The Middle East, or more accurately the Arab world, has never been in so much turmoil and never been so dangerous. And that includes both world wars. Libya is no longer a country but more a battle ground for rival tribes; Syria is in the midst of a vicious civil war; the Egyptian military are just about keeping a lid on the next revolt; Saudi Arabian princes are squaring off in a battle for the right to establish the new generation of rulers against a backdrop of the Kingdom fighting two proxy wars against Iran, in Syria and Yemen, while trying to change its economic model. Add to that is the emergence of Islamic State (IS) and its ambition to create a regional caliphate while sponsoring a global jihad.
What happens next in the region clearly matters a great deal to the Western world. More specifically, events in the region and changing perceptions of risk directly impact the oil market. An easing of the fighting in Libya would, for example, result in a resumption of oil exports from there and send the crude price lower. An attack against an oil installation or pipeline in any of the major oil exporting countries would send the price per barrel sharply higher. Even with Libya’s outage and Iraqi-Kurdish disruption, the region produces 27mn barrels of oil per day, approximately 28% of the world total, and exports 18mn barrels.
Properly understanding what is happening in the Arab world is, therefore, not only useful but essential to an assessment of oil market risk over the medium to long term. And two very timely books help with that understanding.
“The New Arab Wars”, by Marc Lynch, professor of political science at George Washington University, is a very detailed account of what has changed in the Arab world since the start of the Arab spring in Tunisia in December 2010 and offers a chilling assessment of what to expect next. The author’s core position is that, contrary to the widely held view in the West, the Arab uprisings have not failed. The process is still continuing and will again lead to mass uprisings and change. The only questions are, “what is the timeline and what will that change look like”? He says that Western hopes the region can return to previous stability under the control of friendly authoritarian regimes is a myth.
Set against the various violent conflicts, Lynch argues that there are four very fundamental and future-shaping battles that are at the very core of all of the conflicts in the region. The first is the Saudi-Iran, or Sunni-Shia, conflict. That is a key reason for the intensity of the Syrian civil war and the conflict in Yemen. The second is the battle for leadership of the Sunni world between Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey. That played out in Egypt, in particular, and also in Syria and Libya. The third is the challenge posed by the various Islamist groups, from the relatively mainstream Muslim Brotherhood to the more radical IS, against the various Arab states. The fourth struggle that Lynch identifies is that between the autocratic regimes and increasingly mobilized societies.
Another of the author’s positions is that the influence of Western countries in the Middle East and North Africa is now considerably less than used to be the case, while that of regional players is more important. The conflicting roles taken by Qatar and Turkey, on the one hand, and by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait on the other, he argues, forms the backdrop to many of the conflicts in the region. Unfortunately, the clear conclusion one takes from the narrative is that the regional players are no better at solving problems in their backyard than were the big international players.
A Gulf in understanding
The book chronicles the emerging forceful role of previously almost docile mega-rich Gulf Arab states. Qatar ran gung-ho into Libya, Egypt and Syria with money and weapons. The Qatar flag was indeed very prominent in Libya in the days after the death of Muammar Gaddafi. Safe to say that its experience in the first two was chastening, while the latter is today a bloody stalemate. The UAE’s air force bombed targets in Libya and sent ground troops into Yemen; five or six years ago such actions would have been inconceivable.
Lynch argues that the three events that were very important in creating the current volatile mix in the region were 1) the Arab spring and the threat it poses to autocratic regimes, 2) the murder of the US ambassador to Libya in Benghazi, which, he argues, changed US public opinion and reduced the Obama Administration’s appetite for expanding the US’ role in the region, and 3) the Iran nuclear deal that has provoked Saudi into efforts to restore the political balance with the West and was the catalyst for the Yemen war.
The book also provides a very detailed account of the emergence of IS and why it has changed the relationship between the Arab world and the West even should it be defeated. Interestingly, the author cites experts who argue that the birth of IS arose out of the killing of Osama Bin Laden. That reduced the authority and relevance of Al-Qaeda and left the power vacuum which IS filled.
The author also argues that most of the Arab regimes are just about hanging on and that the Arab Spring will soon return with greater intensity, better organization and more violent. He states, “it is abundantly clear that no Arab state has come close to solving the problems which led to the Arab Spring – and in most cases have made them worse”.
The one disappointment in an otherwise excellent overview is that the first sentence of chapter one reads, “On September 30, 2015, Russian military forces poured into Syria…” The impression of Russian meddling – if not an Afghanistan-style invasion – and that being the root cause of the problems in the region is thus embedded from the start. But Russia hardly gets a mention for the rest of the book and quite rightly – it only had a side role compared to most others in the events before September 2015’s
The second book has an equally provocative title, “Saudi Arabia, A Kingdom in Peril”, which is jointly authored by Paul Aarts and Carolien Roelants. Aarts teaches international relations at the University of Amsterdam, while Roelants was for 30 years the Middle East editor for NRC Handelsblad.
As the title suggests, this book is mostly focused on the changes within the Kingdom and at its changing role in the region. The core issue is the battle for succession as the country moves to the next generation or rulers. Unlike Western royal family succession, the eldest son of the incumbent does not automatically inherit the role. It first passes to siblings – the current king is the sixth of Ibn Saud’s sons to be ruler – and when that route is exhausted, a next generation takes over. Currently the main contenders are Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (the interior minister) and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (the defence minister). But there are others with leadership ambitions for sure.
The book covers the rising social issues within the Kingdom, where two-thirds of the indigenous population is under 30, and also the expanding military roles in the region. Saudi has spent 8-10% of GDP on defence in recent years according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and that is something which it may not easily cut any more than its social programmes. The core of the book is, however, about the conflicts between the religious conservatives and those pressing for reforms.
The timing of this book is all the better because of the Kingdom’s very ambitious programme for economic change, the so-called National Transformation Plan. The book provides very good context for that plan and leaves the reader better equipped to understand the consequences.
The bottom line from both books (if the conclusions to which the authors are pointing prove correct) is that one should not be short oil in the next few years.
“The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East”, by Marc Lynch, Public Affairs (2016).
“Saudi Arabia, A Kingdom in Peril”, by Paul Aarts and Carolien Roelants, C Hurst & Co Publishers (2015).