North America

Geopolitics in Canada: Politics, Economics, and Future Technologies

Canada is often considered to be a haven from geopolitics, a country relatively free from economic want or political cant. But if by geopolitics we refer simply to the influence of geography upon politics, Canada may in fact be a prime place to study it, if only because the country posseses so much of the former when in comparison to the latter.

The basic fact of Canadian geopolitics is this: more Canadians live in the city of Toronto than live in the 2500 kilometer-wide expanse of land separating Toronto from Alberta. (Or, to put it in the most Canadian way possible, there are a heckuva lot more people who would like to see Auston Matthews win the Calder Trophy than Patrick Laine). Canada is in this way divided in two: between Alberta and BC on the one hand, in which around 25 percent of Canadians live and 30 percent of Canada’s GDP is generated, and Ontario and Quebec on the other, which account for roughly 60 percent of Canada’s population and GDP.

Source: Future Economics

These two halves, in turn, can also be divided into two parts. Alberta is separated from BC by the Rockies; Ontario from Quebec by the Anglo-French divide. (The debate is still open as to which of these two barriers is the more venerable). However, while the BC-Alberta split is pretty well balanced — Alberta’s GDP is a bit larger than BC’s, but BC’s population is a bit larger than Alberta’s — the Ontario-Quebec divide is tilted strongly in support of Ontario. By itself, Ontario accounts for an estimated 38.6 percent of Canada’s population and 38.4 percent of Canada’s GDP.

These are large figures not just in Canadian terms, but also in global ones. Few provinces or states within major countries represent such a bulk of their respective nations. Ontario’s provincial government has a budget that in recent years was larger than those of Quebec and Alberta combined, and also close to half that of Canada’s federal government (the capital of which, Ottawa, happens to be located in Ontario). The Ontario provincial budget is higher than those of any states in the US apart from California or New York. It is higher than the budgets of 15 EU nations.

Among other things, this makes the provincial election of Ontario that is scheduled to occur by 2018 a matter of some significance. According to current polls (yes, I know, polling cannot be trusted…), the Ontario Liberals likely will be thrown out of office for the first time since 2003, to be replaced with the Progressive Conservative party. This would be noteworthy given that, at present, only Manitoba is led by a Conservative government. The rest are governed by Liberal parties with majorities in provincial parliaments, or else by the New Democratic Party (in Alberta) or Saskatchewan Party (in Sasketchewan, of course), both of which enjoy majority governments too.

In Canada, due to the country’s vast size and diffuse population, provinces possess a high measure of capital and clout. The combined budgets of the ten provincial governments, for example, is larger than the federal budget. (In the US, by comparison, the 50 state budgets amount to less than half the US federal budget. And in Britain, the central government is far more prominent still). So, if provincial Liberals lose upcoming elections in provinces of considerable size—Quebec may have an election in 2018 too, and BC will likely have one this year— it might unsettle provincial relations with Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberal majority; a federal majority likely to remain until at least 2020.

It is not however only Ontario’s size which tends to make it the fulcrum in Canadian politics. Ontario is also centrally positioned, both economically and politically, within the country. Economically, the four provinces west of Ontario have around one-third of Canada’s GDP, while the five provinces east of Ontario have around one-quarter of Canada’s GDP. The median line of longitude of the Canadian economy — the place where the GDP to the east equals the GDP to the west; the Prime Median, as it were — runs directly through the city of Toronto, Ontario’s capital.

Ontario trades nearly seven times more with Quebec than does any other province, and trades three times more with Alberta than does Quebec. Ontario also trades more with Canada’s four Atlantic Maritime provinces than Quebec does. Politically, moreover, Ontario shares a long border with French-speaking Quebec — a border Ottawa abuts and Montreal is just 60 km from — yet shares a language with most of the rest of Canada.

We’ve left out any mention of Canada’s three Territories, Yukon, the Northwest, and Nunavut, for the sake of simplicity. Combined, they have a population of 113,000; smaller than the smallest province, PEI, and just 0.32 percent of the overall Canadian population. (By comparison, Alaska accounts for 0.23 percent of the population of the United States)

This is where we get to the real bacon of Canadian geopolitics: the somewhat uncanny reflection of geographical realities within Canada’s electoral outcomes; specifically, in the ability of Ontario to “swing” between either Quebec or western Canada during federal elections, or else for Ontarians to vote for a party supported in neither Quebec nor in western Canada and yet still manage to have that party win (or at least, manage to avoid having any rival party acheive a majority government).

The four most recent elections, which saw Trudeau emerge with a majority government in 2015, Stephen Harper win his first-ever majority in 2011, and Harper gain only minority governments in 2008 and 2006, are ideal examples of this:

The three major candidates in the 2015 election, Justin Trudeau, Stephen Harper, and Thomas Mulcair

In 2011, Harper’s Conservatives won a majority by uniting Ontario and western Canada — including receiving 27 out of 28 seats in Alberta — even as they won only 5 out of 75 seats in Quebec. In that election Ontario and every province west of Ontario gave a large majority of their seats to Harper’s Conservatives, while, with the exception of New Brunswick (the westernmost Atlantic province), none of the provinces east of Ontario came even close to giving a majority to the Conservatives.

Quebec, in contrast, gave 59 seats to the NDP, allowing that party to become one of the two largest in Parliament for the first time in its history. 2011 was a good example of Ontario swinging to the west. (Harper, not incidentally, was born in Toronto, attended university in Edmonton, and represented a Calgary riding in Parliament).

In 2015, on the other hand, Trudeau’s Liberals won an even larger federal majority by winning most of the seats in both Ontario and Quebec, even as they were crushed in both Saskatchewan and Alberta. The Liberals won a large majority of seats in Ontario and in every province east of Ontario—except Quebec, where they won only a narrow majority—and also won exactly half the seats in Manitoba, the easternmost Prairie province. But the Liberals did not come even close to winning a majority in any other province west of Ontario.

The large victory of Trudeau (who, by the way, was born in Ottawa, went to university in Montreal, and represents a Montreal electoral district in Parliament) is a good example of Ontario swinging east. While BC did give a plurality of its votes to the Liberals in 2015 too, it only amounted to 17 out of the 42 seats in that province; in contrast, in the Atlantic Maritimes the Liberals swept all 32 seats in the four provinces of the region, and in Ontario the Liberals won 80 out of 121 seats.

In 2008 and in 2006, Ontario did not give a majority of its seats to any party. Moreover, in neither of those elections did Ontario and Quebec give a plurality or majority of their seats to the same party. This resulted in both cases in federal minority governments.

In 2008, Ontario gave a plurality of seats to Harper’s Conservatives, who won big majorities in every province west of Ontario but who lost in every province east of Ontario except New Brunswick. Quebec meanwhile gave a large majority to the Bloc Quebecois that year. In 2006, when Harper’s minority victory was much narrower than in 2008, Quebec also gave a large majority to the Bloc Quebecois, but Ontario gave a plurality to the Liberals rather than to Harper.

In 2006 the Alberta-BC divide was also larger than in 2008 or 2011: the Conservatives swept Alberta but won only a plurality in BC. (New Brunswick however did fall in line with its fellow Maritimers in 2006: all four gave a majority of seats to Liberals). In both the 2006 and 2008 elections, every province west of Ontario gave majorities or pluralities to the Conservatives, while none to Ontario’s east (except, again, New Brunswick in 2008) did so.

