Troubled Waters: Insecurity in the Persian Gulf
Reviewed by PAULA MARIE YOUNG,
Qatar University College of Law, Doha, Qatar
For over eighteen months, Qatari citizens and residents have lived under diplomatic and economic sanctions imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt when the countries closed their land, sea, and air routes to and from Qatar on June 5, 2017. The blockading countries alleged that the tiny country had breached three agreements negotiated in 2013 and 2014 that required the Gulf countries, including Qatar, to commit to behaviors and policies that would enhance regional and regime stability. See Jim Sciutto and Jeremy Herb, “Exclusive: The Secret Documents thatHelp Explain the Qatar Crisis,” CNN, July 11, 2017 (describing the contents of each document); “Qatar Made a Series of SecretAgreements . . . ,” Turner Broadcasting, July 10, 2017, 1 (English translation of 2013 and 2014 Riyadh Agreements, with original Arabic texts).
The Gulf monarchies grew alarmed after watching Arab leaders in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt toppled by political protests during the Arab Spring.
The three “Riyadh” agreements, taken together, required the Gulf countries to cease giving any financial, media, or intangible support to any individual or group that interferes in the internal affairs of another state. In addition, they required an end to support or refuge for any person engaged in opposition political activities in another Gulf state. Signatories agreed to withdraw support for any “deviant” group, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. One of the three agreements required the signatory countries to report the names of citizens engaged in opposition politics to allow “measures against them.” It also required Gulf countries to shut all academies and centers that train Gulf citizens to oppose their own governments. One of the agreements required Gulf countries to contribute to Egypt’s security, stability, and financial support and to end any media coverage directed against Egypt, including any Al Jazeera broadcasts. (Ibid.)
The blockading countries launched the sanctions against Qatar using -- for the first time in the Arab Gulf region -- cyber warfare, Twitter bot armies, and a misinformation campaign designed to create a narrative about Qatar’s role in financing terrorism. During the first months of the siege, the blockading countries engaged in a number of additional tactics that risked an escalation of the dispute. They expelled Qataris, allegedly planned a mercenary or other invasion of the country, violated Qatari airspace, apparently sought a palace coup, waged an economic war, criminalized any show of support for Qatar, and blocked media broadcasts. See Paula Marie Young, “Power-Based Interventions of Countries Organizing the Siege Against Qatar,” Qatar: Political, Economic, and Social Issues (Baltimore: Nova Science Pubs., 2019).
Against this backdrop, I began reading Mehran Kamrava's Troubled Waters: Insecurity in the Persian Gulf (Ithica and London: Cornell University Press, 2018), 197 pages; $29.95 cloth, $9.95 Kindle edition. The book focuses on the factors contributing to the ongoing conflict and instability in the region from the political science point of view. It seeks to answer a question posed as the first line of the Introduction: “Why is the Persian Gulf so chronically insecure?” The book consists of five chapters with an introduction.
Chapter 1 provides historical, political, and military context and suggests that Persian Gulf countries should think about security – the effort to counter threats to survival and safety -- in much broader terms. Leaders in the region focus on security in military and territorial terms, especially when most of the security challenges in the Gulf have been military. The security of a state, however, is multi-dimensional. Leaders should consider human security that includes issues of poverty, underdevelopment, hunger, lack of jobs economic opportunities, prevalence of crime, poor healthcare, poor governance, civil turmoil, terrorism, racism, zenophobia, and corruption. They should also include concern for the environment, as well as state collapse as seen in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Syria. After the Arab Spring, additional threats to security include the aspirations for regional hegemony, identity politics, and sectarianism. In the long-term, Gulf states must prepare for post-rentier economies at a time when the population of younger people, with high expectations for economic opportunity, continues to grow.
The author describes the region as heavily armed, highly volatile, and of critical strategic importance given its oil and natural gas reserves. Gulf states feel besieged and face a future that is impossible to discern. He argues that the West has viewed the region through a proprietary lens, and, as a result, Britain, then the United States, played import roles in the “security architecture” of the Gulf. The West tolerated conflict in the region, authoritarian political systems, and unhappy populations so long as petroleum production and deliveries remained unmolested. The role of the US shifted from an external balancer of power to a military role with the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. The Arab Spring brought new challenges to the region in the form of religious extremism, civil wars, repressive despotism, bloody sectarianism, and the collapse of weak states. Throughout these events, Gulf states over-relied on the US for their own security.
