Changing Geopolitical Dynamics in the Persian Gulf and Broader Ramifications

The Persian Gulf has been on the spotlight for its geopolitical significance for a long time. Of course, in any historical period or occasion, a specific geopolitical factor or several factors have been given more attention. Perhaps, one can prove that since the domination of the British East India Company over Hindustan which in that time spanned to the borders of Iran and Afghanistan, the geopolitical significance of the Persian Gulf has doubled. Britain tried to dominate and influence the territories around the Persian Gulf and do not allow rival powers to control this waterway and cause danger for its valuable colony, India.

After that, the first oil well was discovered in Iran’s Masjed Soleiman City and made it imaginable for foreigners to exploit rich oil resources of the Persian Gulf territories and cause significant developments in the use of fuel and advancement of technology. Therefore, the discovery of oil increased the geopolitical weight of the Persian Gulf region. On the other side, Communism was spreading rapidly in the former Soviet Union, resulting in the expansion of the Soviet influence in the region particularly the strategic approach of the USSR in accessing the warm waters of the south. Moreover, the economic and military power of Britain was diminishing after the Second World War. After that the capitalist world reached the conclusion that the United States of America should replace the Great Britain after victory in the war. And in this way, Britain withdrew its forces from the east of the Suez Canal.

After Americans replaced the British, the price of oil surged and regional powers were given due significance. The Nixon-Kissinger two-pillar policy was adopted towards the Persian Gulf region aimed at controlling the influence of the former Soviet Union. Even though Iran and Saudi Arabia were going to handle the state of affairs of the Persian Gulf, the Pahlavi regime of Iran ultimately assumed the role of the superior power or gendarme of the Persian Gulf. Four decades ago, with the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, some Persian Gulf states namely Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait as well as the newly-established Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE, founded the Gulf Cooperation Council or the GCC out of the fear of the influence of the Iranian revolution. The main goal of the formation of this council was to counter the impacts of the Iranian revolution. Since then, another main factor was added to the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf in addition to the oil factor. And that was the security factor. In other words, since the establishment of the GCC, the Persian Gulf region experiences numerous security developments including three consecutive wars namely Iran-Iraq war, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and finally the invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain which changed the whole spectrum of the region.

According to Geopolitical Knowledge there are two major geopolitical factors which influence any region of the world. They include constant and variable factors. The Persian Gulf region is no exception in this respect. If I wanted to bring some examples, I might refer to the geographical districts in the Persian Gulf which are claimed by more than one states. This is a constant tension-rising geopolitical factor which resulted in the Iraq-Iran War and the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. Another example of a constant geopolitical factor includes the Strait of Hormuz. Concerns about the closure of this strait during the war of the recent decades in the Persian Gulf and more recently after the withdrawal of President Trump from the Iranian nuclear deal and US sanctions and threats against Iran demonstrated the significance of this waterway. Today, in addition to the above-mentioned issues, the events taking place in the surrounding areas of the Strait of Hormuz has added to its strategic and geopolitical significance. Such events include the development of the Gwadar port in Pakistan and Chabahar Port in Iran, in the east of the Strait of Hormuz which could turn in the not too distant future into key geopolitical and geostrategic points, leading to growing geopolitical rivalry between these two ports. The Chabahar Port in Iran which is being developed by the Indians is located in the long border of Pakistan. This has raised security concerns in Pakistan. As we know, Pakistan is now under pressure in its northern borders from India and its good relations with Afghanistan. If India strengthens its presence in Chabahar and in its northern areas, Pakistan would feel vulnerable. Therefore, a new geopolitical rivalry is emerging here, and we should wait for future developments.

