United Arab Emirates


The Geopolitics of the United Arab Emirates (Or, A Study In How Small Places Avoid Getting Wiped Out)

As my home for four years, I got to know the United Arab Emirates quite well.  It was a strange, fucked up place full of wonders that shouldn’t have been there, ranging from green parks next to sand dunes to Indian dancing girls hidden beneath swanky bars full of Emirati men leering un-Islamically while drinking Red Label whiskey.  Nothing quite seemed right, but nothing quite seemed impossible, either.

Needless to say, it didn’t have to be that way.

“Please don’t blow me up, please don’t blow me up, please don’t blow me up…”

Welcome to the UAE – a country that’s fallen ass-backwards into success

The United Arab Emirates is a collection of seven emirates under a federal system.  ‘Emirates’, in this case, are territorial units ruled by royal families headed up by emirs, or princes.  Functionally, they’re not much different than kings except loyalty is given to them through tribal allegiance as opposed to Divine Right.  They throw some of that in there too, for good measure, but in theory the emirs (who like to use the ‘sheikh’ title rather than the more formal ‘emir’) could be overthrown peacefully if a tribal gathering was called and elders voted something approaching a no-confidence measure in their ruler.

In reality, the sheikhs would butcher them.  But it’s a nice idea.

The UAE sits in one of the world’s most unattractive places.  It’s burning hot for large swathes of the year (fatally so for many infants), with desperately low rainfall, no forestry beyond tiny oases to construct ships, no iron, copper, or other metal, and wide open coasts with virtually no good natural harbors.  In the northern emirates, a handful of dusty mountains gather just enough rain to allow simple tribes to settle down and survive for most of the year, but overall, God must have hated this corner of Arabia, because there’s almost nothing to recommend it.

Alexander the Great’s fleet once passed by – and little more.  The Persians out of Iran considered the place worthless and exercised loose control, if they ever exercised any at all.  A small Christian monastery was founded in the 6th and 7th centuries, but ended up abandoned when either all the monks died out or they realized they didn’t have anyone around to convert to Christianity.  Beyond the handful of pearls scraped from the bottom of the Gulf, there wasn’t much of a way to make a living there.

That all changed at Delma Island in 1958.

“Okay, money, it come from sky.”

We used to joke about what Emirati economics classes were about.  The general assumption was that the teacher would walk into the classroom, sit down, raise his hands to the sky, and say, “Money, it come from here.”  That would then be the one and only lesson for the entire year.

It’s not all that far off from fact.  From 1958 onward, the UAE has been blessed with massive oil discoveries.  What was once a land God despised turned into a land God must have been only having a very long joke on, because the country’s epic cash reserves allow it to buy up land bigger than itself elsewhere.   The story’s been impressive, honestly.

The UAE is a case study in various geopolitical phenomena.  How do small, weak states avoid being swallowed up by big, strong ones?  How do new states build themselves into effective forces inside their territories?  On all accounts, the UAE’s been a wild success, managing to avoid invasion by both Saudi Arabia and Iran and having now propelled its tribal society into a 21st century of zero carbon cities, modern education systems, and cutting edge military forces.

Of course, that’s what the Emirati government will tell you.  What they won’t tell you is how fragile all of it truly is.

Visionary leaders go on t-shirts.

Welcome to the UAE! It could die tomorrow

When the UAE was formed in 1971, Abu Dhabi, largest by land and holding most of the oil reserves, was chosen as the capital and its emir, Sheikh Zayed al Nayhan, was chosen as president.  This acknowledged the overwhelming superiority that Abu Dhabi had over all six emirates, Dubai included, which had paltry oil reserves.  Since then, Abu Dhabi has controlled foreign affairs and, over time, managed to persuade, bribe, or cajole all six other emirates into giving up more and more autonomy.  The coup de grace was in 2009, when a broke Dubai and its ruling family had to beg for a bailout from Abu Dhabi in the wake of the financial crisis.  The tallest tower in the world was supposed to be the Burj Dubai, but is now the Burj Khalifa – as in, the sitting president of the UAE and Sheikh Zayed’s son.  Suck on that, Dubai.

But this all belies the very real problems simmering under the surface.  There’s pretty much zero risk of civil war or violent unrest in the UAE – the native population of Emiratis is swamped by expatriates (11% locals to 89% foreigners), and with just under one million Emiratis spread out over the seven emirates, it’d be really hard to organize a civil war.

Rather, the great dangers are those most traditional.

The greatest threats: death and taxes

As in, the death of the sitting president Sheikh Khalifa.  He’s not well; obviously, blatantly, not well, and his looming death opens up yet another round of uncomfortable discussions about who should lead.  The presidential system is based on the say-so of the seven ruling families.  Sheikh Zayed’s genial personality and diplomatic skills led him to leadership, and his son coasted on that legacy.  But rumor has it that Sheikh Mohammed Al Nayhan, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and Sheikh Khalifa’s younger brother, is not nearly as well liked.  It’s understandable, considering that the crackdown on Emirati Islamists has been mostly led by him.

