An Introduction to the Religious, Ethnic, and Geopolitical Makeup of the Persian Gulf Region
By A. Joseph Lynch
The map above depicts the eight nations surrounding the Persian Gulf: Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Iran. Over 1/2 the world's oil reserves and 1/3 of the natural gas reserves are in this Islamic region marked by deep ethnic loyalties and religious divisions. Seven of the eight Gulf states have an Arab majority, but the largest state (Iran) is Persian. There are five Arab-majority Sunni states while Iraq, Bahrain, and Iran are mostly Shiite. Any military conflict in the region threatens world energy supplies. Consider the Strait of Hormuz at the eastern end of the Persian Gulf. Approximately 23% of the world's oil traded by sea passes through the Strait, which at its narrowest point is only 21 nautical miles across (see map below). Ships from the Persian Gulf travel through the Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf of Oman, before taking to the open seas.
|The Strait of Hormuz: Twenty-four miles across at its narrowest where Iran and an Oman-controlled peninsular tip face each other across the strait.|
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The United Arab Emirates (population 9.3 million) is, as its name suggests, a union of seven separate Arab emirates (an emirate is a principality ruled by an emir) with the Emirate of Abu Dhabi serving as its capital. Each emirate is itself ruled by an absolute monarch and one of these monarchs is selected to act as president of the nation. The U.A.E. boasts the fourth largest oil supply in the world, giving it an important place in world affairs despite its small landmass. It has a strong, Sunni Islam-oriented foreign policy and was, until September 11, 2001, one of the only three nations (Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are the others) to recognize Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The UAE were major financial backers of General Abdel el-Sisi and the Egyptian military coup against President Mohammed Morsi and the elected Muslim Brotherhood. In the Sunni republican-populist vs monarchy movements, the U.A.E. is monarchical. The U.A.E. has a 65,000-man army and is rapidly expanding its military.
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Qatar strongly backs Sunni religious groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and it has given arms to Syrian rebels (both moderate and extreme brands). Qatar has the worst record in the region for fighting terrorism, and most Qataris follow a Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Despite this, the United States has strong ties with the Qataris, maintaining CENTCOM's forward regional headquarters at Qatar's Al Udeid Air Base. Qatar's government funds the most influential venture in Arab television: Al Jazeera Network. Qatar is a force inside the Wahhabi movement that is often at odds with the Saudi monarchs. Their support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and more populous forms of Salafism ultimately threatens the hereditary rulers of the House of Saud. Since President Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, relations have soured between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Maldives, Sunni-controlled Bahrain, and Sunni-controlled Yemen. As of June 2017, all six states cut diplomatic ties with Qatar due to its continued support of certain Salafist organizations seen as threats to the Salafist monarchies in Saudi Arabia and UAE and military rule in Egypt.
Bahrain is one of the three Gulf States to have a Shiite majority. A Sunni king, however, rules the nation and put down a 2011 "Arab Spring" Shiite uprising with the help of 1,000 troops from Saudi Arabia and another 500 from the United Arab Emirates. Some 80 civilians died in the uprising and 65% of those arrested reported being tortured. Like Qatar, Bahrain has strong U.S. ties, hosting the U.S. 5th Fleet at Manama.
|Gulf Cooperation Council states|
Iraq (population 33.4 million) and Iran (population 77.5 million) together comprise (with Bahrain) the Shiite nations of the Gulf region. With more than double Saudi Arabia's population, Iran is clearly the largest Gulf state (for more information about Iran, see this previous Map on Monday post). Iraq (36% Shiite, 25% Sunni, and 39% of various religions with Christianity being the largest) has increasingly looked eastward to Shiite-Persian Iran in recent years. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the elected Shiite government has been attacked as illegitimate by radical Sunni forces from outside and inside the country. The Sunni north merging with the majority Sunnis of Syria are under the sway of ISIS while the Kurdish (Sunni) northeast becomes increasingly independent of Baghdad. What remains under Iraqi control is the Shiite-dominated south. The dream of an undivided caliphate under radical Sunni rule has driven the Shiite states of Iraq and Iran (which has the longest coastline with the Persian Gulf) into an alliance with Assad's Syrian coastal state on the Mediterranean. Assad, like the Houthis of Yemen, practices a distant variant of Shiite Islam. They are united, not so much as fellow Shiites, as fellow enemies of the Sunni purification movement. For this reason, Iran and Iraq seek the destruction of ISIS, while Sunni Gulf States (along with Sunni Turkey) watch the fighting from a distance in hopes of seeing Shiite armies weakened in battle.
American military institutions are based in the midst of this growing conflict. Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel, because of his understandable fear of Iran, is attempting to exploit the religious, historical, and geographic ignorance of American policymakers to draw us into war with Iran whom he see as an existential threat. But taking a step backward and seeing the Gulf as a whole and the Sunni salafist nature of the worldwide terrorist threat in Asia, Russia, and America, the strategic question for the United States remains. That is, in the Sunni/Shiite religious war: Whose side are we on?
(This article first appeared on Anthropology of Accord - April 13, 2015)