By Mohammad Awais
The Importance of the Middle East to the United States cannot be understated; it is a strategically important region for its natural resources, and for its location at the nexus of three continents, Asia, Africa, and Europe. Access to these resources via international waterways in the region is of utmost importance to the global economy, especially that of the United States. The U.S., in concert with its local partners, has underwritten the defense apparatus required for the stability of the region. Prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iran — under Shah Reza Pehlavi — had played the role of America’s main regional purveyor of stability. Today, the United States’ primary partner in the preservation of regional stability, is The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in tandem with the peripheral Persian Gulf states that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council. This status quo, however, may see a turnaround when the current situation in Saudi Arabia is taken into consideration. Various declines in Saudi Arabia’s capacity to continue to be the regional anchor of stability endanger the region as a whole, and it is high time that the United States pivot its focus from Saudi Arabia, once again to Iran, as the primary regional partner.
Saudi Arabia has undertaken steps to deter the expansion of conflicts in the region to the point where they threaten the integrity of the region’s political status quo. The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings were among the instances that challenged Saudi control over regional stability, and Saudi Arabia’s reaction was a fitting rebuke to these threats. Uprisings by Bahraini Shiites against the country’s Sunni Monarchy were brutally repressed when Saudi National Guardsmen and armored personnel carriers flooded into the Island nation via the King Fahd Causeway (ostensibly built as a thoroughfare from Bahrain to the Saudi mainland, but utilized to great effect in the reestablishment of order in Bahrain vis a vis Saudi troops). The intervention served as a signal to Saudi Arabia’s own Shiite minority, in case it sought to emulate its Bahraini kin. Another challenge to Saudi backed stability was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait during the first gulf war; Saudi Arabia and the United States retaliated decisively, restoring the regional power balance. Other iterations of Saudi intervention are seen in Yemen, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere.
Although the Saudis have thus far been the guarantors of regional stability, the rigidity of their own national cohesion must be brought into question, and must be vetted for its sustainability. Saudi Arabia has continuously been at the helm of regional stability, but now it must be determined if the country has the capacity to continue in that role. Saudi Arabia was established as a modern state in 1922 – a loose confederation of tribes in the Arabian Peninsula unified by King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the leader of the Al Saud clan. Under Ibn Saud’s rule, the country established a relationship with the United States, leasing bases to the United States Military, and allowing American companies to explore for oil. The discovery of vast reserves of oil flooded the Kingdom with billions in petro-dollars, vastly improving the quality of life for most Saudis. The country made the jump from forgotten global backwater to economic and security prominence in the matter of decades. The Saudis used their new-found wealth to solidify national cohesion; a robust welfare system was organized to care for Saudi citizens from cradle to grave, ensuring their fealty to the Royal Family in exchange for public goods. Millions of foreign workers, both professionals and laborers, were brought in from South Asia, Egypt, and South East Asia to fill in service gaps that Saudis were not trained enough to undertake.
The system of public welfare subsidized by petro-dollars is not a stable basis for Saudi Arabia’s national stability, and in extension, regional stability. The decline in the global price of oil has thrown the national economy, heavily dependent on petro-chemicals, into wild flux, and in 2015, led Saudi Arabia into a budget deficit for the first time. Eventually, Saudi Arabia will lose their ultimate source of national cohesion, and Saudi Arabia’s very large youth population, historically under-employed, will be left with no enticing reasons to continue their support for the monarchy. It is not infeasible to see an insurrection erupt in Saudi Arabia — the bastion of Wahhabism — that would seriously threaten Riyadh’s control over the country’s periphery. Shiites in the eastern folds of the country, and tribesman along the Red Sea and the border of Yemen will see no reason to continue their support for the regime, and will fall back on pre-1922 identities that are more rigid than “Saudi.” The supply and price of oil will continue to be volatile, and the rise of renewable sources of energy, and alternative sources of oil and natural gas, will only inhibit Saudi Arabia’s stability, and will endanger the grip of a major American ally in a perpetually unstable reason.
There is, however, a policy adjustment available that is conducive to long-term American interest in the region. Iran is an important alternative to Saudi hegemony in the region, and must be touted as a future partner of the United States in the region. Iran has one of the largest populations in the region, over 70 million people, and has a history that stretches for millennia, pointing to a source of national cohesion that is more storied and robust than that of the Gulf Arab States. Iran, despite crippling sanctions, has one of the most robust educational systems in the region, and produces one of its largest pools of scientists and doctors, and, conversely an economy that has the potential beyond its natural resource dependency. However, a transition to Iranian partnership must be reached through subtle stratagem. The public of Iran must be given reasons to trust the United States, and to push back against anti-American leadership in Tehran. This must be done by slow concessions by both sides to ensure the re-establishment of trust and good faith. Americans must rehabilitate Iran to regional pre-eminence, and must see the lull and freeze in relations as a pause in what is a natural partnership. “Good will begets good will.”
A student of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and East Asian security affairs, Mohammad Awais obtained his Bachelors in Political Science from Stony Brook University, and is currently an M.S. candidate at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs. A polyglot of Pakistani decent, Mohammad has traveled extensively throughout Asia in pursuit of a greater understanding of regional issues.
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