Meanwhile, in Dubai, the ambitious and Westernized Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum (different than the supreme commander from Abu Dhabi, and happy enough to confuse people who can’t tell a Maktoum from a Nayhan), of a rival branch of the same tribe as the one that rules Abu Dhabi, sees a hyper-capitalist future for his emirate built on tourism, financial services, and real estate – a formula that has worked in several cities in the American West.  It is unlikely he’d challenge Sheikh Mohammed of Abu Dhabi for the throne, but an underlying tension remains between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and when old Sheikh Khalifa passes on, the negotiations this time around will be high stakes indeed.

Much of Dubai’s attractiveness is built upon its lowered costs.  The UAE’s citizens and residents pay far lower than they should for water, electricity, and staple foods, thanks to Abu Dhabi’s generous subsidies.  Top that off with a tax free environment and you get some truly stupid behavior from people who suddenly feel rich.  But such a model is unsustainable.

Dubai is undergoing yet another real estate bubble – one which will inevitably crash again, though probably not as hard as 2009.  Since money flows freely, such bubbles are easier to come by – one good reason to start introducing new taxes and fees to ease up on the insanity and bring stability to Dubai’s economy.  Additionally, Dubai’s government is offering more and more services, including a police force that (shockingly for the region) more or less does its job.  Such things don’t come cheap, and Abu Dhabi has zero interest in paying for Dubai’s self-improvement schemes.

Not an uncommon sight.

Rich men can feel poor, too

Most people are unaware that the UAE’s books are not nearly as flush as its oil wealth implies.  With rail projects, spaceports, sovereign wealth funds, massive subsidies, and bail-outs aplenty, the UAE is rapidly hitting its cash wall.  It will remain rich; no doubt about that.  But cash on hand will soon run out because of everything the UAE is doing.  When that day comes, the menace of taxation will arise.  Already tourism and alcohol are taxed, and the model forward will be service taxes rather than income taxes.  Nevertheless, the crazy-go-spend days are coming to a close.  Responsible living will be the watch phrase of the 2020s.

And what about all these foreigners?

An 89-11 split just doesn’t work.  Already foreigners are in key positions throughout the Emirati government; Emiratis themselves have long treated government jobs as extended holidays.  Dubai has led the way in modernization, but no matter how much the Emirati community grows into a mature, modernized state, it simply lacks the numbers to run the country.  Foreigners are there to stay; so, what will be done about them?  Invariably, some expatriates must be naturalized – and not really some, but many, perhaps up to half.  When that day comes, Emiratis won’t be very happy, but will also have very little choice in the matter.

Meanwhile, the UAE must double-down on its alliances with the U.S. and the West

The truly scary thing on the horizon is the coming unrest in Saudi Arabia.  Thankfully, there aren’t any large Saudi cities near the UAE border, so revolution spilling over fences isn’t likely.  But if Saudi buckles and breaks, the UAE won’t be immune.  Then, the UAE will be dependent all the more on the West.  With its ample oil reserves and pliable foreign policy whose central pillar has been “Keep The West Happy” for nearly 40 years, the UAE will continue to enjoy this military protection so long as the West sees use for the Emiratis.

But if Iran is no longer a pariah state, the UAE will suddenly return to its role as a strategically useless position.  If anything, Western strategy will turn to Oman, with its potential to support domination of the Indian Ocean, and let the Emiratis twist in the wind.  Suddenly, then, the UAE will look far more vulnerable if Saudi zealots decide to teach the Emiratis a thing or two about their True Islam.  The West will send no troops to stop a bombing campaign; that’ll be an Emirati problem.  It’s not hard to imagine the Jumeriah Janes in Dubai airport, loot in tow, fleeing such a thing, and leaving Dubai’s glittering towers empty.

Dubai police chief Dhani Khalfan Tamim, famous for calling for Qatar’s annexation and more than happy to torture you as much as he fucking likes until you sign.

So stability must be kept at all costs

To keep foreigners coming to run the country, to keep foreign capital flowing in to die a horrible death in the roller coaster that is the Emirati economy, to keep Saudi out, the West in, and the Emirati dissident movement down, the Emirati government must appear stable.  They’ve recently smashed up a Muslim Brotherhood movement and have installed enough security cameras to ensure would-be terrorists are eyed every step they take.  Their security forces grow stronger and more powerful as Sheikh Mohammed of Abu Dhabi consolidates power, modernizes the army, and conscripts his people for the first time in their history.  The UAE can have no ambition beyond itself, but that is ambition enough.

