Date: Saturday, 22 December 2018
The geopolitical situation in the Gulf at the turn of the 20th century was a far cry from what it is today. For one, there were no states, in the modern sense of the word (with institutions such as a government bureaucracy, an army, public education, a national healthcare system and the like). The political landscape of the area consisted of sheikhdoms and emirates with no clearly designated boundaries to demarcate territory, resources and populations.
Most of the ruling houses that we know today had already emerged in the 17th and 18th century. There was the House of Al-Said in Oman, the House of Al-Sabah in Kuwait and the House of Saud in the Najd. Others would merge in the mid-19th century, such as the House of Al-Thani in Qatar.
The turn of the 20th century brought the most serious attempt to found a state after the Emir Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud regained control over his ancestral lands in Al-Diriya near Riyadh in 1902. During the next three decades, the emir expanded his small emirate in the Najd to include Hail and Jabal Shammar (in 1921) and then Al-Ahsa, at which point a convention of ulama and clan leaders convened to swear allegiance to him as the “Sultan” of the Najd.
The other Gulf states gradually began to coalesce around this time as embryonic national institutions, such as schools or rudimentary military and police forces developed in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman. All of these emergent state entities initially relied, ideologically, on a conservative interpretation of Islam and, socially, on tribal bonds.
Although many believe that the European presence in the Gulf was instrumental in the development of these countries’ societies, some maintain that the surrounding regional environment played a prominent role. After World War I, exactly a century ago, most of the neighbouring states emerged as we know them today. Faisal I assumed the throne in Iraq in 1920 after his expulsion from Syria and the situation in Iran remained stable, at least until the Pahlavi coup in 1925. But the greatest impact would come from Egypt, which had gained its independence in 1922 and which, historically, had a major influence on most Arab societies.
From the outset, Gulf rulers invited Egyptian physicians and teachers to staff their nascent institutions, as though they were trying to clone younger siblings of the organisations that existed in Cairo. But also, after the war, each ruling house, under indirect British supervision, began to demarcate their territory and establish definitive borders. At the same time, British petroleum firms began to drill for oil, which was first discovered in Kuwait after which many new discoveries would follow. Meanwhile, the Sultan of the Najd continued to expand his new kingdom, while the other rulers, each for reasons of their own, remained content with their current possessions. By the end of the 1920s, Abdul-Aziz expanded his kingdom to its furthest extent with the annexation of the Kingdom of the Hejaz to his territories following his defeat of King Ali bin Hussein, the brother of King Faisal of Iraq, and Abdullah I, the Emir of Transjordan. In 1932, the “Sultan of the Najd and King of the Hejaz,” as Abdul- Aziz was called, founded the “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.
King Abdul-Aziz bin Mohamed Al-Saud, or Ibn Saud, as he was known in the West, had no friends outside his country but he did want peaceful relations with his neighbours. Some did not reciprocate, as was the case with the Imam Yehia Hamideddin, founder of the Mutawakelite Kingdom of Yemen, who attacked southern Saudi Arabia (Jizan and Najran). However, Abdul-Aziz defeated him and compelled him to sign the Taif Agreement of 1934, which augmented the Saudi king’s prestige while diminishing the legitimacy of Hamideddin.
Naturally, the Hashemite rulers of Iraq and Jordan had little fondness for the Saudi king who, with his defeat of their brother Ali, had deprived them of their ancestral home in Mecca. That King Abdul-Aziz also became the guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina conferred a religious aura on his kingdom, an aura he never attempted to shed. After all, he was the descendant of the alliance struck between his grandfather Mohamed bin Saud and the religious leader Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdel-Wahab in 1744.
In spite of the hostility from some of his immediate neighbours, King Abdul- Aziz succeeded in cultivating good relations with other Arab states, most notably the Kingdom of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and the Omani House of Al-Said. The king’s international star soon began to rise as well, reaching a peak when he visited Egypt in the mid-1940s and met US president Roosevelt on board the US navy battleship the USS Quincy in the Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal in 1944. He also met Winston Churchill in Fayoum and the former king of Egypt Farouk I in Cairo, who would return the favour with a visit to Jeddah. King Abdul-Aziz died in 1953, but not before securing the succession to the throne of six of his sons: Saud in 1952, Faisal in 1964, Khaled in 1976, Fahd in 1982, Abdullah in 2005 and Salman in 2015.
