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Threat Perceptions in the Gulf

By Paul Sullivan

The leaders of the nations in the Persian Gulf see al-Qaida as a threat to them. Indeed, anyone who harbors sympathy for al-Qaida in the region is likely being closely watched by the security services, and the military and intelligence services will pounce on them given the slightest excuse. Al-Qaida has taken part in attacks in many of their countries and is stirring up trouble in Yemen. It has been part of the ongoing violence in Iraq and is a constant source of worry, particularly to the Saudis.

That the murderers of al-Qaida represent only themselves—and not Islam—is a constant refrain here. The clear lack of sympathy for al-Qaida and their local acolytes among the region’s leadership makes eminently good sense. The oil kingdoms are doing well these days and they don't need trouble. Osama Bin Laden was big trouble for them in many ways.

There seems to be a sense of closure resulting from the recent events in Pakistan, but also a sense of foreboding about consequences.

The biggest concern in the region, especially among the Sunni leaderships, is Iran and the trouble it is stirring in the region and beyond. Iran's hand is quite rightly found in the problems in Bahrain. They see the growing power of Iran via their control of much of Iraq as a large threat. Indeed, many in the region believe the United States effectively handed Iraq to Iran, and they say this with great earnestness.

They see the growing restiveness of their own Shia populations as a potential threat to be observed carefully. Some 70 percent of the population above the largest oil fields in Saudi Arabia is Shia. Moreover, with Shia populations in other countries in the region there is widespread concern that Iran might be trying to stir things up in many other locales.

For the United States, the oil markets and the world economy, the worst potential threat that could emerge from the Gulf region would be a major Sunni-Shia conflict. This is a place with 70 percent of the world’s oil reserves. If a Sunni-Shia conflict explodes, oil at $200 to $300 a barrel is entirely conceivable.

Even the region’s poorer countries could play a substantial role. Yemen's population, itself nearly 50 percent Shia, is clearly being stirred up by Iran. About 10 percent of the container cargo trade of the world and about 3 million to 4 million barrels of oil a day pass off the coast of Yemen and through the Bab Al Mandab strait. On the other side of the Strait of Aden is the failed, pirate and terrorist infested and all but dysfunctional state of Somalia. This is not a good combination.

Beyond the challenges of al-Qaida, Iran, and restive Shia populations, the "Arab Spring," also threatens Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman, and is very much a reality in Yemen, the poorest and most desperate Arab state. Such a movement has already started up a bit in Iraq. Iran could see something of a political implosion as the "Supreme Leader" and the "President" bicker over power and appointments. Iran's brutish, corrupt, and oppressive leadership may just collapse on its own. However the threat of a "Persian Summer" (or Fall?) also looms. Bahrain is in the epicenter that includes the "Arab Spring" and the Sunni-Shia tensions in a very big way for such a small island.

Qatar and the UAE have small native populations who are mostly quite well off. More than 80 percent of their populations are guest workers, who if found to cause problems would be sent packing. And they know that would be their fate—a very dark fate indeed, given the few jobs with comparable pay back home in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, or  the Philippines. Almost all these imported workers would rather work than cause trouble, since both of these countries keep a close eye on everyone.

The other major threats that keep the leadership in the region up at night are water and food. Many Gulf states face severe water crises and have few reserves to hedge against the worst or even the moderately bad scenarios that could develop. Some of the dominant countries in the region—especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar—rely massively on desalinated water for their cities, farms and factories in many locales. This is just plain terrifying to insiders, for whom food security is another worry. Indeed the threats posed by challenges to water and food  go hand in hand. Many countries in the region are very worried about how to feed their growing populations from the product of their desert soils and declining water reserves. They are turning to leasing and buying land in Africa and beyond while also expecting vast increases in their food imports. There is also a lot of talk about importing water via tankers to help refill their aquifers.

Then there are the demographic, social and cultural threats facing each of these nations. How do they employ their youth in the future? How do they feed them? How do they educate them? How do they keep the youth from turning on them? For the richer states with strong subsidy systems an important question is: how do they instill a work ethic in people where everything is given to them now, but where the wealth may not be there to continue providing forever?

Finally, there are the cultural threats not from only indigenous and external extremism, but also from rapid "westernization" and hyper-speed modernization in largely traditional  societies.

Indeed, the leadership of the Gulf has much to worry about way beyond al-Qaida.  

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Paul Sullivan is a professor at Georgetown University and The National Defense UniversityAll opinions expressed are his alone and do not represent those of the National Defense University, or any other organization he may be associated with.

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