3.3.2 Geopolitics of the Persian Gulf
The Persian Gulf region has been characterized by instability, with five significant incidents that shocked the area within the last three decades. First, there was the Iranian victory of the Islamic Revolution which overthrew the Pahlavi Shah in February 1979; second, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979; third, the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that began in September 1980; fourth, the desert storm war against the Iraqi regime by a coalition led by the United States; and fifth, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein on 9 April 2003 by the U.S. and its allies. In the context of all these incidents, there are four principal geopolitical characteristics that have distinguished the Persian Gulf as an especial region: 1) The huge fossil energy resources located in the region; 2) The particular geographical situation of the Persian Gulf region; 3) Rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the region; and 4) The geostrategic ambitions of the ex-Soviet Union (Joyner, p. 5).
The geopolitical importance of the Persian Gulf is its fossil resources. The Persian Gulf countries produce 25 percent of all petroleum moving in international commerce and the region contains 65 percent of the petroleum reserves of the world. The western countries import about 30 percent of their oil needs from the Persian Gulf and about 65 percent of Japan’s petroleum is imported from the Persian Gulf. The United States, in late 1989 imported about 18percent of its petroleum from the Persian Gulf (Joyner, p. 5)
Table 2: the United States oil imports
U.S. Oil Imports: Average Volume per Day (1000 barrels)
United Arab Emirates
Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait
Total U.S. Imports
Source: Energy Information Administration, Petroleum Supply Monthly (June 1984).
3.3.3 Local Geography
There are three principal regional powers with strongest influence on the Persian Gulf activities in the region: Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Among the other five local powers (Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman) each is dependent on the two other Arabian countries (Saudi Arabia and Iraq).
Iran, with a population of about 73 million in 2010 (far greater than all the Arab Persian Gulf states combined) and spread over 1,648,195 square kilo meters is the only non-Arab state in the Persian Gulf region. Its people are 98percent Muslim, with a 93percent majority of the Shiite (Joyner, p. 7). Iran’s neighbors are Turkey and Iraq to the west, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan in the north, and Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east and the Persian Gulf in the south. Iran’s long northern border with the Soviet Union before the latter’s collapse was critical for geopolitical consideration in the West. In February 1979, the Islamic Revolution ended nearly four decades of rule by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. After the revolution, supreme leader is at the head of other executive powers making final decisions. After the supreme leader is the president, elected by the people and parliament while representative are also elected by the people.
In perspective of geo economic, Iran has about 93 billion barrels of proven reserves that rank Iran fourth in the world, behind Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iraq. Iran also is the second largest world gas producer after Russia (World-Survey, 1988). Iran’s petroleum production actually increased from 1.37 million barrels per day (b/d) in 1981 to a high of about 4 million b/d in 2010.
Saudi Arabia covers a land area of 839,996 square miles (four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula and bigger than Iran) and a population of about 14 million in 2010 has a strategic location stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. Saudi Arabia shares borders with Kuwait, Iraq, and Jordan in the north; Yemen, South Yemen, and Oman in the south; and the United Arab Emirates and Qatar on the east and a 15-mile causeway links the Saudi mainland with Bahrain. Sunni Muslims make up 99percent of its population. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, headed by a king with a crown prince as heir apparent and there is no modern constitution or parliament. The key to Saudi Arabia’s economy is vast oil resources with a pumping capacity of 10 million barrels per day and reserves estimated at 170 billion barrels (the largest in the world). Saudi Arabia maintains close ties with the United States and desires a collective Arab approach to policies and peace in the region.
