The Geopolitical Game of the Persian Gulf (Or, how all the king’s men are increasingly screwed)

Iran’s back in the news – deal or no deal, they ask?  Much of it hinges on internal factors nobody knows except the Iranian government’s higher ups.  You can flip a coin and be just as likely to be right, so we won’t bother.

Across the Gulf, the shiekhs and kings (and one sultan) watch warily.  Some are going so far as to predict their coming doom.  I won’t go quite that far; it seems likely some of the monarchs will survive whatever wrenching change is probably due in the 2020s with at least one palace left to them.  But let’s take a look at their challenges.

Everybody wants a fancy 7 star hotel, but nobody knows how to run one

GCC map

GCC map (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In country after country, governments up the ante with mega-projects.  Part of it’s about prestige; part of it’s about the age-old rule of overawing your subjects with your massive displays of power.  Few of them seem to realize that booms in skyscrapers can precede recessions (though Dubai learned that the hard way in 2009).

Alas, local human capital is terrible.  Girls outperform boys but, in still male-dominated societies, don’t work their way up to calling the shots (yet).  So few locals actually have any idea how to run their modernizing economies, and those that do are too often shunted aside by traditional cultures that say, “Man he first.”

The answer to this problem is, of course, simple – import people and then toss ‘em away.

Except nobody’s tearing down the hotels

And these ex-pat populations are starting to look rather permanent.  Never mind that locals hate that idea (I’ve been told off by people for even suggesting citizenship for those who’ve been here long enough), which is a source of tension and which must be resolved one way or another.  To remove the ex-pats means to de-develop (is that a word?) the country, and though everyone wants to localize their economies, such a thing can’t happen on a scale and speed necessary to stop ex-pats from starting to think they’ve been around enough to have earned a few rights.

In Oman and Saudi Arabia, a crisis of generations is about to erupt

Both have been ruled by monarchs who hearken back to the God-knows-when-times.  Oman’s Sultan hasn’t even bothered to name an heir or have a son (and is rumored to be gay) and nobody knows what form Omani government will take after his looming death.  Oman experienced some unrest during the Arab Spring and Omanis themselves are not above fighting their government.  Oman’s rather unique form of Islam, Ibadism, has given the Sultan some leeway in regards to culture and education, but with dwindling oil reserves Oman’s best-case scenario is to simply hope its natural barriers will keep it safe from the bomb that is Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain WTC

“So, the lights work *all* night?” (Photo credit: JohnConnell)

King Abdullah is super old and super ready to die.  Underneath him are restless youth, rising crime, and the geopolitical nuke that is the oil shale boom.  Saudi Arabia won’t be able to pay its bills forever.  When that happens, the king will have to pick his favorites to bribe and leave out the rest.  While it’s Shias do sit on its oil wealth, from a Wahhabi viewpoint they’re all heretics who are going to Hell, so expect them to miss out on the spoils and to get angrier and angrier.

The next generation of leaders, whoever they are, will have been raised in a period of absolute power for the monarchy.  The likelihood they’ll have the necessary compromise skills that will be needed to guide the kingdom through the 2020s is low.

Security is tied together by a Saudi-United Arab Emirates alliance and backed by a last-resort American guarantee

Iran can’t invade any Gulf statelets because, since the 1970s, the U.S. has guaranteed the borders of all Gulf regimes in exchange for oil.  However, beyond that, the U.S. has little interest in managing or interfering in internal affairs.

The two most status-quo regimes – and therefore the most active in propping up everyone else – are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  The UAE is deeply non-democratic and committed to remaining so; any kind of political change bodes poorly for its still-fragile union of seven ruling families.  The UAE has its own internal differences, but we’ll get to that later.

The two deploy troops or cash to ensue security within the Gulf and beyond it.

All else failing, the U.S., with ample forces in the region, makes sure nobody crosses a line and upsets the oil market.  Saddam learned that to his doom in 1991.

Plucky little Qatar is looking a lot less plucky


Lonely Qatar feels unloved.