While geopolitical patterns such as these vary over time and so are not certain to endure, still it is clear they run deep. Quebec’s political leanings in particular may deserve special attention in this regard, given that province’s size and unique identity. For over ninety years, from 1891 to 1984, Quebec gave a plurality of its parliamentary seats to the Liberals in 25 out of 26 elections. This long era ended only when Pierre Elliot Trudeau resigned in 1984, leading later that year to the victory of Brian Mulroney, the only Quebec-born Prime Minister ever to have led a Conservative Party.

Mulroney not only triumphed over Trudeau’s successor John Turner, but did so by winning 211 seats in Parliament, the most in Canadian history. In all eight elections since then — until the most recent election in which the new, younger Trudeau emerged and secured 51 percent of Quebec’s parliamentary seats — the Liberals were unable to recapture the province. Before Justin, they fell behind the Bloc Quebecois there during six out of seven elections, and fell behind the NDP in the seventh.

This feat alone displays the unique mantle that Trudeau now wears. Quebec will probably remain very much on his mind in the years ahead, especially if the Conservatives or the NDP nominate a leader from the province, like Maxime Bernier or Guy Caron, to take over their parties this year and face down Trudeau in the 2019 election. Indeed, in spite of of all the noise I’ve made here about Ontario being a decisive force in Canadian politics, Quebec has been nearly as successful in getting its preferred candidates elected PM. It has done so in 28 out of 42 Canadian elections; Ontario in 30.

In Part 2 of this 3-Part essay, we will attempt to analyze the modern Canadian economy, and in Part 3 we will discuss how technological changes may impact the country. 

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East Asia

Deep State vs Deep South?

There is a recent pattern in American politics, in which Democratic politicians who succeeded in presidential elections were not born in northern states (e.g. Obama, Clinton, Carter, Johnson, Truman, and, if you must, Al Gore), while Republicans who won presidential elections — so, not counting Ford, who inherited Nixon’s presidency post-impeachment — have had very close ties to either Texas (the Bush’s, Eisenhower), California (Reagan, Nixon), or Florida (Bush, Trump).

To some degree, this pattern presumably reflects the old divide between the country’s Northeast and Southeast. The Democrats, who have their base of support in the Northeast, have had trouble in elections when they do not reach out to the South by selecting one of its native sons as their candidate. The Republicans, who have support in the Southeast, have had trouble winning when they do not secure the support of at least one of the country’s three largest states—California, Texas, or Florida.

Looking at the home regions of China’s leading politicans, it is fairly easy to discern a similar north-south divide. A large share of Chinese leaders were born in northern China. These include Beijing-born Xi Jinping (who’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was from Shaanxi) and Shandong-born Wang Qishan (a former mayor of Beijing, now Xi’s anti-corruption chief). At present, out of China’s seven Standing Comittee top leaders, only seventh-ranked Zhang Gaoli was born in southern China. Five of the seven were born in the north and one, Premier Li Keqiang, was born in in central China. Many politicians of the past, such as Zhao Zhiyang or Hua Gaofeng, have also hailed from the north.

Indeed, as far as I can tell, Zhang Gaoli may in fact be the first person in thirty years to be born outside of northern or central China and have made it to the Standing Committee. He is also the only person currently serving in the Party’s 25-member Politburo born outside north or central China.

Central China — which, somewhat confusingly, is sometimes considered to be part of Southern China, though it is located far north of the ‘deep south’ regions like Guangdong or Yunnan — has also produced its fair share of notable figures, such as Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin, Li Keqiang, Zhou Yongkang, and Wu Bangguo, all of whom were born in Jiangsu or Anhui. There seems, in fact, to be a very recent trend in which, when the General Secretary is from northern China, then the Premier is from central China, and vice versa. So, for example, there is now the pairing of Xi and Li (born in Beijing and Anhui, respectively), and before them the pair Hu and Wen (Jiangsu and Tianjin).

 

Some may interpret this as an implicit power-sharing arrangement between central China and northern China. While at present most leaders come from northern China, this was not the case a generation ago. Jiang Zemin (born in southern Jiangsu), Zhu Rongji (northern Hunan), Li Peng (Shanghai), Hu Yaobang (northern Hunan), Li Xiannian (Hubei), and Yang Shangkun (Chongqing) were not from the north. Of the “Eight Elders” of the 1990s and 1980s, six were born in central or south-central China; the other two in Shanxi. Even Xi Jinping, a northerner, spent his political career in central China or south-central China, in Hebei, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai.

All this, of course, could be meaningless; birthplace is hardly always a determining factor in any leader’s politics. What is interesting, however, is that such a regional pattern arguably exists in spite of the fact that most of China’s most prominent political figures and revolutionaries in the first half of the twentieth century — including Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Sun Yat Sen, Chang Kai-Shek, Zhu De, Liu Shaoqi, Hong Xiuquan, Ye Jianying, Zhang Guotao, or even the writer Lu Xun — hailed from southern China or from south-central China. Perhaps this shows that China’s establishment tends to be more northern, whereas China’s anti-establishment tends to be more southern?

The pattern, if it does actually exist, does not appear to be unique to civilian political leaders. Among today’s 11-man Central Military Commission, seven were born within northern China, while two were born in north-central China and two in south-central China. None are from the deep south.

Meanwhile, out of the 205 active members of the Party Central Committee, fewer than 15 were born in the deep south*. (*Here, please correct me if I am wrong. I do not speak Mandarin, and finding this information was difficult. Bo Zhiyue’s work was useful and worth reading, but has a different emphasis. In the end I had to sift through biographies of the Committee members one by one…). No person born in the vast southeast province Guangdong, or the vast south/centre- west province Sichuan, holds one of the 43 positions in either the Communist Party’s Politburo, Secretariat, or Central Military Commission, at or around the highest levels of China’s political hierarchy.

The Sichuan basin has also witnessed a spate of high-profile political take-downs in recent years, notably of Chongqing’ party leader Bo Xilai and, later, of Sichuan province’s former chief Zhou Yongkang. Now Chongqing’s party chief is Sun Zhengcai, who is the youngest member of the current 18th Politburo and formerly served as party chief of Jilin. Guangdong’s party chief, Hu Chunhua, is the second youngest member of the Politburo and formerly served as party chief of Inner Mongolia, after having spent most of his career working in Tibet.

This may be significant, in both cases. Southern China, as well as other areas that might perhaps also be considered to be ‘peripheral’ (including Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and even Jilin), appear often to have been used as something of a stepping-stone to power by young, up-and-coming leaders like Hu and Sun. The idea is—presumably—that they will do whatever it takes to secure the Party’s interests in those regions, given they have such bright future careers to lose if they fail to do so. Past instances may include Hu Jintao serving in Guizhou and Tibet, Zhao Zhiyang in Guangdong, or maybe even Xi in Fujian. In the case of Hu and Sun in Guangdong and the Sichuan basin, they might be there simply because of those regions’ large sizes and significance—but perhaps they are also there to preempt dissent.

…And yet. Much of China’s economic output is generated in areas from around Shanghai south to Guangdong; particularly if you include Taiwan as being part of the country. Guangdong alone accounts for an estimated 10% of mainland China’s GDP and more than 25% of its exports. This creates, perhaps, an unbalanced dynamic: China’s political periphery is also its top commercial engine.

Americans might be tempted to call this state of affairs “taxation without representation”. While I will not stoop to doing so, I would however be very interested in hearing feedback about these patterns from any of the billion or so people who are more knowledgable on Chinese affairs than I am.

So please, comment below.
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North America

Go East, Young Canuck!

