Monday, June 5, 2017

Map on Monday: THE GULF STATES

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.

Click to enlarge
Examining the region clockwise beginning with Oman (population 3.6 million), we find that Oman's main geographical orientation faces the Arabian Sea to the east and the Gulf of Oman to the north, with the capital of Muscat strategically located roughly in between each. Oman also owns the strategic "Gibraltar of the Gulf" -- a peninsular enclave (Musandam Peninsula) facing Iran across the Strait of Hormuz and separated from mainland Oman by  the UAE.  Oman's absolute monarchy has been led by Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said since 1970, making him the longest reigning ruler in the region. Oman has a long-standing moderate foreign policy with a cordial relationship with Iran. The majority religion is Ibadi Islam which predates the Sunni/Shia split. It is highly puritanical in theology but more moderate in relations with other Muslims than the Wahhabis. Unlike its Yemeni neighbors, Oman is a relatively peaceful nation, protected by a 25,000-man army, 36 combat aircraft, and a navy with ten surface warships.

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.

Click to enlarge
Qatar (population 2.2 million, 300,000 citizens) and Bahrain (population 1.3 million) are the two smallest and often-overlooked Gulf states. While Qatar sits on a peninsula jutting into the Gulf, Bahrain is an island nation within the Gulf itself located northwest of Qatar. Bahrain is, however, physically connected to mainland Saudi Arabia via the King Faud Causeway. Qatar's capital of Doha sits on its east coast; while Bahrain's capital of Manama is found on the north coast. How tiny Qatar became independent from the Saudis is about --natural gas and making separate alliances  including with the US. 30% of the world market in liquid natural gas is exported by Qatar. Their Arab neighbors receive a tiny part of the market which is  centered on Asian countries and the UK. Qatar shares their natural gas field with Iran and thus they are not as viscerally anti Shiite as the Saudis.  A small amount of LNG is shipped to UAE by pipeline but the majority is by shipping tankers.      

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. This is the real source of conflict between the new young Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the young leaders of Qatar. 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
Saudi Arabia (population 28.8 million) and Kuwait (population 3.4 million), together with Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Oman are the Gulf's Sunni Islam majority states, with Bahrain controlled by a Sunni government. Unsurprisingly, it is these six Gulf states that formed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981. Centered in Riyadh, these states today form a Saudi-led, anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite bloc in the region. Over the last two years,  there has been discussion of forming a "Gulf Union" of the six states, somewhat similar to the European Union. They have also created a NATO-like military organization called the Peninsula Shield Force (PSF). It was this military organization that put down the Shiite uprising in Bahrain -- and it appears to be playing another anti-Shiite role in Yemen today. While Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) controls much of Yemen, the Gulf Cooperation Council has labeled the Shiite takeover of the nation a "terrorist" act and has begun a military campaign, not against the Sunni-led Al Qaeda but against the Shiites who wish to fight Al Qaeda. This is considered an attempt by King Salman’s favorite son-30 yr old Mohammed bin Salman to curry favor with Wahhabi clerics in his upcoming succession fight. The Saudi fight against the Shiites has actually strengthened Yemen's AQAP the Salafist Sunni terror group most likely to be aiming at US and European targets.

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)

No comments:

Post a Comment