The emerging struggle for the Persian Gulf, Part II

Brian M Downing

(Part I)

Common ground

Political and economic forces will push the Gulf states closer to Russia and China. The Gulf states and Russia want to keep oil prices as high as possible, and indeed they have already collaborated on production limits that have helped raise world prices off their lows of three years ago. China, on the other hand, wants low energy costs but it may benefit from reliable, long-term contracts and complementary imports from Gulf states, probably in arms.

All three regions prefer authoritarian government, whether based on hereditary monarchy, a national security elite, or a privileged political party. All three see democracy as a foreign belief system that allows uninformed people to have a say in complicated matters of state. This results in injudicious policies, moral decay, protracted debate and paralysis, and unqualified leadership. Democracies gravitate toward one another and cooperate on key matters. Authoritarian governments do the same. Erdogan, for example, is moving Turkey closer to Putin’s Russia.

The US will press, albeit intermittently, Gulf rulers to open up their political systems and end reprehensible human-rights practices. The present US administration has no such concern but a successor might, perhaps in as little as three years. No leader in Moscow or Beijing will press Gulf rulers on the matter. China boasts of its policy of nonintervention in the affairs of other countries and points to past weakness and exploitation brought on by imperial powers.

Aleppo, where Russian airpower leveled whole districts, has ambivalence for the Sunni powers. The actions propped up a hated Shia government and killed thousands of Sunni civilians, but it also demonstrated Russia’s determination to aid an ally facing insurrection. The Sunni princes may face similar problems in coming years and have doubts about their own security forces. Syria could not rely on much of its population to fight the rebels. Nor could Bahrain. The same may hold for Saudi Arabia or the Emirates.

The Arab Spring is over but another may come. Rebellions requiring foreign help to suppress may break out in Riyadh, Dubai, or Kuwait City, perhaps in all three.. No American president would be eager to take part. The Pentagon too would be loth to intervene.

Russia would have no qualms. It would welcome the opportunity to demonstrate resolve and to displace its chief rival in the world. China is far from having the military reach to suppress distant uprisings but it would supply arms and surveillance methods, and give diplomatic cover. Uprisings in the Gulf will be seen as no different than the one in Tiananmen Square – rabbles threatening legitimate orders.

The way forward

Russia, not long ago despised for its atheism and war in Afghanistan, has mor recently improved its standing in the Middle East. It has secured military and logistical bases in the Crimea and used them to deploy air assets into Syria. It built an airfield at Latakia to complement a decades-old naval base down the coast at Tartus. Russia pummeled rebel forces and helped Syrian forces retake significant parts of the north and east.

Putin has all but detached Turkey from NATO which gives him exceptional influence with both Erdogan and Assad. This gives Russia considerable say in peace negotiations, which of course would involve the Sunni princes behind many rebel groups. Discussions will touch on more than Syria.

Russia has occasionally given Syrian Kurds air support and will now try to reintegrate them into Syria. The Kurds will be given autonomy from Damascus and protection from Ankara. To the east, Iraqi Kurds have failed in their independence bid as neither the US nor Turkey supported it. Russia can press for their continued autonomy and secure export routes through both Turkey and Iran. This will be in exchange for the Kurds’s renunciation of support for kinfolk in Turkey and Iran.

Russia and China, though more the latter, can be helpful in the economic modernization program that the young Saudi leader has embarked upon. Western expertise is based on private ownership and competition. The House of Saud doesn’t want a capitalist elite as a political rival. It wants to control industry, as do Xi and Putin. No bourgeois, no democracy. China may be forthcoming in providing capital should Saudi coffers prove insufficient for the project. Shares in Aramco would be welcome in Chinese portfolios.

As the Sunni-Shia conflict wears on, probably inconclusively, Russia and China may step in, diplomatically and opportunistically. China will see the conflict as endangering oil supplies which come from both Saudi Arabia and Iran – a situation which gives Beijing influence in both countries. Russia, as chief arms supplier to Iran and a burgeoning one to Saudi Arabia, is also positioned.

Russia and China can point out that protracted conflict will benefit neither side. The United States, they will contend, maneuvered both sides into war in order to sell weaponry, weaken and subordinate the region, and drive up the price of its oil which is starting to flow into world markets. Better to let Russian and Chinese diplomacy settle or at least contain the conflict and become the moderating force the United States once was in the Twin Pillars era. American flags may one day come down on military bases up and down the Gulf.

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The US remains committed to managing world affairs and maintaining military bases around the globe to perform the mission. It will try to thwart the rise of Chinese and Russian influence in the Gulf, but this will be difficult. Limiting calls for political reform and improved human rights policies might be one way, discomforting though it may be. But even the Obama administration eased up in this regard.

The US can also point out the advantages of avoiding reliance on Russia and China, thereby maintaining influence in Washington, albeit at reduced levels. The Saudis may readily see the advantages of using great-power rivalry to extract concessions from all three powers and being overly reliant on none of them.

Whatever the outcome in coming years, the Gulf might be far less important several decades from now. Oil is being replaced by other energy sources and may go the way of coal. The Gulf might also be far more unstable and unmanageable. Population pressures and elite ineptitude may bring more Arab Springs and repression that’s even more murderous though not necessarily more successful. Whoever dominates the Gulf in midcentury may be saddled with the task of holding up faltering monarchal and theocratic elites and fighting interminable uprisings, insurgencies, and terrorist groups. The struggle is on, though its unclear what victory will bring.

Copyright 2018 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.

2 thoughts on “The emerging struggle for the Persian Gulf, Part II

  1. Re. “All three see democracy as a foreign belief system that allows uninformed people to have a say in complicated matters of state. This results in injudicious policies, moral decay, protracted debate and paralysis, and unqualified leadership.”
    Brian, an excellent, nuanced assessment. You really cut through it all. Thank you very much.

    Your above comment had me chuckling. You are right on the money and I don’t see the situation improving with such a dumbed down and lethargic population here in the US and the tightly wrapped tentacles of the government and corporations. It’s been happening for almost two centuries so no surprise.

  2. Democracy isn’t attractive to authoritarian rulers and they can find plenty of reasons against it in existing democracies. Publics only want democracy when their rulers screw up.

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