Atlantic Canada, where lives 30 percent of the Canadian population in five of the country’s ten provinces (Quebec*, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and PEI), has had slower population and GDP growth than central or western Canada in recent times.

(*I’m including Quebec in “Atlantic Canada” here. This is for three reasons: first, Quebec is  geographically an Atlantic province; Quebec City is an Atlantic city. Second, Quebec has shared in the Atlantic trend of relatively low population and GDP growth. Third, the French-speaking area of Canada in a sense spills over into New Brunswick, where about a third of people speak French).

Population Growth .png

Canada province gdp per capita.png

Atlantic Canada’s slower growth has been the result, more or less, of four factors: climate (Quebec’s winters are cold, the Maritimes’ snowy), commodities (fossil fuels are mostly in western Canada); language (much of Atlantic Canada’s population does not speak English well), and location (Atlantic is relatively far from East Asia or the US).

Population and GDP Growth Ahead? 

I’m sorry, but I got real lazy here. So I’m just going to make pie-in-the-sky predictions, in point form:

  1. Migration and EnergyWith fossil fuel prices low today:

    — the Maritimes (apart from Newfoundland) benefit, as they tend to be the most dependent on fuel imports among Canadian provinces
    — Maritimers may move home from western Canada
    — Migrants from Romance-language developing economies and the Arab world, which depend heavily on energy and other commodity exports, may move to Quebec or to New Brunswick. This is particularly true given current politics in the US (where many do not want more immigration from Latin America), France (where many don’t want Muslim immigration), Veneuela (a country of 32 million people, in turmoil right now), Algeria, Libya, Angola, DRC, and Brazil
    — Migrants need affordable housing; Ontario and BC don’t have it, Atlantic Canada does
    — Migrants need employment; France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Belgium don’t have it
    — Demographics: whereas today most of the world’s people of prime emigrating or studying-abroad age (20-40 years old) in the world are East or South Asian, over the next decade or two the biggest growth in this category by far will be in Sub-Saharan Africa. Much of this, in turn, will be in Atlantic countries (notably Nigeria), many of which speak English or French.
    — In the Americas, the biggest relative growth in 20-40 year olds will be in Haiti (pop. 11 million)
    — Even Romania, a Romance-language country with a population of 20 million, is an oil-exporting economy

2. Trade and Technology

— Brexit: England and/or Scotland and/or Ireland may look west to its ex-colonies in the Maritimes for new trade (or travel) relationships
— Trump: the Republicans have brought some uncertainty to NAFTA, and also seem poised to help keep energy prices low by allowing the US fossil fuel boom to continue. Atlantic Canada is less dependent on trade with the US than Ontario is, and less dependent on high fuel prices than western Canada is
— New Fur Trade: Europe is looking for commodities in order to wean itself off of Russia and the Arab world, and ports in Atlantic Canada may be able to provide it with the supplies to do so. In recent decades, most Canadian trade has been along north-south lines, a result of the significant barriers that are the Rockies (especially in winter), northern Appalachians (especially in winter), and the Canadian Shield’s lakes/rock formations/Great Lake Snow-belts. New technologies, however, notably autonomous trucks (or at least, “smarter” trucks) may help to overcome these barriers, allowing for more east-west trade
— Meanwhile, trade with Asia is unlikely to grow relatively quickly like it did in recent decades, given that Asian growth is shifting more from the northeast (Japan, South Korea, coastal China), which is relatively near western Canada, to the south and west (India, Southeast Asia, inland China) which is not so easily accessible from western Canada. Western India, in fact, is several thousand km closer to Halifax by sea than eastern India is to Vancouver
— Autonomous ships, aircraft: small autonomous ships, combined with climate change, might open up new North Atlantic sea lanes (Northwest Passage, Northeast Passage). Autonomous aircraft, similarly, might help open up the aerial Northwest Passage (by air, St. John’s-to-Beijing is only 20-25 percent further from than Victoria-to-Beijing). Autonomous cargo planes, when combined with modern precision airdrop technology, may also allow the Maritimes to benefit from being located along the aerial routes between North America and Europe — not entirely unlike how, in the pre-jet age, cities like Gander benefited from these routes
— If North America is to move in a direction away from fossil fuels, it will need abundant energy alternatives, as well as abundant energy storage to support intermittent sources like solar and wind. Quebec’s hydro industry is one of the world leaders in electricity production and storage
— If robots/autonomous vehicles become common, then the amount of energy that is in demand in the wee hours of the night will skyrocket, since robots don’t need sleep. This will benefit energy production that today cannot be turned off at night, such as nuclear and (in many cases) hydropower, in contrast to gas plants or, especially, solar. Outside of China and Russia, which produce prodigous amounts of nuclear and hydro but an even more enormous amount of fossil fuels, the leaders in hydro and nuclear are Atlantic economies: Brazil, France, Scandinavia, and the eastern half of Canada
— E-commerce: in a world of globalizing digital interaction, a region bilingual in both English and a Romance language might be in a good position
— Robotic factory workers: the Maritime provinces have excellent, abundant natural harbours to use as ports, but relatively small populations and, thus, small labour forces. Robots could, pehaps, change this equation, making ports (and energy) a more decisive asset

ocean-drainage-basins

Source: United States Geological Survey

Atlantic_Ocean_laea_relief_location_map

3. Climate and Tourism

— driving in snow or rain, both of which Atlantic Canada gets a lot of, may become much safer and more comfortable than in the past (good, among other things, for the 35 km drive between Halifax and the Airport)
— Atlantic Canada has an enormous amount of waterfront land. With people perhaps being able to spend more time in the countryside, as a result of automation (doing jobs for people), the Internet (e-commuting), and demographics (Baby Boomers cutting down their work hours), this waterfront land could help in tourism
— with more flexibility (because of technology), people from Canada, the US, and Latin America can become snowbirds: summering in Atlantic Canada and wintering down south
— cross-country skiing boom will continue over the next ten years, as Baby Boomers enter their 60’s and 70s
—Much of Atlantic Canada is islands and peninsulas. Airplane travel, particularly with small airplanes, may become cheaper if autonomous planes really do become a reality — or if it becomes easier to become a pilot because of high-tech modern flight simulators. Traveling by boat may become easier if people get more time on their hands, if technology increases safety, and if technology can address sea-sickness

Atlantic Canada.png

Canada_2015_

The Liberals swept the Maritimes; the Conservatives fared most poorly in the Maritimes and Quebec

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East Asia

Oil and the Ouroboros

Today, at $45-50 a barrel, the price of crude oil has risen significantly from the $30 lows it reached around the start of 2016. Still, it remains quite far below the $80-110 range in which it resided during most of the past decade, prior to its crash in mid-2014. Gas and coal prices, meanwhile, have in most areas of the world fallen even more than those of oil has. China, because it is the world’s largest net importer of oil and of fossil fuels in general, has often been viewed as a country that is likely to benefit from these cheaper prices.

This view may be incorrect. Not only do China’s energy imports not equal a large share of its GDP, but the growth of China’s energy imports going forward may be slower than many predict. Moreover, there is an enormous discrepancy in the amount of fossil fuels produced by various regions and provinces within China. As such, the crash in energy prices may excacerbate, or at least influence, some of China’s preexisting geo-political divisions.

