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Middle East and Africa

If Oil Fuels the Flames of War

Kuwait oil fires in 1991 [Samira Zaman / Creative Commons]

The Greater Middle East is experiencing clashes between factions that are complicated by the great availability of hydrocarbons. Whilst oil revenues have had a stabilizing effect at a domestic level, the same is not true at the regional level

This article was published in Oasis 31. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2021-08-29 21:43:47

In the Greater Middle East, a clash among factions is underway which is complicated by the great hydrocarbon availability. Indeed, while oil revenues have a stabilizing effect at the domestic level, the same does not apply at a regional scale. In the past, the abundance of financial resources fostered the arms race and conflict in the area. Today, the drop in the price of fossil fuels and collapse of tourism due to the coronavirus pandemic are not necessarily leading to pacification.


The Arab world is prey to a civil war on a regional scale. We are accustomed to considering each Arab country’s political and economic developments separately, and from this viewpoint we see four countries experiencing open war between different political factions: Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. But this way of looking at things is incomplete, because it disregards the regional dimension of Arab politics, which has been dramatically highlighted by the Arab Spring and its repercussions. In the Middle East, political developments in one country are not independent of, or separate from political developments in the rest of the region. The same might to some extent be true of other areas, in Latin America, Africa or Europe. In the Arab region, developments in one country have immediate fallout on the political balance in the other countries. The latter cannot therefore remain indifferent, and respond by intervening in their neighbours’ internal affairs.


At the time of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia, with the support of the countries in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, intervened very openly to end the democratization movement underway in Bahrain, and rescue its Sunni dynasty. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) intervened—less openly, but robustly all the same—to overthrow the Morsi presidency in Egypt (which was supported by Qatar) and bring one of their protégés, General al-Sisi, to power. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also undertaken active intervention in Syria, Yemen and Libya.


In none of these three cases did they have much success, however. In Syria, the strange alliance between Iran and Russia managed to keep Bashar al-Assad in power, so that now he controls the greater part of the country albeit at the price of its destruction and the exodus of millions of its people. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s foolhardy decision to intervene directly in the conflict did not lead to the removal of the Houthis—Iran’s allies—from power, but merely stabilized the hostilities. The UAE, on the other hand, preferred to wriggle out of the situation, leaving the Saudis alone. Once again, the costs in terms of human lives and destruction of what was already an impoverished country are immeasurable. In Libya, the open support for General Haftar, despite the aid from Russia and France, did not lead to the ousting of Tripoli’s UN-backed government but, quite the opposite, paved the way for Turkey’s intervention.


Throughout the region, despite the new embargo imposed by the United States and the almost total halt to its oil exports, Iran continues to actively support the Shi‘ite revolts in Bahrain and Yemen as well as in Saudi Arabia itself. In Lebanon, Iran supports Hezbollah, which represents a state within the state with his own armed forces and opposes the end to the sectarian system which have led the country to economic and political bankruptcy.


Iran also holds a hegemonic position in Iraq where, 16 years after the US-led intervention brought about the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, a political dynamic capable of unifying the country is yet to be seen. Nor, despite the abundance of oil resources, have any development processes got off the ground that can offer the population a positive outlook for the future.


Also fitting into this picture is the conflict within the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf between the UAE and Saudi Arabia on one hand, and Qatar on the other. The embargo declared in June 2017 has not managed to either restrain or isolate Qatar; instead, the small emirate has found an ally and supporter in Turkey, as well as coming closer to Iran. What sparked the conflict is, again, ideology and international alignments: Qatar has kept good relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and, as a consequence, favoured Morsi’s government in Egypt, al-Sarraj’s government (Tripoli) in Libya, and different factions in Syria and Iraq to those supported by the Emirates and Saudis. Politically, the majority of the Arab countries has not fallen into line with the UAE or Saudi Arabia, in particular neither Kuwait (where the Muslim Brotherhood is represented in parliament) nor Oman, two countries that are seeking dialogue with Iran.


To what extent is this situation due to oil and fluctuations in oil revenue?


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