The Defining Eras of the Gulf’s Modern History

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

A new article in Middle East Policy’s Spring 2024 issue explores the changing dynamics of the Gulf since the 1970s through the lens of various international relations theories. 

Since its beginning, the conflict in Gaza has raised concerns about its spreading affecting the stability of the wide Middle East. Among the elements of regional security that are of concern are the advances of the recent Abraham Accords. 

In 2020, the United Arab Emirates signed onto the Accords—which normalized relations with Israel—and were followed by Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. The UAE hailed the agreement as a means to encourage the end of Israeli occupation of Palestine. 

To some, however, the Accords instead proved to Israel that the Arab world was dropping its demand for a Palestinian state in order to develop relations and may have emboldened the Israeli government in the wake of October 7th. Despite this concern, both the UAE and Bahrain have asserted that they will maintain ties with Israel. 

The agreement is viewed as one of the most significant pieces of foreign policy emanating from the Middle East in the last decade and represents the continued political shifts of regional states. A new Middle East Policy article explores these key events throughout the region’s modern history and applies theoretical approaches to understand its ever-changing dynamics.  

Ruth Hanau Santini and Paolo Wulzer argue that Middle East, and Gulf politics in particular, are difficult to understand through any one lens of theory, even within historical periods. They note the reality that the MENA region has experienced “an exceptional level of external intervention and, yet, by virtue of its cultural distinctiveness, stubbornly resistant to subordination.” As such, common approaches, including liberalism, realism, and constructivism, are each incomplete in assessing the region’s dynamics. 

In the early Cold War years, the Gulf remained largely unpenetrated but also lacked the power to influence much around it. These years were marked by tense alliances between Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, domestic identity conflicts, the development of oil technology, and great-power competition over control of oil. 

In the 1970s, major shifts arrived. The British let go of their last remaining holds on the region, and the US began to focus on the need to maintain a level of control in the region and, specifically, its oil. While the Nixon administration was hesitant to engage too significantly, the Gulf system crisis of the late 70s brought about the Carter Doctrine, which “inaugurated the official US commitment to defend the security of the Gulf by military force,” a role it has now held for decades. 

The end of the Cold War era was marked by “virtually unconstrained US hegemony.” Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the scholars contend, a new regional cold war began between sectarianism and political Islam, which drove divisions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Qatar and the GCC, respectively. This “instrumental manipulation of sectarianism created a new set of threats and opportunities for the regional powerhouses.” 

As the 2010s arrived, Gulf states began to display “an unprecedented capacity to influence security dynamics in the Levant…and the Maghreb,” which would end up “drawing regional non-Arab players…and international powers…into regional conflicts.” The states also perceived a decreasing American commitment and started diversifying their partnerships, most notably with China. Today, this diversification continues as Gulf states seek greater autonomy. 

They are still working to manage the threat of Iran, the scholars explain, but are finding new approaches through the liberalist theory of trade as a gateway for peace. The Abraham Accords set off a chain reaction of normalization deals that helped stabilize the Gulf, and the region appears poised to guide its own future. 

The authors overarchingly argue that much of this can be understood through the lens of international political economy, which encompasses both liberal and realist perspectives, as the concept of increased economic ties “diminishes the prospects for war.” Such study could lead to a greater understanding of the dynamics of the Middle East in the long run. 

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Ruth Hanau Santini and Paolo Wulzer’s Middle East Policy articleThe Evolution of the Gulf: History and Theories Of a Complex Subregional System”: 

  • Gulf politics have proven difficult to understand through a single body of theory, even within defined historical periods. 
    • Analyzing key factors like normative cohesion/fragmentation, alliance formation, and de/securitization patterns can assist in evaluating Gulf states’ policies. 
  • Liberalism and social constructivism have been largely underrepresented theories. 
    • Liberalism’s focus on domestic politics and minimization of extra-national factors makes it a weak theory when applied to the region; however, liberalist theory regarding trade may be valuable, as it focuses on how trade can promote peace. 
  • Realism has proven a more durable approach, wherein states are analyzed more on their material or security concerns rather than identity. 
    • Policy can be better understood under the consideration that domestic and foreign politics have been shaped by states’ perceived threats. 
    • However, this approach fails to recognize how important leadership and regime survival is in MENA states; modified theories that include regime security tend to be more effective. 
  • Different eras of Gulf history since the beginning of the 20th century illuminate how valuable theory shifting is for understanding foreign policy.  
  • During the Cold War, the distribution of material power and relatively low foreign intervention permitted a tripolar system of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran.  
    • This era is best explained with realism’s concern over material (the oil boom) and security (threat perception, American-Soviet competition). 
    • However, identity factors were still important as they complicated regional rivalries and internal insecurity. 
  • The 1970s created major shifts in policy in the Gulf as geopolitical, geoeconomic, and American involvement shaped the region. 
    • Growing concern over the USSR, the revision of radical reforms, domestic cleavages, and growing need for oil pushed Washington to act on its need for security and intervention. 
  • The post-Cold War era into the 2010s was another critical turning point. 
    • By 2010, the Gulf subcomplex proved able to influence security dynamics across the Middle East and the larger world. 
    • The decade saw rising concern about decreasing American commitment and the Gulf has sought a wider net of international partners, including Russia and China. 
  • The Gulf’s power has only continued to grow and is reaching for greater stability and influence in the Levant and Maghreb regions. 
    • The willingness to pull away from the US has provided Gulf states with greater strategic autonomy and diplomatic capacity, such as Saudi-Iran normalization. 
    • Liberalism is also providing analysis of the political implications of trade in this era, as Gulf states appear to be positioning their ties on the possibility of future trade and its ability to bring stability and peace. 
  • A lens of international political economy often proves the most effective in analyzing Gulf policy, both through liberalist and realist approaches. 

You can read The Evolution of the Gulf: History and Theories Of a Complex Subregional System” by Ruth Hanau Santini and Paolo Wulzer in the Spring 2024 issue of Middle East Policy. 

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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