Holding together the union, forestalling unrest, building a modern economy, and keeping the borders secure is no easy task.  The Emiratis make it look so; don’t let that fool you.  Many a misstep may happen between now and the end of the century, and the survival of the UAE is not guaranteed.

In the meantime, enjoy the brunches.

Saudi Arabia Clamps Down on Little Qatar (Or, How Not To Waste Billions Trying To Be Something You’re Not)

What’s a Qatar, and why should you care?  First off, it’s pronounced “Qatr,” with no “-ar” sound, even though that’s how it’s written in English.  If you insist on saying “Qat-AR,” do it in your backwoods.

Anyway, with Qatar having the third largest proven natural gas reserves in the world, this is one tiny country you Need To Know About.  Natural gas is a globally traded commodity and no matter how ignorant you want to be, what happens to Qatar (remember, it’s “Qatr”), matters.  Everybody ’round the world is using natural gas to replace oil, as it burns cleaner and gives more energy for less cost.  If you didn’t know you cared, you do now.

So what’s with all this Saudi Arabian-Qatar shouting and crying in the media lately?  Just a few weeks ago, the Saudi-led bloc made up the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi itself withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar, cutting diplomatic relations temporarily with the emirate.  Rumors of embargoes and sieges abound. Why?

Fun fact: if the world’s ice caps do melt, Qatar will cease to exist and this whole article will be moot.

The long story short – Qatar’s gotten too big for its britches

The essential geopolitical tale here is that Qatar has, since 1995, been trying to nudge its way to a higher tier within the power structure of the Middle East, thinking that money could somehow buy their way up to a more secure position.  As they did, they were following this key geopolitical rule: all states seek to near #1 as much as possible because that’s where a state is safest.

With that said, all #1 states seek to be #1 for as long as possible because slipping from said position is dangerous and painful.  As Qatar sought to move up, Saudi Arabia has long sought to keep it down.  That should be an easy task.  Saudi Arabia has a native population of 21 million people; Qatar has just about 300,000.  One need only look at GlobalFirepower’s nation comparison to realize Qatar is outgunned and totally screwed if push ever came to shove.

But the long story long is that of the former Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani

For purposes of simplicity, we’ll call him what he’s officially still called in Qatar – Papa Emir.

Qatar is, in many ways, a dream state to run.  Its small, native population is beyond rich.  With virtually no society prior to the modern era, any leader who does as much as put up a street sign is considered a wild success.  It’s no wonder that Hamad’s father, Khalifa, who ran the country from 1972 until 1995, had plenty of time to blow money in the French Riveria rather than run the government.  Unlike the more complicated story of the nearby United Arab Emirates, Khalifa had no other royal families to balance and so much cash that he delegated much of the state’s governance to his son, Hamad.

Hamad, better educated and worldly, was perhaps not the best choice to leave the keys to the kingdom, because, in 1995, he kicked dad out of power (read that link for the hilarious story of the terribly organized counter-coup) while he was in Switzerland.  Having run the country in his father’s stead for sometime, Hamad simply changed job titles and began his aggressive campaign of turning Qatar into a latter-day Republic of Venice – tiny but influential, small in land but big in stature.

“Gaza welcomes you, Qatari Emir.” Papa Emir visits the Gaza Strip and accomplishes a lot of photographing.

So Papa Emir started to ignore how weak Qatar really was and put himself in the middle of just about everything

Qatar is one of those places that would stop existing in a world without America.  Sandwiched between much bigger Iran and Saudi Arabia, the only reason neither has invaded is because of British protection up until 1971 and American protection from then onward.  The U.S. likes having a divided up Gulf; it can play these powers off against one another and set up bases in one place when one another kicks it out.  Moreover, prior to what just happened in Crimea, supporting these states was part of the larger U.S. principle that Thou Shalt Not Take Over Countries. (And whether that’s still true is a discussion worth having after the dust has settled in Ukraine).

With a large U.S. airbase in Qatar, Papa Emir felt he could take big risks in foreign affairs.  He started by helping propel Al Jazeera to the forefront of Arab media, a rare voice of dissent in a region full of grey, stony-faced state media that kept on reporting “Everything Is Fine” and “Today the Leader Killed Some Bad Guys With His Bare Hands.”  As Crown Prince before his coup, he helped send Qatari forces to fight Iraq in 1991 – resulting in the only Arab-on-Arab battle for that war.

Papa Emir had limited choices for foreign policy.  He could not alienate the Americans, because if they withdrew, life would get very difficult as the Saudis brought their superior power to bear.  But toeing the U.S.-Saudi line was what his father had done; too ambitious for that, Papa Emir decided to be as radical as his situation allowed and started to support the opposition movements growing throughout the region.

