Middle East

Peace and Prosperity in Israel’s Future?

In Israel’s last major war, in 1973, 0.08 percent of Israel’s population was killed. During Israel’s last serious financial crisis, in the 1970s and early 1980s, its economy faced hyperinflation. In the four decades since, Israel’s casualty rates have declined while its real income, per capita, has risen. Israeli casualty rates as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict were 0.03 percent in the 1980s, 0.004 percent in the ‘90s, 0.03 percent in the 2000s, and just 0.001 percent since 2010. Israel’s per capita income has grown from $3,500 in 1975 to $35,000 in 2015. Since the end of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014, Israel has had a casualty rate of 0.0004 percent. Its economy grew at 3-4 percent annually during this time, twice the average rate of the developed world. Since mid-2015, the Israeli economy has been outgrowing the developing world’s too.

It may be that Israel will continue this success in the years and decades ahead. But it may not. Israel might instead have to face new challenges to its economy and security, which are already becoming visible from afar.

One new challenge Israel may face comes from the development of software and devices that replace human labour. Thus far, labour and technology have been Israel’s twin competitive advantages. Part of the reason that Israel’s economy and tech sector have been growing is that Israel has a labour force that is far younger than those of Europe, Northeast Asia, or the United States. Soon, however, Israel may enter a phase in which, for the tech sector to continue succeeding, it will have to create technologies that will directly undercut Israel’s labour advantage. A glimmer of this future challenge can already be seen, for example in Intel’s 15.3 billion dollar acquisition of a driverless-car technology company, Mobileye, earlier this year. It was the largest windfall in Israeli hi-tech history—yet it could also put Israeli nahagim out of work.

A second threat to the Israeli economy may be climate change. Though it is very difficult to know when, what or even whether the impacts of climate change will be, it is obvious that the Middle East is not a part of the planet one would love to be living in if and when they do occur. As many in Israel must have been thinking during the recent spell of nearly 40 degree temperatures—especially inside Gaza, where electricity has been mostly unavailable—any future warming or drying in the Middle East is a frightening prospect.

Perhaps even more importantly, it is not certain to what extent Israel’s trading partners will decide to enact carbon tariffs in the coming years. Such tariffs could put Israel in a difficult position, as Israel relies on burning fossil fuels, particularly coal, to generate its electricity. Israel has actually benefited from this of late, since fuel prices have plummeted worldwide. But with the possibility of large countries deciding to enact tariffs on carbon (or methane) emissions, these energy sources represent a risk for the Israeli economy.

A third risk to the Israeli economy also comes from its commercial relationships with foreign countries. Israelis do a lot of business in the world; particularly in Europe, where Israelis live and work in countries like Germany while French and British Jews spend tourist and investment dollars in Israel. Israel imports more goods from German-speaking countries than from the United States. Israel also increasingly does business with Asia: Israel exports roughly half as much to Chinese-speaking economies as to the United States.

Today, however, Israel’s economic relationships with both Europe and Asia are at risk, at least in the short term, because of the slow economic growth in both those continents. Europe has barely grown in the past decade outside of Germany, and continues to suffer extreme unemployment in its Mediterranean countries. China, meanwhile, which was growing at over 10 percent just a few years ago, is now growing at just 6.5 percent. And that’s the official rate: most analysts guess China’s real rate is now only 3-6 percent.

Growth in European and Asian economies could bounce back, of course. But until it does, it bodes ill for Israel.

Most worrying for Israel should be Germany, which has thus far been the major exception to Europe’s economic and unemployment crises. Germany has lately shown signs that it may finally be on the verge of succumbing to Europe’s general sluggishness. Germany is an enormously export-driven country, but the economies it exports to are either struggling or, in the case of the United States, have been talking about raising tariffs on imports of German goods. Israel could be hurt if Germany falters, as it is Israel’s largest economic partner by far apart from the US. Lots of Israelis could flow back from Berlin, needing jobs.

Germany also shares a political trend with Israel: long-lasting leaders. Merkel is now in her 12th year as Chancellor and approaching her fourth election. Netanyahu is in his 11th year in office (when counting his previous three-year stint in the ‘90s), approaching his fifth election. As Ruchir Sharma, a top investor at Morgan Stanley, argues in his recent book, The Rise and Fall of Nations, countries with leaders who stay on too long past their “best before date”, like Bibi and Angela are doing, tend to watch their markets do relatively poorly over time.  Time will soon tell whether or not Israel will conform to this rule. It already has done so once before (though perhaps coincidentally), when it struggled in the ‘70s after Labor’s long reign.

Finally, there is Israel’s security challenge. This has declined in the past generation, first because of Israel’s peace with Egypt and then because Israel’s rivals in Arabia and Iran became distracted by their own wars; notably the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the long Iraq war (1991-2017), and now of course the Syrian war (2011-2017). Israel’s smaller but nearer rivals, chiefly Hezbollah and Hamas, have also been distracted of late. Hamas’ supporters—in the Brotherhood, Damascus, and lately Qatar—have weakened. Hezbollah has become directly drawn into the civil war inside Syria. More recently still, in mid-2015, energy prices crashed, weakening Israel’s historic rivals in the Arab world, Iran, and Russia all at once.  Though it is not certain how much these events have caused Israel’s casualty rates to drop, they have possibly played a big part.

But Israel is not the only power in the Middle East that can withstand both cheap oil and crises in the Arab world. The largest economy in the region, Turkey, can also do so. Indeed, Turkey is now facing a power vacuum in every direction. To its east are the oil economies of the Gulf Arab states, Iran, and Central Asia. To its north is another oil economy, Russia, plus a divided nation in Ukraine. To its west, Greece is stuck in a Great Depression, the Balkans are divided, and the European Union has fractured politically. And to its south, Syria, Iraq, and Libya (and more distantly, Yemen) are all at war.  At some point, assuming that oil prices do not rebound, it might be presumed that Turkey will take measures to fill this vacuum.

Turkey’ government, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been consolidating its own power domestically in the past two years. Erdogan’s three recent victories—in the election of 2015, the coup of 2016, and the referendum of 2017— has put him ahead of rival factions like Turkey’s secularists, Gulenists, and Kurdish parties. While Turkey’s relationship with Israel today is not too bad (they have put the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010 somewhat behind them) there is no guarantee what they will look like in the future. Turkey’s economy is now estimated to be 2.9 times larger than Israel’s, twice as large as Iran’s, 1.3 times larger Saudi Arabia’s, and even two-thirds as large as Russia’s. If oil stays cheap, Israel might soon find itself sharing the Middle East with a significant regional power for the first time since….well, since the Turks, a century ago.

Of course, this is taking a rather negative view of things. There are reasons to be hopeful about Israel’s future as well. The fact, for example,  that fewer Israelis have been killed by Palestinians since 2002 than there were in just two years from 2001-2002, bodes relatively well for Israel and Palestine both. Between this reduction in casualties and the possibility of an eventual cease-fire in Syria (even if it is gained by way of a victorious Iranian-supported regime, or a Turkish invasion of Syria), the region might even find some peace.

More broadly, if the long, slow trend towards global peace, integration, and economic convergence, which began in 1945 and has (contrary to popular wisdom) continued since, is not derailed, Israel could be an  ideal place to live. It is at the crossroads of Africa and Eurasia and of the Atlantic and Indian basins; it can speak English, Arabic, and Russian; it can attract Christian and Muslim pilgrims; and it has Jewish and Israeli connections globally. Israel could do well in a peaceful and equitable world, should such a world come to be.

On the other hand, history may not be so nice. Israel’s past forty years have been pretty decent, all things considered. But new challenges are coming. It is still not clear whether Israel will finally secure the peace and prosperity it has been labouring towards; or instead merely catch a glimpse of them from its current peak.

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Europe, Middle East, North America, South Asia

Trump and the Turks

Evaluating American-Turkish relations in light of Trump’s recent trip to the Middle East and the diplomatic isolation of Qatar, a Turkish and American ally

As Donald Trump returns from his first international tour as US president, one thing that stands out is, as usual, the difference between his and Barack Obama’s approach to diplomacy. Whereas Obama’s first Mideast destinations were Turkey and Iraq, Trump’s were Saudi Arabia and Israel, a country Obama did not even visit until his second term in office.

Trump’s trip also included stops in Brussels, Sicily, and the Vatican in Rome. Along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, these represent four of the five most significant allies of the US within the Middle East/Eastern Mediterranean region: Italy, Israel, the Saudis, and the EU.

The fifth ally, which appears to have been snubbed, is Turkey. The Turks were not honoured with a stop during Trump’s first trip to the region, as they were during Obama’s.

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Turkey failing to make it onto Trump’s travel itinerary might seem to be of little  significance, if it were not for the flurry of unpleasant events involving the Turks and Americans that have occured this same month.

First, there was the meeting of Erdogan and Trump at the White House on May 16, which lasted a mere 22 minutes and was complicated by the announcement, less than a week before the meeting, that Trump would be approving a Pentagon plan to arm the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia that the Turkish government views as a terrorist group.

That meeting was then marred also by a public brawl that occured in Washington on the  day it was held, which pitted Erdogan’s security detail against protestors who, according to the Turkish government, were supporters of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).

Later in the week, Turkish military planes repeatedly violated Greek airspace—a point of friction between two NATO countries occurring directly ahead of the NATO summit that Erdogan and Trump attended in Brussels.

If this was not enough, the week also saw the Flynn/Trump/Comey affair dominate the news cycle — and the word “impeachment” bandied about in Congress for the first time —  which followed the admission by Michael Flynn a week earlier that he had previously been on a Turkish payroll.

