The decline of US imperialism in the Middle East is fuelling rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Simon Assaf looks at the region as it plunges deeper into violence and uncertainty.
In the heady days of the Arab Spring revolutions, tens of millions of people took to the streets in vast movements for change that raised the possibility of a deep transformation of the region. The retreat of these revolutions has been marked by a return of repression and the unleashing of horrific sectarianism.
Saudi Arabia’s carpet bombing of Yemen, the destruction of Syria’s rebel cities, the ferocious civil war in Iraq, are all drawn into this maelstrom. Strange alliances have appeared that at face value appear contradictory — the US and the West lining up with Shia militias loyal to Iran to take on the Sunni Islamists of ISIS, and a reverse policy in Yemen where the US is backing the Saudi war to halt the Houthi Shias, while at the same time using drones to destroy Al Qaeda, the Houthis’ deadliest enemy. (See Yemen’s new tragedy, below)
It is tempting to see this chaos as part of a greater US plan, and global imperialism as “unipolar” with the US as the sole mega superpower. But imperialism is not simply the projection of US power, but a global system where other powers, such as Russia and China, vie for hegemony. Imperialism is, above all, capitalist competition on a global scale.
Far from being omnipotent, the US is tangled in heightened rivalry with Russia over Nato expansion in Ukraine, and deeply concerned by the economic rise of China and its growing confidence in the Far East. Yet even after the disaster in Iraq, many still considered the misadventure as a US victory, and the subsequent chaos as part of a grand plan.
The US would like to disengage itself from the physical occupation of Iraq, or stabilise it enough using local actors whose interests would align broadly with this strategy. It did not bank on leaving behind such an unreliable and short-sighted ally in the Iraqi government.
The legacy that George W Bush handed on to Barack Obama is how to untangle the US from these disasters. Long gone are the days of neo-con certainties. The US today is militarily hesitant over Syria, and unsure how to mange its responsibilities in Iraq. Yet it is clear in wanting to cool down any potential hot war with Iran.
This military disengagement is defined as the “Obama Doctrine” of diplomatic engagement. Part of this is settling the 50 year old stand-off with Cuba. Alongside this is the so-called P5+1 nuclear agreement (China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States, plus Germany) with Iran that sets out a roadmap to lifting many of the sanctions that have shackled Iran’s economy.
Whereas shaking hands with Cuban leader Raul Castro and bringing to a close decades of hostility with Cuba is a diplomatic open goal for Obama, the nuclear deal with Iran is fraught with difficulties. The deal removes the threat of a nuclear armed Iran (even though allegations that it was planning to build nuclear weapons have been widely rubbished) and with it the “casus belli”, the justification of war for Israel.
In return Iran would downgrade its nuclear processing capabilities while still being able to develop the longer term goal of nuclear energy. The deal is “no done thing” and could still be scuppered in the US congress. The neo-cons are opposed to the deal, as are Israel and many of the Arab regimes. The deal touches a raw nerve, as it appears to be against the stated interests of Israel, Saudi Arabia and other allies. These appear to have become secondary to the US strategy of realignment.
As one former Washington insider told the Financial Times, “The long-term plan is not to get in bed with Iran, but it is to have good enough relations that you can get out of bed with Saudi Arabia.” The US is not about to dump its allies; it wants instead to rein them in. But this is not going to plan.
The US is being dragged into Saudi Arabia’s Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, sending aircraft carriers to stop the alleged Iranian attempt to arm the Houthis, despite there being little evidence that Iran has sent weapons to the rebels, or has any real interest in the country becoming a proxy battleground with the powerful Gulf kingdoms.
The US inherited its dominant position in the Middle East from France and Britain. It comfortably stepped into the shoes of the traditional colonial rulers as their empires crumbled in the 1950s and 1960s. Now that the US is in retreat, it opens the door for other powers to emerge. The most obvious is China, whose interests in the region are growing exponentially. China became the world’s second largest economy in 2010, overtaking Germany and Japan.
The phenomenal growth of the Chinese economy, as well as its vast investments in the region, makes it the obvious imperial successor to the US. And the figures stack up. While the economic crisis that began in 2008 weakened the US and the West, in the same period China became the world’s top exporter and is awash with foreign currency reserves. Economists have presented different date horizons for the point at which China will reach parity with the US (notwithstanding any future economic downturns). It is pencilled in at some point between 2023 and 2026.
This economic growth is having a major geopolitical impact. The Chinese have been building a number of deep water ports stretching from the South China Sea to the Arabian Sea as part of their “string of pearls” policy. Some Chinese leaders are talking of a similar network on land, the so called “new silk road”. China is upgrading its military, building a large modern navy and extending its economic tentacles across the globe.
In response Obama has instigated the “pivot to Asia”, reconfiguring US foreign policy, and its military, to meet the growing Chinese challenge. But militarily the two powers are in different worlds. The US spends ten times as much as China on arms, and despite its future plans, China is nowhere near reaching parity with the US. China has a large army, but it does not go anywhere. Instead it is dependent on other global powers to look after its interests, especially to secure its oil from the Gulf.
