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

Oil and the Ouroboros

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

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

Energy Imports

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

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

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

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

Energy, History, and Politics

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

China’s Physical Topography                     China’s Population Density

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fossil Fuels

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

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

Looking Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China, Japan, and Siberia 

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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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:

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

 

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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.

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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. It is the 12th largest country in the world, and the largest country in the Arab world outside of Algeria. Its territory is roughly the size of Turkey, France, Germany and Japan put together.

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

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

Saudi_Arabia_population_density_2010

Population density of Saudi Arabia by Region

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

yemen_pop_2002

Yemen

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

M.-Izadys-Arabian-Religion-Map

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 and went on to become one the richest non-royals in Saudi Arabia. In a certain sense Osama went on to become arguably the most prominent challenger to the Saudi royalty.

saudi-map

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

saudi regions graph

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

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

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

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

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

ethnic-iran-map

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

Saudi-Arabia-road-map

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

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

Saudi Arabia

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

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

topographic map

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

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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

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

Mecca and Medina

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

Saudi Cities Lines Map

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

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

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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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Middle East

Seniors Discount? Oil Prices and Old Rulers

Today’s low oil prices are probably not the result, even in part, of elderly men ruling over the world’s major energy-exporting nations. Still, it may be worth noting that the sons of Saudi Arabia’s modern founder, Abdulaziz bin Saud, are finally nearing the end of their long royal lifespans, while the leaders of energy-endowed countries like Iran, Algeria, Angola, Oman, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan have now reached old age too, after multiple decades in office. Even Vladimir Putin is 63 years old, long past his judo prime. He was just 47 when he first came to power.

As Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi arguably showed in 2011, longtime aging rulers can sometimes give way to political upheaval that causes domestic oil and gas production to fall. Uncertainty over the vigour of some of the following leaders might indeed cause global energy exports to fall, and thus, perhaps, prices to rise:

Kuwait – Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah – 86 years old – In power since 2006  

Sabah’s presumed successor, Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, is 78 years old. As recently as 2012 Kuwait was the world’s largest oil exporter outside of Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia – Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Saud – 80  years old – In  power since 2015 

Salman will probably be the last king to be chosen from among the 45 or so sons of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz bin Saud. Salman’s youngest living sibling, his half-brother Muqrin, is turning 71 this year and, as of last year, is no longer the designated  Crown Prince. The Saudi Crown Prince has since become Muhammad bin Nayef, Salman’s nephew, while the Deputy Crown Prince has become Salman’s own son Mohammad bin Salman

Algeria – Abdulaziz Bouteflika – 79 years old – In power since 1999 

Bouteflika came to power during and after the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s. Today his health is in question. Algeria is estimated to be the world’s 16th largest energy producer and its fourth largest natural gas exporter.

Uzbekistan – Islam Karimov – 77 years old – In power since 1991  

Karimov first came to power at the end of 1980s, when he became President of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic

Iran – Ali Khameni – 76 years old – In power since 1989 

Kazakhstan – Nursultan Nazerbayev – 75 years old – In power since 1991 

Oman –  Qaboos bin Said al Said – 74 years old – In power since 1970

Qaboos first became ruler  after overthrowing his father in a palace coup in 1970. He has no children or clear successor

South Africa – Jacob Zuma – 74 years old – In power since 2009 

Zuma was Deputy President of South Africa from 1999-2005. South Africa is a major producer of energy, and a net exporter of energy, because of its coal reserves, though it is a net importer of oil

Nigeria – Mohammadu Buhari – 73 years old – In power since 2015 

Buhari was previously Nigeria’s head of state during the 1980s

Angola – Jose Eduardo dos Santos – 73 years old – In power since 1979 

Angola, one of the fastest-growing economies of the past decade, is now the world’s third or fourth largest oil exporter outside of the Middle East

Equatorial Guinea – Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasongo – 73 years old – In power since 1979 

Equatorial Guinea is the 30th-40th largest oil producing country, but may have the world’s third highest per capita oil production, the highest outside the Middle East.  Both the age of its leader and the number of years he has been in power are exactly the same as in Equatorial Guinea’s relatively nearby neighbour Angola

Sudan – Omar al Bashir – 72 years old – In power since 1993

Brunei – Hassanal Bolkiah Muiz’zaddin Wad’daulah — 69 years old – In power since 1967

Brunei is the world’s 40th-50th largest oil producing country, but may have the 6th highest per capita oil production

Brazil – Dilma Roussef – 68 years old – In power since 2010

Her predecessor, Louis Inacio Lula da Silva, who literally as of today was selected to  become Roussef’s new chief of staffwas 65 years old when he left office in 2011 at the end of an eight-year term. Roussef has been facing an impeachment attempt, while Lula has been under investigation in a corruption scandal. 