Meanwhile, Trump has used his trip in the Arab world to endorse the idea of forming an “Arab NATO”; an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Egypt that, unlike the real NATO, would exclude the other, comparatively liberal and democratic Sunni power in the region: Turkey.

Now, just a week after Trump’s return home, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have led a move to politically isolate Qatar, the country which is Turkey’s primary ally within the Gulf region.

The Price of Oil

The root of all this unpleasantness is America’s growing concern that, if energy prices continue to stay low for a sustained period, and if Turkey’s oil-exporting neighbours like Russia, Iran, and the Gulf Arab states are weakened as a result, Turkey could become formidable enough within the region to risk cracking down on US allies — starting with the Kurds.

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Nominal GDP

Turkey has, thus far, been relatively happy to work in a cooperative fashion with the Iraqi Kurdish groups, who are America’s primary Kurdish allies in the region. Turkey imports Iraqi Kurdish oil, has fought on the same side as the Iraqi Kurds against ISIS, and uses its relationship with Iraqi Kurds to gain leverage over Iranian-allied Iraqi Shiite groups.

Regarding Kurds in Turkey and Syria, however, the US and Turkey are in disagreement. Though the US has already partially conceded the point on Kurds in Turkey — the US continues to list the PKK as a terror organization, just like Turkey does — it has nevertheless been alarmed by the Turkish government’s treatment of political parties in Turkey that are supported by many Kurds, notably the HDP.

In Syria the conflicting interests of America and Turkey are even more explicit: America is now working in conjunction with the YPG, a group Ankara views as terrorists.

At this point, because Erdogan seems to have consolidated his power domestically, with recent victories in the Turkish constitutional referendum in April, in the failed coup attempt in July 2016, and in the general election of November 2015, he may now increasingly turn his sights to areas beyond or adjacent to Turkish borders, in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey’s own Kurdish regions.

Thus, with Trump snubbing Turkey on his first foreign trip, and with the flurry of events involving Turkey and the US that have surrounded the trip, it appears that the US and Turkey may be in the process of aggressively haggling over the details of their alliance against shared rivals like ISIS, Al Qaeda, Assad, and Hezbollah. The twin issues they have to work out are how much of the burden against these Middle Eastern forces the Turks will bear, and how tough the Turks can be with Kurdish groups—notably those in Syria.

The Price of Loyalty 

Of course, we have no way of knowing how the details of these issues will be worked out, or even whether the US really will be willing to abandon the Kurdish militias to the Turks. But we can guess. Turkey seem more likely than not to accept the burden of fighting in Iraq and Syria, and the US more likely than not to abandon the Kurds in Syria and Turkey.

But (I will continue to guess) the US and its allies will extract two more conditions in return for their abandonment of the Kurds: Turkish cooperation within both Cyprus and Gaza.

In Gaza, although Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu publicly apologized for the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident, Turkey has become a key ally of the Gazans almost by default. This has been the result of the Syrian Civil War (which alienated Hamas from Assad, leading Hamas’ formal leadership to move from Damascus to Qatar in 2012), the Egyptian coup in 2013 (in which Sisi overthrew and then outlawed Hamas’ Muslim Brotherhood allies), and finally the crash in oil and gas prices in 2015 (which has hurt the economy of Hamas’ newest host and benefactor, the royal family of the tiny state of  Qatar).

The US and Israel want not only that Turkey prevent another incident like the Mavi Marmara, but also that they tie Turkish and regional investment in Gaza to the condition that Hamas work to prevent a resumption of violence in the Strip. An increase in fighting between Israelis and Gazans would, among other things, imperil the tacit Israeli-Arab alliance directed against Iran and ISIS; an alliance Trump’s current visit has intended to solidify.

Israeli-Palestinian violence would also draw a gigantic amount of the world’s media attention, and would inevitably be blamed on Trump, showing his portrayal of himself as an unparalleled dealmaker to be yet another con. Indeed, at the risk of being too cynical or conspiracy-minded, I would like to point out the possibly politicized pattern of the four main Israeli-Gaza battles that have occured since Hamas began to gain control of Gaza in 2006:

The first, Israel’s Operation Autumn Cloud, ended the day before mid-term elections in the US in 2006. The second, Operation Cast Lead, ended two days before Barack Obama’s inauguration. The third, Operation Pillar of Defence, began a week after the US general election in 2012. And the fourth, Operation Protective Edge, ended two months before the 2014 mid-terms.

Whether or not this pattern was a coincidence, Trump and the Republicans obviously do not want to see a new outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence before the 2018 or 2020 elections.

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Source: The Economist

While Turkey can perhaps help to keep Gaza peaceful, it can certainly help to do so in Cyprus, where it wields decisive influence over the island’s North. Turkey is the only country to recognize Northern Cyprus, a Turkish-speaking political entity Turkey established almost single-handedly in the 1970s. Moreover, the island as a whole needs Turkish aid in facilitating both gas and water pipelines across the 80 km sea-channel that separates Cyprus from the Turkish mainland.

The Turks may feel that they can now afford to throw their historic Greek and Greek-Cypriot rivals a bone, given that the economic decimation both Greece and Cyprus have suffered in the past decade have rendered them less of a potential threat to Turkish interests. Thus they may not stop peace talks on the island from moving forward.

The US and its allies will also be happy to see reconciliation or even reunification in Cyprus, as it may help prevent another Mediterranean financial crisis or, even, help show off Trump’s deal-making.

Indeed, while a reconciliation or reunification deal in Cyprus would not directly benefit Trump very much, it could perhaps help to provide him with momentum and bona fides he will want in order to make a more exciting and significant “deal of the century”: a deal which — taking a cue from his Celebrity Apprentice co-star Dennis Rodman — will likely be in Korea.

And of course, as Trump said while in Jerusalem, about peace between Israel and Palestine: “I’ve heard it’s one of the toughest deals of all but I have a feeling we’re going to get there eventually…I hope”.

Winners and Losers 

In the end, in this scenario, the losers would be the Kurds in Syria, and perhaps also the Kurds in Turkey. The winners would be the Cypriots, and perhaps also the Israelis and Palestinians.

As for the US-Turkish relationship, more complicated years lie ahead. It may be that the relationship will ebb and flow along with expectations of the future price of oil, which will determine the perceived strength of Turkey relative to both Russia and Middle Eastern states. The US will want to deputize Turkey to contain forces like Russia, Iran, and Sunni jihadism, yet will also worry about Turkish intentions regarding smaller groups like the Kurds.

If oil prices stay low for long enough, it is likely that we will see the United States opt not just for the Trumpian move of bolstering relations between the Saudis and Israelis, but also for the more Obama-esque one of reaching out to Iran in order to win a new powerful ally for America in the region.

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East Asia, Europe, Middle East, North America, South Asia

A Look Back At Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

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Obama was elected at a time when political anxiety in America was relatively high, particularly among Democratic voters who disliked George W. Bush’s seeming lack of sophistication. The feeling was that the US had wasted trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thus helped to ruin America’s economy and divert attention away from more serious adversaries like Russia and especially China. The economic failure was seen as being confirmed by the financial crisis, which began with the collapse of Lehman Brothers only a month or so before the election. The foreign policy failure was seen as being confirmed by, among other things, Russia’s invasion of Georgia three months before the election, followed one day later by the extravagant opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Even during the presidential lame duck period leading up to Obama’s inauguration, a number of politically or symbolically negative global events occured, including the throwing of a shoe at Bush in Iraq, the 2008-2009 Israel-Hamas War in Gaza, and the Mumbai Attacks in India.

Obama ran against Clinton in 2008 as an upstart candidate in the Democratic primary. He attacked her where she was least popular, which in foreign policy was her support for invading Iraq while in the Senate in 2002. The primary was a close one: Obama won 53 percent of the delegates but actually lost the popular vote as well as the largest state of California. As such, though it is always hard to untangle political strategy from principled belief, it does not seem so far-fetched to imagine that Obama’s campaign policy of Afghanistan being “the good war” and Iraq “the bad war” was, at least in part, devised in order to exploit Clinton’s Iraq weakness without making Obama appear to be too dovish or isolationist. We do know that Obama was not above abandoning his own principles for the sake of victory; he publicly opposed gay marriage until mid-2012, for example, when for intellectual and dispositional reasons it was obvious he was privately in support of it even at the time.

Upon coming into office, Obama formed three main foreign policy positions. One was the “pivot to Asia”, which included both the re-prioritization of Afghanistan over Iraq as well as the rhetorical move to acknowledge the 21st century as ”America’s Pacific Century” (which became the title of a widely heralded article in Foreign Affairs written by Secretary of State Clinton). While both the withdrawal from Iraq and the public assumption of a rising Asia preceded Obama’s arrival in office, he was a natural fit to promote such policies given that he never supported the invasion of Iraq (as 42 percent of the Democratic politicians in Congress had done in 2002), and given that he had personal experience in the Pacific, having grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia and attended college in Los Angeles.

While Obama’s pivot to Asia was mainly rhetorical — it had to be, since the American military never left Asia in the first place and so could not truly pivot back to a region it was already in — he and Clinton did begin healing American relations with a very important Asian country, Myanmar (aka Burma), a diplomatic feat similar to the one Obama would repeat in his second term with both Cuba and Iran.

Another policy was the “Reset with Russia”, which, as with the later reset with Iran, centred around nuclear de-proliferation but was intended as a broader political reconciliation between countries. Obama was attacked heavily by Mitt Romney and Republicans in the 2012 election for having carried out this Reset, to which he and the Democrats successfully responded by ridiculing the Republicans for being “stuck in the Cold War”. This now appears tragically ironic, given how the 2016 election campaigns turned out. But Obama’s Reset with Russia was quite rational.

