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The Monarchs of the Persian Gulf


Several nations have done well out of the October war: the Egyptians and the Syrians, exulting in their new “self-respect”; the Soviet Union, posturing once again as the great protector of the Arabs. And, of course, Henry Kissinger, accorded by the forgetful world a reputation cleansed at last of the stains of Indochina. The true victors of the war, however, are none of these but rather the oil monarchies whose territories ring the waters of the Persian Gulf-Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Gulf sheikdoms.

While the number of casualties the Arab principalities suffered during the war can be counted on two hands, the benefits which they and Iran have derived from it are monumental. They have exploited the war to extract nearly $40 billion in additional oil revenues from the rest of the world. The industrialized nations bow down before them, ready to indulge any whim in the desperate hope that in response plentiful oil supplies might be forthcoming. The Egyptian and Syrian war effort has largely depended on their money, and in return they can demand immunity against revolution from within and aggression from without. Never were these potentates more comfortably seated on their thrones.

Ten years ago their prospects seemed less assured. In 1965 there were reasons to believe that a significant change in the regional balance of power was about to take place and that it would be a shift away from the monarchs and their Western protectors and in favor of Egypt, Iraq, the Soviet Union, and the revolutionary movements which each supported. By 1965 it was clear that the British, who for the past hundred years had been the dominant force in the region, had neither the money nor the will to bear the imperial burden for much longer.

Who would take Britain’s place? There were many policy makers in Washington and in London itself for whom it was axiomatic that all vacuums must necessarily be filled, and when they looked around to see who might fill this particular one, they found that the enemies of the established order seemed better placed to move in than its friends. Grave predictions were made that Southeast Asia was not the only place where the dominoes were going to start falling. With the Egyptians and the Iraqis fomenting revolution at opposite ends of the Arabian peninsula, were not the sheiks destined to be trapped in the shrinking space between? Moreover behind both these radical powers lurked the Soviet Union, with its expanding naval power and its ambition of achieving hegemony throughout the Arab world.

In the intervening years these gloomy prophecies have not come to pass; one by one the threats which were thought to be so dangerous have faded and disappeared, and the Royalist supremacy has survived intact. Egypt’s revolutionary involvement in Arabian affairs came to an abrupt end after the June, 1967, defeat, when President Nasser was obliged to withdraw his expeditionary force from the yemen. Moreover as President Sadat has turned more and more to King Faisal for both economic and diplomatic support, the Egyptians have acquired a vested interest in the survival of the Arab monarchies: they have withdrawn their support for the Dhofari rebels in Oman, ignored the smaller revolutionary groups operating in Bahrain and the Trucial States, and said very little about the Shah’s arms build-up.

The Iraqis in contrast have maintained a high degree of ideological hostility to Iran and the Arab Gulf states, but this militancy has not been backed up by any willingness to intervene actively on the side of revolutionary movements in the Gulf. Indeed the Ba’athists who have ruled in Baghdad since 1968 have survived because they have generally avoided the kind of rash adventurism which has been the doom of previous Iraqi regimes: internally this has meant that the Ba’athists have consistently tried to reach a settlement with the Kurdish minority; externally it has meant that their support for revolutionary groups in the Gulf has been very limited.

The Iraqi incursion against Kuwait last March was an exception to this cautious strategy and for a few days it seemed that the Iraqis might be trying to repeat General Kassem’s disastrous 1961 invasion of Kuwait. However the main Iraqi objective turned out to be the capture of a single Kuwaiti police post which was thought to be too close to the important port and naval base of Umm Qasr.1 When this very limited task had been accomplished, the Iraqis halted. Their diplomatic aim may have been to put pressure on the Kuwaitis to cede to Iraq two small islands which command the channel to Umm Qasr; but the islands still remain part of Kuwait and the Iraqis have not pressed their claim to them for almost a year. Compared with Kassem’s determined offensive thirteen years ago, this was a very half-hearted affair, indicative of the restraints which now inhibit the Iraqi leaders.

The extreme caution and even conservatism of Soviet behavior in Arabia and the Gulf during the past six years prove once again that the alarmist predictions of the Pentagon and its ideological allies have little value. In the Arabia/Persian Gulf region, as in many others, the Soviet leaders have reached conclusions about their strategic and economic interests which lead them to adopt policies quite different from those predicted by the cold war dogmatists: the ideological crusade of the Soviet Communist party has been sacrificed to the need to placate “bourgeois” and even “feudal” regimes, and the alleged expansionist ambitions of the Soviet state have been put aside in the face of an extremely cautious analysis of Soviet security interests.

The alarmists have drawn attention to two developments which they believe have the most sinister implications: first there has been the growing Soviet-Iraqi alliance, symbolized by the friendship treaty of April, 1972, and more concretely by the steady flow of arms between Moscow and Baghdad, which between 1965 and 1972 was worth approximately $1 billion. Secondly, since 1967 the Soviet Union has been providing military and economic aid to the radical Marxist regime in Southern Yemen (officially the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen), and indirectly to the rebels in the Dhofar province of Oman.

