The Persian Gulf as a Regional Security Complex

This is more a summary than a review of The International Relations of the Persian Gulf by F. Gregory Gause, III. Gause is considered to be one of the chief experts on MidEast politics ever since the publication of his seminal text Oil Monarchies. I have some disagreements with his analysis but there is much I have learned and I will concentrate on that in this post. [I have sometimes shamelessly used the exact words of the author without using quotation marks. I am mostly reporting what I think are the key insights of Gause.]

Regional security complexes 

The concept of regional security complexes (RSCs) was introduced by Barry Buzan who is a professor at the London School of Economics. These regional systems are defined by the mutuality of threat/fear felt among the members toward each other. “[Buzan] urges analysts to focus on the degree to which certain geographically grouped states spend most of their time and effort worrying about each other and not other states. Those states with intense security interdependence over time qualify as regional security complexes.”

This is a very promising approach to analyzing security issues. Many significant RSCs can be identified easily in the current world order. (See map above). Buzan et al think of the MidEast security complex as composed of two sub-complexes. The Eastern Mediterranean, where the regional powers are Israel, Turkey, Egypt, and Syria. Israel acts as a regional hegemon, policing the region in coordination with Washington. This system has been stable since Kissinger engineered the Arab-Israeli peace of 1973.

The Persian Gulf security complex

The Persian Gulf system is a tripolar system with Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia as the major regional powers. Gause contends that apart from balance of power considerations, the decision making of rulers is driven by concern over regime security. Transnational identities–Arab, Kurdish, Shi’i, Sunni, tribal–allow rulers to mobilize support across state borders. Gulf rulers have to worry about ideological threats which neighbours can use to stir up challenges within their own polities. Note their none of these powers are democracies, this has interesting implications in the context of the Arab spring. I will return to this after a brief history of the system.

Just so we keep things in perspective here are some key indicators for these countries. Note that each of these powers has over a hundred billion barrels of proven oil reserves. Note also that in terms of population Iran was thrice as big as Iraq and five times as Saudi Arabia in 1971. It also had an enormous advantage in terms of having a skilled populace and technological/industrial depth. In comparison, Saudi Arabia was almost a pure rentier state with a highly under-skilled populace, nonexistent industry and paucity of other strategic resources. Therefore, despite much higher oil revenues (and hence output) Saudi Arabia was (and is) no match for Iranian state power.        

Population (millions) 1971 1981 1991 2001 2011
Iran 30 41 61 70 77
Iraq 10 14 18 23 30
Saudi Arabia 6 11 16 22 26
GDP ($ billion) 1971 1981 1991 2001 2011
Iran 71 82 131 148 222
Iraq 13 21 33 63 92
Saudi Arabia 82 194 218 256 379
Oil production (million bbl/day)
1981 1991 2001 2011
Iran 1.8 3.0 3.8 4.1
Iraq 2.5 0.5 2.5 2.5
Saudi Arabia 10.0 9.0 9.8 10.0
Proven Oil Reserves (billion bbl)
Iran 115
Iraq 143
Saudi Arabia 265
Data sources: World Bank, IMF, CIA and US EIA
Emergence (1971-78)  

The story begins with the end of British protection for the smaller Arab Gulf states in 1971. Up until then British political and military commitment to them served to constraint the influence of the larger regional states. The announcement in 1968 that London will end its military presence in the region and terminate its security commitment to Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the Trucial States (which coalesced to form the UAE in 1971) was immediately followed by Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia jockeying for influence.

Knee deep in Vietnam, Washington did not want to make any new military commitments in the region. Rather it looked to regional allies to maintain stability. The only debate in the Nixon administration was over whether Iran alone should assume that role or whether Saudi Arabia should also be included in the picture. Iran was the natural hegemon of the region. Under the Shah it was the primary client state of the US in the Gulf. By 1971, the American “twin pillar” policy in the Gulf had taken shape. Iran and Saudi Arabia; joined together by their pro-Western stance, monarchical domestic system and antipathy to Ba’thist Iraq; would together enforce the regional order and ensure an orderly transition from British protection.