America needed Russia in order to effectively carry out the surge of US troops into Afghanistan between 2010 and 2014. Russia retains, among other things, a substantial amount of political influence within countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which neighbour Afghanistan—and an estimated 30-40 percent of Afghanistan’s population is either ethno-linguistically Tajik or Uzbek. The US was also more concerned with containing China than it was with containing Russia at the time, since China’s economy had not yet appeared to slow down and since Russia had not yet formally annexed Crimea or involved itself forcefully in other areas of Ukraine or in Syria.

Moreover, Obama’s Reset with Russia eventually contained a big caveat: the doubling-down of America’s growing military relationships with East European countries like Poland and Romania. Today, with US-Russian tensions having risen tremendously and with the European Union no longer seeming like a potentially potent force, these relationships seem crucial and continue to grow. At the time, they were meant to reassure countries like Poland that they were not being abandoned in the Reset, and at the same time to return the favour that some East European countries had provided when they sent lots of soldiers (relative to the size of their populations and economies, and relative to countries in continental Western Europe) to fight alongside the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among other things, this move included Obama planning missile defence system components in Poland, Romania, and Turkey. The Russians objected loudly to any missile defence program, since they did not want to see the US military presence in Eastern Europe grow. Obama responded that the Russians were being paranoid and that the defence systems were in fact intended only to block future Iranian missile capabilities. This was a ridiculous claim, given that most of the countries involved in the plan surrounded Russia. But the American media mostly ate it up, either because they did not bother to look at a map, or because most Republicans preferred to attack Obama as too weak on Russia rather than too strong on Russia, or because many Democrats did not want to question Obama in general.

While the systems would not be able to block the Russian missile arsenal if it ever came to war, they were an important symbolic gesture and another step in the growing US military alliance with states like Poland. When Obama had earlier, in 2009, backed down on the missile defence issue — announcing, on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland in 1939, the cancellation of missile defence in Poland and the Czech Republic, and later being caught on a hot mic in 2012 saying to Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more flexibility in missile defence planning once re-elected — Romney attacked Obama sharply for doing so. But Romney’s campaign was ridiculed for mistakingly using the name Czechoslovakia, taken as a another proof of his being trapped archaically in the Cold War. Romney was especially reproached, even by Republican Congressional leader John Boehner, for declaring Russia to be “America’s number one geopolitical foe”. (That Romney might now become Trump’s Secretary of State boggles the brain). And while Obama may have Reset with Russia early on, he has definitively broken with Putin since.

The third major policy early in Obama’s first term was an attempt at reconciliation with the Muslim world, and particularly with the Arab world, intended to reverse the negative feelings that had grown there — and that Liberals in the West had perceived to have grown there — during the Bush years. Obama was the right man for this job, given his moderate and liberal personality as well as his personal experiences in Indonesia, his middle name Hussein, his grandfather’s conversion to (Shiite) Islam, and his family in Kenya, a partially Muslim country. Obama went to Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt during parts of his first and second overseas trips as president, and gave one of his most famous speeches, A New Beginning, in Cairo, the largest city in the Arab world, at an event co-hosted by Cairo University and Al-Azhar University. Obama’s first-ever presidential television interview was with Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned, UAE-based news channel.

This “apology tour”, as Obama-bashers call it, earned him the ire of Republicans for not having stopped in Israel while in the region (though he visited the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp the day after making the Cairo speech). It also helped racist or extreme right-wingers in their attempt to portray Obama as a hidden Muslim, quasi-Muslim or, in the case of those like the shameless, shameful Donald Trump, as possibly foreign-born and therefore not a legitimate president. (This was especially shameful given that the man Obama had beaten to become president, John McCain, was actually not born in an American state, but rather in Panama’s Canal Zone). Incidentally, Shiite Muslims have a centuries-long history of publicly pretending not to be Shiite for fear of being persecuted by the majority Sunnis; this, combined with Obama’s family background, has now led some in the Arab world to accuse Obama of being a secret Shiite with an agenda to allow Shiite Iran to emerge victorious over Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies.

Of course, Obama’s outreach to the Arab public was put to the test two years later in the Arab Spring, which also centred in Cairo. Predictably for an American president, Obama chose more or less to stand by America’s main allies in the Arab world — the Egyptian military and the royal families of the Arabian Peninsula. Obama only abandoned Hosni Mubarak (a former general) during the middle of the 18-day protest in Tahrir Square, earlier only suggesting that Mubarak not run for re-election following the end of the term he was serving as Egypt’s president at the time.

In the years since, Obama has not pushed back much against Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who threw out the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Muhammad Morsi in a military coup and has since declared the Brotherhood to be an illegal terrorist group. (The Sisi government also had support from the political parties which got the second most votes in the post-Mubarak elections, namely the Saudi-backed religious Nour bloc). Similarly, Obama did not limit the Saudis from sending troops to break up Arab Spring protests in neighbouring Bahrain, a Shiite-majority state ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Maintaining the power of Bahrain’s royal family was a key issue for the Saudis, as Bahrain is connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia’s remote, vast, sparsely populated, Shiite-majority Eastern Province, which is where most Saudi oil and gas is located.

Given that his support for Arabian kings and Egyptian generals was in some ways arguably an abandonment of the “Arab Street”, which Obama had previously supported rhetorically and which the Western media was going gaga over during its coverage of the Arab Spring, Obama’s war in Libya showed that he was still not entirely pro-dictator in the Arab world. This is not to say that Obama waged the war for cynical political reasons, however. The case for the Libya war was fairly straightforward: Gaddafi was an aging tyrant who had ruled for four decades, his impending death or incapacitation due to old age would have risked a war anyway given the enormously divided nature of Libyan geo-politics, and any spillover from a war in Libya was unlikely to be too large given that Libya only has six million inhabitants and is surrounded by the Sahara.

Thus, eventually, we arrive at the events of September 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city. Bengazhi is the largest city within a vast radius of itself, especially to the south; it was the city that was initially the centre of the anti-Gaddafi movement—the very city Obama had been aiming to protect from a massacre of Arab Spring protestors when he ordered the US military intervention in Libya. Of course, the Democrats are correct when they say that the Republicans shamelessly used Benghazi in order to try to tar the reputation of Hillary Clinton in order to win the White House in 2016. (If Trump boomerangs on the Republican Party at some point, they might finally get what they deserve for this). Republican cynicism notwithstanding, however, supporters of Obama have arguably misunderstood the Benghazi affair. It is now seen entirely, or almost entirely, as an anti-Clinton or anti-Obama stunt. To understand why this may be an incorrect view, it is important to recall how the war in Libya was interpreted between Gaddafi’s death in 2011 and the Benghazi attack ten and a half months later; a period that overlapped with most of the Obama-Romney presidential race and immediately followed Bin Laden’s death.

The Libya war was, at the time, seen as an enormous success by both the centre-left and the centre-right (and the centre-centre). The centre-right liked the war because the centre-right is hawkish. The centre-left liked the war because it was portrayed as a counter-argument to the Bush-era invasion of Iraq they so despised: Libya did not become a quagmire involving US ground troops, it was fought by a coalition that included European and Middle Eastern countries which had refused to be involved militarily in Iraq, it did not involve misleading claims about weapons of mass destruction (Gaddafi had already given Libya’s WMD program up in 2003, following the US invasion of Iraq), and it was part of a broader anti-tyranny movement, the Arab Spring. With Bin Laden too having just been killed — another feat Bush failed to achieve — Obama seemed to be moving from strength to strength. As Biden put it in the campaign: “Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive”. As Clinton put it (regarding Gaddafi): we came, we saw, he died”.

Wars almost always boost a president’s popularity in the short term. Given that the US economy was still reeling from the Great Recession and thus Americans ready to vote for change (which they did eventually, with Trump), and given that the Republicans had controlled Congress since 2010 and so were able to block most of Obama’s non-military initiatives, having Libya be seen as a quagmire-free foreign policy success was a boon for Obama. Though Obama went on to crush Romney in the electoral college, his victory was in fact not a large one: Ohio, Virginia, and especially Florida were extremely close, Obama received just 51 percent of the popular vote nationwide, and the Democratic Party did not succeed in winning back control of the Senate or the House.

Not long after Gaddafi was killed, the media largely stopped paying attention to Libya. The Republicans began to pin more of their hopes on portraying the withdrawal of troops from Iraq as having been destabilizing and a sign of Democratic weakness. However the Benghazi attack, just 25 days before the election, risked showing the American public that Obama’s war in Libya — along with the various other conflicts in the Arab  or Muslim world, including Iraq — was going to be somewhat messier than it had been portrayed as. This was an “October Surprise” that terrified the Democrats, since Obama was ahead in the polls.

Obama and the Democrats, it appears (though it is difficult to be sure), tried to obscure the Libya issue by exploiting the fact that the media was at the time spending most of its attention obsessing over an offensive, low-quality movie posted on Youtube, called the Innocence of Muslims. The claim was that the video had outraged Muslims and thus spontaneously caused protests that in turn caused the Benghazi  attack — a somewhat ludicrous claim, though plausible, and maybe even accurate, given that the attack was relatively sophisticated and, more importantly, that the attack was carried out on the anniversary of 9-11 and came in the wake of months of small attacks and attempted attacks on US and Western targets in Benghazi and in post-Gaddafi Libya in general. The Obama administration was later forced to walk this  claim back — and Susan Rice was forced to give up her bid for Secretary of State because of the claim, at least ostensibly — because the Republicans would not let the issue drop. However that same Republican relentlessness arguably ended up backfiring, since most people saw that the Republicans were mainly concerned with exploiting a tragic event in order to tarnish Obama and Clinton.

