by Sunni powers to drive out the Shia government. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni monarchies poured in money; Iran sent money, troops, and Shia recruits. Another costly stalemate ensued.
A new ruler in Riyadh is leading the region into another large-scale war, albeit with foreign prodding. Partnered with the US and Israel, Saudi Arabia wants to roll back Iranian-Shia power in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and probably Iraq.
Second, American oil production has suddenly and unexpectedly soared. Fracking and horizontal drilling have increased global supplies and lowered US demand for oil, especially from the Persian Gulf. Canada and Mexico are closer and more reliable. The US no longer uses much oil flowing out of the Gulf, but it certainly wants its military hardware to keep flowing in.
OPEC cut prices in the hopes of reducing American production. The result has been budget cuts and fiscal woes in Gulf countries but American producers have reduced costs and resumed production. Rig counts are up again and the US may be energy independent within fifteen years. It’s already exporting some natural gas and oil.
Third, Russia has reemerged as a major actor in world affairs. It’s no longer the destitute and rudderless country it was in the decade after the fall of the Soviet Union. President Putin is acting aggressively in the world, especially in the Middle East. Seizure of the Crimea in 2013 provided him a logistical hub for actions in the Levant.
Fourth, China is a rising power – economically, politically, and militarily. It sees itself coming out of centuries of turmoil and weakness, much of which was brought on by Western powers. It wants to reestablish itself as the center of the world and in that pursuit it is gaining control of commodity production in Asia and Africa, and building a powerful navy to match that of the United States.
China, a voracious consumer of energy resources, is developing oil fields in Xinjiang province and pumping in Kazakhstan crude. It nonetheless relies a great deal on Saudi and Iranian hydrocarbons, and will continue to do so for many years. China knows American bases, ships, and fighters range up and down the Gulf and can easily choke off oil bound for Chinese cities.
Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing
Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.