The Soviet Union has strengthened its alliance with Iraq and maintained its relationship with Southern Yemen for very concrete reasons. As Soviet influence in Egypt has declined, the Russians have sought new Arab allies and the Iraqis have been their first choice, not least because the Russians may have to rely more and more on the Iraqis as a source of oil for their own domestic consumption. In the case of Southern Yemen and Dhofar, Soviet policy is strongly influenced by the fact that China is established there as a supplier of military and economic aid to the Aden regime and as a source of ideological inspiration for the Dhofari rebels. The Soviets must compete with the Chinese or face the possibility that Southern Yemen might become the Albania of the Arab world.

But there are also reasons why the Russians have not exploited these relationships to further their alleged expansionist ambitions in the region, and these inhibitions are as powerful as the incentives which led the Russians to establish themselves in Iraq and Southern Yemen in the first place. First and most important there is the Soviet Union’s strategic concern with Iran itself. It is a major objective of Soviet foreign policy to prevent the United States or any other enemy of the Soviet Union (i.e., China) from gaining a monopoly of influence in Iran. The Russians fear that, were this to happen, the United States might eventually be able to install missile sites in Iran, with the result that the strategic balance along the southern borders of the Soviet Union would be upset. There is also Russian concern about the impact of an unfriendly Iran on the loyalties of the Muslim populations of the Central Asian republics. As the Soviet leaders themselves see it, therefore, it is in their interests to avoid the kind of provocative actions which would drive the Iranians into the arms of the US, and for this reason their freedom of action in Arabia and the Gulf is limited.

The Russians are further restrained by the exigencies of energy policy. The Soviet government has already informed the Eastern Europeans that when the current Soviet five-year plan is completed in 1975, the volume of crude oil supplied to them by the USSR will decline, and they will have to make their own arrangements. The Soviet Union’s closest allies will be entering the market not only for Iraqi oil but for Iranian, Kuwaiti, and even Saudi oil as well.

Soviet planners themselves must also allow for the possibility that the Japanese and American capital and technology needed to exploit the Siberian oil and gas fields will not be forthcoming, so that the Russians too might have to join the Eastern Europeans as supplicants for Gulf oil. On both counts it is clearly in the interest of the Soviet Union and of its allies to avoid antagonizing the oil-producing states. The Russians and the Eastern Europeans also have a vital interest in maintaining a high volume of their own oil exports to Western Europe—in 1972 these reached a level of almost one million barrels per day, the Soviet bloc’s largest single source of foreign exchange. If Soviet policy in the Gulf were to jeopardize the security of the conservative oil states on whom the Western Europeans heavily depend, it would be very likely that the Europeans would retaliate by reducing their own purchases of Soviet oil. Here too the price of adventurism would be very high.

The Soviet Union’s need to maintain a working relationship with Iran, its increasing interest in the Gulf as a potential source of energy, and its need also to protect its growing energy market in Western Europe—all are reflected in the caution of its Gulf diplomacy. The Soviet Union has not taken sides in the border dispute between Iran and Iraq, and it has kept quiet about the Shah’s arms build-up. It has not supported the Iraqi claim to Kuwait, and when the Iraqis carried out their incursion against Kuwait last March, the Russians, according to well-informed diplomats in the Persian Gulf, made it clear to the Iraqis that they did not approve; nor have they joined the Iraqis in their bitter polemics against the Gulf sheikdoms. The Russians have also urged the Ba’athists to come to terms with the Kurds. Their general purpose here seems to be to establish a stable, nonadventurist regime in Baghdad, which would be a reliable economic partner for the Soviet Union and which would not embarrass its relations with other Gulf states.

In the case of the Dhofar rebellion in Oman, the lack of Russian enthusiasm for a movement which, if successful, could become a serious embarrassment, is suggested by the modest amount of Soviet military aid which the guerrillas have received. In 1970 the leaders of PFLOAG (Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf) complained about the “tokenism” of Soviet aid, and thereafter there was a slight increase of it. But there has been no attempt by the Soviet Union to match the large increases in aid which the Sultan of Oman has been getting from Iran, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and Abu Dhabi. For this reason alone the rebels have been losing ground.2

  1. 1

    The question of what exactly is happening at Umm Qasr takes on some significance in view of the impression being given by certain hard-line commentators in Washington that the Russians are creating an Arabian San Diego at the head of the Persian Gulf. According to State Department sources however, Umm Qasr is being developed primarily as an oil port, and although there are limited facilities for warships, there is no plan for any large-scale expansion of them. The construction at Umm Qasr is under the control of the Iraq National Oil Company, with subcontracts to American, French, Ethiopian, and Soviet firms.

  2. 2

    Last year there were also reports that Chinese assistance to PFLOAG had declined. If true, this withdrawal of support would reflect Peking’s interest in good relations with the Shah. In June, 1973, Chi Peng Fei, the Chinese Foreign Minister, visited Teheran and affirmed “the support of his government for the recent initiatives taken by Teheran to strengthen its military potential” since “the goal of these measures was to combat the subversion and expansionism of certain great powers”—i.e., the USSR (Le Monde, June 19, 1973). With both Peking and Moscow cultivating the Shah, PFLOAG may now be facing a situation resembling that of the North Vietnamese after the mining of Haiphong harbor. A settlement in Oman could now be in the offing. For a detailed account of Southern Yemen and the Dhofar rebellion see Fred Halliday, Arabia Without Sultans, to be published by Random House in the fall.

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