(The Republicans also purposefully confused the issue because of the unpopularity of their own hawkish political ideology. The Republican stance on Libya had, in general, not been that entering Libya was a mistake, but rather that it was not forceful enough: they argued that Obama should not have “led from behind” the British, French, and Italians, and that the US should have committed more Special Forces. Yet the Republicans also knew that this stance of theirs was very unpopular among the US public, given that at the time the Iraq War was still extremely fresh in people’s minds and given that the troop surge in Afghanistan was occurring at the time. Thus, the Republicans were on the one hand worried that dwelling on Benghazi would make Americans voters realize that the Republicans were too hawkish, but on the other hand the Republicans were unwilling to pass up the opportunity to use Benghazi (and more generally, Libya) to catch Obama and Clinton in a potential lie over this potential new Middle Eastern quagmire. To square this circle, the Republicans resorted to making only vague, yet intense, accusations over the Benghazi issue. In turn, this left many Republican supporters across the United States to form their own conspiratorial versions of what exactly Obama or Clinton’s sins over Benghazi had been. Not that people needed any extra incentive to start forming conspiracy theories. In fact, maybe my whole opinion on this issue is nothing more than a conspiracy theory…)

Moving on to Syria, and specifically to Obama’s “Red Line”: it is difficult to know whether or not the US should have intervened more forcefully in Syria, and it is also difficult to know how much truth there is to Obama’s claim that he extracted significant concessions from Assad as a result of bluffing during the Red Line affair. What we do know, though, is that in spite of the fact that most Republican supporters and even many Democrats claim that Obama was either weak for not following through on the bluff or stupid for bluffing in the first place, it is in fact not at all clear that bluffing in matters of war is stupid or that failing to follow through on a bluff in the event that it is called — even despite the risk of losing credibility as a result — is a weak thing to do. Thus while Syria remains an immense tragedy and Obama’s role in it is open to debate, the certainty with which many claim that Syria will be remembered as Obama’s top mistake appears to be unfounded.

Finally, let’s talk about Obama’s position regarding Iran, which, in the long term, will possibly be considered his most significant legacy in foreign policy, the equivalent of Jimmy Carter’s reacquaintance with Anwar Sadat’s Egypt or even of Nixon’s reacquaintance with Maoist China. The Obama stance on Iran has often been misunderstood in at least one of the following three ways. One, that it is primarily about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It is not (though this is of course not to say that nukes are not a very real issue). Two, that Obama and Netanyahu were at odds over America’s stance on Iran. They were not (though this is not to say that relations between Obama and Netanyahu have been hunky-dory or that Israel is not rightfully wary about the improving US-Iranian relationship and Iranian weaponry). Three, that Obama’s policy came from a place of dovishness. In fact, it came just as much from a place of hawkishness: Iran is in some respects a crucial potential US ally.

The conflict between America and Iran began to heat up after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. This was because both invasions had created overlapping spheres of influence between US soldiers and Iranian proxies, and because both invasions had strengthened Iran’s regional influence. Iran had been enemies of both Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. Saddam’s regime had been led by part of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, whereas as most of the rest of Iraq are Shiites like the Iranians or else Sunni Kurds (and Kurds are ethno-linguistically closer to Persians than to Arabs). Iran had fought a war against Iraq in the 1980s in which hundreds of thousands of its citizens were killed; the Iranians are now been interfering in Iraq in order to ensure this never happens again. The Taliban in Afghanistan, meanwhile, are predominantly composed of Sunni Pashto-speakers, yet Afghanistan also has a sizeable minority of Shiite Muslims and is more than a quarter Tajik (and Tajik is mutually intelligible with Persian). Iran had threatened to go war with the Taliban in 1998, following the group’s killing of Iranian diplomats. Apart from Pakistan, Iran is the crucial Muslim neighbour of Afghanistan. Iran’s border with Afghanistan is half as long as the enormous US-Mexican border, and even harder to build a wall across.

With Saddam’s Baathists and the Taliban out of power in cities like Baghdad and Kandahar, the Iranians were free to spread their political wings within the region, especially once the US left Iraq. To clip these wings, the US enforced sanctions on Iran and played good-cop bad-cop with the Israelis in threatening to carry out strikes against Iranian military and infrastructural targets. At one point, around 2010-2013, it was commonly expected that Israel and/or America would attack Iran imminently. This good-cop bad-cop role also served both Obama and Netanyahu quite well in their own respective domestic politics. It allowed Obama to avoid appearing to be a warmonger, and allowed Netanyahu to portray himself as firmly standing up to both the White House and the mullahs in Iran in an attempt to ensure security for the Israeli public at any cost.

Indeed, Israeli-Iranian tensions were declining even before Netanyahu’s famous speeches in New York or, later, in Washington. Hamas’s relationship with Iran weakened as a result of Iran’s backing of Assad, which Hamas was not happy with (Hamas’ leadership moved out of Syria in 2012, to Qatar). Iran’s proxy Hezzbolah, meanwhile, became too distracted with helping to prop up Assad in Syria to focus on Israel as it had in its war with Israel in 2006. Moreover, around this same period Israel’s relationship with Turkey deteriorated sharply as a result of the Gaza Flotilla incident in May 2010, and later because Turkey was angered by the coup against Muhammad Morsi of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the organization from which the Hamas movement was originally sprung. The Iran-Hamas breach over Assad, Hezzbolah’s distraction, and Israel’s growing wariness of Turkey brought a thaw between Iran and Israel. But politics is politics; for now, both countries remain boogeymen in the eyes of one another’s medias.

Many, similarly, believe Obama and Netanyahu to be hated rivals, or, at least, frenemies, when it is not at all clear that their opinions of one another are really so low as they are portrayed. Those who watch NBA basketball (as Obama does) would be familiar with the “hold me back” strategy Obama and Netanyahu arguably used against Iran in the years leading up to the signing of the US-Iranian deal on nuclear and sanctions reductions. The real breach between the US and Israel, if indeed there is to be one in the years ahead, is likelier to occur over issues like Palestine or even Pakistan (where the larger nuclear threat to Israel is located, arguably) than Iran, given Iran has a number of important shared interests with both Israel and the US.

The Obama rapprochment with Iran occured as a result of the fact that Iranian influence was curtailed by the Arab Spring, with the Saudis quelling Shiite protests in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain and, even more importantly, with large chunks of territory within Syria and Iraq being taken over by militant Sunni groups, including but not limited to ISIS and Al-Nusra. Iran is no longer in a potentially dominant position in the Middle East. As a result, Obama has in recent years has been able to have warming relations with Iran and work, in effect, alongside the Iranians in containing ISIS and in trying to have US troops withdraw from Afghanistan without sacrificing major cities to the Taliban.

While the media now gives a lot of attention to how the US and Iran share an interest in blocking ISIS, the shared US and Iranian interests that exist within Afghanistan are generally overlooked. But the US desperately wants to avoid a situation akin to when the Soviets left Afghanistan in the late 1980s—which brought civil war, the mutilation of the Afghan Prime Minister, a spillover of violence into Pakistan and between Pakistan and India, and eventually Al Qaeda’s attack on the US on 9-11.

The Republicans, who continue to try to make Obama’s deal with Iran appear to be Munich-style appeasement rather than typical presidential diplomacy, do not usually point any of this out. Instead they focus on the Iranian regime’s tyranny and religiosity. Bringing up the extremism of Iran’s government should not be an irrelevant point, of course, but still it comes across as a rather weak excuse to fault the deal, given America’s closer alliance with countries like Saudi Arabia; an alliance the Republicans have played a part in. Their response that Iran, unlike Saudi Arabia, should be resisted mainly because it has the potential to become a regional power, ignores not only the fact that Iran’s position has been set back by the ongoing war in Syria, but also the fact that the US wants Iran to help it contain more plausible regional powers, namely Turkey or Russia.

The US-Russian relationship has, of course, suffered seriously in recent years as a result of the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, as well as because of the the meddling of Russia in the recent American election (assuming that either Putin or supporters of Putin were indeed behind the hacking of the DNC’s emails, as appears highly plausible). The Iranians are useful to the US in parrying Russian influence in both Central Asia and the Caucasus, in spite of the fact that Iran, Russia, and even the United States have in effect been working on the same side of the Syrian civil war at times. Iran has significant ties to a number of countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union, most notably Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Given that large Muslim populations in the Caucasus border large Muslim populations living within Russia, and given that Putin himself presided over the Second Chechen War, Iran’s position if of significance here. Reviving the stagnant energy industries in Iran and in Iran’s Shiite-majority ally Iraq also helps reduce the price of oil and, in the long-run, of natural gas, both of which Russia depends highly upon.

Turkey, meanwhile, is a country that has a far larger economy than Iran, an economy that is not at all based on oil exports and is therefore much less exposed to the recent crash in oil prices than Iran’s is. Turkey is also, unlike Iran, a country that is dominated by a single ethno-linguistic group, “the Turks”, who by comparison to Iranians inhabit a fairly compact, non-mountainous region. Partly as a result of this, Turkey is not home to numerous separatist or regionalist movements like Iran is (the PKK, in Turkey’s eastern, mountain regions, being the major exception). An estimated 75 percent of people in Turkey are “Turkish”, whereas an estimated 60 percent of people in Iran are “Persian”. Iran is also a Shiite country, setting it apart from the large Sunni majority in the Middle East and in the Muslim world in general.