However, next to Iran’s Chabahar Port and a little eastward is located the Gwadar Port of Pakistan which is under development by China in the forehead of the Indian Ocean. In fact, the development of the west of China is partly tied to the development of this Pakistani port which links Beijing to free waters and for this reason, several rail and road infrastructure projects are being constructed. We should not be surprised if strategic relations between China and Pakistan enter a new stage after the complete development of the Gwader Port which in foreseeable future would turn into the most important marine and strategic base of China in the Indian Ocean, near the Strait of Hormuz and the waters of India. Therefore, one can foresee that Chinese navy ships and vessels and even submarines would be stationed in this port. The US which has already expressed concerns with this development, recently signed an agreement with the Sultanate of Oman to use its Salalah and Duqm ports to establish bases to counter the influence of China during a crisis. Even though some scholars link the US presence in Omani ports to the tensions between the US and Iran, in the long term, what makes the US worried is the presence and influence of China in strategic regions such as the north of the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Hormuz as well as the Chinese control over the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca and even the Chinese presence in eastern Europe as per the 16+1 countries agreement. The US is exerting pressures to force China to withdraw or at least slow down its movements in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz.

Therefore, we can see that the variable geopolitical factors in the Persian Gulf are not limited to only oil. In the past, oil constituted the leading geopolitical weight of the Persian Gulf; today, due to the advancement of oil and gas extraction technologies by the Shell in the US and Canada as well as the self-sufficiency of the US in producing and exporting oil, this black gold is no longer offering the heaviest weight to the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf. And other factors such as terrorism, the geopolitics of media, nuclear rivalry, advanced conventional weapons accumulation and establishment of military bases in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf are contributing to the geopolitics of this important region.

Such relatively new geopolitical factors in the Persian Gulf, if aggravated and promoted by the interference of big powers, could potentially keep the region in a deep security crisis for years, influencing the surrounding areas and even the world order. In this respect, the policy of the incumbent US president vis-à-vis Iran, which remains committed to the nuclear deal in spite of the US withdrawal, coupled with provocations from neighboring countries against Iran, may intensify the tension and result in another conflict which could involve several other states.  

This paper also refers to other geopolitical factors, such as the creation and expansion of terrorism in the region. Despite the fact that Al-Qaeda has been controlled and Daesh has been militarily defeated, we are still facing the danger of the spread of their terrorist activities in the region and beyond because the Daesh ideology has deep roots in the region as it is being constantly fed by an extremist ideology namely Wahhabism. It is true that some of the Arab countries of the region are equipped with the most advanced weaponry supplied by the United States and Europe. Yet, they are unable alone to use such weaponry in the field. The war in Yemen is an irrefutable proof that the sole accumulation of modern weaponry is not a solution. Today, the presence of radical groups is mainly responsible for the instability and insecurity in the region. We have seen many such examples in Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as in Iraq, Syria and Egypt. We have seen the training of ideological indoctrination of people in Madrasas in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Until the roots of such extremist ideologies are identified and combatted, destructive groups such as Daesh, Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusrah, Jeish al-Islam, Boko Haram, Sepah Sahabeh and Tohid Movement which recently caused tragedy in Sri Lanka would continue to exist and operate. Insecurity in the countries of the region has provided unique opportunities to terrorists to fill the gaps and sometimes be exploited as tools by international powers against rival countries. As we saw such instances in Iraq and Syria, today we see signs they are exploiting terrorism in Afghanistan to weaken and harm rivals such as China, Russia and even Iran.

The supply of all types of advanced conventional weaponry and helping the supporters of Salafi-fundamentalism to develop nuclear technologies only for gaining financial profit is a danger which jeopardizes the region and the world – which means the same mistakes made in the 1980s to finance and arm fundamentalist and salafi groups to defeat the Soviet army, are presently reoccurring. Such groups later gave birth to Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Geographical realities well indicate that South Asia, Europe and Central Asia will be most affected by the geopolitical developments of the Persian Gulf. The countries located in these regions needs to ignore temporary financial benefit for the sake of their long-term security and invest in countering fundamentalism. Therefore, inattention and lack of serious action against the pressures exerted on Iran could ultimately result in more regional vulnerability for two reasons: the weakening of Iran would strengthen salafi fundamentalism and terrorism because Iran has proved in the past decade that it is one of the main forces in the fight against this type of terrorism. Secondly, the financial and planning capability of Iran in suppressing terrorism is diminishing. Therefore, making Iran unstable would result in increased instability in the region and even across Europe. And the consequences would remain for a long time.

Image : Pethrus via Wikimedia Commons and it is licensed under a Creative Commons attribution.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.

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