This meant the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and anyone else who disliked the status quo but wasn’t al-Qaeda

Papa Emir was in a delicate situation.  He wanted to make his own mark on things, but could not go too far as to upset the Americans, who were key to him staying in power.  In the 2000s, the Muslim Brotherhood was still relatively unknown outside the Arab world and, while not ideal to support, also not a redline that would trigger a U.S. response.

He also sought to turn Doha into a Middle Eastern Geneva, hosting talk after talk and making the rounds as a diplomat trying to sow peace everywhere he went.  Knowing his state could never militarily achieve much, Papa Emir went for headline grabbing diplomatic overtures.  Each success fueled the allure of a nation on the rise and a leader with vision.  It must have felt good.

The Arab Spring became Qatar’s moment in the sun

When the Arab Spring started, Al Jazeera had some of the best reporting on it.  Unlike the rest of the Gulf media outlets, who were all getting orders to Shut The Hell Up, Al Jazeera’s ballsy reporters braved the bullets of Bahrain and the camels of Tahrir as government after government wobbled or fell.  Qatar was there throwing cash and guns at Libya and Syria’s rebels and putting special forces on the ground against Ghaddafi.

2011 was a banner year for Qatar; it looked, briefly, as if Papa Emir’s dreams were coming true and he’d put the country on the right side of history.  When the Brotherhood won Egypt’s presidency, Qatar was there to applaud.

No regrets friendship. Hamad al Thani and Muslim Brotherhood Egyptian President Mohammed Moris back when they both had jobs.

Then the Spring turned to Winter

For Saudi Arabia, all this was worrying.  Riyadh had never been pleased a neighboring, fellow Wahhabist state hadn’t been following its lead, but was downright pissed that Qatar had the gumption to try to undermine its wisdom by supporting groups Saudi had long decided were dangerous.  Saudi Arabia organized a counter-revolution everywhere it suited their interests.  Key to the soul of the Spring was Egypt.

So Papa Emir threw billions at the Muslim Brotherhood’s government in Egypt as the West and the IMF stood by. In 2011, Saudi Arabia staunched the revolutionary bleeding in Oman, Bahrain, and Jordan by doling out cash and sending in troops.  By 2013, they were prepared to play hardball for Egypt.

As Mohammed Morsi proved to be a terrible democrat and his Muslim Brotherhood pissed off both the youth movement that had toppled Hosni Mubarak and the army that had let them get away with it, it was only a matter of time before Riyadh’s point of view prevailed.  No amount of money in the world could have saved Morsi from the counter-coup.  And, not long after, Saudi Arabia and its close Gulf allies were there to pick up the Egyptian army’s bills.

It all went downhill from there

Because of the opaque nature of palace politics in Doha, nobody really knows the full story when the popular and supposedly successful Papa Emir stepped down in June 2013.  He had plenty of incentive to do so; none of his grand foreign policy forays had worked out, and the loss of Egypt to a Saudi-aligned regime was really the death knell of Hamad’s plans for foreign policy.

When Papa Emir had seized power in 1995, the Americans had done nothing for two reasons: one was that nothing, for the U.S., changed, and two was that the coup was bloodless and therefore out of the headlines.  If it could happen to dad, it could happen to Hamad as well.  Whatever the reason, it’s likely Hamad did not intend to step down as early as he did, and it’s safe to assume Saudi Arabia had a role in the transition.

Now the jaws are closing on Qatar and political life has gotten tough

Never mind the nightmare traffic jams, exploding restaurants and petrol stations, rampant boredom, or other complaints that result from a country growing too much, too soon.  Having put Qatar on the world stage, Papa Emir has watched in retirement as neighboring powers, foreign media, and international sports organizations all grow increasingly influential in how the state runs its affairs.

When the political atomic bomb that was the Guardian’s expose of World Cup preparations’ working conditions was published last fall, the focus for the new emir, Hamad’s son Tamim, shifted to trying to save what’s left of Qatar’s reputation overseas and fending off challenges from Saudi Arabia.  But when even FIFA, the World Cup organizer, is suddenly getting a seat at powerful tables normally reserved for royals, you know the game has changed and Qatar is, day by day, less and less a master of its own destiny.

That’s pretty natural, of course, and if Papa Emir had known his geopolitics he’d probably have played the game differently

By supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and anti-royalist movements in general, Hamad put Qatar in the crosshairs of Saudi Arabia.  For Saudi, all they had to do was wait for something to go wrong in Qatar’s plans, and they could then mobilize their formidable resources to really drive in the hurt.  Qatar’s plans could only work if everything, 100% of the time, went their way; Saudi Arabia, bigger and with more resources, could afford to take losses Qatar couldn’t.