In recent years, a number of areas that were once part of the Ottoman Empire have been hit hard by crises; notably Syria, Iraq, Libya, Greece, Ukraine, Cyprus, and Georgia. Turkish politics, led by Erdogan, have also become more Islamic than at any time since the empire fell in WW1. Recently, with Erdogan’s accusation that the Turkish cleric Gulen was behind the failed 2016 coup, and his demand the US extradite Gulen, Turkey’s Islamic politics may be becoming more unified and anti-American. US-Turkish ties have also become strained over America’s close ties to the Kurds in Syria and especially in Iraq. While relations between Turkey and America are still decent in spite of this, in part because the US wants Turkey to help block both Russia and Iran as well as re-establish a semblance of order within Syria and Iraq (where Turkey has troops), the writing is clearly on the wall: Turkey is more likely to be a major regional power than Iran is. Obama’s attempt at a political reengagement with Iran most likely reflected an understanding of this fact, given that Obama is a keen and “realist” policymaker, as most recent US presidents have been.

Ultimately, it is often said presidents are most important in their symbolism rather than in any specific deals they manage to hammer out. If that is correct, Obama appears to score quite well on the short roll of post-Cold War presidents. Obama has been more articulate and likely more sophisticated than George W Bush was, and also more scandal-free and likely more genuine than Bill Clinton was. Obama’s critics too tend to claim that Obama’s most notable decisions in foreign policy were of the symbolic sort, whether it be his refusal to use the term Islamic terrorism, attend funerals in solidarity with the Charlie Hedbo and kosher supermarket victims in France (two weeks before attending King Abdullah’s in Saudi Arabia), or decline the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to him by starstruck Norwegians in the first year of his first term. Even those that do believe the worst of Obama, however — and there really is little reason to do so — should acknowledge he has done less harm to America’s reputation in eight years than Trump now has in the past eight months.

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Middle East, South Asia

Robots and the Middle East 

It used to be, roughly speaking, that labour + energy = industrial output = military power.

This made Iran the natural power in the Middle East. Iran had far more energy than countries like Turkey, Egypt, Israel or Pakistan, and far more labour than the Gulf Arab countries or Libya:

Robots in the Middle East, graph 2.png

X-axis is population size, Y-axis is the value of energy reserves as estimated by Business Insider in 2014

 

Robots in the Middle East, graph 1.png

X-axis is population size, Y-axis is energy production in 2014 as estimated by Shift Data Portal. Saudi Arabia leads Iran in energy production, but the Saudis have had the benefit of having an alliance rather than a rivalry  with the United States

The Gulf Arab monarchies have tried to overcome their relative deficit in labour by importing workers from Asia. However there are limits to such immigration, not only because of the fear that the immigrants could cause political  instability (they are mostly men, and tend to be poorly treated), but also because it is not cheap to provide food and water in the desert.

UAE 2014 .png

The US has often worked to influence or contain this Iranian potential. It pressured the Soviets and British to withdraw from Iran following World War Two, helped to overthrow Iran’s Prime Minister in the 1950s, helped to unleash the Arabs on Iran in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and in recent years has opposed the Iranian-allied regime in Syria and played Good Cop-Bad Cop along with the Israelis in threatening to carry out airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear and military infrastructure.

Going forward, however, the traditional relationships between labour, industry, and military power may be breaking down.

Labour may no longer be so important to industry, as industrial labour will in many cases be replaced by machines or, in the case of skilled labourers like engineers and computer programmers, may sometimes be outsourced using high-quality digital communications. Having a large labour force may perhaps even limit the ability to industrialize, since countries with large populations could have to deal with robot-caused unemployment, competition for energy between the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors of the economy, and protests against local industrial pollution. This could put the Gulf Arab states at less of an industrial disadvantage when compared to countries with larger labour forces, like Iran.

Meanwhile, industrial output and labour are both less likely to translate into military power than they once were. In past wars, like the Iran-Iraq War or the Israeli-Arab Wars, wars were fought by giving lots of soldiers lots of weapons. This is, for example, one reason why the Israeli-Arab wars never lasted long. Israel did not have a large enough population to run its military and factories at full capacity simultaneously, so it had to end wars quickly in order to avoid running short on supplies. Otherwise it would risk becoming too dependent on US supply lines, as arguably occured when it was attacked by Egypt and Syria during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

In the future, though, human soldiers may be replaced by machines in some cases, rendering population size less important in war. In addition, the quantity of weapons produced could continue to become less significant than their quality, given that weapons can now be destroyed by precise satellite-guided missiles. As a result, if the Gulf Arab states and Iran were to use their oil and natural gas reserves to become industrial powers, it would not have to translate into their becoming military powers. This could make existing Middle Eastern military powers like the US, Turkey, or Israel more likely to tolerate the industrialization of the Gulf.

The machine-driven industrialization of the Gulf Arab states and Iran could make sense for a number of other reasons as well:

— The Gulf region is even less populous than it may seem at first glance. This is because the vast majority of the populations of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Iraq live hundreds of kilometers away from the Gulf, and separated from the Gulf by mountains and desert. If you count only the provinces of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq that border the Gulf, the entire population of the Gulf region (including the smaller Gulf Arab states) is only around 30-35 million. It is also very hot there during the day, making physical labour difficult.

Saudi_Arabia_population_density_2010iran

(Population Density of Saudi Arabia and Iran)

PersianGulf-Map-Topography03

Topography of the Gulf (Iran is on the right-hand side); many of these mountains are as high as the Alps

— The Gulf region is rich not only in oil, but also in natural gas. Iran in particular is the world’s third largest producer of natural gas, and is thought to have the second largest reserves (the largest by far if you do not count Siberia). Iran also directly borders landlocked Turkmenistan, which is thought by some to have the world’s fourth largest gas reserves.

Natural gas, however, is very difficult to transport long distances or to store up in large quantities. Qatar has managed to become rich from exporting its gas in liquified (LNG) form, but this only works because Qatar has a tiny population (2.3 million people) and as LNG prices in Asia and Europe have been high. For the rest of the Gulf’s gas, it would be difficult to replicate Qatar’s success. It might make more sense, then, for the gas to be kept within the Gulf, used there to produce energy for industrialization.

Shift Data gas.png

shift data oil

Gas-fired power plants tend to be the cheapest types of power plants to build, and have efficiencies considerably higher than coal plants. Gas is also a feedstock in petrochemical industries like plastics. The Middle East already accounts for an estimated seven percent of global petrochemicals production.

Saudi Arabia

— The Gulf region is located at the centre of Eurasian and African trade routes, both by land and by sea. While all of the Gulf’s trade routes are politically fragile, this may actually make industrialization sensible, because it is easier to stockpile large amounts of manufactured goods or industrial raw materials for use during a crisis than it is to stockpile oil or especially gas. Industrialization would also give the region more economic autarky, which would be useful if its trade routes to the outside world were ever imperilled or cut. And the Gulf already possesses large industrial port areas as a result of its energy exports.

— Industrial areas which use machines can be clustered in ways that traditional, labour-based industrial areas cannot. Machines, after all, do not need lodgings, and are not bothered by pollution. Moreover, the Gulf itself could be a mega-industrial cluster, given that it has the world’s largest concentration  of cheap-to-produce oil and gas by far. In other words, you might be able to have a bunch of local industrial clusters forming a huge, region-wide industrial cluster.

ME_9__Box2_GiantFieldsMap_MikeHorn

Industrial clustering could have a number of advantages. First, it could be easier to defend militarily, which, given the enormous expense and difficulty of missile defence systems,
could be significant. In the Gulf, the energy fields, power plants, factories, and ports could all be concentrated in a fairly small, defended area. If you ignore coal, there is nowhere else in the world that comes even close to being able to have this. (Texas is probably the closest…).

oil costs.png

Second, clustering could perhaps help to allow for carbon capture and storage. Carbon capture and storage has thus far proven to be far from economical in most cases, and yet it is also necessary if the world wants to limit carbon emissions without ending consumption of fossil fuels. It could be that the way to make it economical is to cluster many power plants together in order to allow for economies of scale to form. Moreover, the only type of carbon capture and storage that has proven economical thus far is when carbon is used in Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), being sent down oil and gas wells in order to increase oil and gas productivity. The Gulf already uses EOR in some cases, and has huge EOR potential as a result of the size of its oil and gas fields.

US Oil Demand

One factor that could help spur the industrialization of the Gulf would be if people in the rich world, particularly in North America, would stop driving alone in their cars so much. By switching to alternative forms of transport — whether carpooling, taking public transport, UberPool-ing, e-commuting, shopping online, taking a self-driving bus or self-driving electric car, etc. etc. — it may leave Gulf oil available for industrial use within the Gulf.

 

Then again, maybe none of this will end up happening. The Gulf may be ludicrously rich in easy-flowing oil and gas, but translating that energy wealth into industrial success will be no easy feat, with or without robots.

 

 

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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. This 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

Shiite groups live on both sides of the Saudi-Yemeni border

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, who 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). 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

One of the only significant exceptions to Saudi Arabia’s borderland permeability  is in its southeast, where 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 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.

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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.

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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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Images, Middle East

Iraqi Geopolitics

Iraq’s population is thought to be just under 35 million, roughly the same as that of Canada and greater than any other Arab country apart from Egypt, Algeria, and possibly Sudan.

Most Iraqis, and almost all Iraqis who identify as Shiite Muslims, live in the low-elevation Mesopotamian plain, the part of the map below that is coloured in the darkest shade of green.

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The only significant city to have a considerable Shiite population outside of this area is, perhaps, the city of Samarra, which is holy to Shiite Muslims. Yet Samara lies just barely beyond this Iraqi Shiite heartland, and is relatively small. It had 350,000 or so inhabitants prior to the US invasion of the country in 2003. In 2006 and then again in 2007 the Al-Askari Shrine, a mosque that was built in Samarra in 944 AD,  was bombed, leading Shiite groups in Iraq to retaliate by forcing many Sunnis to leave their homes in Baghdad.