United Arab Emirates – Khalifa Al Nayhan — 68 years old  – In power since 2004

The Emir of Dubai is 66 years old, meanwhile

Colombia – Juan Manuel Santos – 64 years old – In power since 2010 

South Sudan – Salva Kiir Mayardit – 64 years old – In power since 2011

Iraq – Haider al Abadi – 63 years old – In power since 2014 

Masoud Barzani, meanwhile, who has been president of oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan since 2005 and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party since 1979, is 69 years old. Foud Massoum, a Kurdish politician who is Iraq’s president (a more ceremonial role than prime minister), is 78 years old and has been in office since 2014. Nouri al Maliki, who was Iraq’s prime minister from 2006-2014 and is now Iraq’s vice president, will turn 66 this June. Saddam Hussein was 42 years old during his purge of 1979 and 66 years old when the US invaded in 2003.

Russia – Vladimir Putin – 63 years old – In power since 1999

Malaysia – Najib Razak — 62 years old – In power since 2009

Mahatir Mohammad, meanwhile, is 90 years old. Malaysia is thought to be the world’s 25th largest oil producing country

Turkey – Recep Tayyip Erdogan – 62 years old – In power since 2003

While Turkey is a significant net importer rather than exporter of energy, it is nevertheless capable of impacting the rest of the Middle East, and it has hopes to become a major energy nexus at the centre of the Middle East, North Africa, and Caspian Sea region. (Similarly, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been prime minister since 2009 and was previously prime minister from 1996-1999, is 66 years old)

Australia – Malcolm Turnbull – 61 years old – In power since 2015

Egypt – Abdel Fathah al-Sisi — 60 years old –  In power since 2014 

Sisi was also highly influential for at least a few years before 2014, following Hosni Mubarak’s departure from office in 2011

The following graph shows how old these countries’ rulers were in any given year between 1970 and 2015, and how old they will be in 2020 if today’s rulers remain in power for the remainder of the decade:

Age oil leaders

In the graphs below, the y-axis indicates the age of today’s rulers, the x-axis indicates the number of years they have been in power, and the size of the circles indicates the relative amount of energy that is produced by their country.

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oil leaders

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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.

Iraq-with-Ur-site-and-cities-OL

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.

baghdad

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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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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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Middle East, North America

Why Iraq is Still So Important

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So, why did the United States decide to invade Iraq in 2003? There may have been some sinister or stupid reasons for the war, as an overwhelming majority of Americans believe there were, but there were also strategic motivations behind it, which are almost never acknowledged. These were, namely:

1. To weaken the position of the Sunni Arabs in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, within the Middle East. Even though Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist, Sunni-led government was often unfriendly towards other Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and even attempted to annex Sunni-majority Kuwait, Saddam’s Iraq was ultimately aligned with the Saudi Arabian position in the region anyway.

This was a result of Iraq’s intense rivalry with the Shiite non-Arab state of Iran, which it had fought an enormous war against throughout most of the 1980s, and because of Iraq’s repression of its own Shiite Arab majority population, which its had acted with brutality toward during the 1990s. The Saudis were afraid that Shiite Iran and Iraq’s Shiite majority would one day work together to undermine the Saudi position within Saudi Arabia’s own Shiite-inhabited Eastern Province, which is extremely far away from where most Saudis live and yet is also where most Saudi energy production is located.

[Saddam Hussein’s government may have been a nominally secular Ba’athist one, but that did not stop him from engaging in religiously sectarian politics during most of his time as Iraq’s leader, or from adding the phrase “God is Great” to the Iraqi flag in 1991 in what was sometimes said to be his own handwriting. With the collapse of Iraq’s secularist patron the Soviet Union around 1990, and with the increase in worldwide pan-Islamism around the same time (as a result of various factors, such as the Islamic victory in the Afghan-Soviet War in the late 1980s, the gaining of independence for Muslim countries in Central Asia as a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union, the wars between Muslim and non-Muslim populations in the 1990s in places like Chechnya, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Palestine, Armenia, Kuwait, Kashmir, Sudan, and East Timor, and the increased globalization of Islam as a result of the emergence of the Internet), it is not clear to what extent Iraq’s Ba’athist-style secularism — such that it was — would have survived had it not been toppled by the US invasion].