The Saudi kings were vehement opponents of communism, the influence of which spread rapidly following the victories of the Soviet Union in World War II. However, if that remained a constant their alliances frequently fluctuated so that a friend of the kingdom one day might become an enemy the next. They sided with Mohamed Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979) and with the Hashemite kings in Iraq and Jordan, especially King Hussein of Jordan (1952-2000), to counter the influence of the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser, even though their father, King Abdul-Aziz, had a close relationship with Mohamed Naguib, the first president of Egypt.
Saudi Arabia quickly became the leader of the conservative camp in the Arab world against Egypt, the champion of the Arab revolutionary republics. Nor did King Faisal hesitate to lock horns with the republic that he regarded as the most leftist, namely South Yemen. The hostilities flared in what became known as Al-Wadiah War in 1969.
The historic reconciliation between King Faisal and president Nasser at the Khartoum Summit in 1968 ushered in a new phase characterised by Egyptian-Saudi co-leadership of the Arab region. With this development, accompanied by an Egyptian political shift away from the left, Saudi Arabia and its newly independent Gulf allies emerged victorious over the leftwing republics. There only remained Syria under Hafez Al-Assad and Libya under Colonel Gaddafi and both were isolated.
The 1970s was a fortunate decade for the Gulf. It opened with the independence of Qatar, Bahrain and Oman and the unification of the emirates in 1971 (Kuwait had already won its independence about a decade before this). The newly independent kingdoms were blessed with enormous oil revenues which contributed to accelerating the development of caretaker states. However, the bubble of happiness burst towards the end of that decade when terrorists attacked and seized control of the Great Mosque of Mecca. Meanwhile, to the east, the Shah of Iran was toppled in February 1979 and the Imam Ayatollah Khomeini assumed power in Tehran. Also, that year, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
The Saudis supported Iraq in a war against Khomeini’s Iran, they funded young Arab zealots to fight the “communists” in Afghanistan and they unleashed extremist groups to fight other extremists. Henceforward, the Gulf would become associated with radical Islamist groups, hostility towards Iran and the dream of opulence.
FAST FORWARD TO AN INTENSE 2018: The Arab Spring revolutions and the tumultuous changes they precipitated ushered in an extraordinary period for the Gulf which had never experienced revolutions or major uprisings that might challenge the legitimacy or popularity of the monarchies.
This year (2018), Riyadh was buffeted by the international outcry triggered by the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October. Never before had a Gulf country encountered such a wave of anger.
At the same time, international “concern” mounted over the humanitarian plight in Yemen which the UN described as “the worst humanitarian tragedy in the world for decades”. Perhaps as a result of such pressures, at least in part, the Saudi-led Arab coalition and the forces fighting for the internationally recognised Yemeni government suspended their military campaign to wrest control over the strategic port of Hodeida from their adversary the Ansar Allah, or Houthi Movement, in order to engage in a negotiating process.
Also, this year, the Gulf triggered widespread controversy in the Arab region as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu paid an official visit to Oman and Israeli athletes competed in international sporting events hosted by the UAE and Qatar while, as a kind of counterpoint, Saudi Arabia was stripped of the right to host an international chess tournament after refusing to grant entry visas to Israeli players.
At the same time, Western news sources constantly underscored some linkage between the Arab Gulf countries and Israel on the basis of their shared animosity towards Iran. Yet, Arab actions have been clear and tell us that the Gulf countries look to Washington, not to Tel Aviv. As US President Donald Trump said when defending his administration’s support for Saudi Arabia, “Riyadh is an important ally in containing Tehran.”
On the other hand, this period brought no developments in the direction of democratisation. This is not to demean the major social reforms introduced by the royal decrees inspired by the young Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. Among the most important decrees is that which permitted women to drive after decades in which Saudi women were banned from being behind the steering wheel. Another decree authorised public music concerts, the first of which was given by Egyptian performer Tamer Hosni in Jeddah.
More significantly, the royal decree establishing the King Salman Complex for Prophetic Hadith was a remarkable development in a country that subscribes to an extremely rigid Wahhabi interpretation of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam. According to Saudi leaders, the new complex aims to “purify the honourable Sunnah from the uses extremists make of it”.
The Gulf dispute involving Qatari’s alleged support for terrorism in the region, which culminated in the Saudi, UAE, Bahrain and Egyptian embargo of Doha, entered its second year in mid-2018. Yet, the year concluded with a surprise: an invitation from Riyadh to Doha to attend the forthcoming Gulf summit in 2019.
