Arabian Gulf - Recent History
Beginning in the late 1960s, a series of events destabilized the Middle East and turned it into a new and critical theater of conflict in the Cold War. The area progressively became a major focal point of the struggle for influence between the United States and the Soviet Union. The total eclipse of British influence in the region, manifested in the postwar dissolution of the British overseas empire and the kingdom’s economic exhaustion in the decade after 1945, led to further destabilization. The Suez Crisis of 1956 had shown the new limits to Britain’s power. In spite of that setback, Britain tried for another decade to maintain its traditional role as counterweight to the Russian state in the contest for influence in the region. Only tardily did Britain recognize the complete exhaustion of its wealth and power that World War II had exposed.
The Arab-Israeli War of June 1967 constituted the first major crisis that began to redefine the region’s place in international politics. With a preemptive strike, the Israelis soundly defeated the Arab states in only six days. The humiliating defeat intensified pan-Arab nationalism and fueled Arab resentment and mistrust of the Western nations that had supported Israel. The war correspondingly enhanced the position of the Soviet Union and expanded its political and military influence in the region. It provoked civil war in Jordan between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Jordanian government. It laid bare the fissure in Lebanon between the Christian and Muslim populations, a situation that Israel exacerbated by its raids on Palestinian bases in Lebanon beginning in January 1969. Many in the Arab world denounced the United States—because of its support for Israel — for the subsequent collapse of Lebanon into civil war over the next six years.
In January 1968, the British government announced that it would remove all of its military forces and its political presence from the areas “east of Suez.” With that, the British abandoned client states and positions of influence they had cultivated since the mid-1800s. The decline and withdrawal of the power that had imposed a degree of stability threw the region into a prolonged crisis. The tremendous riches of oil and the dependence of Western Europe and the United States on access to that oil made the stakes of the contest very high.
The states of the Gulf region took advantage of the waning British power to pursue their individual territorial ambitions to the further detriment of stability. Iran tried to seize several islands in the Straits of Hormuz that controlled access between the Persian (Arabian) Gulf and the Arabian Sea. In addition, it sought to exploit its status as a Shi’ite state to win influence over Bahrain, exacerbating tensions between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims in the region. Iraq and Kuwait clashed as Iraq tried to secure its access to the Gulf at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The British withdrawal allowed tensions to build between conservative Islam and radical secular Arab nationalism throughout the southern Gulf area. Internal ferment and external pressures threatened the smaller states that lined the Arabian Peninsula’s littoral: the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and North and South Yemen.
In the absence of Britain, the United States became the protagonist in the regional contest with the Soviet Union. To counter the growing Soviet influence, the administration of President Richard M. Nixon formulated a new approach to the regional balance of power. The United States selected Iran and Saudi Arabia as the “two pillars” of stability in the Gulf area. Iran had the military potential to hinder a Soviet expansion of power. Saudi Arabia had influence with the conservative Islamic regimes of the region. It also had tremendous reserves of oil that the Western powers needed both for their economies and for their military arsenals. In pursuing the two-pillar policy, the United States abandoned its prior policy of restraining arms sales in the area. It gave Iran in particular extensive access to the American market in armaments, aircraft, and equipment.
The Yom Kippur War of October 1973 further increased the region’s volatility and instability. Egypt’s surprise attack on Israel temporarily reversed the pattern of the 1967 war, but Israel recovered quickly and triumphed once more on the battlefield. This new Arab defeat again inflamed Arab nationalism, intensified Palestinian consciousness of their displacement, and won converts for the revolutionary radicalism that rejected all compromise with Israel. Iran provoked the enmity of the region’s Arab states tacitly by supplying Israel with oil and disregarding the interests of fellow Muslims.
The defeat also gave the Arab states the cohesion to shape a successful policy of embargoing oil shipments to Western Europe and the United States to punish them for their continued support of Israel. The successful manipulation of oil supplies by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) ran up the price of a barrel of oil from $3.39 in 1973 to $12.93 in 1978.2 Given the rising price of oil and the power of the Arab states in the new market, international financiers began to speak of “petrodollars” that accumulated in the oil-producing countries of the Middle East. The influx of wealth to the states of the region gave them a buying power in the arms market that they had never had before.
The British withdrawal from the Arabian Peninsula had left the small states of the region feeling abandoned and betrayed. The United States’ failure to prevail in Vietnam and in Angola in the mid-1970s did nothing to allay the sense of vulnerability that these small states felt. The presence of over forty thousand Cuban soldiers in a dozen African countries in the late 1970s enhanced the influence of the Communist bloc in the region. When the Soviets increased their potential leverage over Arabia by gaining naval staging areas on Africa’s eastern coast in Mozambique, uneasiness in the peninsula increased. The Soviet Navy could, from its new vantage point, threaten the oil routes out of the Gulf region. The Soviets strengthened their influence further when a substantial Soviet, East German, and Cuban presence helped Ethiopia prevail in its border clash with Somalia in early 1978. The Soviet presence in Ethiopia, linked with its support of radical forces in the Yemens, gave the Soviet Union the strategic positioning to menace the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, and Israel’s sea lanes to the outside world.
In September 1978, the United States sponsored the Camp David accords that led to a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. The U.S. policy of promoting this peace provoked a mixed response in the Arab world. Many Arab states and factions opposed the agreements as a betrayal of the goal of a Palestinian state. This fierce rejectionism inflamed Arab feeling and led to the assassination of the Egyptian proponent of the accords, President Anwar el-Sadat, on 6 October 1981. On the other hand, the realization of a peace accord between Egypt and Israel tempered one of the most dangerous destabilizing elements in the region.
Developments in Iran a few months later were more clearly detrimental to the U.S. position in the region. In January 1979, the regime of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlevi collapsed and a fundamentalist Muslim movement, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, seized power in Iran. With the Iranian revolution, the only substantial military “pillar” of the Nixon policy in the area disappeared. Under the new regime, Iran became a hostile power rather than an ally in the United States’ attempts to stabilize the region; Saudi Arabia remained aligned with the United States. Oil production in the region declined, and the price of crude oil rose from $18.67 a barrel in January 1979 ($10.64 in 1974 prices) to $30.41 in May 1980 (over $18.00 in 1974 prices).
At the end of 1979, the Soviet Union took a bold step to extend its immediate military sphere of action by invading Afghanistan. The intervention became in the long run a quagmire akin to the American experience in Vietnam. The immediate impact, however, was to place eighty- to one hundred thousand Soviet Army troops closer to the petroleum resources of the Arabian Peninsula. In September 1980, Iraq further destabilized the region by launching an attack on Iran, hoping to topple the new regime. When Iraq failed to win a quick victory, the war became a vicious seesaw that lasted eight years with neither side achieving any strategic advantage.
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