Saudi Arabia is in no great position itself, and if it is to survive, the royals believe, it must grow ever more ruthless with its enemies.  The Muslim Brotherhood as a force in the Persian Gulf is nearly broken, but its final redoubt in Doha must be undone to finish the threat once and for all.  This should eliminate the challenge posed by the holier-than-thou Sunni Islamists who Saudi Arabia has come to see as their most dangerous enemies.

With the U.S. and Iran perhaps approaching a modern detente, Saudi Arabia must buy as much security as possible while it still has the power to do so.  Corralling Qatar into its camp removes a thorn that could go septic.  For Saudi Arabia, it’s one of the few things still in their power to do.

Invasion may not be an option, but Saudi Arabia’s army can still seal the borders pretty quick.

But they’ve got limited ways to do it

Saudi Arabia cannot invade Qatar so long as the U.S. base remains, and the U.S. will have incentive to stick around until Iran is no longer seen as a threat to the region’s oil supplies.  That’s years, if not decades, off, even if this nuclear deal goes through.

But Saudi Arabia can manipulate, bribe, and threaten the fractious al-Thanis, some of whom perhaps might harbor the ambition to become emir.  Failing that, it can close the borders; an extreme move, but one that would put Doha’s people on notice that its government is not running the show responsibly.  With so many construction materials needed in the World Cup boom, a blockade could be disastrous both to Hamad’s legacy and to Qatar’s dream of rivaling Dubai for glitz and tourism.

Little countries should know their place

So goes the state media of the United Arab Emirates.  But it’s not wrong; Qatar overplayed its hand when it thought money could buy success.  As the Gulf state with the smallest native population, its natural place, despite its cash reserves, is as the bottom of the Persian Gulf pecking order.  If Emir Tamim can remember that, he might just be able to have a good laugh as Saudi Arabia’s many problems multiply over the next decade.  Little Qatar might still end up being a winner, but only if it plays by the rules.

Saudi Arabia’s Power Play (Or, the Childishness of Kings)

I’ve let my contempt for Saudi Arabia’s current governing system be known – several times.  This is because it’s a personality-centric system driven by personalities that most of you wouldn’t want to invite to dinner.  In such systems, psychology matters when understanding certain events.  Let’s take a walk through, shall we, and understand Saudi state psychology.

Mixing politics and religion is never a good idea

The primary role of religion is to answer the unanswerable; the primary role of political leadership is to organize societies into groups that can both fend off other organized societies and concurrently enrich a certain elite.  That second part there is important – political systems tilt towards earthly rewards for those at the top.  Heavy is the head that wears the crown, may as well have some virgins thrown in to alleviate, you know?  So goes the thinking.

Glaring for a reason.

Politics inherently perverts religion because the goals are entirely different.  One cannot strive for all the answers to the universe on the same day as one plots against a neighbor.  Those are very different conversations.  Because politics focuses on the earthly and immediate, any system that mixes the two pollutes religion with politics, rather than the other way around.  If a system becomes too religious, in invariably collapses because it takes the eye off the main balls – defending society from other societies and enriching the top elites.

Of course, Saudi Arabia has mixed the two to pure madness

And has created a powerful state psychology hinged on the belief that any culture or religion outside its own is hellfire waiting to happen.  Saudi security forces most likely believe all the tripe they’ve been fed and see anyone but themselves as infidels and impure.  This makes pretty much everyone on Earth the enemy.  Only Saudi royals rise above the fray and embrace infidels to save their kingdom.  Several of them – Prince Bandar especially – are quite aware the existence of the kingdom is contingent on outside support.

This creates a mentality of zero-sum thinking

Saudi state psychology is grappling rather frantically to find footing in the wake of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.  No, that deal’s not finished, and much may fuck up before the day is out, but the precedent – that the two supposedly intractable foes can agree on principles – is a massive threat to Saudi Arabia.  Anything that strengthens a heretical power – Shi’a Iran – concurrently weakens Saudi Arabia.  For those who believe the world should be more like them, there’s no reason for co-existence except when absolutely necessary.

Saudi Arabia would like to see the end of Shi’a Islam – not forcefully necessarily, but through mass conversions as millions wake up and realize Saudi Arabia and not Iran has always had the true version of Islam.  The Iranian state is in the way of that; it stands to reason that its collapse, reduction or weakening would benefit Saudi Arabia’s religious designs.

Classy ads from classy people.

Conversely, Saudi Arabia sees Iran engaged in the same game – one for the souls of all Muslims.  There can’t be a formal peace that says, you’re good, I’m good, we all good.  Even if war is eradicated, the struggle for the soul of Islam will carry on through debate, schooling, and religious foundations.  Whoever has the most money will stand a good chance of carrying the day.