The oil price revolution of 1973-74, significantly increased the revenues of all regional powers. Iranian revenues jumped from $2.4b in 1972 to $21.2b in 1977. In the same period, those of Iraq and Saudi Arabia jumped from $600m and $2.7b to $9.6b and $36.5b respectively. This enormous windfall made each of these states more powerful but the balance of power between them remained unchanged because all of them gained from higher oil revenues. 

The aftermath of the Islamic revolution (1979-1991)

The Islamic revolution fundamentally redirected the politics of the dominant state of the region. It caused a second oil shock and was a major factor in a region wide Islamist revival. It changed the regional dynamics in two important ways. First, it ended the relative moderation of the regional political agenda that had obtained in the 1970s–which rested on the fact that regional powers accepted the domestic legitimacy of other regimes. The revolution ended that in one stroke. The very fact that a mass-based, Islamic social revolution had occurred in the neighbourhood was an implicit threat to both Ba’thist Iraq and the Arab monarchies. Further, the revolutionary regime actively promoted the export of the revolution which made this threat explicit.

The second major effect was on American policy. No longer could the US rely on a powerful regional ally to guarantee its interests and maintain order. Losing Iran was a huge set back to the US, orders of magnitude more than the loss in Indochina. Over the next decades the US got increasingly militarily involved in the region–a process which is still going on.   

Following the Islamic revolution, the Iraqi decision to invade Iran was a miscalculation by Saddam Hussein. Knowing full well it had the backing of Washington and other powers in this case, it underestimated the residual State power of the revolutionary regime (which was much weakened by the upheaval but still stronger than Iraq). The war with Iran generated zero strategic gains for Iraq with enormous costs. Washington increasingly backed Saddam in his war against revolutionary Iran, especially after the tide turned against him in 1982. This is the year when Saddam used chemical weapons against domestic enemies (the Kurdish resistance) and on the battlefield. Policymakers in Washington knew that the longer the war went on the higher the likelihood of an outright Iraqi defeat. Ultimately, the US navy had to join in the fray (the reflagging operation of ’87-88)–which brought Iran to the negotiating table and terminated the senseless war. 

Saudi Arabia used the opportunity to consolidate its leadership among the smaller Arab Gulf states. The immediate threat of the Islamic revolution led the smaller states into Saudi arms and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was founded in 1981. Coordination on security issues intensified, as did Saudi and GCC support for Saddam.   

Erosion of Iraqi power (1991-2002)

Facing domestic threats to his rule Saddam decided to double down by invading Kuwait. He took a gamble on US support, but it may even be that Washington misled him. When Saddam checked with the US Ambassador to Iraq about his plans to attack Kuwait, she “did not have specific instructions about what the US response might be”. Washington was thinking that Saddam only wanted to take control of an oil field and a couple of islands. They did not expect a full scale invasion. After he realized the depth of US opposition to his consolidating control over all of Kuwait, Saddam sued for peace but Washington had quickly decided on the use of force to establish US credibility (that it would intervene with force to restore the status quo).

President Bush kicked Saddam out of Kuwait but left him to brutally crush the domestic uprising in Iraq (with chemical weapons) to maintain the “balance of power” in the region. The US then proceed to slowly crush Iraqi power for the rest of the 1990s. Saddam had actually ceased his nuclear program in 1990 but played with IAEA inspectors for a decade. Why he pretended to be developing nuclear weapons is a bit of a mystery. It seems he could not reconcile trying to placate the US and deterring Iran. 

The collapse of Iraqi state power and bipolarity (2003-present)

The Iraq war was a major debacle of US foreign policy. I was not convinced of this till I read Gause. I thought that occupying Iraq has enabled the US to surround Iran with client states and direct military controlled territory. That it also enhanced US control over Gulf energy resources. But in terms of strategic control of Gulf resources, there has been very little enhancement. It’s clear that beyond the horizon power projection would’ve worked to ensure US control with minimal cost and friction. On the other hand, the inconsistency of US policy with the Saddam regime meant 12 years of economic warfare (1991-2003). In that period, in which US policy was basically bleeding Iraqi state power, the relative power of Iran was growing–precisely because of what the US was doing to Iraq. But even in 2003, Iraq and Saudi Arabia were together strong enough to balance Iran in the Gulf. The brutality of the 2003 American attack, military occupation, and the neoliberal shock imposed on Iraq led to a total collapse of Iraqi state power. We now have an unequal duopoly on the mezzanine floor of regional power in the Gulf.     