This was exposed by the ISIS offensive in Iraq last summer. Despite having ploughed in huge resources to develop the giant Iraqi oil fields, China is unable to defend them. As Iraq spirals deeper into civil war, China is dependent on the US and Iran to safeguard its interests. China remains vulnerable, and is in no position to push aside the US. Its political approach in the Middle East does not match its economic interests. As one commentator put it, “China is punching below its weight”.
According to the World Financial Review, “China has extended its economic interests far and wide in the Middle East beyond its heavy purchase of oil. China has obtained substantial growth in trading with and building infrastructure in many Middle Eastern countries.” This growth in economic power gives China greater purchase and important interests in the region. The list of grand Chinese capital projects is growing; the most recent are its plans to upgrade the crumbling Egyptian rail network, among many others.
In return, China has become dependent on Middle Eastern oil. Its key supplier is Saudi Arabia, followed by Iran, where it enjoys sanctions-busting discounts. By contrast the US has become self-sufficient in energy thanks to fracking, and for the first time since the 1970s “oil shock” has become a major oil exporter.
The difference between the US outlook and that of China is summed up in a 2013 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “Taken at face value, the language the United States and China have used to describe the region was pointedly different: the United States called for ‘energy independence’ and ‘ending addiction’ to Middle Eastern oil; Beijing advocated ‘energy interdependence,’ ‘energy security,’ and ‘strategic partnerships.’ The United States’ language makes Gulf leaders uneasy, while China’s language makes them feel more secure.”
Chinese diplomacy in the region is based on keeping everyone on side. It supports the nuclear deal with Iran, as well as opening its financial markets to rich Gulf investment funds; it opposes the US intervention in Syria, but not in Iraq; it invests heavily in Arab countries, as well as in Israel. Nevertheless China’s rise is perceived by the Arab regimes as fundamental to the future of the region. This does not mean a break with the US anytime soon, but it is figuring in the longer term thinking.
In between the relative decline of the US and the non-intervention of China, regional powers are attempting to muscle in. This struggle for hegemony has become a military arm wrestle between Iran and Saudi Arabia that is employing the language of sectarianism. Historic fissures, modern uprisings and age-old disputes are being redefined as expressions of a Shia-Sunni Muslim schism, and absorbed into the wider Iran-Saudi rivalry. The Syrian revolt and Yemen’s civil war are now painted in sectarian colours, irrespective of their origins, causes and solutions. According to the Economist magazine:
“Regional competition between Riyadh and Tehran is nothing new; ascendant Iranian influence is, however. Sanctioned out of international energy markets, Iran’s economy limped along for much of the past decade while soaring oil prices buoyed the Saudis. Yet in the chaos unleashed by the Arab Spring both powers have worked to extend their influence — the Iranians arguably with greater success. A true rapprochement between America and Iran, however unlikely, could entirely alter the tenuous balance of power.”
The roots of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry can be found in this new configuration, and it is sweeping all before it. Both powers have recalibrated localised disputes to fit the agenda of one side or the other, while at the same time presenting themselves as safe hands capable of looking after the interests of the great powers.
Throw in other regional actors, such as Turkey, which has its own distinct interests, as well as Egypt and Israel, and the confusion becomes generalised. As Alex Callinicos recently pointed out, “Do not adjust your head — the fault is in reality.”
Attempting to understand this chaotic mangle of interests and rivalries is confusing — the US airforce helping Shia militias allied to Iran and Hizbollah to take on ISIS; Turkey helping fighters from its historic enemy the PKK to repel the Islamic State in Kobane; the Islamists becoming the main threat to the independence of the Palestinian movement in Syria, among others.
It seems as if the world can only be understood through the looking glass. This is less to do with the particular histories of movements, or the course of revolts, and more to do with the fluid political situation emerging out of a crisis of imperialism and regional powers vying for influence. The US is weaker than it was before 2003, yet it is still strong. It is becoming the sick man of the Middle East, but still wields huge power. The US is at odds with its allies over strategy, but its central priority of safeguarding global oil security remains unchanged.
One of the biggest indicators of these struggles for hegemony is the dramatic rise in military spending among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — an alliance of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
According to figures released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in 2014 Saudi Arabia spent £54 billion on weapons, just behind Russia and more than Britain. While the UAE spent £15bn, three times more than in 2006. Qatar’s spending went from £1.2bn in 2010 to £16bn four years later. Other GCC states are following suit.
The majority of these deals are for top-end weapons such as helicopter gunships, state of the art warplanes and missile systems. These are being used to devastating effect in Yemen. Meanwhile Russia has agreed to supply Iran with the latest anti-aircraft defence systems capable of bringing down advanced US made warplanes.
The region has long been a rich market for arms dealers, but it is only recently that these weapons are being used on such a scale. One defence expert told the New York Times that the “militaries of gulf nations have been a combination of something between symbols of deterrence and national flying clubs. Now they’re suddenly being used.”