And so Saudi Arabia seeks to shore up its power base by encouraging its neighbors to stop existing

In 2011, I asked my Emirati students if they liked King Abullah’s idea of a unified Gulf Co-Operation Council, which would in essence just be a “Greater Saudi Arabia.”  Some of them said they were cool with it, since they were all good Muslims and what could go wrong?  Others wanted to keep their country.  Regardless, the proposal was met with tepid, “Oh, you,” responses from most Gulf capitals, rather than outright “no.”

Now the idea has come up again.  Saudi Arabia has greater incentive than ever to absorb the Gulf states, which would, at a stroke, give it about 2/3rds of the world’s oil reserves.  Even with America coming back into the game as an oil producer, such control would force the world to make sure Saudi Arabia stays stable and protected.  Virtually any incentive to see the royals go would evaporate.  It’s a helluva insurance policy.

As if anyone wants to go quietly into the night

Oman responded with a polite, but firm, fuck off.  The Sultan probably knows his branch of Islam, Ibadism, would get short shrift in this new mega-state.  With a state history much longer than Riyadh’s, Omanis also have a sense of self that wouldn’t be so easily swallowed.

The minority vote.

As for the other states, all of them fledgling in identity (save Bahrain), the idea most likely chills their leaders to the bone.  To say no is dangerous; Saudi Arabia will only see that as a threat.  But to say yes is more so; it means the end of their indigenous development programmes, some of which are decidedly un-Islamic.  The careful nation-building that’s been under construction for over 40 years will come crashing down; moreover, if Saudi Arabia does spiral into chaos, it means these states will be sucked down into it.

It speaks volumes about Saudi Arabia’s state psychology

The rather remarkable arrogance of the move is classic Saudi royal family.  “We’re big, we’re rich, and nobody should threaten that,” is the thinking.  Co-existence with Iran is quite possible if Saudi Arabia adopts an identity based on plurality and tolerance.  But there’s approximately zero signs of that happening right now.  If anything, they’re battening down the hatches and getting even more intolerant, seeing everything as a conspiracy to undo their shaky power.

It’s also self-defeating 

Even if Saudi Arabia gets away with this power grab, it will only be a success if the United States allows it.  The U.S. could easily neuter it in its early stages just by expressing disapproval.

But say Saudi Arabia manages despite that. All they’ve acquired is a set of states with low populations and high expectations and economies based on massive capital inflows.  They don’t gain strategic depth – Iran could invade the Eastern Province just as easily as Dubai.  If anything, it means expensive semi-occupations, where Saudi Arabia has to keep on bribing their new subjects at levels even greater than their former leaders to ensure their loyalty.  And if one of them decides to quit this federation, how long ’til a contagion of revolution, secession, and state disintegration takes root?

So why bother?

Because Saudi Arabian state psychology won’t allow its leaders to sit still while Iran’s suddenly brought in from the cold.  Any idea must be entertained, even if it’s a bad one.  Alas, it’s the equivalent of a hungry kid grabbing up all the treats and gobbling them down early to prevent anyone else from eating them.  Hardly an ideal scenario for running a state in the 21st century.

Saudi Arabia’s Panic Is Geopolitically Sound

If you’ve lived in the Persian Gulf for a while, seeing one of its countries throw a shit-fit on an international stage won’t surprise you all that much.  You get used to that kind of ridiculous chaos; you see one dumb, doomed project connected to a badly-planned roundabout removal scheme merging into a seemingly nonsensical and ill-explained transition.  Let’s take a step back and take a good, hard look at the nature of Gulf political society – and why Saudi Arabia’s whinging makes more sense than it at first appears.

Abdul Aziz bin Saud first king of Saudi Arabia

Idiot grandsons lurk in their palaces. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Centralized power systems have created states that respond only to individual whims – and little else

Each state in the Gulf is focused on either a single person or a single family.  The one exception is the United Arab Emirates, but for all intents and purposes UAE international policy is dominated and controlled by Abu Dhabi (and by extension, the Al-Nayhan family).

In each state, power is distributed downwards through a system called wasta - a tribal relic of personal influence that made a lot of sense in the semi-apocalyptic pre-modern era of the region.  Wasta is based on kinship, tribe, friendship, and family, but rarely on having a proper skill set or decent training in anything remotely resembling good governance.  Various states have attempted schemes to undermine wasta‘s power, as it’s deeply corroding on modern systems, but few, minus Dubai, have gotten anywhere.

Since wasta‘s power comes from its central ruler, single personalities are the only ones who can get things done.  There is no way to move up the ranks with wasta except to cozy up further with the rulers.  A hard ceiling prevents anyone from going beyond that.  No matter how smart you are, or how well liked, you cannot be president of the United Arab Emirates unless your tribal name is Al-Nayhan.

