Visions of Persian Gulf security

March 24, 2014

By Mehran Kamrava, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar

* This memo was prepared for the “Visions of Gulf Security” workshop, March 9, 2014.

Security in the Persian Gulf has been an issue of perennial concern to the states of the region as well as to the United States, Europe, and, more recently, East Asia. As patterns of energy exports from the Persian Gulf shift increasingly in the direction of East Asia, China, Japan, South Korea, and India they also find themselves paying more attention to the security of the region.

In broad terms, security challenges to the Persian Gulf may be divided into three, interrelated categories. These categories include more conventional security challenges that revolve around regional and international balance of power dynamics; more recent security challenges that arise out of greater levels of globalization and economic development; and security challenges whose roots tend to lie in the domestic and regional political economies.

As a strategic region with its share of cross-border tensions and international competition, the Persian Gulf has seen some of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries so far. The security concerns that arise as a result generally revolve around balance of power considerations, regional rivalry, and domestic and regional stability. The Persian Gulf has fertile breeding ground for multiple, interlocking rivalries and competitions, many of which have at one time or another spilled over into open conflict. Some of the more notable examples of these regional tensions have revolved around Iran’s supposedly “revolutionary” posture toward its Arab neighbors, Iraq’s policies in the 1990s and the reverberations of its civil war in the 2000s, restive Shiite populations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Saudi-Qatari rivalries, and U.S. policies across the Middle East and especially in relation to the Persian Gulf region, particularly its stationing of troops there. These balance of power rivalries will continue to pose challenges to the security of the Persian Gulf in the foreseeable future.

A second, related set of security concerns revolves around less conventional, newer challenges that have arisen mostly as a result of the Persian Gulf’s more intimate nexus with the global market economy. These more recent security concerns, many of which are the result of the region’s phenomenal economic growth and development in recent decades, revolve around issues such as food security and guaranteed access to uninterrupted food supplies, cyber security, and the issue of migrant workers, both white and blue collar, and the protection of national identities and entitlements in the face of ever-expansive expatriate populations in countries such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, and even Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Both of these sets of security challenges figure prominently in the calculations of policymakers in the region as well as in Washington and elsewhere. And both, to one extent or another, continue to be valid concerns insofar as domestic and regional calculations and power politics are concerned. The more conventional security concerns, which are anchored in regional balance of power dynamics, appear more deeply entrenched and depend as much on larger, global dynamics as on regional ones, thus invariably drawing in the United States and, to a lesser extent, Britain and the rest of the European Union.

A third, related category of security challenges arises from domestic and regional political economies, especially insofar as the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are concerned. Three particular security challenges in this category stand out. All three overlap with others mentioned. The first has to do with energy security, both in terms of uninterrupted flow and access to open transportation routes and also insofar as shale gas is concerned. The very strategic significance of the Persian Gulf derives from its rich deposits of oil and gas. With the Hormuz Strait as a chokepoint, and with the potential threat of regional conflict ever-present – between Iran and Israel, for example – the flow of oil and gas supplies from the Persian Gulf to importers in Europe and East Asia is a matter of considerable security concern. Also consequential are advances in the search for alternative energy sources, especially shale gas, some of the richest deposits of which are found in China, the United States, and Canada (as well as in Argentina, Algeria, and Mexico). Although shale gas is yet to pose a serious commercial challenge to global producers of oil and natural gas – especially Qatar, Iran, and Russia – its future commercial potentials are estimated to be considerable and therefore of serious concern to the Persian Gulf.

A second security challenge arises from the consequences of having collapsed states in the proximity of the Persian Gulf. In the 2000s, the collapsed Iraqi and Afghan states became fertile breeding grounds for jihadist militants whose focus was as much transnational as it was national. By and large, however, the chaos that these two countries experienced remained contained within their own borders. In the current decade, with reconstituted states in Iraq and Afghanistan far from able to establish law and order in any meaningful way, there are additional potential collapsed states in Yemen and Syria. The potential fallouts of collapsed states in Yemen and Syria are especially problematic for the Persian Gulf given the intimate involvement of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the Syrian civil war and the permeable nature of the Saudi-Yemeni border, despite Saudi Arabia’s construction of a security barrier between the two countries.

The third security challenge has to do with the possibility of cracks in the rentier bargains on which Persian Gulf states rely for governance and political legitimacy. Some of the less wealthy GCC states are particularly vulnerable. Kuwait, the UAE, and Qatar each have inordinate financial resources and relatively small populations of nationals, and therefore their vast and expansive rentier bargains are unlikely to face serious challenges in the foreseeable future. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman, however, where state revenue per capita is not as extensive, tend to be less well equipped to deal with fluctuations in oil revenue or with other economic and political disruptions. Widespread unrest in Bahrain, scattered protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, and instances of disquiet in Oman are already indications that these states’ efforts at buying off political legitimacy through financial and economic largess are not having universal success. In each case, the state has responded with a combination of reinvigorated authoritarianism on the one hand and more extensive rentierism on the other. Nevertheless, especially as the events of post-2011 have demonstrated, the possibility of political instability in the GCC states is not beyond the pale.

Mehran Kamrava is a professor and the director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

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