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Summer 2012 tensions rise in the Gulf

Commentary, 2 August 2012
Middle East and North Africa
Never a tranquil region at the best of times, the Gulf is shaping up for a difficult and tense summer and autumn. A series of domestic issues have become regional concerns due at least partly to the unrest caused by the Arab Spring.

Never a tranquil region at the best of times, the Gulf is shaping up for a difficult and tense summer and autumn. A series of domestic issues have become regional concerns due at least partly to the unrest caused by the Arab Spring.

By David Roberts for

Persian Gulf

As the temperatures in the Gulf soar into the high forties, it is all but impossible to avoid drawing comparisons to rising tensions in the region. There is truth to the analogy, for throughout the Gulf there are disturbances, deployments, and detentions that are likely to have a destabilising effect on the region in the foreseeable future.

Gulf Monarchies Challenged

Kuwait's perennially fractious Parliament is at a cross-road. Outlandish statements are made by MPs that are unthinkable anywhere else in the Gulf. A brutally combative if not hysterical system of MPs questioning Ministers, repeated failed Parliaments, multiple elections and consequent election fatigue are part of the deeply ineffectual politics we have come to expect from Kuwait in recent years. Kuwait's Constitutional Court dissolved the sitting, anti-government Parliament in June 2012 and reinstated the previous pro-government Parliament, citing legal technicalities of the dissolution of the previous Parliament. At least 24 of the 'reinstated' MPs resigned immediately, lest they be associated with this constitutional meddling.

Though the opposition in Kuwait is far from a united block, this issue has them united with their numerical advantage in Parliament and in the street. Unless their demands are met, they will surely halt any and all Parliamentary proceedings when it resumes. While in the past Emirs have ruled unconstitutionally, dissolving Parliament and not recalling it, doing so in an era of the Arab Spring and when the opposition feel so near to power, is likely impossible. This means that meaningful concessions will, somehow, need to be made. Legalising political parties, allowing MPs to elect the Prime Minister, or allowing opposition MPs Cabinet seats reflective of their power, as opposed to the paltry four seats that they were offered in the last Parliament, are the key demanded concessions.

While at least one of these may need to be grudgingly divested by the traditional Kuwaiti elite, such a fundamental change and shift of power would lead to little less than the remaking of the Kuwaiti political hierarchy and system. Even if concessions are made, Kuwait is in for a turbulent and crucial autumn, with the ramifications of reform not contained to Kuwait. An elected Prime Minister, for example, would send unwelcome ideas percolating throughout the Gulf.

The powder-keg that is Saudi Arabia's Eastern province has also been simmering in recent weeks. Mid-July saw the wounding and arrest of one of the government's harshest critics, Shia cleric Nimr Al Nimr. This incensed the latently angry Shia community in Saudi's critical Eastern Province and at least two people were killed in ensuing violence. This takes place in the immediate aftermath of the death of Crown Prince Nayef, the former Minister of the Interior, which shook the Saudi elite, coming less than a year after the passing of the previous Crown Prince. Though Prince Salman stepped quickly into Nayef's shoes, the brittleness of the septuagenarian and octogenarian Saudi elite is there for all to see and constitutes a continuing concern for Gulf security. 

Crackdown on Reaction

In recent months the Government of the UAE has undertaken a vociferous campaign of arrests and deportation against members and affiliates of the Islamist Al-Islah group and other mildly agitating groups. Authorities believe that Al-Islah is little more than a front for the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation that finds deep animosity in the Emirati elite. The recent jailing of Al-Islah members was explained as defending the Emirates from 'foreign-linked organisations' who want to 'challenge the constitution and the basic principles' of the country.

From the outside, the UAE's crackdown is extraordinary, as there is no evidence thus far of Al-Islah or any other group plotting the overthrow of the Government. Instead, all there is to comment upon is a crackdown on freedom of speech and association, conducted with a virulent anti-Brotherhood tone. Ironically, it appears as if the UAE have taken a classically Western view of 'Islamists', as a monolithic block to be feared.  

The underlying reason for the UAE's overly zealous approach stems from a deep and abiding desire to maintain the status quo. Almost no level of agitation, however minor, is tolerated. It should be mentioned, this logic appears to find widespread support in the UAE. Yet there needs to be an assessment within the UAE elite as to whether such an uncompromising clamp down on basic freedoms and worrying policies like importing hundreds of Colombian mercenaries as some mysterious 'third force' actually exacerbate the underlying tensions they seek to suppress.

Regional Build-up

In addition to the Gulf monarchies dealing with internal challenges, we are witnessing increasing arms build-up in the region. While the Gulf is already a region bristling with weapons systems of all varieties, its inventories are nevertheless perennially updated. It is reported that the US military is deploying, for only the fourth time, its X-Band radar system to Qatar. This will link up with other X-Band systems in Turkey and Israel, as well as the existing panoply of Patriot and other systems in the Gulf, to pin-point Iranian missile attacks for countermeasures. The UAE is scheduled to add a Theatre High Altitude Area Defence System (THAAD) to its repertoire soon too. Clearly, such large investments are not taken lightly and indicate a very real concern within the UAE's elite concerning Iran's regional ambitions. 

In addition to one of the biggest weapon purchases by Saudi Arabia in the past 18 months, Qatar, not known for significant procurement in recent years or a bellicose international attitude, is buying over $5bn worth of AH-64 Apache Longbow Block III, MS-60S SeaHawk, and MH-60 Blackhawk helicopters as well as $2.4 billion worth of German Leopard-2 tanks. Clearly, Qatar is planning to significantly boost its capacity to project power over its gas fields and installations, at least.

Status Quo?

Many of these issues point towards an increasingly uncertain future while the present status quo is by no means peaceful. The situation in Bahrain remains deeply concerning, with entrenched sides seemingly as far from any kind of a settlement as ever. Yemen remains a failed state with an atrocious humanitarian situation which will not remain within its borders. One might think that this issue, if not the stark humanitarian imperative, might galvanise the Gulf States into action.

With issues such as Yemen's collapsing government; Kuwait's faltering experiment with democracy and Bahrain's continued domestic unrest, there is a nexus between the domestic and the international. None of these issues are playing out in a vacuum and each will have broader regional consequences.

For example, the Kuwaiti executive cannot cede some power to the opposition without the other Gulf monarchies growing concerned with the potential precedent, as they are resistant about broadening access to power. Shifts in internal policy which change the balance of power between religious groups are given broader significance, for instance domestic Shia empowerment may be interpreted as facilitating the spread of Iran's regional influence.

Iran, as ever, remains a central concern. The Iranian threat comes in low impact, high probability concerns with regards to internal security and high impact, low probability events such as a potential territorial attack. However Iran's fragile economy, already beset by sanctions, appears to be worsening. Korea has followed the Europeans pledged to stop importing Iranian oil, another significant blow to the Persian state. If more countries follow and the sanctions are further increased (there seems no prospect that they can be reduced until after the US Elections at least), an ever more isolated Iran becomes ever more dangerous.

Yet such is the state of the Gulf tinder-box that Iran does not even need to decide to instigate a crisis, for they can materialise from nowhere. The incident in mid-July of a small fishing boat directly approaching a US warship in the Gulf on which the US opened fire killing one person and injuring three others is a reminder of Iran's escapades in the past and how bravado or misunderstanding can lead to accidents, which can in turn can lead into larger conflagrations in a region which can seem like it is stumbling towards conflict.

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