The author also suggests that Gulf countries project power and influence internationally to shore up regime stability at home. Thus, a Gulf state ties its foreign policy to issues of domestic legitimacy and frames the policy along sectarian lines to bolster leaders’ actions. Smaller states in the Persian Gulf have cultivated international ties rather than deeper regional ties, primarily out of fear of Saudi Arabia’s hegemonic ambitions. Iran, also fearing Saudi and US hegemonic ambitions, has increased its influence in what many call the “Shia crescent” that extends through southern Iraq, Syria, and southern Lebanon.
While Iran views its actions as increasing its own security, Gulf countries (especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) feel threatened by what they view as Iran’s geopolitical ambitions. Thus, strategic rivalries enhance sectarian rivalries. Regional leaders have created security arrangements that regime survival seemingly demands. Moreover, they have developed responses to actual and perceived security threats formed in a very complex, threat-filled environment. The author concludes the chapter by saying: “Old formulas will not work and should be regarded with suspicion.” See Mehran Kamrava, Troubled Waters: Insecurity in the Persian Gulf (Ithica and London: Cornell University Press, 2018), 32.
Chapter 2 explores the Persian Gulf’s current security architecture, its historical evolution, and the central role played by the US. Prior to the 1980s, a rough balance of power existed between Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. After the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79, the US took a more active role as the external balancer. At that time, its strategy shifted to isolating and containing Iran. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 further changed the security architecture. It ushered in an active military role for the US and eliminated another pillar in the former security architecture of the region. Alarmingly, the Gulf states have failed to create a collective security architecture based on alliances through trade, shared institutions, and joint military security, despite the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981 in response to the Iraq-Iran War. The Arab Spring ushered in a more chaotic and fragmented security system with new non-state actors like Daesh and Al Qaeda, the civil wars in Libya and Syria, and the war in Yemen. Instead of more collective security systems based on shared values, Gulf countries have instead engaged in competition for regional and international influence and leverage.
The sources of the insecurity despite the highly “securitized” nature of the region, include the heavy-handed military presence of the US, structural weaknesses of authoritarian states, identity politics, and human insecurity. Globalization, information technology, internationalization, differing hydrocarbon reserves, and a weak consensus within the GCC magnify the underlying threats. The author sees the problems feeding off each other. No win-win scenario will likely emerge to reduce tensions and enhance feelings of security.
Chapter 3 describes the regional leaders, especially the younger generation of leaders, who show less willingness to negotiate regional conflicts. This part of the book identifies interests and needs of various Persian Gulf countries, and those of the US in the region. It also discusses the diminished role of the GCC in enhancing political and economic unity. The author describes the Obama administration’s desire to reduce the US military presence in the region by shifting security to a joint missile system in the Gulf and greater burden sharing by the Gulf states. Ultimately, the US negotiated the “landmark” nuclear deal with Iran and P5+1 countries in an attempt to make Iran less dangerous to its neighbors. Moreover, with secure delivery of oil and other hydrocarbons, the US could pull back its military presence in the Gulf. The Obama administration encouraged Saudi Arabia to “share” the region with Iran, forgo proxy wars in the region, and create a “cold peace.” In sharp contrast, the Trump administration declared Iran in breach of the nuclear deal and scorned it as a source of terrorism and sectarian conflict. In doing so, the Trump administration undermined any chance that the parties could modify the existing relationships in the region.
Iran feels threatened by the arms build-up and the bellicosity of the US and Gulf state leaders. It bitterly recalls the alignment of these countries against it in the Iraq-Iran war, even after Iraq used chemical weapons against its troops and civilians. It “sees Syria as a major front in its geostrategic competition with the US, its cold war with Saudi Arabia, and its fight against Salafism and Daesh.” (Ibid., 75.) It has sought to preserve existing state structures in Syria and Iraq, provided economic support to both governments, and made itself indispensable to both countries. Iran sees these actions as a strategic defense of its own security, not as a sectarian competition.
The GCC, as an institution, activates only in a moment of region-wide crisis, like the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Without a crisis, the individual Gulf states protect their sovereignty, compete for foreign investments, and distrust one another. Smaller states fear the hegemonic ambitions of Saudi Arabia and resent its efforts to integrate and dictate regional and international policies of the members States. The GCC has no mechanism for crisis management or conflict resolution, as the blockade of one member by three other members proved in June 2017. While the fears of member states about Iran run deep, each one has adopted a different strategy towards the regional rival.