Thus ideas are introduced, changed, and discarded a great deal faster and with far less reason than in less centralized or democratic systems

Dubai’s Al-Maktoums once had a fantastic idea for investment – give investors a 99 year residency visa with each housing purchase.  This was essentially a pathway to citizenship, and it pissed off Abu Dhabi something fierce.  In a less centralized system, this issue would have required competing stakeholders to negotiate some kind of equitable solution that assuaged Abu Dhabi’s conservatives while addressing Dubai’s sore need to create incentives for foreign investors.  But since the UAE continues to run entirely on wasta, the idea was shot down with nary a public debate or recourse.

And so when Saudi Arabia threw its fit in front of the General Assembly, we witnessed an overly centralized system reliant on a single ruler expressing his whim

It’s about to get a whole lot worse from here.

Such a move would crucify democratic politicians.  Even dictatorial ones might prefer to avoid such a spectacle, since doing such a thing only draws attention to how powerless your nation really is.  But Saudi Arabia is ruled by an unaccountable family of increasingly spoiled men.  And they’re starting to realize someone might come soon to take away their toys.

Saudi Arabia as a government is about to get a whole lot less rational than this

Because of this over-centralization, Saudi Arabia’s foreign and military policies will be subject to whims rather than analysis, as the say-so of the king, or his close, closed circle of advisors, will be enough to produce ridiculous about-faces.

Moreover, there’s fear in the air.  Saudi Arabia is rightly worried the United States intends on pulling away from its cherished alliance.  Saudi Arabia as a nation-state is geopolitically insecure.  Even with the rapid pace of development since the 1970s, Saudi Arabia still cannot compete with powers based in Iran, Iraq, or Turkey.  All three of those countries have natural advantages that will, in a long enough competition, overwhelm Saudi.

States that are insecure are always dangerous.  But states dominated by small cliques where fear takes hold are truly disasters waiting to happen.   Within such systems are the high likelihood that someone will make a bad decision based on emotion rather than reason – that such a decision will be acted upon swiftly and unchallenged – and that leaders will stand by that bad decision to retain the appearance of leadership and strength rather than accountability and responsibility.

Outmatched, outgunned, and increasingly alone will make anyone liable to party foul

Saudi Arabia is desperately seeking reassurance from its key geopolitical alliance.  The U.S. alliance saved Saudi Arabia from Saddam’s legions in 1991.  It’s kept Iran at bay since 1979.  During the Cold War, the U.S. kept Arab communists busy to the north rather than letting them seep into the kingdom.  Even now, there’s plenty of cooperation on al-Qaeda, which turned on Saudi Arabia rather brutally in the 2000s.

But the game is changing.  Americans at large want disengagement from the Middle East.  Few Americans have much sympathy for the kingdom or its security problems (and lingering resentment from 1973’s embargo still continues).  Up until now, oil, Iran, and terrorism have kept the U.S. tied to Saudi Arabia.  But now interest is waning – and Saudi Arabia knows it.

All the royals want is some love

Khobar Towers bombing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia...

Bitter memories. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the 1990s, the Saudis probably could have counted on a blind eye from the U.S. had they been forced to wipe out some rising.  But such things are no longer assured.  America crossed a redline by expressing concern over Bahrain.  The Arab Spring rolls on; anyone who thinks the change unleashed has run out of steam are sorely mistaken.  Eventually, an  uprising of some kind will happen in the kingdom.  If allowed to grow, it could reach a critical mass and shatter Saudi’s increasingly shaky social contract.  In that maelstrom, the royal family’s literal survival is at stake.

To be assured all bases are covered, Saudi Arabia must know it won’t face a Syria-style international barrage of criticism.  The U.S. is key to blocking that (and the U.S. has done a helluva job protecting Israel, who is routinely subject to such things).  Up until this point, Saudi Arabia had the oil weapon.  But not for much longer.

Getting crazy in the Gulf is about to be the new normal

Nobody quite expected the wall to come crashing down quite this fast.  But the Gulf states have overspent far too much the past decade in hopes of building sustainable economies.  Alas, that doesn’t look likely to work.  Instead, they’re about to enter a period of semi-austerity with rising demands, flattening oil prices, and less and less stable societies.

This is also the first of many shots for Saudi Arabia to try to save itself.  It needs a great power patron to support it on the UN Security Council and would prefer that to be the United States.  But American politicians, when they really think about it, don’t much like the relationship and have always felt it forced upon them by America’s need for cheap oil.  Saudi Arabia is, after all, deeply undemocratic and frequently in the news for having terrible laws and practices that horrify Westerners.

No clean break will happen under Obama, but after him…

I’ve said before I thought that the 2020s would be a critical time for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in general.  But now things are moving at a pace that can’t be predicted.  It’s going to be sooner rather than later – we needn’t wait the 80 or so years for the oil to run out before lasting change begins.