Few of Qatar’s foreign policy adventures have turned out well and have pissed off bigger Saudi Arabia.  The new emir, who came of power suddenly in May, seems to have scaled back Qatar’s ambitions, but Qatar faces the same problems as everyone else – too cheap of human capital with too high of demands.  Worse, people are noticing Qatar doesn’t run its labor camps so well, and such a thing matters with the World Cup on the horizon.  Qatar would like everyone to just shut the hell up about it already.  No doubt some pine for the good old quiet days of the 1990s.  But with a horse in the Syrian civil war, Qatar is still punching above its weight – but only because Saudi Arabia is letting it.

The United Arab Emirates is more united that it once was, but don’t let that fool you

Of the seven emirates, only Abu Dhabi and Dubai matter geopolitically.  Abu Dhabi is the security hub, diving deep into the American camp and happily egging on a strike against Iran’s nuclear program.  But Abu Dhabi is a jealous sort.  Its ruling family, the al Nahyans, expect control of the country’s presidency.  With old Sheikh Khalifa rumored to be not so well, the question of the next election comes up.  Dubai is rapidly emerging as the only success story of all the Gulf states.  But that’s because it’s focused relentlessly on internal development and has been unafraid to ditch Emiratis who can’t do the job.  This has largely been the result of Shiekh Mohammed al Maktoum’s drive to modernize Dubai at almost any cost.

Abu Dhabi skyline

The Eye of Abu Dhabi sears the disloyal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But Dubai, unlike Abu Dhabi, has little oil.  Worse, Dubai is rapidly breaking down tribal links and therefore the political system with its rush towards globalized economics.  Abu Dhabi’s not pleased; in Abu Dhabi, police and army jobs are still rewards for tribal flunkies, but in Dubai, police are increasingly expected to do their job or face consequence (and the roads are accordingly safer and far more pleasant to drive on).  Loyalty is not nearly as valuable in Dubai as it once was.  To change the currency of the realm threatens the kingdom.

Alas, appearing to be secure is not the same as actually being secure

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain both have overt tensions that are cutting to the heart of the why the region is headed for a rough time.  Other states have serious problems too, though.  Dubai has set itself up for a future where it can never ditch its ex-pats, since the Emirati population is not growing fast enough to fill all those towers and the capital needed to keep the place glitzy is coming largely from the outside.  One day, they’ll have to be accomodated in a new social contract, if not outright given citizenship.

Oman’s dynasty might end with Sultan Qaboosi; who follows then?  Oman’s just undeveloped enough in portions to make one worry that old tribal tensions could lead to a new round of violence.  Meanwhile, in Kuwait, Parliament is both unstable and increasingly calling into question the legitimacy of the Sheikh Sabah, the ruler.  Everyone appears to have a lid on their problems; but that’s all.

Unlikely this decade, but the 2020s…

When America enters the game as an oil power again, when Saudi has to start importing gasoline to keep up with its subsidies, when youths born today having witnessed the Arab Spring on Twitter come of age better informed than their parents, when Saudi’s derelict rulers are dead and replaced by less capable successors, then, somewhere in the 2020s, the Gulf will experience real, lasting change.  Will the rulers be wise enough to accomodate the flood and turn into consitutional monarchs?  We’ll just have to see.

  • USA should push regime change in Saudi Arabia (
  • Gulf Economies to expand 4.4% (


  1. Since discovering your blog, I have enjoyed every single post. I visited Dubai about a month ago (for the 5th time or so), so ” development at any cost” resonates well with me. So you reckon this conflagration will take place in the 2020s, eh?

    1. Thanks for encouragement! Always great to hear it!

      I think that, if trends continue without some major event (like Saudi’s king dying and then some kind of succession crisis, or a Shi’a rising in the Eastern Province that spirals into a civil war), then, even if everything goes well, the 2020s are the decade of doom for the way things are done here. It won’t have to be unrest and violent, but alas I just don’t see much sign of any regime around coming to grips with their shrinking legitimacy.

  2. I would agree with Tex. I found your blog thru Reddit’s geopolitics subreddit and each post you have written is well thought out and very well presented. Please keep it up!

  3. Pingback: Geopolitics Made Super | 2013 in Review (Or, A Cliche but Highly Traditional Way to Ring in A New Year)

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