Energy Imports

China may be the world’s largest energy importer, but it is has also become its second largest energy producer, and as such only relies on energy imports for an estimated 15% of its total energy consumption, in contrast to 94% in Japan, 83% in South Korea, 33% in India, 40% in Thailand, and 43% in the Philippines. In 2014 imports of oil were equal in value to just around 2.4 % of China’s GDP, according to the Wall Street Journal, compared to 3.6% in Japan, 6.9% in Korea, 5.3% in India, 5.4% in Thailand, 4% in the Philippines, and 3.3% in Indonesia.

South Korea and Japan also imported more than two and four times more liquified natural gas, respectively – the prices of which tend to track oil prices more closely than conventional natural gas prices do – than China did. China’s LNG imports barely even surpassed India’s or Taiwan’s. China’s imports of natural gas in general, meanwhile, were less than half as large as Japan’s and only around 20% percent greater than South Korea’s.

China, furthermore, tends to import energy from the most commercially uncompetitive, politically fragile, or American-hated oil-exporting states, such as Iran, Russia, Iraq, Angola, and other African states like Congo and South Sudan. In contrast, Japan and South Korea get their crude from places that will, perhaps, be better at weathering today’s low prices, namely from Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. (Granted, China gets an enormous amount of oil from Saudi Arabia too; however, Saudi oil does not count for nearly as large as share of China’s oil imports as it does for Japanese or South Korean oil imports). Similarly, China gets much of its natural gas from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Myanmar, whereas Japan imports gas from Australia and Qatar and South Korea imports gas from Qatar and Indonesia. China’s top source for imports of high-grade anthracite coal, and its third largest source for coal in general, is North Korea.

China has, in addition, invested capital all over the world in areas hurt by falling energy and other commodity prices, both in developed countries like Australia and developing economic regions like Africa. With energy prices cheap, it may get low returns on these expenditures.

Energy, History, and Politics

Another mistake the financial media makes is looking at China as if it were a country, rather than what it really is: both a country and a continent. Continents contain deeply-rooted divisions along regional, linguistic, and ethnic lines. China is no exception. China’s main division, roughly speaking, is between  areas south of the Yangtze River, which tend to be mountainous, sub-tropical, and dependent upon importing fossil fuels, and areas north of the Yangtze, which tend to be flat, more temperate, and rich in fossil fuels.

China’s Physical Topography                     China’s Population Density

Northern China, stretching over 1000 km from Beijing southward to Shanghai on the Yangtze, is the country’s political heartland. It is densely populated and home to most of China’s natively Mandarin-speaking, ethnically Han citizens. When compared to southern China, the north has historically been somewhat insulated from foreigners like the Europeans, Americans, and even Japanese. Beijing’s nearest port is roughly 5000 km away from Singapore and the Strait of Malacca; Hong Kong, in contrast, is only around 2500 km from Singapore and Malacca. Beijing is rougly 2600 km from Tokyo by ship, whereas Shanghai is 1900 km from Tokyo and Taipei (in Taiwan) is 2100 km from Tokyo.

Japan’s Ryukyu island chain and the Kuroshio ocean currents historically allowed for direct transport from Japan to Taiwan and the rest of China’s southeastern coast; the Japanese controlled Taiwan for more than three and a half decades before they first ventured into other areas of China in a serious way during the 1930s. Even today, Japan accounts for a larger share of goods exports to Taiwan than do either China or the US.

Southern China has often depended on foreign trade, since much of its population lives in areas that are sandwiched narrowly between Pacific harbours on one side and coastal subtropical mountain ranges on the other. In northern and central China, in contrast, most people live in interior areas rather than directly alongside the Pacific coast.

People in the northern interior often did not engage in as much foreign trade as those on the coast, as, in the past, transportation in the interior was often limited by the fact that northern China’s chief river, the Huang-he, is generally unnavigable and prone to flooding northern China’s flat river plains, destroying or damaging roads and bridges in the process. In southern or central China, by comparison, even people living far inland could engage with the coast by way of the commercially navigable Yangtze and Pearl Rivers, which meet the Pacific where cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong are located.

Northern China, however, was most directly exposed to the land-based Mongol and Manchu invaders who ruled over the Chinese for most of the past half-millenium or so, prior to the overthrow of the Manchu-led Qing Emperor in 1912. Today, of course, the north continues to retain China’s political capital, Beijing, and a disproportionally large majority of Chinese leaders were born in northern China — including Beijing-born Xi Jinping and Shandong-born Wang Qishan, a former mayor of Beijing). This is in spite of the fact that most of China’s leading political revolutionaries in the twentieth century, including Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Sun Yat Sen, Chang Kai-Shek, Zhu De, Ye Jianying, Hong Xiuquan, and the writer Lu Xun, hailed from southern or south-central China.

At present, out of China’s seven Standing Comittee top leaders, only seventh-ranked Zhang Gaoli was born in southern China; whereas five of the seven were born in northern China and one, Premier Li Keqiang, was born in central China. Zhang Gaoli may in fact be the first person born outside of northern or central China in thirty years to have made it to the Standing Committee. He is also the only person currently in the 25-member Politburo born outside of northern or central China. Meanwhile, among the 11-man Central Military Commission, seven were born in northern China, while two were born in north-central China and two in south-central China. By my count, out of the 205 active members of the Party Central Committee, fewer than 15 seem to have been born south of central China.

Indeed, the southern half of China, stretching from islands in Taiwan, Hainan, Hong Kong, Xiamen, and Macau in the east to the plateaus of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet in the west, seems to be politically peripheral. It is home to a majority of China’s 120 million or so non-Han citizens (most of whom are not Tibetan or Uyghur, though those two groups recieve almost all of the West’s attention), as well as home to China’s 200-400 million speakers of languages other than Mandarin, and to China’s tens of millions of speakers of dialects of Mandarin that are relatively dissimilar to the Beijing-based standardized version of Mandarin, and to most of China’s 50-100 million recent adopters of Christianity, and, finally, to most of China’s millions of family members of the enormous worldwide Chinese diaspora.

Southern China is closer to Southeast Asia, a region with an enormous, economically active Chinese population (many of whom speak southern Chinese languages like Cantonese), than is northern China. Southern China’s Fujian province, in particular, is both linguistically and economically close to Taiwan, and southern China’s Guangdong province—the largest province in China—to Hong Kong. A large share of China’s GDP comes from the coastal areas of China from around Shanghai south to Guangdong, particularly if you include Taiwan as part of the country. Guangdong alone accounts for an estimated 10% of mainland China’s GDP and over 25% of its exports. This creates, arguably, an unbalanced dynamic: China’s political periphery is also its main economic engine.

Fossil Fuels

As it happens, northern China produces almost all of China’s fossil fuels. Most Chinese energy is, in fact, produced in and around the province of Shanxi, 300 km or so west of Beijing, where a tremendous share of China’s (and, indeed, the world’s) coal is mined. Shanxi has also seen the biggest political shakeup of any province from Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign thus far. When combined with the northern “Autonomous Regions” of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, as well as China’s north-easternmost province Heilongjiang, Shanxi produces a gigantic of China’s fossil fuels in general. Other northern areas, such as Shandong, Liaoning, and Tianjin, are also significant oil producers.

Southern and central China, in contrast, account for most of China’s imports of fossil fuels—especially if you include the economy of Taiwan as being part of southern China. Taiwan, in fact, may be more dependent on oil imports than any other significant economy in the world, according to data from the Wall Street Journal. Falling energy prices may weaken the historical political heartland of China relative to its periphery, in that case. Whether or not this will generate political instability going forward remains to be seen.