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The largest cities in Iraq’s Shiite region are not located in the region’s centre, but rather around its outer edges. The largest by far is Baghdad, located in the north of the Shiite core region. Baghdad is perhaps 3-5 times more populous than any other city in Iraq; it may be home to nearly one in four Iraqis. It is maybe the most populous city in the entire Arab world, outside of Cairo. Historically it was the capital of an enormous caliphate, stretching from Central Asia nearly to the Atlantic Ocean, during most of the years between 762 AD and 1258 AD. Even as recently as the 1970s, before Iraq fought three major wars between 1980 and the present day, Baghdad was one of the leading cultural and commercial cities in the Arab world. 

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Baghdad has historically been the place where Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni areas meet, and where minority populations like Kurds, Christians, Jews, and Turkic peoples have all lived in significant numbers as well. Though the conflicts in Iraq during recent years and decades has changed this to a great extent, with many minorities leaving (the Jewish population, for example, has dropped from around 50,000 in 1900, which was perhaps a quarter of the city’s total population at the time, to nearly zero today) Baghdad remains the heart of the country.

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Baghdad’s existence has probably been one of the main impediments to, and arguments against, splitting the country into three separate states as many have recently been advocating for. However because of its diversity and centrality, it was also the site of many of the violent deaths during the (in some ways ongoing) civil war. Since 2003 the city’s neighbourhoods have become more divided by sect, while the share of its population that identifies as Sunni has shrunk in size due to the fleeing of Sunnis and the inward migration of Shiites from southern Iraq.

         Baghdad in 2003                    Baghdad in 2007

Baghdad_Ethnic_2003_sm   Baghdad_Ethnic_2007_late_sm

Baghdad’s geographic significance comes from being located in the only spot, apart from the swampy southern coastlands of Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers come close to meeting one another. Around Baghdad the Tigris and Euphrates are just 30-40 km or so apart from one another, compared to about 150-200 km apart in most of southern Iraq, 120 km or so apart in the area to Baghdad’s immediate north, and 220-300 km apart in the northern Iraq-Syria region.

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Baghdad is located 530 km from Iraq’s only coast (on the Persian Gulf), 450 km from Iraq’s border with Turkey, and 475 km from its western, desert border with Jordan. It is about 700 km from Tehran, 740 km from Aleppo and Damascus, 95o km from Riyadh, and 1300-1450 km from Mecca, Dubai, Cairo, Ankara, and Crimea.

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Apart from Baghdad, the biggest Shiite city in Iraq, maybe even twice as populous as any other, is Basra. Basra is located in the only other place where the Tigris and Euphrates meet, just 95 km or so north of the coast of the Persian Gulf, and just around 20 km from the Iranian border and 40 km  from the Kuwaiti border. Because it is located just 4 metres above sea level (compared to 35 metres for Baghdad), Basra’s climate is an extremely hot one, with temperatures hitting average daily highs of around 40 degrees celsius (105-ish fahrenheit) for almost five months a year.

Could Basra soon have the world’s tallest building? 

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The fact that this southernmost area of Iraq around Basra has the country’s only direct access to the sea, and that this access is funnelled narrowly and vulnerably through a strip of land that is only about 15 km wide, sandwiched between the oil-rich Arab monarchy of Kuwait and the oil-rich Arab-inhabited Khuzestan province of southwestern Iran, was probably one of the reasons why Iraq went to war against Iran throughout the 1980s and then attempted to annex Kuwait in 1990.

Grabbing Kuwait and Khuzestan would give Iraq unfettered access to the Persian Gulf, greatly increased oil resources, and a mountainous rather than wide open border with southern Iran. Kuwait alone, in spite of having a population of just 3.4 million, produces so much oil that its GDP is thought to be roughly 75% percent as large as that of Iraq itself, and 40% percent as large as Iran’s.

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Today, however, it is not clear whether Kuwait and Khuzestan have majority-Arab populations as they likely did in the past. Two-thirds of Kuwait’s population is now thought by some to be foreign workers who have come to the country mainly from South Asia. Some have estimated that 30-40% of Kuwait’s Muslim population is Shiite, though it is difficult to be certain. Khuzestan’s population of 4-5 million, meanwhile, has perhaps become majority Persian; statistics cannot really be trusted in this area, given that they can be politicized.

The other largest cities of the Shiite region of Iraq also lie along the region’s edges rather than in its centre; they are located either along the Tigris River, as for example the cities of Amarah and Samarra are, or along the Euphrates River, as the world’s two holiest Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala are.

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The Shiite region of Iraq is divided, in a certain geographical sense, along both north-south and east-west lines. The north-south divide is between landlocked Baghdad and coastal Basra, the region’s two major cities, with Baghdad located close to its northern extreme and Basra close to its southern one.

The east-west divide is between the Tigris and the Euphrates; the two rivers were historically separated from one another by marshlands in some places, which according to Wikipedia “used to be the largest wetland ecosystem of Western Eurasia” before being drained during the second half of the 20th century — mainly by the government of Saddam Hussein, for political reasons. “After the fall of Hussein’s regime in 2003, the marshes have partially recovered but drought along with upstream dam construction and operation in Turkey, Syria, and Iran have hindered the process”. The “Marsh Arabs“, formerly half a million strong, are themselves considered to be a unique Iraqi ethnic group.

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The Euphrates directly borders the Arabian Desert (Basra, Najaf, Karbala, and Ramadi are each located on the Arabian side of the river), whereas the Tigris runs closely parallel with Iran’s Zagros Mountains, which rise to heights as great as in the Colorado Rockies or Swiss Alps. Given its topography, Iraq has rarely been able to project force into the Zagros (though Saddam Hussein tried to do so during the deadly Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s); the Iranians, on the other hand, have often been able to influence politics within Iraq and occasionally even invade Iraq directly.

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The Zagros, in Iran’s Lorestan province near the Iraqi border

The division between Basra and Baghdad (such that it is) was seen to a certain extent in 2008, just prior to the US military withdrawal from the country, when the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki approved a significant offensive mission by the Iraqi Army aimed at  pushing what was arguably the country’s main Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, out of Basra.

The Basra-Bagdhad divide goes back much further in history, however. Even when Iraq was ruled by the Ottoman Empire prior to the First World War, the country was divided into three administrative “vilayets”: Basra in the south, Baghdad in the centre, and Mosul in the north. The Ottoman era often saw the Europeans intrude into or make alliances with Basra, notably the Portuguese in the 17th century, and later the British. The British would return during the recent war: they were tasked with managing Basra while the Americans focused on other areas of the country.

OttomanVilayets-1900

Ottoman vilayets circa 1900

Iraq’s Sunni Arab region also contains both north-south and east-west divisions. It’s two largest cities by far are Baghdad, which is located at the southern tip of the Sunni areas, and Mosul, which is located just 100 km from Iraq’s northern Turkish border and is currently held by ISIS fighters. This is the basis of its north-south division; its east-west division comes from the Tigris and Euphrates being located much further apart from one another north of Baghdad than in the south (where, around Shiite Arab cities like Basra, Karbala, and Kut, the waterways almost or completely converge), with desert lying in between them.

According to Wikipedia, “The Arabic of Mosul is considered to be much softer in its pronunciation than that of Baghdad Arabic, bearing considerable resemblance to Levantine dialects, particularly Aleppan Arabic. …Mosul Arabic is heavily influenced by the languages of the many ethnic minority groups which co-exist in the city: Kurmanji Kurdish, the Shengali (Ezdiki) of Yazidis, Turkmen, Armenian, and Neo-Aramaic. Each minority language is spoken alongside North Mesopotamian Arabic.”

Arabic-Dialects-Map

You might want to take this map with a grain of salt

“…Before 2014 takeover by ISIS, Mosul population comprised roughly of 60% Sunni Arabs; 25% Kurds, 10% Turkmens and 5% Assyrian. Following the takeover by ISIS, nearly all the population who were not Sunni Arabs (coreligionists of ISIS), fled or forced out, that is, 35% of the residents or just over half a million people.”

Mosul, although not at a particularly high elevation, still receives much more rain than most of Iraq. Rainfall is close to three times that of Baghdad and over twice that of Basra”. Indeed, unlike the arid cities along the Euphrates, Mosul has a relatively  populous hinterland, as it is located next to the foothills of mountains both to its east and to its north. Mosul is just 75 km from Erbil, the comparatively successful capital city of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region. “After the 1991 uprisings by the Kurds Mosul did not fall within the Kurdish-ruled area, but it was included in the northern no-fly zone imposed and patrolled by the United States and Britain between 1991 and 2003″.

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The Erbil Citadel

Mosul is one of the two most important cities which lie on the border between Iraq’s Sunni Arab and Sunni Kurdish areas. The other is Kirkuk, which is less populous than Mosul but is where much of Iraq’s oil is produced. The oil in this Arab-Kurdish borderland has led to conflict during the past decade; and of course ISIS and the Iraqi Kurds continue to do battle today. According to the map below, both Mosul and Kirkuk (spelled Karkuk) are surrounded on three sides by the  Kurdish-inhabited territories, near to the mountainous Kurdish border regions of Turkey, Iran, and Syria.

 kurdish_lands_1992

Three months ago, the Turkish military entered northern Iraq and has closely approached Mosul . A month before that, according to Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker, “Kurdish forces, backed by American airstrikes, cut the highway that connected Mosul to the ISIS base in Syria. There are still a few roads leading into Mosul that ISIS can use to resupply its fighters, but the Kurds are moving to cut them, too. Very soon, the ISIS fighters inside Mosul will be isolated.” The Kurdish position has been complicated, however, by Kurdish-Turkish relations, which have partially deteriorated of late as a result of Turkish politics and the Syrian civil war’s effect on the Syrian Kurdish group the YPG/PYD.

