Recent power plays by Saudi Arabia hint at ambitions for the whole region, and foretell painful conflict ahead.
Why We Fight
Most people alive today have lived their lives in a unipolar world: that is, a world dominated by one power – the United States. It was the United States along with its military and private contractors, that undertook enormous projects of sociopolitical control in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. As we know, the U.S. fought all around the world on behalf of corporate interests to secure raw goods like agricultural products and precious metals. We also know that the United States, like previous empires and regional powers, diligently monitors trade routes, especially those that are maritime.
Unfortunately, no empire can afford to keep up these activities forever. Since modern trade demands a high level of security, immense resources must be poured into the military of a dominant power to ensure that there will be no challengers. However that is, historically speaking, that is an unsustainable pursuit for any nation. As one nation pours an ever-increasing amount of wealth into sustaining an ever-growing network of commerce, other nations can trade and benefit for free. Ostensibly, the dominant nation could then demand enough tribute from those “rising powers” to prevent a competing power bloc from emerging. However, with enough time all empires fall, as competing power blocs inevitably emerge.
Today is one such time, as the rise of China presents a challenge to unipolarity not seen since the Cold War. The U.S.’s defeat in Syria is a historic moment as well, demonstrating to the world that the U.S. no longer possesses the capability to effectively replace defiant regimes in far-flung corners of the world. According to most experts, American overseas power is in terminal decline. The goal for regional powers seeking to keep the global economic system functioning, then, is to find a way to maintain those economic networks without the American support they once enjoyed.
A recent flashpoint in one of those networks has been along the Horn of Africa, in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Pirates, sometimes from Somalia but often from neighbouring countries like Yemen, have received a reputation for hijacking shipping vessels and demanding exorbitant ransoms. This is precisely the kind of activity that reflects poorly on American power-projection capabilities and shakes the confidence of its trading partners, who put their trust in the American Navy to protect maritime trade. Though many companies have begun hiring armed contractors with military equipment to sail on these ships, many in the industry believe that to be an expensive and dangerous solution; especially when many are making costly concessions to the American government in exchange for protection. Thus, commercial interests in the Middle East are increasingly looking to Riyadh for regional stability.
Initiated by the Saudi Arabian government in January, the Red Sea Pact seeks to establish firm control by the region’s governments over those critically contested waters. Interestingly, as one of America’s only allies in the region, Saudi Arabia also appears to be challenging China’s influence in Sub-Saharan Africa, with a slew of financial and military projects. Not only do these projects undercut crucial Chinese geopolitical gains, but they also serve the purpose of furthering Saudi Arabia’s development. Increased stability in the Red Sea will allow Saudi Arabia to focus their military assets elsewhere, and even more importantly, could potentially catalyze the economic development of Eastern Africa, from which Riyadh stands to gain immensely.
Iran is another major player emboldened by the United States’ waning capabilities in the region. For years, Saudi Arabia and Iran have waged brutal proxy wars in the region, decimating the economic and political development of countries like Yemen and Iraq. Turkey and Qatar also have ambitions for the region. Traditionally, multipolar geopolitical situations like this are short-lived, and one could reasonably expect Beijing, Washington, Riyadh, or even Tehran to eventually take leadership of the Red Sea bloc.
Today, it is Riyadh that is making the most progress towards this goal, though it still lacks the military capability to secure the region. One only need look to Yemen, where the Saudi military is contemplating withdrawal after failing to complete its objectives after five years of fighting. Missiles from Houthi territory were intercepted on their way to Riyadh yesterday, thus demonstrating how little progress has been achieved by the Saudis.
There are domestic threats to Saudi stability as well. Young people in Saudi Arabia have recently become increasingly hostile to the Islamic government in Riyadh, which many see as old-fashioned. Today, the Saudi Government tightened its lockdown in Jeddah, Riyadh, and other major cities in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus: an action that will surely draw the ire of young political activists, who are a formidable political force in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile in Asia, demand for oil has quickly dropped by nearly a quarter, and fast, cleaving the world price of oil in half. This has hit oil-exporting nations like Saudi Arabia hard, and sparked international conflict at the highest levels.
Tensions with Moscow
Saudi Arabia and Russia are, after the United States, the highest-volume exporters of crude oil in the world. In recent years, Russia has sought to join an expanded OPEC, known as OPEC+. This organization would allow the coordination of the OPEC cartel with non-OPEC nations like Russia, ensuring greater control over the price of oil in the world market, and thus, economic stability for all oil-producing countries. Initially, back in 2016, those efforts were successful, raising the world price of oil dramatically as Saudi Arabia and Russia both cut back production. However, that didn’t last long, as Saudi Arabia sold oil beyond the agreements with Russia, who then began making production decisions unilaterally. Saudi Arabia has responded by flooding the world market with oil in an attempt to break the will of Russia and bring them back to the negotiating table.
The Kremlin, for its part, shows no signs of cutting back production, and many experts believe that Saudi Arabia, being much more dependent on oil exports than Russia, will actually face more severe economic repercussions in the short-term than will Russia. Add in the unprecedented shock to demand from coronavirus, and the Saudi government may not have enough time to reorient its economy away from oil before its capabilities in the region wane.
These recent developments have recast the race to develop Africa and secure the Red Sea as an existential battle for Riyadh. We can expect conflicts in the region to heat up, as the Saudi government gets increasingly desperate for stability.
Future of the Red Sea
China, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Qatar, to name a few, do not want regional stability on Riyadh’s terms, and have demonstrated their military commitment to enemies of Riyadh across the region. These countries further undermine Saudi influence in the region by positioning themselves as benefactors to the people of Northeast Africa, and the Middle East more broadly. To most people living in the region, it is not clear that either side is motivated by altruism, and ongoing proxy conflicts are sure to impose severe hardship in the years to come. The only potential non-military resolution of this situation would involve multilateral agreements between Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, and China, regarding claims in East Africa. However that seems unlikely, as those governments are increasingly using force to protect their claims.
Many African and Middle Eastern nations, who are serving as a battleground for these claims, may be better served by picking a winner in this battle prematurely and organizing around them, rather than waiting for a clear victor to emerge from the battles taking place in their cities and towns. Obviously, those countries do not want to pay fealty to foreign powers, but as long as they lack the political and military means to defend themselves, an alliance is their only hope of avoiding being picked apart by aspirational imperial powers. Longer-term resolutions to conflicts like these remain elusive. As long as our economic system requires international trade, and as long as trade determines the economic health of a nation, we can expect nation-states to continue to jockey for positions of preference in that system.