Looking Ahead

If (a big if) energy prices remain low for a sustained period, then the question of China’s future dependence on imported energy also becomes relevant, as does the question of the future dependence on imported energy of China’s most important neighbours. In that case, how dependent on energy imports will countries like China, Japan, and India be in a decade or two from now?

While it is impossible to know what the future will be like, it is not difficult to imagine that China will remain less dependent on energy imports than India and/or Japan during the years or decades ahead, as a result of India’s still-emerging economy and Japan’s still-roboticizing economy.

China is not likely to be a major adopter of energy-intensive robots, in per capita terms, because China has a far larger cheap labour force than any country in the world apart from India. Japan, in contrast, will likely help lead the robot revolution, as its labour force is expensive and aging rapidly. This could make Japan even more dependent on importing energy, as machines that are both highly mobile and capable of sophisticated computation require an enormous amount of energy to run — and indeed, one of their main advantages over human labour is that they can and frequently will be tasked to run 24-7, without even taking any time off for holidays or sick days.

China is not certain to increase its energy imports nearly as much as less-developed economies like India, meanwhile, as the Chinese inudstrial sector is facing challenges as a result of its past generation of energy-intensive growth. China faces rising labour costs in many of its cities; a pollution problem; a US that is concerned with Chinese industrial power; and countries throughout the world afraid of China’s world-leading carbon emissions.

In addition, China is located much further away from the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea oil and gas fields than the Indians and other South Asians are, and so might have difficulty accessing them in a pinch.

China may also, for the first time, have to face industrial competition from resource-rich economies such as Australia, Norway, Canada, Texas, or even the Gulf Arab states,which may be able to use energy-intensive robots of various kinds to build up their manufacturing sectors in spite of their small, expensive domestic labour forces.

All this could make China’s industrial growth rate slip, which in turn might reduce China’s resource imports and thus prevent China from becoming the leading beneficiary of low energy and commodity prices.

Such a shift will be especially likely if the United States or European economies decide to enact tariffs on goods coming from places that generate power by using coal in inefficient ways, a prospect that has become increasingly likely as a result of America’s triple-alliance between environmentalists opposed to coal consumption, shale gas producers competing with coal miners, and energy companies trying to pioneer more expensive but cleaner ways of consuming coal and other fossil fuels. China may then have to focus on growing its service sectors instead of its energy-intensive industrial sectors.

China, Japan, and Siberia 

Japan, lastly, might benefit from Russia’s energy-related woes more than China will. This is not only because the Chinese have to a certain extent often looked to Russia as an ally against the West, but also because the areas of Russia that China is close to are mostly irrelevant to China: they are landlocked, Siberian, and for the most part located far from China’s population centres.

Pacific Russia, in contrast, which is located next to the Sea of Japan on the East Asian side of Russia’s Pacific mountain ranges, has a far more liveable climate than does most of the continental Siberian interior. It is home to several small or medium-sized port cities, such as Vladivostok and Petrapavlovsk-Kamchatsky, which are very, very far away from Moscow. This region accounts for much of the oil and nearly all of the Russian gas exports to Asia—especially energy-rich Sakhalin Island, which is just 40 km away from Japan and was half-owned and inhabited by the Japanese prior to the Second World War.

Russia may, in fact, be somewhat better prepared to fight another border war with China like it did in 1969—which might not be too different than the many other wars Russia has fought within or near its borders both prior to or since then—than it would be to face off against Japan again within the far-eastern, mountainous, archipelagic and peninsular Pacific Russian region, as it did in 1905 and then again during the 1930s and WW2. Of course this does not mean Japan will attack Russia — though it has certainly toyed with the idea of eventually making some bolder moves in the Southern Kuril Islands, which both countries claim as their own. Even the remote, unstated possibility of conflict, however, may help grant Japan leverage in any negotiations with Russia regarding commercial or political issues.

Conclusion

All of this is not to be bearish on China’s future. Energy-intensive industrial growth, after all, woud not necessarily mean an improved quality of life for Chinese citizens. Ideally Chinese standards of living will rise at a considerably faster pace than its energy usage. It does seem, though, that China’s economy may not turn out to be a major beneficiary of the fall in energy prices. The PRC’s neighbours on the other hand, such as Japan and Taiwan, which are less rich in fossil fuels or in labour, may benefit greatly. So too might the poorer countries that depend on energy imports, like India and the Philippines. Just as important, however, yet often overlooked, are China’s domestic geopolitics. Internal Chinese divisions—including along north-south and east-west lines—have been, and might remain, of paramount importance. Energy prices could impact them too.

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Europe

Spanish Geo-Economics: Past, Present, and Future

Link: spanish-geo-economics-past-present-and-future-january-2017

(If some the pictures on the link above are too blurry, you can see them clearly on the link below….however some of the text paragraphs in the link below are out of place. Sorry for the inconvenience).

spanish-geo-economics-past-present-and-future-january-2017

spain-landflatland

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North America

Electoral College Blues

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama

In the recent presidential election Donald Trump received the support of 45 percent of voters who have college diplomas, 37 percent of voters who have graduate degrees, and 35 percent of college-age voters. Trump won the presidency in spite of these relatively low numbers, however, because he is set to receive 57 percent of the votes within the electoral college.

Democratic voters are not at all happy about this. Many are now calling for the abolition of the electoral college, or at least, wishing that it was not so incredibly difficult to abolish. They are unhappy that both Donald Trump and George W Bush were able to reach the White House even after losing the popular vote.

I am sympathetic to this view, and if it were up to me I would agree to replace the electoral college with another type of voting system — though what system exactly would be best I am not certain about. That said, I would like to point out a few things to the Democratic supporters who have been discussing this issue of late, if only because I have yet to hear anyone mention them:

1) Obama lost the popular vote in the Democratic primary of 2008. He received roughly 0.7 percent fewer votes than Hillary Clinton received in that race, but won because he got 53 percent of the delegate count. This was not as large a margin as Trump’s 2 percent popular vote loss to Clinton, but it was greater than Bush’s 0.5 percent loss to Gore.

Granted, a primary is obviously not as important as general election, and involves many fewer voters.There is also the complicating factor of the several states which caucus rather than vote directly in primaries, as well as the fact that Obama was not on the ballot in Michigan. This has led some to claim that Obama would have beaten Clinton in a popular vote if there had been a fairer and more direct primary system.

All the same, it does perhaps speak a bit poorly of some of the Democratic supporters, who did not make such a fuss when Obama came to power after appearing to have lost a key popular vote. They do not even mention Obama’s popular vote loss now, even as they complain frequently about Trump’s and Bush’s.

(Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, did well in the 2008 primary in part by winning in the Rust Belt states and Florida, states which have now propelled Trump to electoral college success. Trump’s victory was the second time Clinton has won a key popular vote and still lost an election)

2) It is not at all clear that the unfairness of the electoral college is deserving of the huge amount of attention it has been receiving of late, when the unfairness of the voting system in the Senate is in certain respects enormously greater than that of the electoral college, yet by comparison tends to receive almost no attention in the national media.

Senators, of course, are not as important as presidents, but still, anyone complaining about the presidential voting system should probably also be complaining about the fact that tiny states like Rhode Island and Wyoming receive as much representation in the Senate as do giants like California and Texas.

George W Bush and Trump, after all, only lost their respective popular votes by approximately 0.5—2 percent, whereas California and Texas have nearly 40 and 28 million inhabitants, respectively, yet receive the same amount of representation in the Senate as do each of the six American states which have fewer than one million inhabitants, or the 14 states which have fewer than two million inhabitants, or the 20 states with fewer than three million inhabitants.