Although voices in the Qatari media have urged Emir Tamim Al-Thani not to attend, his participation in the meeting in which “military cooperation” is on the agenda could mark the beginning of a solution to what is effectively the first major crisis in relations between the Gulf states since their independence at the beginning of the 1970s.
A BRIGHT FUTURE: Saudi Arabia and its fellow Gulf states are now contending with a new challenge: the need to diversify sources of income so as not to remain fully dependent on oil. Simultaneously, they need to find a formula for containing Iran and ensuring their security.
It is true that the Gulf states have initiated several attempts to diversify resources. The UAE has promoted service industries and tourism, Qatar has polished its global image and loosened restrictions on business, Oman has developed the most balanced economy in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia promotes religious tourism, mining and some light industries. Still, such inroads are not enough, especially given that these oil exporting countries have emergent young generations seeking employment.
But this presents other urgent challenges. Available skills are insufficient and not commensurate to needs, while demands on social services, such as housing, social insurance, free health insurance and free education, are mounting. All Gulf countries have had to introduce some austerity policies. They have all lifted fuel subsidies which led to other, albeit fairly limited, price hikes. Many of these governments have also introduced forms of taxation on their citizens and resident aliens which has contributed to rising costs of living.
Meanwhile, the security problems remain a challenge. The fight against terrorism weighs on national budgets and on societies. Many private individuals or agencies had long funded groups that were far from moderate, creating tensions between segments of society that support extremism and other large portions of society that favour moderation. The Gulf countries’ support for the campaign to restore the legitimate government in Yemen has also been taxing even though they recognise its political and strategic necessity.
According to Mohamed Al-Mikhlafi, a left-leaning politician from Yemen, Saudi Arabia was compelled to launch the war in Yemen, as difficult as it was, because of the strong Iranian presence in support of the Houthis there. Today, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi hope to rid themselves of the economic, social and military burdens of the war in Yemen, but on the condition that Iran ends its interference in that strategic country.
Not that this necessarily makes Iran a victor. Tehran is experiencing a nightmare in Syria where Russia is unlikely to tolerate Iran’s continuing influence in Damascus after having invested so much to protect the Bashar Al-Assad regime. “Russia is a great power and it will not permit Iran or any other country whatsoever to share control in Syria,” said Syrian university professor Mohamed Kheir Al-Din Abdullah. “True, Iran is important, but Russia is stronger. Moscow wants to remove Iran from Syria in order to weaken it so that it can be better placed to pressure it when Tehran needs Moscow on its side in the confrontation against the Americans.”
The Russians have long supported the Iranian Islamic Republic and they helped develop the Iranian missile programme. It appears that Tehran may be willing to relinquish its presence in Syria in exchange for serious Russian support in the face of US sanctions.
In addition, Iran’s presence in Iraq is no longer as sure as it once was, especially given how the Sadrists and the Arab nationalist Sunnis came out ahead in the last elections in Iraq. This development encouraged Riyadh to approach the strong Shia leader in Iraq, Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose electoral list won a relative majority.
On the other side of Iran, Kabul’s entry into negotiations with the Taliban has reduced Iranian influence in Afghanistan where Tehran supported the Shia Hazara ethnic group. Iran’s regional predicaments together with the harshest US sanctions in its history will certainly hamper Iranian influence, but it will not lessen the Iranian threat.
THE INTERNAL FACTOR: While all acknowledge the importance of the external factors mentioned above, the domestic factors are more important. In addition to creating jobs for thousands of unemployed youth, the Gulf states need to introduce clear mechanisms to enable popular participation in government and the need to open their national economies to foreign investment. All this entails profound social, political and economic reforms which, in turn, are likely to face stiff opposition from conservative and extremist forces in Gulf societies.
Still, the Gulf countries have not wasted the 20th century or suffered the fate of other Arab countries which have been plunged into civil war or partition. They have infrastructure and they have human resources educated and trained in the best universities in the world. Their reform policies can build on these assets. Indeed, in Saudi Arabia, the most educated sectors of society are the most supportive of Crown Prince Bin Salman’s reforms, even as conservative and extremist tribal forces continue to grumble.
In short, great challenges lie ahead, but so, too, do great potentials and it is on the latter that even greater hopes are pinned.