It is impossible to predict the outcome of what many people are calling World War III in the Middle East. The ongoing Saudi war on Yemen, the offensives and counter-offensives across Iraq and Syria, and the very present threat that these wars could spiral into an even bloodier confrontation between Gulf Arab kingdoms and Iran, paint a bleak picture for the future of the region.
The Middle East is living through an era of war and revolution. The retreat of the Arab Spring has unleashed counter-revolutions, new and more vicious dictatorships, and brought sectarian divisions to the fore.
Yet the memory of the movements that took to the streets in mass confrontations with security forces, took strike action, set up new unions and neighbourhood committees, remains strong. At their height the revolts drew millions together in unified demonstrations. Sectarianism was pushed to the margins. The retreat of these revolutions brought with it a whiplash of reaction.
The answer to war is revolution. How these movements will re-emerge from Iran through to Egypt and North Africa is impossible to predict. Yet the underlying causes that opened the era of revolutions, such as unemployment, poverty and repression, remain.
Yemen’s new tragedy
The Saudi war on Yemen has left one of the Arab world’s poorest countries facing a humanitarian catastrophe, and failed in its objective to halt an offensive by northern rebels. The month-long Saudi airstrikes have killed over 1,000 people. As well as military targets, warplanes targeted civilian buildings, institutions such as the presidential palace, TV stations, banks, bridges and even football stadiums. One airstrike on a dairy plant killed all the workers on the nightshift, another targeted a refugee camp.
The war is being spun as part of the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for dominance over the region. On the eve of the ceasefire the US deployed warships off Yemen’s coast to see off a flotilla of Iranian ships said to be carrying aid.
This war is a tragedy for the country that witnessed one the largest and most inspiring mass movements of the Arab Spring. Millions of people demonstrated every Friday in vast peaceful protests that drew support from Sunni and Zaydi Muslims (a branch of Shia Islam) to topple the dictator ALi Saleh. The centres of this revolution were the northern cities of Senaa and Taiz, as well as the southern port city of Aden.
Aden was the heart of the rebellion against British rule in the 1960s. Following the victory of the independence movement Saudi Arabia sponsored the old rulers, who were traditionally drawn from the Zaydi tribes of the north, in a civil war that eventually divided the country into the pro-Western north, and the south allied to the Soviet Union.
In 1990 the south abandoned independence and was reunited under Saleh’s control. His northern regime was stuffed full of his supporters, and despite an agreement to share power, carved out southerners. A short civil war in 1994 saw the final defeat of the south. The Houthi religious movement, which is from the Zaydi branch of Islam, launched a rebellion against Saleh’s rule in 2004, but ran out of steam by 2010.
The 2011 revolution eventfully forced out Saleh as part of a compromise known as the “Yemeni solution”. The Saudi-sponsored deal pushed aside Saleh in favour of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, his former deputy, and minister of defence during the 1994 civil war. This choreographed change at the top kept in place the regime and secured the right for the US to wage its drone wars on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is camped in the south east of the country.
Following the decline of the popular revolutionary movement, the Houthis launched an offensive that captured large sections of the north. In January the rebels seized the capital and arrested Hadi. He later escaped to Saudi Arabia. Supporters of the ousted dictator Saleh in the military joined the Houthi rebellion as it pushed into the Sunni-majority south. Saleh’s troops and its Houthi allies laid siege to Aden, the former capital of southern Yemen.
The bloody battle for Aden pitched the Houthis alongside pro-Saleh troops against poorly armed and badly organised locals, mistakenly described as “pro-Hadi”. Many of the southern resistance fighters are part of a growing independence movement. Since 2011 the south has seen the growth of a new movement for independence, especially among young people. This is driven in part by a rejection of the now discredited southern leaders.
The Houthi drive south is pushing the southerners into the arms of Saudi Arabia, and more dangerously has given a lifeline to Al Qaeda. It used the chaos to seize military bases, cities and airports in the south east of the country.
AQAP is now forging alliances with the major Sunni Muslim tribes, and presenting itself as the defenders of Sunni Muslims against the “Shia invaders”. Stung by the speed and success of the rebellion, and fearful of “Iranian influence”, Saudi Arabia launched “Operation Decisive Storm”. With a population of 38 million, Yemen is long considered part of the Saudi “back yard”. This was an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to flex its muscles.
The Saudis attempted to induce Pakistan to send ground forces, but were blocked by the parliament, while Egypt also got cold feet. The Saudis mobilised their well armed National Guard, and are building up forces along the border for a possible ground invasion.
After a month, the bombing ended as suddenly as it began, having had no clear impact on the fighting on the ground. The Saudis are now promoting a “political solution” after they came under pressure from the US, which is currently engaged in delicate nuclear talks with Iran. Meanwhile Saleh is entrenched back in the capital. This war has been catastrophic for Yemen, and is in danger of spiralling into a protracted ground war with no clear end game.