3) It is not clear that the Democrats would actually benefit from getting rid of the electoral college. While most Democrat supporters who want to get rid of the electoral college would like to do so because they feel it is unfair, rather than because they feel it hurts Democrats, some do want to change the system mainly because they feel it has been hurt their side during the Bush and Trump elections.

What is interesting here is that the Democrats have spent much of the past decade telling themselves that they are well-placed to win future electoral colleges because they have a “coalition of the ascendant” — notably, that they may be set to benefit from having young Spanish-speaking, black, and white-liberal populations continue to grow quickly within  swing states like Florida, Colorado, Virginia, or possibly even Georgia. Trump’s electoral college victory does not change this trend. What is more, Trump’s popular vote loss to Clinton may not prevent the Republicans from winning future popular votes by receiving high support from white voters.

Indeed, this recent election might, counter-intuitivitely, indicate that Republicans could be able to win the popular vote in the future because of white voters being willing to switch from Democrat to Republican, or because of Democrat voters staying home on election day. If, as hopefully will not happen, electoral politics continue to become more divided along racial lines, then it is not inconceivable that white Americans would remain a predominant voting bloc even if they eventually no longer account for a majority of the electorate.

Of course, it is probable that for the foreseeable future Republicans will continue to fare better in the electoral college than in the popular vote, a result of the fact that most Democrat voters tend to live within Northeastern or Pacific coastal cities, outside of typical swing states. Still, any Democrats who hope to somehow get rid of the electoral college in order to benefit their own party should, maybe, be a bit careful in making this a Christmas wish.

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Middle East

The Geopolitics of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has an estimated population of 32 million, the 40th largest in the world and 6th largest in the Arab world. It is barely more than a third of the size of Egypt’s population. Territorially, however, Saudi Arabia is massive. It is the 12th largest country in the world, and the largest country in the Arab world outside of Algeria. Its territory is roughly the size of Turkey, France, Germany and Japan put together.

Of course, much of this territory is desert. Saudi Arabia’s arable land per capita, according to the World Bank, is just 0.1 hectares per person. This is less even than in densely populated states like India, though it is still a lot higher than in Egypt, Yemen, and a few other Arab countries.

Most Saudis live in the western part of the country, within 150 km of the Red Sea. The densest concentration of Saudi Arabians live near the country’s mountainous border with Yemen.

Saudi_Arabia_population_density_2010

Population density of Saudi Arabia by Region

On the Yemeni side of the border the population density is also high. Nearly all of Yemen’s population of 27 million lives within 400 km of this border. Many Yemenis live within just 200 km of the border, in the capital and largest city Sana’a or in the mountains north of Sana’a.

yemen_pop_2002

Yemen

This populous border region is inhabited by a non-Sunni majority on both sides of the border, in stark contrast to Saudi Arabia as a whole. It has created challenges for the Saudi rulers; In recent years the Saudi military has been engaging directly in the ongoing Yemeni civil war, for example.

M.-Izadys-Arabian-Religion-Map

Another product of Yemeni-Saudi relations was Osama bin Laden, one of the many sons of the billionaire Mohammad bin Awad bin Laden, a poor Yememite who moved to Arabia’s main port city of Jeddah before the First World War and went on to become one the richest non-royals in Saudi Arabia. In a certain sense Osama went on to become arguably the most prominent challenger to the Saudi royalty.

saudi-map

Of Saudi Arabia’s 13 Regions, Ar Riyadh, Makkah, and Eastern Province (Ash Sharqiyah) are by far the most populous. Jizan in the southwest, meanwhile, is much more densely populated than any of the others, followed by Bahah, Makkah, and Asir which are also much more densely populated than the others

saudi regions graph

The Saudi-Yemeni relationship is in some ways a microcosm of Saudi Arabian geopolitics in general. Saudi Arabia’s borderlands (the lands on either side of Saudi Arabia’s borders) are much more populous than Saudi Arabia’s heartland (the region in and around the Saudi capital city Riyadh). Moreover while the Saudi heartland adheres mainly to ultraconservative Wahabbi Islam (or, more broadly, to Sunni Islam), Saudi borderlands are often non-Sunni or adhere to more cosmopolitan (by Saudi standards) non-Wahabbist Sunni traditions.

This includes not just the wealthy, relatively cosmopolitan foreign cities of the Persian Gulf, like Dubai, Doha, or Abu Dhabi, but also cities within Saudi Arabia near the Red Sea, like Mecca and Medina (because of the Hajj, which has historically had a worldly influence) and the Meccan port city of Jeddah, which is by far the most populous Saudi city apart from Riyadh.

Within 200 km of Saudi Arabia’s land borders, over 35 million people live (not counting Saudi Arabia’s own population), more than the 32 million people that live in Saudi Arabia. Within 500 km of Saudi Arabia’s land or sea borders more than 230 million people live (not counting Saudis). By comparison, there are just 15 million or so people who live in or within 500 km of Riyadh.

In contrast, in Egypt most of the Egyptian population lives in or within 200 km of Cairo, and very few people in Egypt live within 200 km of Egypt’s land borders with other countries. In Turkey most people live in or within 400 km of the capital Ankara. In Iraq nearly all people live in or within 430 km of Baghdad. And in Pakistan most people live within 500 km of Islamabad.

Iran, on the other hand, does have a somewhat similar geopolitical configuration as Saudi Arabia, if not necessarily to the same extreme. The Iranian heartland (in, around, and between the cities of Tehran and Esfahan) is far away from most the country’s populous borderlands, and its borderlands are in many cases not inhabited by Persians but rather by minority groups like Kurds, Arabs, Azeri Turks, Balochis, and others. The fact that both Saudi Arabia and Iran are potentially fragile in this way has helped, perhaps, to drive their rivalry with one another, as both act aggressively to preempt any perceived threats to their internal cohesion.

ethnic-iran-map

The same is true, though to a lesser extent, of Turkey, where some in Ankara worry about Kurdish groups along its eastern borders and about secularists and cosmopolitans in and around Istanbul on its western borders.

One of the only significant exceptions to Saudi Arabia’s borderland linkages is in its southeast, where the The Empty Quarter of the Arabian desert effectively hives off areas within Oman, the UAE, and Yemen from Saudi population centres. You can see the influence of the Empty Quarter (Ar Rub’ al Khali) in the map of roads in Saudi Arabia below: it has almost none. According to Wikipedia, the Empty Quarter is larger in size than entire countries like France, Afghanistan, or Ukraine. It is about five times larger than England.

Saudi-Arabia-road-map

Looking out from Riyadh, the Saudi leadership sees potential border-region threats in almost every direction. It worries not only about neighbouring countries, but also how they may interact with its own Saudi citizens (and with its foreign-born labourers, who number around a fifth of the people in Saudi Arabia). In the past the Saudis have waged an aggressive foreign policy meant to stave off such threats, for example allying with the US during the Cold War in order to combat the Shiite Iranians (post-1979), the Pan-Arab Nasserites in Egypt (pre-1980), and Ba’athist Iraq (in 1990).

Today Saudi Arabia continues to project influence, in various ways, into countries like Egypt (where it supported ultra-religious Salafist political parties and the Egyptian military against both the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian liberals), Bahrain (which Saudi Arabia invaded, in effect, during the Arab Spring in 2011, in order to prop up the Sunni monarchy against the majority Shiite population), Iraq and Syria (where it has supported religious Sunni groups), Lebanon, and Yemen.

