Three interdependent variables and scenarios can help us think about the future of the countries of the Arabian Peninsula.
The first variable concerns leadership. Despite the wide scope and large scale of power that the states of the Arabian Peninsula have achieved (presented in the first article of this series), their political economy remains largely controlled by very small circles, often in each country revolving round a single man – a vulnerability addressed in the third article of this series.
We have already seen, in the past few years, succession procedures put in place in several Peninsula countries. In the case of Saudi Arabia, we already know a lot about the heir to the throne’s ambitions and direction of travel. In other countries, we know little about the future leaders. Since the highly concentrated ruling mechanisms in the Peninsula will likely remain as is in the foreseeable future, how this new cadre of leaders will rule and whether they will initiate major changes domestically or in their countries’ international positioning, will prove highly consequential for each of these countries and for the Arabian Peninsula as a whole.
Two scenarios stand out. In one, we might see in the foreseeable future, the leaders of the small states in the Gulf opting to focus on economics and living standards in their countries, at a time that Saudi Arabia, the behemoth in the Peninsula, is cementing its place as the orchestrator of the Peninsula’s and the Levant’s most important geo-political and political-economy dynamics. In this scenario, the Arabian Peninsula will return to a geopolitical situation similar to that in the period from the early 1940s to the late 1960s, when Saudi Arabia had decisive sway over the entire region.
This will augment Saudi’s major influence in the Arab world, and as a significant mid-size power on the international scene. This could also lead to major changes in the Peninsula’s political economy. We can see the emergence of a single Arabian Peninsula currency, central bank, and perhaps even finance and foreign ministries. In this scenario, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, inspired by the European Union and shepherded by Saudi Arabia, might gradually move in the direction of some sort of federation.
But there is another scenario relating to leadership. We might see ambitious and assertive leaders in some of the small but ultra rich Gulf states who deem the interests of their countries different from those of the much bigger and populous Saudi Arabia. Fuelled by tremendous liquid wealth, one or more of the small Gulf states might adopt economic and political policies in the region and beyond that differ, and perhaps collide, with those of Saudi Arabia. In this scenario, the Arabian Peninsula could end up with conflicting constituents; integration aspirations would disappear; and the region might become mired in muted conflicts.
These two scenarios will determine the Arabian Peninsula’s relationship with its three key neighbours: Egypt, Iraq, and Iran. A closely cooperating and gradually integrating Arabian Peninsula – whether under the umbrella of the Gulf Cooperation Council or through an evolution of it – would exert pulling force on Iraq and Egypt, two countries with major potential, yet restricting factors, relating to internal politics in the case in Iraq, and to socio-economic challenges in Egypt. Also a cooperating and gradually integrating Peninsula would both limit Iranian aspirations for regional influence in the Gulf and the Levant, as well as subtly empower the liberal factions in Iran, who prioritise economic over geo-political objectives.
A Peninsula mired in conflicts could give rise to the exact opposite outcomes. Iraq would look elsewhere for anchors of its divided identities, and Egypt will be drawn to European, rather than Arab, frameworks of cooperation and development.
The most consequential different outcome, however, would be in the relationship with Iran. Some of the constituents of a divided Peninsula, including influential and sizeable demographic segments particularly in some of the small Gulf states, will in this scenario look to Iran as a counterweight to a colossal, rising, and assertive Saudi Arabia. In this scenario, the divisions that will appear in the Peninsula’s socio-politics will stir Iran’s historical aspiration for expansion eastwards. Within Iran, the nationalistic instincts will trump the progressive liberal currents.
Dynamics in the Peninsula’s neighbourhood will affect its countries’ global positioning. An increasingly integrated Peninsula with strong socio-economic links to Egypt and Iraq and that triggers the best in Iran, will quickly become a serious mid-size power on the international scene. The quest of the countries of the Arabian Peninsula for strategic autonomy (presented in the second article of this series) will have a much higher chance of materialisation.
On the other hand, a Peninsula mired in conflicts and deprived of strategic depth in the Levant and North Africa, could well find itself compelled to return to old types of relationships with superpowers, offering whatever economic incentives the Peninsula states have in return for protection and security. And in a world of two assertive, forward-leaning powers (the US and China), such a dynamic will prove much more difficult to sustain than it was in the period from the 1950s to the second decade of the twenty first century when the US was the primary superpower with important interests and unrivalled presence in the Peninsula.
Integration or division in the Peninsula will also depend on the evolutionary trajectory of the Arabian Peninsula’s socio-politics. In addition to the historic and cultural links, a key reason why the Peninsula states have felt strong affinity to each other since the beginning of their modern age in the early to mid-twentieth century was that their ruling structures and prevailing political economy systems shared many key characteristics. As discussed in the previous article of this series, several domestic factors in some of the Peninsula’s countries are leading towards more representation and serious checks on and balances in decision making. Such evolutions, if allowed to progress, would entail challenges. Some countries will be faster on that developmental path than others. Some leaders and elites might attempt to stall that growth; others might try to crush its drivers and the aspirations behind it altogether. The more the Peninsula’s political economy paths diverge, the less the desire of influential groups in these countries to come closer towards integration, and the less realistic will be any integration measures.
International stakeholders, particularly in next door Europe and the West in general, observe several parts of the Arab world with trepidation, often fearing potential economic implosions and so waves of immigration, and often concerned about violence they sense is linked to inherent factors. Distant observers, particularly in Asia, see in most of the Arab world a region that was, decades ago, at least on par with their developmental level, and that has now descended to shocking levels of disorder.
For external observers, the states of the Arabian Peninsula are the exception in the Arab world. They have managed to generate out of the riches they have come to control serious potential. Most of them have put their societies on promising trajectories.
But the factors this series presented – the increasingly changing dynamics of the Peninsula states’ political economy, their quest for strategic autonomy, and the key social and identity and political vulnerabilities they have – are effecting a major transformation in the region. If the transformation leads to a stable, prosperous, and progressive Peninsula, there will be positive impacts on the entire Arab world and its neighbours. But if this transformation turns the Peninsula into a theatre of conflicting ideologies and sociopolitical frames of reference, and of clashes between international powers, the entire Arab world and its neighbours will experience seismic shocks.