The United States blamed the Sunnis, and especially the Sunni Arabs, and especially Saudi Arabia, for 9-11, and for most Islamic extremism in general. Even as the Bush administration named Shiite Iran, and not Saudi Arabia, as one of the three “Axis of Evil” countries, it also knew that Iran’s influence was limited by the fact that 90 percent or so of the world’s Muslims are Sunni rather than Shiite, and by the fact that Iran is not an Arab country. Moreover, it knew that Iran’s state-driven brand of religiosity was far less socially conservative – and far more often ignored by its own citizens – than that which exists in several of the Sunni areas of the Muslim world, in parts of Africa, Arabia, and South Asia.

Thus the United States was not too surprised to learn that fifteen of the nineteen 9-11 hijackers, in addition to Osama bin Laden and some of the other Al Qaeda leaders, were Saudi nationals. Saudi Arabia, after all, has such an extreme political and social system that its millions of women are still not even allowed to drive a car. The US also laid a portion of the blame for Pakistan’s aquisition of nuclear weapons in 1998 at the feet of Saudi Arabia.

[In fact, less than a year before 9-11 an airplane flying from Saudi Arabia to London was hijacked by four Saudis and taken to land in Iraq, which sent both the passengers and hijackers back to Saudi Arabia. A month before that, a Qatari plane was hijacked and flown to Saudi Arabia. And only six months before 9-11, a Russian plane was hijacked by Chechens and flown to Saudi Arabia, where it was stormed by Saudi special forces. Airplane hijacking has a long history in the Arab world; the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in particular hijacked many planes during much of the Cold War, and was able to pass on its experiences because its hijackers were often never arrested or killed. Most notably, on September 6, 1970, the PFLP hijacked four airplanes simultaneously – three of them successfully, one, an El Al plane, unsuccessfully – and landed two of them on a Jordanian airstrip. Yet another plane was hijacked two days later and also taken to Jordan, together triggering the Black September war a week later. The hostages from the hijacked aircraft, with the exception of Jewish hostages, were freed on September 11].

The US did not feel it could invade Saudi Arabia, however, because Saudi Arabia was too large and rugged (it has the seventh largest territory in the world, and is covered mostly by deserts and mountains), too rich in oil and natural gas infrastructure (unlike Iraq, where the energy sector had been severely underdeveloped as a result of decades of sanctions and war), too conservative and internally fractious (the US fears what would become of Saudi Arabia and Yemen if the Saudi royal family were overthrown), too strategic (the US worries that, absent the Saudis, Iran would become too influential within the Shiite-majority Persian Gulf region, and also that instability in Arabia might endanger global trade routes through the Red Sea to Suez), and too sacred (the US does not want to put its soldiers anywhere near the Saudi-controlled holy cities of Mecca or Medina, particularly given the ongoing American support for Israel’s control of Jerusalem).

As such, the Bush administration saw the de-Baathification of Iraq – i.e. the disempowerment of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, and by extension the empowerment of Iraq’s Shiite Arab majority and Sunni Kurds –  as the next best way to weaken the regional position of the Sunnis and Sunni Arabs in general and both Iraq and Saudi Arabia in particular. Indeed, the United States had already spent the decade prior to 2003 helping to build up the strength of Iraqi Kurdistan in defiance of Saddam Hussein’s government, and wanted to ensure that this work would not be undone by the Sunnis in Iraq and neighbouring Turkey who most fear Kurdish separatism.

2. To turn the United States into the dominant power in the Middle East over the short-to-medium term, by temporarily taking control of Iraq and its massive conventional oil and gas resources (the world’s third and seventh largest, respectively, according to the US Energy Information Agency), and by using Iraq as a platform from which it could put pressure on neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. There are a number of reasons why control of Iraq seemed necessary, or at least useful, for this purpose:

– eastern Saudi Arabia, which borders Iraq, is where most Saudi oil and gas is located, yet it is a Shiite-majority region in an otherwise Sunni-majority country

– western Iran, which borders Iraq, is where much of Iran’s oil and gas is located, yet it is a majority Arab, Kurdish, Azeri, and Lur region in an otherwise Persian-majority country. (Ethnic Persians only make up an estimated 50-65 percent of Iran’s population). The Arab region of Iran, Khuzestan, is particularly energy-rich and vulnerable to Iraqi intrusion.

– eastern Syria, which borders Iraq, is where most of Syria’s oil is located, yet it is a majority Sunni Arab and Kurdish region in a country ruled by the non-Sunni government of the Assad family

– Kuwait, as the events leading up to the First Gulf War in 1990 showed, is incredibly vulnerable to external Iraqi pressure. Kuwait is the world’s eighth or ninth largest oil producer. Though it is majority Sunni country, it also has a large Shiite minority – perhaps 20-25 percent of its total population – most of whom live in the areas where most of Kuwait’s oil is extracted or exported from. In addition, Kuwait’s population of non-Arab, and often non-Muslim, foreign workers now outnumbers its own citizens by a decent amount.

– Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, both of which also share the Persian Gulf with Iraq and are also among the world’s leading oil or natural gas producers, are in a somewhat similar position to Kuwait, albeit with less direct exposure to Iraqi influence

– Jordan, which borders Iraq, has in effect a Palestinian-majority population, yet is ruled over by a royal family that was brought in from faraway Mecca by the British in the 1920s. The Jordanian royal family has survived mainly via an alliance with the US, Britain, Israel, and the Gulf Arabs. It shares a long border with Israel, from which Jerusalem is only 25 km away, and with Syria, from which Damascus is only 75 km away. Back in 2003, Jordanian politics were crucial to Israel and its allies within the United States, as Israel was then in the midst of the Second Intifada (from 2000-2005), a guerilla war which was many times more deadly to Israelis than any of the Gaza or Lebanon wars since have been

– eastern Turkey, which borders Iraq, is where most of the dams on the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, from which Iraq and eastern Syria derive most of their freshwater, are located. It is also where the Turks hope to build energy pipelines linking both the Middle East and Central Asia to Istanbul and Europe. It is, however, a majority Kurdish region, in an otherwise Turkish-majority country. Kurds in Turkey account for an estimated 20 percent of Turkey’s overall population, and for more than half of the overall Kurdish population that spans Tukrey, Iraq, Iran, and to a lesser extent Syria.

– eastern Turkey also borders Azerbaijan and the Christian countries of Armenia and Georgia. Armenia is an enemy of Turkey and ally of both Russia and the US, while Georgia is an enemy of Russia and an ally of the US. Azerbaijan, which fought a terrible war against Armenia during the 1990s, is a significant state in its own right: it is the world’s 20th largest oil producer, borders Russia’s separatist-inclined Muslim territories like Chechnya and Dagestan, and, most importantly, borders the Azeri-majority regions of Iran. Azeris account for perhaps as much as 25 percent of Iran’s entire population; indeed, Azerbaijan has even toyed with the idea of renaming itself “Northern Azerbaijan”, implying that Iran is in direct occupation of “Southern Azerbaijan”. Iran’s Azeris are linguistically about the same as those in Azerbaijan, and not too different from Turks in Turkey.

[Azerbaijan is also the world’s only formally secular Shiite state, which means that the religious Shiite Iranian regime, which rules an Iranian population that includes an increasingly large number of modern-minded Shiites as well as many Sunni, Sufi, and secular Muslims, views the Azeris as a major social and ideological threat as well. Thus Azerbaijan, which is less than 300 km from Iraq, is strategically important in spite of having a population of just around 10 million. Azerbaijan is, finally, the only link for future Turkish-European pipelines to cross the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, which has been thought to hold the world’s fourth largest accessible reserves of natural gas.]

Iraq, in other words, is not just immensely energy-rich: it is also far and away the most strategically vital country in the Middle East, capable of pressuring all of the countries it borders – Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait, Jordan, and beyond – when it is internally unified or under the domination of a foreign power.

The United States hoped to exploit both of these traits in order to throw its weight around within the region and attempt to prevent a second major terrorist attack from occurring on American soil. This is, similarly, why Iraq continues to draw global attention today. The recent US decision to cut a deal with Iran was in made in part because of the gains that ISIS – representing some of the Sunni Arabs – and the Sunni Kurds have made within Iraq.

None of this necessarily changes the fact that the Iraq War was arguably a strategic mistake for the United States, and possibly a moral failure as well. Still, it may be comforting to know that, contrary to popular belief, the reasons behind the invasion were not entirely incoherent or sinister (or at least, not incoherent or sinister in the ways that people have generally assumed they were). And perhaps we should not judge Bush too harshly for concealing his true purposes. After all, Obama cloaked his support for Syria’s rebels in precisely the same anti-tyranny, anti-WMD rhetoric that Bush once employed towards Iraq, consistently avoiding the fact that the rebels’ success benefited the United States by curtailing Iranian influence in places like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine.

And now that Assad has weakened, Obama finds himself again with the same dilemma as Bush, wanting to move closer to the Shiites and/or Persians in the region in order to counterbalance the dominant Sunnis and/or Arabs, yet also concerned that this will result in increased Sunni militancy, a destabilized Arabia, and an ascendant Turkey or Iran.

Of course, this is not what the (Jeb) Bush’s or (Hilary) Clintons say. With those two running for office, we could be in for yet another round of Iraq War misdirection. May the best candidate win.

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