Saudi Arabia

From Doha the capital of Qatar to Mecca in Saudi Arabia is nearly as far as from Doha to the megacity of Karachi (population 24 million) in Pakistan. From Dubai in the UAE to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second largest city, is about the same distance as from Dubai to the important state of Gujarat (population 63 million). From Riyadh to Shiraz (Iran’s sixth largest city) is closer than from Riyadh to Jeddah. From Riyadh to Baghdad is about the same as from Riyadh to the Jizan region (population 2.5 million) in southwestern Saudi Arabia. Even the distance from Riyadh to Tehran (8 million) is not much further than Riyadh to Jizan.

Even along its maritime borders the Saudis are potentially insecure, a result of the narrowness of the Red Sea (250 km, on average) and Persian Gulf (also 250 km wide), as well as the fact that both seas can be potentially closed off because of the chokepoints of Hormuz, Suez, and the Bab-el Mandeb. Indeed, absent support for Saudi Arabia from an outside power like the United States, the most probable leading nation in the energy-rich Persian Gulf is not Saudi Arabia, but rather is Iraq, which occupies a large majority of the arable lowlands in the Persian Gulf basin, or Iran, which occupies most of the arable highlands overlooking the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia’s Gulf region, in contrast, is mainly desert.

topographic map

In addition, because Iran and Iraq are both majority-Shiite, as is Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and neighbouring Bahrain, the Sunnis and Wahabbists in Saudi Arabia are at a potential disadvantage in the Gulf region from a religious perspective. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is badly outnumbered in the Gulf even just by the Kuwaitis, Qataris, and Emiratis, who together have 15 million inhabitants (led by the Emiratis, with 9.5 million people) and an estimated GDP of 775 billion dollars (compared to around 750 billion dollars for Saudi Arabia). This situation is further complicated by the huge foreign-born labour forces of these rich Gulf monarchies, which tend not to be treated very well yet outnumber the citizen labour forces within most of these countries.

mid-east-religion

Historically the Persian Gulf was not as important as it is in the modern oil and gas era. The Saudis main rivalries in the late 19th and early 20th century were instead in western Saudi Arabia, with the Hashemites, and in north-central Saudi Arabia, with the Rashidis. The Hashemites, who had been allied with the British and today rule Jordan, were in control of the Hejaz (see  map below) until defeated and exiled to (rule) Iraq, Syria, and Jordan by the Saudis in 1924-1925; the Rashidis, who had at times been allied with the Turkish Ottomans, were in control of most of the Arabian interior until defeated by the Saudis in 1921, three years after the end of the First World War. Just thirty-one years before, in 1890, the Rashidis had conquered Riyadh and forced the Saudis into political exile in Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait.

Hejaz

Rashid

ottoman arabia

Today most of Saudi Arabia’s population lives in the Hejaz, in lands that have been under Saudi rule for less than a century. The legacy of the rivalry between the Saudis and Rashidis, meanwhile, can still be seen in the M. Izady relgious map (posted higher above in this article), where the area in, around, and north of the city of Ha’il, the former Rashidi capital, is one of the only parts of the Saudi interior categorized as Sunni rather than Wahhabi. The defeat of the Rashidi dynasty has meant that Ha’il is now just the 12th most populous city in Saudi Arabia, in contrast to Riyadh which has become the largest in the country.

Mecca and Medina

Mecca is just the third most populous Saudi city, however because of its religious significance it is more important than any other. It is located close to other large Saudi cities: 65 km east of Jeddah (the second largest Saudi city, with more than twice the population of Mecca), 50 km west of Taif (the sixth largest Saudi city) and 335 km south of Medina (the fourth largest Saudi city). Together Mecca, Jeddah, and Taif, all of which are located in Makkah Region, have a population larger than the Saudi capital Riyadh or the Riyadh Region.

Saudi Cities Lines Map

Mecca is located almost exactly on a straight line with Riyadh in central Saudi Arabia (I’ve added lines on the map above to try to display this), with Hofuf and Dammam in eastern Saudi Arabia (the fifth and seventh largest Saudi cities, respectively), and with Manama (Bahrain’s capital) immediately to Saudi Arabia’s east. This line is perpindicular to the line that runs north-south along the western coast and coastal mountains of Arabia. Within these lines, which converge around Mecca, Jeddah, and Ta’if, lives a significant majority of Saudi Arabia’s population, as well as to most Yemenis and Bahrainis. Cities like Medina, meanwhile, are outside but still quite close to these lines, as is Doha the wealthy capital of Qatar. The north-south line also runs roughly parallel to the Nile river valley, where nearly all Egyptians and most Sudanese live.

Historically Mecca and Jeddah were strategically located, at the centre of the regional trade and transport routes linking Asia, Europe, and East Africa. They are situated almost exactly 1200 km from the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, and Persian Gulf. Because Mecca and Jeddah are located just to the north of the higher elevations of Arabia’s Red Sea coastal mountains (see maps below), and northwest of the impassable Empty Quarter of Arabia, caravan routes between the Persian Gulf and Red Sea could not easily bypass them to the south.

Saudi_Arabia_Topography

map-saudi-toppography

the stronghold of Ta’if

At the same time, Mecca still has a useful foothold in a small northern sliver of these higher-elevation coastal mountains, around Ta’if.  Ta’if, where Meccan elites historically would reside during the summer to escape the heat, is at 1879 metres above sea level, compared to just 12 metres for Jeddah, 277 for Mecca, and 332 for Medina.

The relative proximity of Mecca, Jeddah, and especially Medina to Egypt was also significant in the past. Before steamships, it was difficult to travel northward in the Red Sea because of the trade winds blowing south and the rockiness and narrowness of the Gulf of Suez. As a result, ships would often travel instead to the Egyptian port city of Al-Qusayr (population 50,000 today) where a bend in the Nile brings the river relatively close to the Red Sea, then cross 155 km of desert overland to Quena (population 250,000) on the Nile and sail the river the rest of the way to the Mediterranean.

Egypt .png

Al-Qusayr to Quena

Unlike the Red Sea, the Egyptian portion of the Nile could be crossed easily in either direction; it has no significant rapids or water-barriers to the north of the Cataracts of the Nile  (which separate Egypt from Sudan), it has no significant river bends (unlike the very big bend the Nile makes in Sudan north of the capital Khartoum), and even sailing south against the current of the river could be acheived with relative ease because of the south-blowing trade winds. The Egyptian port of Al-Qusayr on the Red Sea is not too far north of Medina, and is likely one of the reasons that Medina became so significant.

In addition, Medina is located near where the Wadi Al-Rummah, the longest valley in the entire Arabian peninsula, arises. It runs from Medina all the way northeast to the Persian Gulf by Kuwait.

Jeddah and Mecca, meanwhile, are across from Port Sudan, which is by far the most populous coastal city on the Red Sea in either Sudan or Egypt (not counting Suez). From Port Sudan a valley leads through the East African coastal mountains to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum (population 5-6 million), where the Blue Nile and White Nile meet to become the Nile. Today Khartoum is perhaps the fourth or fifth most populous city in the Arab world, but gets little media attention.

port sudan.png

The routes between Arabia and the Nile were used, for example, during the late 18th century, when the British sent their army from India to Egypt to counter the invasion of Egypt and Palestine by Napoleon, when Napoleon was still a general and not yet France’s ruler. The route was used also by the sons of Egypt’s Ottoman Viceroy Muhammad Ali to overthrow the First Saudi State (1744-1818) and later challenge the Second Saudi State (1824-1891). However as a result of modern shipping and the Suez Canal, the route today is no longer as important.