Mosul is located along the Tigris River, north of the place where, in Syria, the Euphrates makes a sudden sharp turn westward towards Aleppo and the Mediterranean Sea. As such, unlike in most other cities in Iraq, Mosul sits at a spot where the Tigris and Euphrates are relatively far from one another (though still only 430 km apart). This has allowed Mosul to serve historically as a sort of oasis in the desert for east-west trade travelling between northern Iran (and Asia) and the Mediterranean (and Europe). Mosul sits almost exactly between Tehran and the Mediterranean, in fact. It is also located halfway between Basra and Russia’s southern border; in other words, between the Persian Gulf and the Black and Caspian seas.

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In late 2004 the US attack on Mosul was concurrent with the one on Fallujah, the latter battle arguably being the deadliest in the entire US-Iraq War. In 2014, six month prior to the ISIS seizure of Mosul (and Kurdish seizure of Kirkuk), ISIS “retook” Fallujah, which is just 40 km from Baghdad. ISIS also took control of the large dam upriver of Mosul, which according to Wikipedia has the fourth largest reserve capacity of any hydroelectric facility in the Middle East. Kurdish forces, with help from the US and Iraqi militaries, have since captured the dam.

Iraq’s Sunni Arab region, in spite of being relatively small in population because it is located in the desert, and also landlocked, has some advantages that Shiite Iraq does not. It has proximity to the Mediterranean, as well as access to the Mediterranean via the Euphrates which in Syria reaches as close to 200 km from it. The entire distance from the Persian Gulf  to any part of the Eastern Mediterranean coast, in fact, is only about 1300 km.
This Mediterranean access, however, is partly why the Shiite Iraqis and Iranians would prefer to keep Syria’s non-Sunni Assad government and Lebanon’s Shiite group Hezbollah in place, so as to block Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority and Syria’s Sunni Arab majority from working together to export Iraqi oil to the West via the Mediterranean and hence become powerful.

The Sunni Arab region’s upriver location, moreover, provides a potential advantage within Iraq as, especially towards the south, the country is often lacking in rainfall and dependent upon agriculture that can be devastatingly flooded by the actions of northern dams. In addition, because the Euphrates winds about a lot within the Sunni region (see map below), its cities can often be surrounded on three sides by the river and on the fourth by both the desert and the incline of the walls of the Euphrates Valley,  giving them a defensible position. A series of three lakes, finally, running 200 km from north to south, helps to divide Baghdad and southern Iraq from the Euphrates’ Sunni-inhabited northwest.

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It has become very popular to point out that Iraq’s borders, and particularly the Iraqi-Syrian border, are “artificial”, imposed on the region by the British and French in the aftermath of the First World War. This statement is not untrue, but nor is it necessarily as straightforward as many have come to believe.

Those saying that Iraq’s borders are artificial often ignore a number of facts. First is that, unless Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, and perhaps Lebanon are merged into a single state (a state which, given its position linking two oceans and containing the most oil anywhere outside of Saudi Arabia, could perhaps become the top power in the Middle East), or unless a united Kurdistan declares its independence in territories that are today part of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran (a declaration that could, and to an extent already has, led to war by those countries against Kurdish forces), then “artificial” borders must be drawn somewhere through the region.

Second, they ignore the fact that Iraq’s borders are actually not as random, geographically, as they are given credit for, as we discuss further below. Third, they ignore the fact that it is not only the West  that has been responsible for messing with the “natural” borders of Arab lands. Iran and Turkey, for instance, both refused to give up Arab-inhabited regions of the Fertile Crescent they possess; a more consistent geographic or cultural rendering of Middle Eastern borders should perhaps have included Turkey handing over its province of Hatay to Syria (as Syria still officially claims it should) and Iran handing over its province of Khuzestan to Iraq.

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And fourth, they often ignore the fact that the most “artificial” aspect of Iraq’s borders is not the fact that the borders themselves are drawn improperly, but rather is that Kuwait has been allowed to exist independently of Iraq at all. Why Kuwait, with its $53,000 per capita income, its nearly-autocratic monarchy, and its position that in effect walls-in Iraq’s only direct outlet to the ocean, should be allowed to maintain its political independence from Iraq remains a question, arguably, for those claiming that the real crux of Iraq’s problem is the “artificial” international borders between Iraq and Syria, or the lack of international borders between Sunni Arab Iraq, Shiite Arab Iraq, and Sunni Kurdish Iraq.

I am not saying that Kuwait should definitely be refolded into Iraq like Hong Kong and Macau were into mainland China or like Gibraltar may be into Spain. I am saying, though, that things may be a lot more complicated where borders are concerned than they are often acknowledged to be.

Iraq-Syria: The valley of the Euphrates is generally much wider on the Syrian side of the border than  on the Iraqi side of the border. Until the river gets close to Ramadi (the capital of Anbar province, by far Iraq’s largest by territory size) and Baghdad, where the river valley widens out again, the valley generally extends less than 100 meters out from either side of the banks of the river in Iraq, whereas on the Syrian side of the border it extends around 5000 meters out on average:

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Zooming in on the border:

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It is on the Syrian side of the border that the river cities of Raqqa, the “capital city” of ISIS, and Deir al-Zour, a Syrian provincial capital that has been fought over intensely by ISIS and Syrian military forces, are located. Notably, however, the entire Euphrates valley between Baghdad and Aleppo is actually barely larger in size than Rhode Island. The maps one sometimes sees in the media of “ISIS-controlled territory” are, for this reason, somewhat misleading, as in many cases they do not differentiate between desert and non-desert areas.

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The Iraqi-Syrian border was drawn in such a way as to give Syria all of the significant tributary of the Euphrates that meets up with the Euphrates just south of Deir al-Zour (see  map below), and to give Iraq all of the large, “lonely”mountain of Sinjar (lonely in that it does not link up with any other mountain ranges), which got attention earlier in 2015 as a result of a humanitarian crisis occurring there. You can see the mountain in the image below, west of Mosul and next to Syria’s border to the mountain’s west and north. Sinjar City, in the shadow of the mountain, had a population estimated at 90,000, mainly of the Yazidi religious and ethnic minority that groups like ISIS have deemed heretical or “devil worshippers”.

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In Syria’s northeast the border with Iraq juts out eastward in order to allow the Tigris to very briefly serve as the border between the two countries. On the adjacent Turkish-Iraq border, however, the border swings back and forth from one side of the river to the other; it is a more “artificial” border, perhaps. The Iraqi-Jordanian desert corridor, meanwhile, is extremely artificial, yet it serves the useful purpose (in theory, at least) of giving Iraq a link to Jordan’s Red Sea coast or, via Israel, to the Mediterranean. Though it is across the desert, in which ISIS now has influence, Baghdad is just 785 km from Amman and 860 km from Jerusalem.

Finally, there is the Kurdish border. Though this border artificially divides Kurdish peoples from one another, with most Kurds living in Turkey (even though, from an ethnolinguistic perspective, Kurds are more similar to Iranians than to Turks or Arabs), the Kurdish borders between Iraq and Turkey and Iraq and Iran both adhere for the most part to the geographic barrier of the Zagros Mountains, as can be seen in the map below.

This does not mean that the Kurds do not “deserve a state of their own”, of course, but, given the height of these mountains, it does mean that border is hardly arbitrary. The Kurds have, in fact, many internal linguistic and political divisions themselves, reflecting the ruggedness of their mountain landscape; these internal divisions are not usually mentioned in the media outside of the Middle East, which has become generally pro-Kurdish.

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Kurdish

You might want to take this map with a grain of salt too

Still, Kurdish groups have, at least for the time being, been able to overcome their internal differences within the borders of Iraq. According to Martin Lewis of Stanford, “In constructing their own unrecognized state, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have had to overcome deep divisions within their own society. In the mid-1990s, the region’s two main political groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), mostly representing the Kurmanji-speaking north, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), mostly representing the Sorani-speaking south, fought a brief war. But although regional tensions in Iraqi Kurdistan persist, civil strife is no longer a threat. On both sides of the linguistic/political divide, most people have concluded that Kurdish identity and secular governance trump more parochial considerations. In the intervening years, the Kurdish Regional Government has managed to construct a reasonably united, secure, and democratic order”. 

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 Finally, here’s one last map for the road. It shows, again, just how complicated this region can be:

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Europe, Images, Middle East, South Asia

Image of the Day – December 3, 2015 – Morocco the Outlier

As a result of the conflicts in Syria and Libya, Morocco has become the only state in the Middle East/North African region that is not or does not border a failed or semi-failed state.

Morocco’s next-door neighbour Algeria, in contrast, borders two or three such states, namely Libya, Mali, and Niger. Algeria might also be standing on politically shaky ground itself, as its economy is highly dependent upon exports of oil and gas and as its leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has governed the country since 1999 (during the Algerian Civil War from 1991-2002), has now reached 79 years old and has very serious health problems but no clear political successor.

Tunisia, meanwhile, in sandwiched narrowly between Libya, Algeria, and the depressed economy of southern Italy. Egypt borders Libya and Sudan and Gaza. Saudi Arabia borders Iraq and Yemen. Iran borders Iraq and Afghanistan. Turkey borders Iraq, Syria, and the economy of Greece. Sudan borders several troubled states and also remains troubled itself. Jordan borders Syria and Iraq. Lebanon borders Syria. Kuwait borders Iraq. Oman borders Yemen.

