Gulf within the Gulf



The geopolitics of the Persian Gulf is becoming curiouser and curiouser.

The story so far: Saudi Arabia has been struggling to hold together a coalition of Sunni Arab kingdoms to buttress against a possible Iranian diplomatic breakout.

But Saudi Arabia is also struggling to hold the line against the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic (but anti-monarchical) political forces released in the Arab world by the so-called Arab Spring.

In this struggle the political crises in Egypt and the Syrian civil war are effectively subsets of these larger Gulf divides. Thus Riyadh supports the Syrian rebels against the Assad regime which is pro-Iranian. It also backs the Egyptian military regime because the Brotherhood are its sworn enemies.

The Syrian war is deadlocked and the Brotherhood is in retreat in Egypt. The Saudis, however, are doing less well in the Gulf and the Sunni emirates that makeup the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The first rift was with Oman, always a bit independent minded. Oman warned it would leave the GCC if it became used as a platform against Iran and has quietly promoted talks between the United States and Iran.

The second rift was with another GCC member, Qatar. Qatar’s royal family sees its security and possibly legitimacy dependent on support for the Arab popular revolts – and sees the conservative but democratic Muslim Brotherhood as the obvious organization to support. After failing to get Qatar to change its ways, the Saudis, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates last week recalled their ambassadors from Qatar. Doha is unrepentant and made it clear it would not change.

Oman has been silent, probably because its ruling Ibadi sect (nonviolent Kharijites) are beyond the reach of either Sunni or Shia groups.

Whatever else is happening in the Arab world, the various political poles around which the West Asian world was originally wrapping itself around and are now shrinking. Turkey’s original hopes of being the modernizing face are in trouble thanks to its domestic and economic problems. Egypt has regressed into being a Saudi dependent and has no real leadership claim right now.

Only Iran, Saudi Arabia and the strange Qatar/Brotherhood seem to remain. And, quietly festering in the badlands of eastern Syria and western Iraq, a post-al Qaeda Sunni militancy.

Things aren’t getting better in West Asia, but they are at least getting a little simpler.

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