Iraq is located at the northern end of the Persian Gulf and covers 167,924 square miles. Iraq has borders with Jordan and Syria in the west, Turkey in the north, Iran in the east, and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the south. Its population according to the UN estimate for 2010 was about 31,672,000 (Wikipedia, 2011) and about 95percent of its population is Muslim, with some 60percent being Shiites and 30percent Sunnis. Iraq has only 30 miles of coastline in the Persian Gulf and it is the only Iraqi waterway access to the free waters of the oceans. The Arvand River or Shatt-al-Arab that is the international border between Iraq and Iran has remained the source of tension between these two Persian Gulf powers for a long time. As has been mentioned, Shiites are the majority population in Iraq. After the overthrow of Saddam by the 2003 coalition invasion to Iraq (March 19–May 1, 2003), the Shiites seized power in this country. Sunnis are the minority group in Iraq but they dominated the political structure in Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Kurds are another ethnic minority and comprise 15percent of the Iraqi population. They are non-Arab and are Sunni Muslims. After the overthrow of Saddam’s regime in Iraq, the Kurds had their own autonomous government in Erbil province in the northern regions of Iraq.
The Persian Gulf Arab sheikhdoms – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE – have several common characteristics. (1) Their people all speak Arabic, their common language. (2) All these states are small territories compared to their neighbors Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Also the populations of the sheikhdoms are small, and in 1991 their combined population was only 40percent of Saudi Arabia’s, 31percent of Iraq’s, and 11percent of Iran’s (Economist, 1991). (3) The monarchy states have large numbers of ‘guest workers’ that are either cheap labor or skilled specialists. (4) The sheikhdoms have a broadly similar culture, similar religion (the Sunni branch of Islam). (5) In these states the social structures are conservative and the political structure is absolute monarchy ruled by a family. (6) Economically all these sheikhdoms are dependent on the production and exportation of crude oil and gas. For example in 1991, the conservative monarchies (excluding Saudi Arabia) had 201.5 billion barrels of proven oil reserves of a total of 705.9 in the Persian Gulf region (Oil-and-Gas-Journal., 1990). (7) Because of the petrodollars (revenues from oil), the GNP of these states is very high and also, as a consequence of oil incomes there has been little tendency to diversify their traditional economies and agricultures. (8) The other similarity to the sheikhdoms is that these monarchies in their foreign policy look to Saudi Arabia as a mother country. (9) The last similarity is the position of these states that have been the result of artificial-engineering by an imperial power such as Great Britain.
3.3.4 Classification of the Persian Gulf states
The states of the Persian Gulf can be classified according to a) their influence and military power; b) degree of economic development and maturity, and c) political orientation. On the other hand, they can be divided into two sections: a) the major powers, vis-a-vis Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. These states occupy 94percent of the region’s total land area, 98percent of its population, and the bulk of its oil reserves and crude oil production. b) The minor states of Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman covering an area of about 120,000 sq. miles extending from the Saudi shoreline toward the middle of the western bank of the Persian Gulf, down to the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian sea. The lower Persian Gulf states are considerably weaker in military terms than the major ones to the north, with relatively fewer available military skills, new military establishments, and smaller populations.
3.4 Great Britain’s presence in the Persian Gulf
Britain’s close involvement in the Persian Gulf began in the first half of the 1800s. The main goal of Britain then was to protect the seaboard of India that was its colony. Other main goals of Britain were: maintaining order, protecting the free flow of commerce (which later included petroleum) and keeping out other great powers. Because of instability and attacks on British shipping in the Persian Gulf region, in 1820, the British destroyed the locals’ sea-faring capability and then the sheikhdoms signed the General Treaties of Peace with Britain and agreed to refrain from future attacks (Jeffrey R. Macris, 2007).
More treaties were signed between sheikhdoms and Britain: the first maritime truce in 1835, pact with rulers of Bahrain in 1880, pact with rulers of Kuwait in 1899, and pact with rulers of Qatar in 1916. According on these agreements, the sheikhs gave the right to Britain to handle inter-state diplomacy and military affairs, and in return received protection under Britain’s security umbrella from attacks by other neighbors.
At the beginning of World War I in 1914, Britain maintained a dominant position in the Persian Gulf area. The exploration of oil in Iran in 1908 had made the Persian Gulf a region of high value with an important regional economic role to play. Before World War I in 1911, Sir