The West Bank Palestinian Territory, like Morocco, does not have failed-state neighbours: it is directly bordered only by Israel and Jordan. Still, Palestine cannot be said to be on this list with Morocco, since it is not independent and since it includes the more troubled Gaza Strip. Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, meanwhile, are no longer truly majority-Arab economies, as non-Arab foreign workers now significantly outnumber their own citizen labour forces.

Morocco is an outlier also in terms of its economy (it is a net importer of fossil fuels, unlike most other Arab economies) and in its geographic location at the outer edge of Africa and Europe. Though Morocco has not been able to capitalize much on these traits in the past – the country’s per capita GDP is under $4000 –  there are reasons to think that it will begin to outshine most other nations in the coming years.

Here are 5 factors to keep an eye out for:

1.  Ties to the Americas

Morocco has closer connections to the Western Hemisphere than do most other countries in the Arab world, for a number of reasons. One is geography: Morocco is an Atlantic country, and most people in North and South America live within the Atlantic basin. Marrakesh is 5900 km from Manhattan, 6900 km from Miami, and 4900 km from the easternmost edge of Brazil. By comparison, Marrakesh is 5400 km from the Saudi capital Riyadh, 4900 from Baghdad, and 3700 km from Cairo.

Another is language: millions of Moroccans can speak French, Spanish, or  (increasingly) English, which along with Portuguese are the languages spoken most often in the Americas.

Another is history: Morocco was not a British colony, so it does not have the same resentment against the English-speaking world that many other countries do. Also, it was liberated by the US and Britain relatively early on in the Second World War (insert Casablanca reference here).

And another is politics: the US wants at least one stable, large, non-Wahabbist political ally in the Arab world, and as a result it is views Morocco favourably. In addition, the US and British navies continues to require passage through the narrow Strait of Gibraltar between Morocco and Spain in order to access the Mediterranean.

(Morocco and the US struck a Free Trade Agreement in 2006. Outside of Canada, Australia, South Korea, Israel, Jordan, Oman, and some countries in Latin America, Morocco is the only country to have such an agreement with the US)

As the economies of Europe, East Asia, and most of the developing world are simultaneously struggling at the moment, whereas the economy of the United States remains relatively vibrant, Morocco’s linkages to the US and other countries in the Americas could provide it with a significant advantage over its peers.

2. Oil and Food Imports 

Falling commodity prices in recent years have left most Middle Eastern countries panicking, depending as they do upon energy export to maintain their economies. Morocco too could be hurt by the falling price of energy, as it has benefited in the past from tourism, investment, and financial transfers coming from oil-rich states like Saudi Arabia. Still, Morocco is not a net commodity exporter itself. Quite the opposite, in fact: as a share of GDP Morocco is one of the world’s biggest net oil importers among countries with significant-sized populations, and it is also one of the bigger food importers.

Morocco does not even trade much with its energy-exporting neighbour Algeria, as the two have been rivals of one another because of Morocco’s ongoing control of Western Sahara. Morocco does trade, however, with Spain and with Portugal, both countries that could benefit significantly should cheap oil and gas prices persist.

(Source: The World Bank; Wall Street Journal)

3. Spain’s Economic Recovery

Spain and Portugal have been in a very deep economic recession since the “global financial crisis” hit. The southern regions of Spain, meanwhile, have been in a Depression in which as recently as 2015 they had formal unemployment rates of well over 30 percent, higher even than in Greece. This has not been good for Morocco at all, which sits just 14 km across the Straits of Gibraltar from southern Spain. The two Spanish “ex-claves” in Morocco, Cueta and Melilla (which have a combined population of 165,000), have similar unemployment rates.

Since the beginning of 2015, however, Spain is thought to have been the fastest growing significant economy in “Western Europe” apart from Sweden or Ireland, and Portugal has also been doing much better than in previous years.  Meanwhile the heart of the “Eurocrisis” seems to have moved to Italy, which could be very bad for neighbouring Tunisia and so make Morocco even more of an outlier in terms of being a stable economy within the Arab world.

(Source: Eurostat)

(Morocco exports slightly more to France than to Spain, however given that France’s GDP is more than twice as large as Spain’s, this indicates Morocco’s closer economic ties to Spain)

4. Modern Communications

Morocco is a semi-rural country. According to the World Bank, 40% of Morocco’s population live in rural areas, compared, for example, to 57% in Egypt, 33% in Tunisia, 30% in Algeria, 31% in Iraq, 27% in Iran and Turkey, and just 17% in Saudi Arabia. Morocco is also the most mountainous country in the Arab world outside of Yemen, making many of its inhabitants – in particular its rural inhabitants –  somewhat isolated from one another as well as from the outside world. Morocco’s population could benefit from Internet and mobile phone access helping it to overcome this isolation, then.

Morocco might also benefit from modern communications because of its unique linguistic abilities: its population speaks four different prominent languages, namely Arabic (which is spoken not only in Arab countries, but also by at least tens of thousands of people in almost every Muslim country), French, Spanish, and (increasingly) English. Morocco is in fact one of the few countries outside of Spain or the Western Hemisphere in which significant numbers of people are capable of speaking Spanish. Moreover, if Spain and Portugal benefit from being able to forge closer connections with Spanish and Portuguese speakers in the Americas as a result of the Internet, Morocco could benefit indirectly from their success.

The Internet could be particularly useful in helping Morocco to connect usefully with the rest of the Arab world, which until now Morocco has been somewhat cut off from as a result of its faraway location – it is a five hour flight from Morocco’s biggest city Casablanca to Cairo, and nearly an eight hour flight from Casablanca to Dubai – and as a result of its poor political relationship with its next-door neighbour Algeria. Given that most of the Arab world’s population and almost all of the Arab world’s economic activity occurs in the Middle East (including Egypt) rather than in North Africa (excluding Egypt), the distance-shrinking effects of the modern Internet could be of special assistance to Morocco.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(above: Population by country; below: The Moroccan diaspora)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Self-Driving Vehicles 

Morocco is located at the front door of Western Europe. It has to cross just one border to reach Spain, two borders to reach France, and three borders to reach Germany, Britain, or Italy. (By comparison, Turkey has to cross at least five borders to reach Germany or Italy by land, six to reach France, and seven to reach Britain or Spain). Still, Morocco cannot yet seamlessly access these countries.

It is, for example, 2350 km from Casablanca to Paris by land, a route which crosses the Strait of Gibraltar as well as a number of mountain ranges in Morocco, Spain, and southern France. This can make transport difficult, particularly by train. Trains cannot easily drive on and off of ships like trucks can, and they cannot handle steep inclines and sharp curves in mountainous areas as easily as trucks (particularly small trucks) can.

Indeed Morocco has only the 71st largest railway network in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook, smaller even than Tunisia’s. Spain has a much larger rail network, of course, just not once you account for Spain’s economic size. Moreover, few lines cross the Pyrenees Mountains on Spanish-French border, and Spain’s railways mostly use a different rail gauge as France’s, so the two systems to do not always link up quickly.

Smarter cars and trucks — and, eventually perhaps, self-driving cars and trucks — would be a boon for countries in the mountainous Mediterranean region, notably Morocco but also Algeria, Spain, Italy, southern France, Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans. They could make it safer and cheaper for cars and trucks to navigate difficult mountain roads. For Morocco, they could also make it easier to manage the long delay trucks typically face in crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, a body of water that is often too stormy to cross. If this happens, then the lack of national borders separating Morocco from large economies in Western Europe could become a significant economic advantage.

Over the longer-term, self-driving vehicles could also help Morocco to leverage its location as the sole land bridge between Western Europe and the huge region of Western Africa.

Economies in Western Africa often have a difficult time reaching European markets by sea. Either they are landlocked (approximately 70 million people live in landlocked countries in Western Africa, and many more are part of landlocked groups within non-landlocked countries, like the nearly 60 million Hausa or Fulani of Muslim-majority northern Nigeria), or they have to sail all the way around West Africa to reach Europe (most notably in countries like Nigeria — see map below — where most of the population of Western Africa lives), or they lack access to good natural harbours and ports (in the Nigerian megacity of Lagos, for example, “the [shipping] terminals are both practically in the city centre, so it can take an entire day for a lorry to get [through traffic] from the terminal to a warehouse“, according to the Economist), or their ships are subject to piracy.

(http://blog.crisisgroup.org/africa/nigeria/2015/12/04/nigerias-biafran-separatist-upsurge/)
The alternative to maritime shipping is to cross the Sahara Desert. That is, of course, far easier said than done: the routes across the Sahara are long, difficult, and dangerous. Still, they have a shot to become economical, given the challenges involved in the the sea route. Driverless trucks, which are both safer and cheaper than having a human driver risk crossing both the Sahara Desert and Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, could perhaps tilt the balance (in some cases, at least) between the land and sea routes. If this occured, it would reverse the process that began in the 1400s, when it first became easier to reach this region by ship than by caravan.

Finally, self-driving vehicles could perhaps make it easier for Morocco to access markets in Latin America. Most people in Latin America live in southern Brazil,  around Sao Paolo, and in neighbouring northern Argentina, around Buenos Aires. (The state of Sao Paolo alone accounts for an estimated 32% percent of Brazil’s GDP, without even taking into account neighbouring Rio de Janeiro). Yet this is a long sail from Morocco. It would instead be much quicker for ships to land somewhere around the eastern tip of Brazil and then drive overland to cities like Sao Paolo (see map below). Thus far it has been difficult to drive the more than 2000 km that this route is made up of, however, as it crosses long distances through Brazil’s eastern coastal mountains. Brazil’s traffic jams and road conditions are notoriously difficult to deal with; this route could certainly use a big boost from technology.

(Morocco controls Western Sahara)

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