The U.S. will increasingly move away from the situation.  The Middle East in general has turned into a morass that American power can neither fix nor needs to in order to remain world hegemon.  China won’t rush in because, to do so, will invite the same mess that America just left.  It’s possible the Middle East at large becomes the new Congo – a nasty pot of war and death that nobody will want to touch.  Iraq, after all, has already been abandoned by the great powers.

Either way, after Obama leaves in 2016, the next president will have less incentive than ever to get elected on a platform of pleasing Saudi Arabia.  Saudi’s had a good run with its American relationship, and it’s not run out of steam just yet.  But the close days of hand holding and big smiles are over.

  • Kerry in Saudi Arabia for Talks on Syria, Iran (voanews.com)

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 (counterinformation.wordpress.com)
  • Gulf Economies to expand 4.4% (johnreed22.wordpress.com)

The nation-state (and why it wants to kill)

So let’s go over precisely what a nation-state is.  It’s gotta be hyphenated for a reason.  The first word, nation, means a common cultural group – the nation of France loves wine, cheese, and hates the nation of England but not enough to go to war over it.

When building a nation-state, the first thing you need to find is a group of people who are more or less able to communicate with one another and who won’t get into fights over stupid shit all the time, like the nature of God or who you can have sex with under what circumstances.

You then have to build a government around that group.  This is the ‘state’ part.  This government should be able to deliver simple services, like building roads and schools, and ought to be able to keep other governments from wandering in and taking stuff.  A government that can’t do that is considered a failed one – hence the term, “failed state.”  Somalia is still a nation because it’s got a common culture, but it’s a failed state because its government can’t do much besides get bombed by rebels and beg for foreign aid.

The nation-state is the most durable state entity humanity has yet come up with.  We’ve tried some ridiculous things, like saying some dude on a big chair is a representative of the sun and that’s why we should listen to him no matter what stupid things he says.  It was and still is relatively easy to undo a state.  All you have to do is remove the top leadership and shut down the government’s ministries in the capital city.  Conquering a state is as simple as rolling into Baghdad.  Conquering a nation is a whole other matter.

Nation-states are, like all things made up of humans, obsessed with their survival.  Their number one priority is always security.  Some nation-states, like the United Arab Emirates, are geographically isolated and strategically vital, so they’re able to outsource their security to bigger powers.  Others, like Rwanda, are in crowded neighborhoods and are completely on their own, where the law of the jungle literally prevails.

A nation-states security is dependent therefore on where they are and what they have.  A Gulf Arab country sitting on tons of oil can get free security from the West because they have something the West wants.  When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, America rode the rescue.  When Rwanda invaded Congo in 1997-8, America yawned.

A nation-state’s place in the world, therefore, dictates their obsession with security.  A nation-state like the UAE can sit tight and enjoy the sights.  A nation-state like Rwanda must push the enemy’s frontiers back using any means necessary.

Rome’s republic acquired an empire nearly by accident.  Each war was an attempt to settle the frontier.  But by acquiring new territory and new buffer zones, the Romans encountered new enemies they then had to settle.  Defeating the Italians meant having to face down the Celts and Carthaginians.  Beating those two meant facing the Greeks and Gauls.  Over the course of five centuries, the Romans slowly built a superpower.

All nation-states do the exact same thing.  Beating one enemy simply means having to beat another.  America defeated Mexico and became supreme in the Americas.  It then had to face down European and Asian rivals.  With the fall of the Soviet Union, America largely won Europe, but now has foes in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

America cannot physically dominate the Earth in the next century, but will attempt to do anyway because that’s the nature of a nation-state.  What’s the safest place for any person to be?  At the top of the pyramid.  America will continue to scramble for the top because that’s the best guarantee of survival.  It will attempt to stop a multi-polar world at all levels and it will work to remain the hegemon for as long as possible.

It won’t matter if there’s a multi-lateral president in the White House.  That person may manage to give other nation-states some breathing room, but they will eventually give way to a more aggressive president who will undo all their work.

Thanks to nuclear weapons, America cannot do this in the traditional way of empire-building and conquest.  It must be far more subtle.  Additionally, breaking a nation is incredibly difficult and often isn’t worth the expenditure.  Far better to co-opt the state part through foreign aid, alliances, and soft power.  Occasionally, states, like Saddam’s, will have to be broken to put the fear of God in everyone.  But otherwise, America will balance powers against one another to its own benefit.

This cycle cannot end until the nation-state system is discarded.  Nation-states must behave this way; it’s like asking a dog not to bark.  What’s the option besides the nation-state?  Well, communism, despotism, and monarchism have all already been tried and found shit.  The most likely way forward is a globalized world culture, one that essentially makes all humans into one “nation” by binding us through a common language and way of life.  This process is well underway.  It will be a common globalized nation that may one day give way to a single world state.