By Haizam AmirahFernández, Associate Professor at the IE School of Arts and Humanities and Senior Analyst for Mediterranean and Arab World at Real Instituto Elcano

 The world we know today would not be the same without the eight countries that border the Persian Gulf. The development model based on hydrocarbons would be inconceivable without the resources extracted over almost a century in a region that includes Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This model could not have survived without the region’s oil and natural gas deposits. With known oil reserves approaching 750,000 million barrels (accounting for more than 60% of the world total) and over 40% of the world’s natural gas reserves, these eight countries are the world’s main source of energy. Approximately 40% of the world’s seaborne oil shipments and 25% of the world’s daily oil consumption pass through the only sea passage out of the Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz.

These countries have undergone huge transformations in recent years due to the rapid growth of their economies and infrastructures and to the social and cultural changes that have come about as a result of globalisation and the use of new technologies, all of which has had an influence on their international relations. Apart from hydrocarbons, the Gulf’s importance has increased due to the appearance of large international business and finance centres, as well as to its capacity for investment and the growing presence of emerging powers (China and India). To this should be added the rise in Iran’s regional power following the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the tensions caused by its regional ambitions, especially with the US and Israel.

The heavy dependence of the international system on the Gulf states’ energy resources has conditioned their international relations, making them highly complex and subject to the establishment of alliances to defend or challenge the status quo and to security dilemmas which often lead to paradoxes and contradictions.

Security-focused Relations
The Gulf’s international relations are, among other things, focused on security. It is because of internal reasons, such as the authoritarian nature of their political systems and the rentier nature of their economies, as well as regional rivalries and tension, that the international –and domestic– policies of the Gulf regimes have traditionally been focused on considerations conditioned to a large extent by security. Since the early days of the British Empire, the international powers have attached a great strategic importance to the region, first as a route to the British colonies in India and afterwards, following the discovery of oil at the beginning of the 20th century, as a source for increasingly essential hydrocarbons.

One element that all of the leaders in the Gulf have in common, which is vital for explaining their behaviour and decisions, is their desire to hold on to power internally. This means that when making alliances their political calculations depend, above all, on their perception of how regional events and the moves of their rivals could endanger their own safety and perpetuation in power. Many decisions that affect individual and collective freedoms and the distribution of resources are taken in the name of ‘national security’, when they are really for the ‘security of the regime’ and its representatives. Read more…

As published by the Real Instituto Elcano on March 15, 2011.


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