Dialogue Series, Regional Studies

Troubled Waters: Insecurity in the Gulf

book talk

Amidst international disputes and conflicts, the Gulf region stands out as a political hot zone. Seeking to find out why the region is so chronically unstable, Mehran Kamrava, Professor and Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar, set out to explore this phenomenon in depth. He performed extensive field research, interviewing government ministers and experts from Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Muscat, and Tehran, among others, over several years. His research led to the book, Troubled Waters: Insecurity in the Persian Gulf (Cornell University Press, 2018) and he presented his findings at a CIRS book talk on September 12, 2018.

Kamrava began by sharing three particularly memorable conversations. In every interview he posed the question: “What is the biggest security threat that your country faces?” Often, he said, he received predictable answers. In Riyadh, he was told the threat was “Tehran;” in Tehran, it was “obviously the Americans.” However, the foreign minister in Muscat surprised Kamrava with the answer, “unemployment.” The official had explained that if young people were not employed they had the potential to get into trouble. “That really showed me an awful lot about the maturity of Omani foreign policy,” Kamrava said, especially given that Oman has a reputation for negotiating “very subtle, very complex diplomacy in a very mature, reasoned way.” In another interview, he had asked a senior cabinet minister why his country had suddenly introduced conscription. The minister explained that if the youth were bored and idle they can get into trouble, and also “ISIS recruits on the internet.” That also, was not the clichéd answer that one might hear when interviewing a cabinet minister, Kamrava said.

Kamrava happened to be in Riyadh in 2014, at a time when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain had withdrawn their ambassadors from Qatar, an impasse that lasted eight months. During an interview with a senior prince in the foreign ministry, the official realized that Kamrava was from Georgetown University in Qatar—not Georgetown in Washington, DC. The prince’s reaction was, “Qatar! We can close our airspace to them. We can impose a blockade on them. We can suffocate them. We will not let Qatar Airways fly.” Kamrava told the audience that at the time he did not understand why the prince had become so agitated. Three years later, in 2017—when Saudi Arabia led the current blockade against Qatar—it dawned to him that if a simple professor had heard these comments, officials in Doha certainly knew and were making contingency plans, and the Saudis were in motion to further sever relations with Qatar.

Kamrava said he was struck by an insight he gained from meeting with foreign ministers and other officials in Iran. He said that everyone had told him that the experience of the Iran–Iraq war guides their country’s foreign policy making today. He was told, “We never forget that the Arab countries of the region lined up one after another to beat up on us. And Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and a number of others gave billions of dollars to Iraq from 1980 to 1988. And we will not forget that the Americans gave satellite information to the Iraqis to more effectively put chemical weapons on Iranian troops, and told them about Iranian troop movements.” As a scholar of Iran, Kamrava said he had not fully grasped that the memory of the war was “such a living memory.”

As a result of his many interviews and conversations, Kamrava said the causes and dynamics that have made the Gulf region so chronically insecure can be clustered into four broad categories. The first, he said, is how the region’s security architecture is structured, and has been structured for a long time. “Nobody has thought about a win-win scenario; everybody has thought about a win-lose scenario,” he said, explaining that the regions’ security is viewed terms of a zero-sum game—that is, the only way to protect one’s interests is at the expense of someone else’s interests.

The second reason for the region’s insecurity is the “pervasiveness of identity politics.” He broadly outlined the region’s political history. The Middle East from the 1950s on, could be considered “the era of secular nationalism.” From the late 1970s onward, the dominant narrative was one of political Islam. In that period, he said, “the salvation of the region lay not so much in nationalism, which was underlined by secular, non-religious assumptions, but in embrace of political interpretations of religion.” After 2011, he said, “what became important—what became one’s core source of identity—wasn’t just religion in broad terms, but specific sectarian identities within religion.” Kamrava described sectarianism’s deep, colonial roots in the Middle East, citing the divide-and-rule tactics of the British and French in agitating sectarian sensibilities.

“What we’re seeing today, it isn’t so much sectarianism, but a process of re-sectarianization of the Middle East.”

The third reason, Kamrava said, is that many regional actors are belligerent. “Agency matters. It’s not only institutions that matter, people matter. Political science—politics—is ultimately the art of exercise of power, or the science of exercise of power.” He continued, “What we see in our region, particularly since 2013-2014, is the coming to the fore of entirely new generations of leaders who are not playing by the old rules of the game, they are making their own rules,” and are unwilling to be bound by traditional diplomatic experiences, he said.

The final reason he offered for the breakdown of security in the region is what he called the “security dilemma.” That is, when a country increases its own security, it inadvertently makes other countries feel more insecure. “If you buy a new weapon system then your adversary next door feels a new threat, so they have to do the same thing,” thus creating a vicious cycle. How to get out of this cycle? Kamrava said, “You talk to each other. You build trust. You take the first step. And, of course, nobody is willing to talk to each other. We do not have any forum for dialogue.”

Looking to the future, Kamrava offered four questions for consideration. First, what role is the United States going to play in the region? Are the Americans going to step in and say that the Saudis and the Iranians must learn to share the region? Second, what will happen in Iran? Iran is in the cusp of change, he explained, with the impending departure of the aging Supreme Leader Khamenei, the Iranian political landscape will certainly undergo fundamental changes. This will in turn effect President Rouhani’s consensus politics, and the role of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“What we see in our region, particularly since 2013-2014, is the coming to the fore of entirely new generations of leaders who are not playing by the old rules of the game, they are making their own rules.”

The third question concerns the future of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Kamrava described the GCC has “being on life support,” since the start of the blockade on Qatar. “Nobody wants to be the party responsible for pulling the plug” on the GCC, Kamrava said. He projected a continuation of life-support status with technical cooperation, but as far as “having a common defense force, having meaningful political and economic integration—that, I believe, is thing of the past.”

The last and “probably most vexing” question is the long term outlook for energy. The region would not have had its strategic significance if it didn’t produce oil and natural gas, he said. If current trends continue—increasing energy independence in relation to the Gulf region, Kamrava said, “This region will, quite unfortunately, remain insecure for some time to come.”


Article by Khansa Maria (class of 2021), CURA Administrative Fellow

Mehran Kamrava is Professor and Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. He is the author of a number of journal articles and books, including, most recently, Troubled Waters: Insecurity in the Persian Gulf (Cornell University Press, 2018); Inside the Arab State (Oxford University Press, 2018); The Impossibility of Palestine: History, Geography, and the Road Ahead (Yale University Press, 2016); Qatar: Small State, Big Politics (Cornell University Press, 2015); The Modern Middle East: A Political History since the First World War, 3rd. ed. (University of California Press, 2013); and Iran’s Intellectual Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2008). His edited books include The Great Game in West Asia: Iran, Turkey, and the Southern Caucasus (2017); Fragile Politics: Weak States in the Greater Middle East (2016); Beyond the Arab Spring: The Evolving Ruling Bargain in the Middle East (2015); The Political Economy of the Persian Gulf (2012); The Nuclear Question in the Middle East (2012); and The International Politics of the Persian Gulf (2011).