Book reviews - Conflict Resolution: Wider Middle East.
       

International Politics of the Persian Gulf.
Mehran Kamrava (Ed.)
(Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2011, 374pp.)

This is the most recent in important publications from the series Modern Intellectual and Political History of the Middle East of Syracuse University Press. It is the result of two meetings sponsored by the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar and so is written for people who already have some background in international relations and the Islamic world. Certain concepts and approaches are taken for granted and not explicitly explained.

The book is largely structured on the basis of David Singer's classic article "The Level of Analysis Problem in International Relations" (1) Basically the level of analysis depends on what you want to do. Do you want to look at the whole chessboard at once because each move can provoke a counter-move, or do you want to look at the individual chess pieces to see how they are made, what are the limits of the moves that they can make, and what is the individual strategy of each piece? In fact, one has to be able to do both, but a preference is chosen by what questions one is trying to answer.

In this case, the authors of each chapter look at the policies of individual states which have interests in the Gulf area, either because they are geographically part of it - Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the Gulf monarchies - or because they have broader world interests which include but are not limited to the Gulf - the USA, India and China. Thus Mohammed Ayoob from Michigan State University in his analysis of "American Policy Toward the Persian Gulf: Strategies, Effectiveness, and Consequences" rightly points out that "Any discussion of American policy toward the Persian Gulf must begin with the recognition that the Persian Gulf is a subregion of a wider region, most appropriately called West Asia, which stretches from Pakistan in the east to Egypt in the west. The political and strategic dynamics of the Gulf subregion cannot be insulated from those of this larger region and the two contiguous subregions -comprising Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east and the Fertile Crescent, Egypt, and Turkey to the west - that together with the Gulf constitute the larger West Asian region. This conclusion is born out by the fact that analysis of American policy toward the Gulf almost inevitably entails discussion of the two contiguous subregions and how they affect and have been affected by American strategies toward the Persian Gulf. Just as the American invasion of Iraq cannot be decoupled from American military strategy in the Persian Gulf, the American-led war in Afghanistan has major strategic and political consequences for the Persian Gulf subregion."

The analysis of each of the 'major players' tries to understand how policy is made within each government. As Steven Wright of Qatar University notes "The politics of foreign policy tends to be far more personalized in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf than in most other states, and, typically, involves only a small number of elites. Foreign policy is commonly the preserve of a very small number of officials, despite the appearance of a large bureaucratic foreign ministry." The question, which is not asked but which is of crucial importance to us is how do we change these policies. "It does not take a weatherman to know the way the wind is blowing" and in the Gulf case, the wind is bringing trouble and possibly armed conflict. It is relatively easy to identify and locate US policy-makers in the White House and national security advisers, in the State Department, in the CIA and related intelligence agencies, in the Pentagon, in Congress and within a more nebulous group of academics, 'think tanks', pressure groups, the oil industry, and NGOs. All have addresses and while they may not be sitting waiting for an article on how to modify US policy in the Middle East, we can reach many of them.

But as Gregory Gause of the University of Vermont points out in his "Saudi Arabia's Regional Security Strategy" it is not easy to know who has real influence in Saudi decision-making. In the country as a whole, local and tribal loyalties remain strong. What influence on foreign policy do the official interpreters of Islam - Wahhabism -have? As Gause notes "The tools of Saudi influence -financial power and the promotion of ideologically friendly groups - allow the Saudis to intervene in the domestic politics of weaker and conflict-ridden states to advance Saudi interests. The regional struggle for power and influence in the Middle East is played out as much, if not more, in battles over the direction of domestic politics in weak states like Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine, and since 2003, Iraq, as it is in the clash of regional armies in open war…The problem for Riyadh is that their means of influence are not the most reliable. Local allies cannot be bought, they can only be rented. There are numerous examples of Saudi clients standing against Riyadh at times of crisis, after having received considerable Saudi support previously."

Who influences Saudi policy toward Iran? Who influenced the decision to send Saudi tanks to Bahrain? It is even less likely that the wide-range of Saudi princes are waiting for an FOR article on 'Changing Saudi Foreign Policy' and it is not clear which of the princes could do so if they wanted.

The same is largely true of the other Persian Gulf monarchies. In a useful chapter "Political Reform and Foreign Policy in the Persian Gulf Monarchies" Katja Niethammer of Hamburg University in Germany asks "Have reforms provided the space for broader political discourse, including foreign policies, and have political challenges of the ruling elites' near-monopoly on decision-making power entered in such a discourse?" She answers "Obviously, in those states where reforms have been limited (i.e., Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE)- where campaigning can only take place on a personal level, with little or no possibility to form associations, and the general public has limited access to information- there is not much potential for a broadening of foreign policy discourse. The picture is more ambiguous with regard to Kuwait and Bahrain."

As the editor Mehran Kamrava points out "The traditional security challenges confronting Persian Gulf states, which for the most part have been state-centric, are now being compounded by additional pressures emanating from within societies and show great potential for reinforcement by a regional domino effect…Neither domestic pressures from within the regional actors nor the tensions and frictions that often characterize their interactions show any signs of dissipating anytime soon…How the combined effects of all these brewing developments will play out remains to be seen. For now what is certain is that change is in the offing, magnifying all the more the manifold strategic significances of the Persian Gulf and the critical vitality of this troubled region to Middle Eastern and global politics."

Thus, the chessboard analogy is useful. Each move of a piece provokes an immediate counter-move and an intellectual process of planning counter moves in the future. While the chessboard as political strategy is an obvious image, in my experience with diplomats, most diplomats are concerned with their own state's actions and usually the reaction of one or at most two other states. However, unlike chess, Persian Gulf politics has more than two players and each player has a number of different pieces - military, economic, NGO, religious - which it can use. Understanding that each move, each speech, each conference has an impact on others is an idea that takes time to sink into the decision-making process of governments.

The book has 80 pages of notes and bibliography and so is an important tool for those working on the Middle East.

Note
1) David J. Singer "The Level of Analysis Problem in International Relations" in International Politics and Foreign Policy. James N. Rosenau (Ed). (New York: Free Press, 1969)

Rene Wadlow