Conclusion 

Saudi Arabia’s geography has heavily informed its history, up to and including the present day. As a result of its desert climate, for example, the Saudi economy is still not very large. Its GDP is estimated to be smaller than Turkey’s, a third as large as Italy’s, and less than twice as large as those of Iran or the United Arab Emirates. Politically, meanwhile, the strain between the historical Saudi and Wahabbi heartland around Riyadh and its borderlands around the Red Sea and Persian Gulf is perhaps the main factor driving the Saudi state’s aggresivity and extremism, both at home and abroad. This aggressivity and extremism, in turn, could create political pushback against the Saudi leadership from Saudi citizens, neighbouring Middle Eastern countries, or external powers like the United States.

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Some notes, taken from Wikipedia:

The Rashidis 

“As with many Arab ruling dynasties, the lack of a generally accepted rule of succession was a recurrent problem with the Rasheedi rule. The internal dispute normally centered on whether succession to the position of amir should be horizontal (i.e. to a brother) or vertical (to a son). These internal divisions within the family led to bloody infighting. In the last years of the nineteenth century six Rasheedi leaders died violently. Nevertheless, The Al Rasheed Family still ruled and fought together [against the Saudis] in the Saudi–Rashidi Wars.”

As an aside, Faisal bin Musa’id, a half-Rashidi half-Saudi prince, assisinated Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal in 1975. According to Wikipedia, “Faisal’s father was Prince Musa’id, the step-brother of King Faisal, and his mother was Watfa, a daughter of Muhammad bin Talal, the 12th (and last) Rashidi Emir. His parents divorced. He and his brothers and sisters were much closer to their maternal Rashidi relatives than their paternal Al Saud relatives. In 1966, his older brother Khaled, a Wahhabist, was killed during an assault on a new television station in Riyadh. Wahhabi clerics opposed the establishment of a national television service, as they believed it immoral to produce images of humans. The details of his death are disputed. Some reports allege that he actually died resisting arrest outside his own home. Faisal came to the United States in 1966 and attended San Francisco State College for two semesters studying English. Allis Bens, director of the American Language Institute at San Francisco State, said, “He was friendly and polite and very well brought up it seemed to me. I am really very surprised about this.” While Faisal was at San Francisco State his brother Khaled was killed. In 1969, while in Boulder he was arrested for conspiring to sell LSD. He pleaded guilty and was place on probation for one year. After leaving the United States, he went to Beirut. For unknown reasons, he also went to East Germany. When he came back to Saudi Arabia, Saudi authorities seized his passport because of his troubles abroad. He began teaching at Riyadh University and kept in touch with his girlfriend, Christine Surma, who was 26 at the time of the assassination.On 25 March 1975, he went to the Royal Palace in Riyadh, where King Faisal was holding a majlis. He joined a Kuwaiti delegation and lined up to meet the king. The king recognized his nephew and bent his head forward, so that the younger Faisal could kiss the king’s head in a sign of respect. The prince took out a revolver from his robe and shot the King twice in the head. His third shot missed and he threw the gun away. King Faisal fell to the floor. Bodyguards with swords and submachine guns arrested the prince. The king was quickly rushed to a hospital but doctors failed to save him. Before dying, King Faisal ordered that the assassin not be executed.. Saudi television crews captured the entire assassination on camera. A sharia court found Faisal guilty of the king’s murder on 18 June, and his public execution occurred hours later. His brother Bandar was imprisoned for one year and later released. Following the execution, his head was displayed to the crowd for 15 minutes on a wooden spike, before being taken away with his body in an ambulance. Beirut newspapers offered three different explanations for the attack. An-Nahar reported that the attack may have been possible vengeance for the dethroning of King Saud, because Faisal was scheduled to marry Saud’s daughter — Princess Sita — in the same week.”

The First Saudi State

“After many military campaigns, Saud [the founder of First Saudi State] died in 1765, leaving the leadership to his son, Abdul-Aziz bin Muhammad [who married the daughter of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahabbism]. Saud’s forces went so far as to gain command of the Shi’a holy city of Karbala [in Mesopotamia] in 1801. Here they destroyed grave markers of saints and monuments. [Later they] sent out forces to bring the region of Hejaz under his rule… This was seen as a major challenge to the authority of the Ottoman Empire, which had exercised its rule over the holy cities since 1517. The task of weakening the grip of the House of Saud was given to the powerful viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha, by the Ottomans This initiated the Ottoman–Saudi War, in which Muhammad Ali sent his troops to the Hejaz region by sea. His son, Ibrahim Pasha, then led Ottoman forces into the heart of Nejd [the interior of Arabia]… Finally, Ibrahim reached the Saudi capital at Diriyah [on the outskirts of Riyadh] and placed it under siege for several months until it surrendered in the winter of 1818. Ibrahim then shipped off many members of the clans of Al Saud and Muhammed Ibn Abd Al Wahhab to Egypt and the Ottoman capital, Constantinople. Before he left he ordered a systematic destruction of Diriyah, whose ruins have remained untouched ever since. Abdullah bin Saud was later executed in the Ottoman capital Constantinople with his severed head later thrown into the waters of the Bosphorus, marking the end of what was known as the First Saudi State.”

The Second Saudi State

“The first Saudi to attempt to regain power after the fall of the Emirate of Diriyah in 1818 was Mishari ibn Saud, a brother of the last ruler in Diriyah, Abdullah bin Saud. He was soon captured by the Egyptians and killed, however. In 1824, Turki bin Abdullah bin Muhammad, a grandson of the first Saudi imam Muhammad bin Saud, was able to expel Egyptian forces and their local allies from Riyadh and its environs. He is generally regarded as the founder of the second Saudi dynasty as well as being the ancestor of the kings of modern-day Saudi Arabia. He made his capital in Riyadh and was able to enlist the services of many relatives who has escaped captivity in Egypt, including his son Faisal ibn Turki Al Saud. Turki was then assassinated in 1834 by Mishari ibn Abdul-Rahman, a distant cousin. Mishari was soon besieged in Riyadh and later executed by Faisal, who went on to become the most prominent ruler of the Saudis’ second reign. Faisal, however, faced a re-invasion of Najd by the Egyptians four years later. Faisal was defeated and taken to Egypt as a prisoner for the second time in 1838. The Egyptians installed Khalid ibn Saud, last surviving brother of Muhammad bin Saud, who had spent many years in the Egyptian court, as ruler in Riyadh, and supported him with Egyptian troops. In 1840, however, external conflicts forced the Egyptians to withdraw all their presence in the Arabian Peninsula, leaving Khalid with little support. Seen by most locals as nothing more than an Egyptian governor, Khalid was toppled soon afterwards by Abdullah ibn Thuniyyan, of the collateral Al Thuniyyan branch. Faisal, however, had been released from prison that year and, aided by the Al Rashid rulers of Ha’il, was able to retake Riyadh and resume his rule… Upon Faisal’s death in 1865, Abdullah assumed rule in Riyadh but was soon challenged by his brother, Saud. The two brothers fought a long civil war, in which they traded rule in Riyadh several times. Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Rashid of Ha’il took the opportunity to intervene in the conflict and increase his own power. Gradually, Ibn Rashid extended his authority over most of Najd, including the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Ibn Rashid finally expelled the last Saudi leader, Abdul-Rahman bin Faisal, from Najd after the Battle of Mulayda in 1891, ending the Second Saudi State.”

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