Dark Signs in the Persian Gulf
The political and economic assault against Qatar by a Saudi-led coalition so far shows no signs of succeeding in bending Qatar to its will. More seriously, it raises ominous signals for the future of geopolitics in the Arabian Peninsula. That future may have less to do with Iran and more to do with a Saudi Arabia that is demonstrating a newfound aggressive drive towards hegemony in the Arabian Peninsula.
Saudi Arabia is now the de facto leader of a counter-revolutionary—one might even say counter-evolutionary—bloc dedicated to quashing any replay of the kind of tumultuous regime change we witnessed in the Arab Spring of 2011. In those events four autocratic regimes bit the dust—Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen—and Syria nearly so. Autocrats of course place top priority on retaining power.
More disturbing however, is that Saudi Arabia seems engaged in a long-term process of expanding its authority, and eventually its sovereign control across the Arabian Peninsula in fulfillment of a kind of Wahhabi “Manifest Destiny.” Saudi Arabia is the chief promoter of narrow and intolerant Wahhabi-Salafi interpretations of Islam from the UK to Indonesia to South Africa. Riyadh does not support terrorism as such, but bankrolls the schools and mosques from which ideological justification for terrorism almost invariably proceeds. Saudi territorial expansion of dominance in the Peninsula will only increase that problem.
Gulf Arab politics have traditionally been characterized by conservative social mores and cautious autocratic rule that abhors any form of political radicalism—at least at home. Saudi Arabia, as the overwhelmingly largest Gulf state, has long sought to dominate the fringe of small states and shaykhdoms that ring the Peninsula’s coasts—from Oman, in the south, to the federation of small shaykhdoms now under the federal umbrella of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the north, the island of Bahrain just a few miles off the Saudi coast, and the very small peninsula of independent Qatar attached to the Saudi mainland. Kuwait at the top of the Gulf, too, in principle belongs to this grouping within the Gulf Cooperation Council, but has fairly successfully managed to maintain its distance from Saudi pressures. Impoverished Yemen, with its feisty political culture on the southwest corner of the Peninsula, has for centuries fiercely struggled to fight off Saudi domination and is still doing so.