More than any other region of the world, exceptionally high levels of tensions beset the Persian Gulf. Iraq’s continued insurgency, Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia’s uncertainties, and sustained worries of the smaller states of the Persian Gulf of the trio above are the top of world news everyday. All these together with the misunderstandings emitting from lack of genuine dialogue among the Persian Gulf littoral states are testament to a profound multidimensional crisis crippling the region.
The geopolitical map of the Persian Gulf region is thus undergoing radical and crucial changes in the decades-old regional and strategic balance of power. Ignoring them will not stymie them. Rather, they will make them rapidly spin out of control.
The immediate and urgent task is for a trust formation initiative to unfold throughout the region. Initiatives that must come from the region in order to have durability and sustainability rather than implanted artificially from the outside.
In 1968, Britain relinquished its security machine East of Suez, leaving the United States to pick up the pieces. Chief among the inherited was insuring the stability and security in the strategically vital and very lucrative Persian Gulf region. The Persian Gulf contains 715 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, representing over half (57 percent) of the world’s total. And packaged with it is 2,462 Tcf of natural gas reserves representing 45 percent of the world’s gas, Even more significantly the Persian Gulf, the ultimate jewel so much sought after, contains almost all of the globe’s excess oil production capacity.
In the decades since the British withdrawal, the United States has tried vigorously and failed poorly to fill the vacuum first by relying on the TwinPillars of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. Tilting towards Iraq in the 1980s. And followed the Dual Containment of Iran and Iraq in the 1990s.None of the approaches worked very well, and as result, the United States intervened directly three times in the past 18 years against what it deemed as regional threats _ Iran in 1987-1988, and Iraq in 1991and 2003.
The main reason for the failure can be contributed to regional leaders and for that matter external powers becoming addicted to seeking security in the balance of power calculations as well as short term bilateral deals.To escape from the past failures, there exists only one viable solution and that is to devise a union from within. It would sound impossible due to insurmountable obstacles given the deep hostilities that have longed engulfed the region.
The first is the light at the end of the tunnel in Iran-Iraq relations, the old and bitter foes that fought a bloody battle foe eight years _ the longest war since World War II. The enemies of the past have of recently contemplated in cooperating in the energy sector as the mere logic dictates.
The two countries have on several occasions declared that their cooperation is due to sound economic basis and none are opting to form a coalition’s the differences are enormous to settle in a short period. Their planned cooperation has not worried very much the Americans who are wary of any moves Iran makes and have not voiced major concern.
The other light yet still at the end of the tunnel is the Iran-Saudi cooperation in information sharing on rampant smuggling, especially drugs. Cultural exchanges have also been on venue with a growing momentum. These moves are already forming trust between staunch enemies of not too distant past. Both are now cooperating in exchange of information on terrorists movements in the region culminating in a security pact between them.
The wind of change in the above countries with more independent oriented policies sweeping their societies as evident in Bahrain and Kuwait so vividly with the more conservative states tagging along though at a slower pace, will definitely contribute to overtures to their bigger neighbors who themselves are becoming more receptive in opening dialogue with the smaller littoral states in the Persian Gulf. Granting observer status and expanding it to admitting Iran and Iraq as dialogue members will certainly dampen enormously the misunderstandings of the past letting the commonalities take precedent over the differences, putting the latter on the back furnace with heat turned low, while concentrating on soft issues detrimental in trust formation among them.
By engaging Iran and Iraq, they will be turned into partners not isolated neighbors, with more responsibilities burdened as they become more committed to safeguarding the regional security. An example that comes to mind is the successful Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) experience in engaging China, now a dialogue member of the ten-member Association, a more responsible and more transparent player in the area. It took European Union (EU) three decades to usher a consensus, for ASEAN just as much, but for the Persian Gulf due to the urgency of the issue and the climate of change already created consensus building will be a short time off.
The opportunity has raised its head and the region is more than ever to ready to realize it. And as the Chinese so eloquently puts it: Opportunities arise out of Crisis and no region in the world is in more of a crisis than the Persian Gulf.