Saudi Arabia, asserting itself as a middle power, sees itself as the ultimate regional leader and defender given its size, population, and military might. It expects to articulate the foreign policy of the region and it frames those policies through a sectarian lens. The Saudi leaders viewed the nuclear deal with Iran as an abandonment by the US of the kingdom’s political and military security. Iran had “won” in the zero-sum game conceived by Riyadh. Sharing the region with Iran was ridiculous, especially when Saudi Arabia viewed local political uprisings as the work of a relentless opponent intending to dominate the Arab world.
UAE’s more restless generation of young leaders feels confident in projecting power into the Gulf and Arab region. It feels threatened by political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, which it sees as undermining social cohesion. Its close geographic distance to Iran and past disputes over territory make Iran the biggest threat to UAE. After the Arab Spring, the UAE increased military arms purchases and played a more assertive military role in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
Qatar seeks a more independent foreign policy, saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity to expand its influence, and uses its “subtle power” to build its international reputation. It adopted a security strategy of “hedging,” designed to reduce the number of its enemies while creating friends and international alliances. It did so through long-term hydrocarbon supply contracts and in the role as regional mediator. Qatar’s security strategy also relied on aggressive branding as the progressive Arab nation that could serve as the intermediary between the Arab and Western worlds. It assumed a number of high-profile leadership positions on the international stage, successfully became the host of the 2022 World Cup, made large investments abroad, established the Al Jazeera Media Network, and relied on the US security umbrella, including the US Central Command, with 10,000 US troops, at the Al-Udeid Air Base.
Chapter 4 discusses the ongoing insecurity of regional actors, especially after the Arab Spring in 2011, and the tendency of Gulf leaders to question and fear the intentions of neighboring countries. The author describes how the security enhancing measures of one country increases the insecurity of a neighboring country. In response, the neighbor takes action to strengthen its security, which in turn, makes its neighbors nervous. Repeat, repeat, and repeat in an ongoing escalation that reduces a state’s military capabilities, encourages an adversary to engage in expansion, and wastes financial and material resources.
The author discusses several strategies countries can take to increase security, including a “balance of power system” used by the US before the Iranian Revolution. In addition, weaker states can “bandwagon” with larger states for protection against opponents. They can also create a “common security system” based on reciprocal relationships and shared strategic interests, rather than based on fear. Another strategy, called “self-binding,” requires one actor to deescalate without any expectation that an opponent will reciprocate. The first actor hopes shared norms of self-restraint eventually arise that prevent a further escalation spiral.
The author also itemizes the actual and perceived threats of the dominant players in the region. He notes that “Middle East policymakers are ‘quintessential realists’ motivated by regime survival, sovereignty, territorial integrity, international acceptance, and internal and external threats.” (Ibid., 119.) For Iran, its leaders worry most about the intentions and actions of the US. It tried to reduce tensions with the US by negotiating the nuclear deal, but in doing so, increased the anxieties of the Gulf and other Arab states. Iran seeks unthreatened production and delivery of its hydrocarbon resources. Daesh is another major threat to Iran. Unlike the GCC countries, it sees itself as security-independent.
For Saudi Arabia, regime security tops its list of worries. It also fears it dependence on the US for security, competition with Iran, Al Qaeda and Daesh, and vulnerabilities at home because of the inelasticity of its political structure. In 2014, it spent 26 percent of its budget on arms, making it the country with the fourth highest military expenditure, behind the US, China, and Russia.
The UAE’s concerns are similar to those of Saudi Arabia, varying in degree, but not in nature. It views Iran as its biggest threat, seeing it as increasingly more dangerous, arrogant, expansionist, and self-confident. The UAE also fears sectarianism and extremism. It fears that the US seeks to pull away from the region and end its security guarantee as part of the regional security architecture. The author concludes that the following factors must change to reduce feelings of insecurity: “strategic perspectives, zero-sum assumptions, deeply embedded mistrust, and worldviews and mechanisms that sustain them.” (Ibid., 144.) These changes will not likely come. Accordingly, the region will remain contentious and marked by intra-regional tensions.
Chapter 5 calls the current situation a “dialogue of the deaf” (Ibid., 7, 121.) in which the gulf remains “highly militarized and highly insecure for the forseeable future.” (Ibid., 8-9.) The author expects three things to shape that future. First, a post-oil era will see heightened tensions and increase threats to human security. The shift to a knowledge-based economy may or may not mitigate the end to a resource-based economy and the political peace it has bought from citizens. Second, Iran’s foreign policy could increase feelings of insecurity. Third, US foreign policy has shown that the balance-of-power strategy is not working. Unsteady and unreliable regional allies make its role as external balancer difficult. Instead, the US should work to create multilateral agreements that bind the countries in a web of military and economic alliances. This web of relationships should seek to create greater security independence. In the end, however, security in the Persian Gulf “remains as elusive as ever.” (Ibid., 152.)