This strategic shift of power to Iran due to the collapse of the third pole in the Gulf security complex has narrowed US policy options. Washington has no option but to increase its military commitment and deployment in the Persian Gulf. The other option of balancing Iran with other regional powers was willingly given up by the Bush administration. With Iraq out of action as a result of the neoconservative debacle, Iran’s position bolstered and Saudi Arabia too weak to counter Iranian influence, Washington has stepped in to play that role. But that role does not require major US military presence on land (i.e., staying in Iraq). It can play the role “beyond the horizon”, emerging only to reestablish the status quo as it did in 1991. This is the position of Harvard professor Stephen Walt, who is a mainstream realist. 

This explains the huge increase in US security commitment to the Arab Gulf states. It explains US support for Saudi belligerence against Iran (and crushing of Shi’i protestors in Bahrain and Eastern Saudi Arabia). Moreover, it puts stories about the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the right frame of reference. Furthermore, reports that the White House is looking at the Arab Spring though the prism of containing Iran become explicable in this framework. 

The Future of the Persian Gulf complex

Transnational identities increase the likelihood of conflict in the Gulf. The security dilemma, real enough in a region where possession of territory can bring with it the riches of oil, is exacerbated by the political opportunities and threats presented by transnational political identities. We can see this right now in Turkish raids into Iraq to crush the Kurds, Iranian support for Sadr and other Shi’i groups in Iraq and Hizbollah in Lebanon, Saudi support for Sunni groups in Iraq and the invasion of Bahrain to protect al Khalifa from his Shi’i subjects. This factor will continue to dominate the Gulf political agenda for the foreseeable future. 

A major open question is whether Iraqis will manage to construct a viable state. Right now, Iraq is a weak state and a playing field for other powers. This pattern of interference seems set to continue, further reducing the likelihood of the reconstitution of Iraqi state power. A perpetually weak and embattled Iraq increases the chances of Kurdish independence and de facto autonomy. That means a high likelihood of Turkish military and political intervention in northern Iraq in the future. Iraq will remain the site of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which will probably take on a increasingly sectarian tone. These sectarian tensions are likely to spill over into other Gulf countries, especially Kuwait (25% Shi’i), Bahrain (70% Shi’i), and even Saudi Arabia and Iran themselves.

A second major security issue is the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. The immediate regional response will be an Israeli strike and a Saudi decision to acquire their own nuclear arsenal. The first would increase tensions across the MidEast and the probability of a major conflict. The second would depend crucially on how Riyadh judges the American commitment to keep it under its nuclear umbrella–an explicit commitment contingent on Saudi non-proliferation might dissuade the Saudis from acquiring their own arsenal. A Saudi move to acquire nuclear capability would probably involve purchasing a weapon from Pakistan or some kind of Pakistani deployment in Saudi Arabia. This will severely limit US policy options in the region. In particular, it will take an American invasion of either country aimed at regime change “off the table” for good. 

The most important component of the Persian Gulf complex is sustained American security commitment to the Arab Gulf states and long term military deployment in the region at substantially higher levels than at any time in history. President Obama has already made this commitment quite explicit. The cost of this will probably run into the trillions over the next few decades–a cost that should be added to the $3 trillion bill that Joseph Stieglitz calculated for the Iraq war proper. This is a self-inflicted wound of US foreign policy.

It remains to be seen whether US protection of Gulf monarchies in the face of the Arab spring is going to backfire. The rising regional influence of Turkey and a resurgent democratic Egypt might severely undermine the domestic legitimacy of the Gulf monarchies. No one expected the Shah to flee even as late as a month before it happened. While analyzing regional security complexes is a tractable exercise, social upheaval is impossible to predict. However, we are certainly once again in revolutionary times.

[Read the next post in this topic: Stability in the Persian Gulf.] 


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