Institute of International Strategic Studies at its 2012 geoeconomics conference. Geoeconomics, as its name implies, is the study of political economy that has strategic consequences. And there could not be a more apt place for this than Bahrain, the home of the IISS’s outpost in the Middle East.
Gulf of Uncertainty Several days ago I was a guest of the Institute of International Strategic Studies at its 2012 geoeconomics conference. Geoeconomics, as its name implies, is the study of political economy that has strategic consequences. And there could not be a more apt place for this than Bahrain, the home of the IISS’s outpost in the Middle East. The name “Bahrain” should reverberate in an Indian’s genes. It seems to have had its civilizational origins as a stopping off point for the world’s oldest trading link – ships plying between the Sumerian and Indus Valley civilisations. The present airport is built on an ancient cremation grounds, a Bahraini official told me. The Arabic name of the place means “the place of burning” because it was were Hindu visitors who died were burnt. Today, as much as a third to half the population, depending on who you spoke with, is of Indian origin, including many Bahraini citizens. Tinderbox But Bahrain is seen as the focal point of the Sunni-Shia or, as I see it, Arab-Persian conflict for mastery of the Persian Gulf. It’s all here. A ruling Sunni ruling family and class trying to keep a restive Shia majority under check. While I was there, the police shot three Shias demanding political rights. The Bahrainis say the unrest is being provoked and supported by neighbouring Iran – though Tehran is probably only exploiting the tensions that erupted thanks to the Arab spring. Uncomfortably for Washington, the mighty US Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain. So while it tries to remain neutral, the US gets sucked into goings on by simple geographical association. Prince of Persia The Arab spring has largely run its course among the sheikhdoms of the Gulf. The odd bursts of protest in Oman and Kuwait have subsided. There is little interest for radical political change in the oil-rich Persian Gulf Arabs. The middle class knows that in an election it would be Islamicists who would come to power in places like Saudi Arabia, as has been shown in even symbolic exercises in elections in places like Kuwait. So they prefer a benign monarchy to an illiberal democracy. The only real festering issue is the unequal political status of Shia populations in places like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Normally not a problem, but the Gulf political system has its eyes peeled for two developments: the assertiveness of Tehran and the declining energy stake of the US in the Gulf. America’s Gulf I met a Fifth Fleet officer whose focus is political analysis. I asked him that I had heard a remarkable number of senior US strategists say that, in their opinion, Iran is the “natural ally” of Washington in the Gulf. He said, “It is. There can be no doubt.” But what keeps that from happening is, of course, the nuclear weapons issue and the fact it is the Arabs who have most of the oil and gas. But US has become a net exporter of natural gas and, this year, actually exported a small amount of petroleum – the first time since 1949. Another analyst at the conference estimated that the US could cut its petroleum imports from the Gulf to zero in two years if it really wanted to. In which case why pay so much in blood and treasure to maintain the balance of power in the Gulf? “That drives the Saudis crazy,” a US military man in Manama admitted. “The idea the US would one day just leave the Gulf and hand it over to Iran to run.” Speculative War Which is why a few Arab strategists will admit that they see their number one strategic concern, now that the Arab spring has stopped at the Jordan River, is to figure out how to keep the US involved in the Persian Gulf. One answer, it seems, is for the US and Iran to go to war. A military confrontation would effectively force the US to return to a containment of Iran policy for another generation. At this point, a country like Saudi Arabia would feel relatively secure for another two decades or so. Especially if a US-Iran battle led to the destruction of Iran’s nuclear programme. Which is why these Arab regimes are secretly cheerleading Israel to take a poke at Iran. The cold-blooded calculation being that if the Israelis go in, the Iranian retaliation would inevitably draw the US into at least a massive air battle over Iran. “Inshallah, I hope one day to wake up in the morning for my problem to be solved like this,” said one Kuwaiti official to me late last year.
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