His conclusions, while well-supported, offer little hope that the situation will change. Leaders need to engage in diplomacy and dialogue and accept the need for change. However, the blockade of Qatar proves that Gulf leaders cannot or will not use these critical problem-solving approaches. The author expresses dismay at the “scourge of sectarianism” that has crept through societies in the Persian Gulf that frames an us-versus-them story. While it has served regional leaders in their fights against other states, it reinforces a zero-sum assessment of regional security options and prevents the inclusion of Iran in a common security arrangement.
The book has a short table of contents and a comprehensive index. Chapters include helpful sub-headings. The reference list includes mostly scholarly books, papers, and publications.
Scholars, policy-makers, regional leaders, and people curious about the Persian Gulf will find this book extremely helpful in analyzing several aspects of the region’s instability, volatility, and militarization. It makes a valuable contribution to the English-language scholarship on the post-Arab Spring politics of the Persian Gulf at a time of the ongoing war in Yemen and the blockade against Qatar.
The author, Mehran Kamrava, is Professor and Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. He earned a Ph.D. from University of Cambridge and a B.A. in Political Science from California State University – Northridge. His expertise is in domestic politics of Middle East states, international relations of the Middle East, Iranian politics and foreign policy, Persian Gulf security, Qatar, and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
The book succeeded in describing the political environment leading to the chronic insecurity of the region. I especially appreciated the list of the interests shared by Saudi Arabia and Iran in Chapter 3. They are the free flow of oil, freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, and nuclear safety. Clear identification of these interests suggests ways in which the Persian Gulf states, including Iran, could work together to reduce tensions. Unfortunately, the list is short, even if it includes highly important interests. Are those interests enough to yield the breakthroughs required in the region?
I was hoping for more depth in the analysis of how the Persian Gulf countries can achieve greater peace in the region. The author promised that Chapter 5 would examine “possible win-win scenarios that are likely to reduce tensions and security threats in the Persian Gulf.” (Ibid., 6.) My outline of that chapter shows little attention to the analysis. In fact, the author later admits that he does not plan to recount the suggestions of other scholars or offer new scenarios. (Ibid., 148, citing Andrew Rathmell, Theodore Karasik, and David Gompert, “A New Persian Gulf Security System,” Rand Issue Paper (2003)).
Its absence, and the limited list of other scholars’ work, suggests opportunities for scholars to focus on problem-solving strategies. Perhaps the focus should shift from substance to process, especially when this author and many others, acknowledge the lack of peaceful dispute resolution mechanisms, capacity, and mindsets in the region. See Paula Marie Young, “Alternative Dispute Resolution in theArab Gulf Region,” Red Velvet Lawyer (blog), March 9, 2016. See also Nahla Yassine-Hamdan and Frederic S. Pearson, Arab Approaches to Conflict Resolution (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), 43-107.
Chillingly, the author declares that in this unstable landscape, the use of force -- rather than negotiation -- is the least damaging choice among available options. (Kamrava, Troubled Waters, 119.)
The book left me particularly concerned about the ability of the younger, more belligerent generation of leaders to handle skillfully the security dilemmas they face, along with the human security needs of their citizens, sectarianism, and extremism. Mismanagement of these issues could so easily lead to devastating results for their citizens.
The author also acknowledged the importance of human security. I wish he had provided data about issues of human security faced by each Persian Gulf country, including population trends, more demographic and economic data, and a discussion of citizen access to jobs, food, housing, and health care. What does that security threat look like in the coming years?
While the book is well-written and easy to read, the author uses several similarly-named concepts, developed by political scientists, that can confuse readers without this background. They include the concepts of security, insecurity, securitization, security architecture, security complexes, security dilemma, security guarantee, and security paradox. I did feel this slim volume could use even more editing to eliminate some of the redundancies in later chapters. Chapter organization seemed to force some of these redundancies. I also wanted more discussion of the origins of some of the theories he applied, especially the security strategies by which states power balance, hedge, and bandwagon to increase their own security. Examples of “common security systems” would have helped this reader.
In conclusion, Kamrava, a prolific author, provides a fearless examination of the persistent tensions in the most volatile region in the world, along with the security architecture that makes it persistently unstable. I hope the author plans a new book applying this security analysis to the specific circumstances of the sanctions against Qatar.