24 October 2012
Increasing Significance of the Northwestern Persian Gulf
The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the north-west region of the Persian Gulf has been muted recently by the political unrest in Syria. According to Stratfor, however, Tehran's declining influence within Syria and growing tensions between Iraq and Kuwait may lead to renewed conflict in the area.
The northwestern section of the Persian Gulf has been mostly quiet in recent years when compared to the strategic Strait of Hormuz. The rivalry between the region's two largest powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, has for months been mostly centered in Syria. But with Iraq and Kuwait gradually re-emerging -- and returning to their historical competition -- and with Iran's position in Syria weakened as the crisis there reaches its final stages, the northwestern Persian Gulf will experience a surge in geopolitical conflict.
Iraq and Kuwait's tensions can be traced back through history. Iraq has repeatedly made claims that Kuwait is an Iraqi territory, even during the days of the Ottoman Empire when Turkish representatives in Basra claimed Kuwait as part of the Ottoman province. Additional claims were made in the 1930s and 1960s. Then in August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and occupied the country until U.S.-led forces pushed it out in early 1991.
It has taken more than 20 years and another war in Iraq for Kuwait to begin to re-emerge. Kuwait has experienced economic growth across the board, with 13 consecutive years of budget surpluses and the development of several major projects, including a free trade zone and the Avenues mall. Still, Kuwait City is hindered by an internal power struggle. Meanwhile, Iraq is also re-emerging, albeit slowly and in fits and starts. The two countries' return to form will soon give way to a mutual reassertion of their decades-old rivalry.
Ports of Contention
The rivalry will probably be seen in the waters of the Khor Abdullah channel. The Khor Abdullah is a narrow waterway that leads in from the Persian Gulf, curving around Kuwait's Bubiyan and Warba islands on one side and Iraq's Al Faw Peninsula on the other. No more than 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) at its widest point, the Khor Abdullah is the only sea access for Iraq's commercial port of Umm Qasr.
Iraq has limited access to the Persian Gulf, with about 58 kilometers of coastline and only two channels deep enough for large vessels to transit: Khor Abdullah (which becomes Khor Zubair further inland) and the Shatt al-Arab. By comparison, Kuwait has nearly 500 kilometers of coastline and nine islands. Iraq and Kuwait share the Khor Abdullah equally, with the border drawn down the middle, but the navigable portion of the channel is closer to the Kuwaiti side. Thus, Kuwait effectively controls one of only two maritime approaches to southern Iraq.
Both Iraq and Kuwait have plans to build mega ports on the Khor Abdullah. Iraq's $6.1 billion Grand Faw project, proposed in 2005, has been mired in bureaucracy and political instability. However, recent tenders for the construction of breakwaters on the edge of the Al Faw Peninsula and a small allocation in the 2012-2013 budget suggest that the Iraqi government is trying to jumpstart the project.
Kuwait's project is much further along. In May 2011, Kuwait broke ground on the $1.6 billion Mubarak al-Kabeer port on Bubiyan Island. Due for completion by March 2016, the port would be situated less than 1.6 kilometers across the narrow channel from the site where Iraq wants to build its port. The Khor Abdullah is very small and will be able to handle only a finite amount of traffic. Iraq is concerned that the Kuwaiti port will be operational before its own, effectively siphoning off whatever trade Baghdad hoped to handle at Grand Faw.
Iraq does have another channel to the Persian Gulf, the Shatt al-Arab, which is located along its border with Iran. Both of Iraq's land-based oil export terminals are located along the Shatt al-Arab, at Khor al-Amyah and Basra. Iraq recently signed a $14 million deal with a U.S. consortium to modernize the 93-year-old Maqal Port in Basra. But Baghdad claims that all of its ports would be threatened by the development of Kuwait's Mubarak al-Kabeer Port.
Kuwait is looking to be a trade hub for goods bound for Iraq. Mubarak al-Kabeer Port could handle as much as 80 percent of Iraq's imported goods, according to former Kuwaiti Minister of Finance Bader al-Humaidi. Kuwait has been positioning itself as a major transshipment hub for the region. Already Kuwait's three commercial ports -- Mina Shuwaikh, Mina Shuaiba and Mina Doha -- handle a massive amount of freight headed to Iraq. Baghdad opposes anything that would make it more dependent on a Kuwaiti chokepoint for the bulk of its imported goods.
Kuwait sees such a chokepoint as leverage against future Iraqi aggression. Kuwait does not want to see a revitalized and rebuilt Iraq capable of exporting 10 million to 12 million barrels of oil per day and mobilizing a large, professionalized army. From Kuwait's perspective, political and security chaos in Iraq -- as long as it remains contained -- is preferable to a neighbor that could pose a future threat or undercut global oil prices.
Saudi Arabia and Iran
Beyond the returning Kuwait-Iraq rivalry, there is the larger geopolitical competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh and Tehran have focused recently on their competition in the Levant, specifically in Syria. But as the battle there nears an end, the focus will shift back to Mesopotamia -- particularly to the re-emerging conflict between Iraq and Kuwait. In this way, the northwestern Persian Gulf will become a stage for the current Sunni-Shiite division, where Iran represents the Shiite core, buttressed by its alliance with Iraq, and the Arabs of the peninsula represent the Sunnis.
Though they have had their disagreements, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are historical allies. They share a border and a history: The earliest Kuwaitis migrated from the Najd in central Saudi Arabia; Kuwait's ruling al-Sabah family is related to Saudi Arabia's al-Sauds; and Kuwait provided sanctuary for the founder of modern-day Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, when he was ousted from Riyadh and served as a launching point for his reconquest of the Najd five years later. They also share common enemies, Iran and Iraq.
Iran, on the other hand, has seized a historic opportunity to transform Iraq, its former foe, into a buffer on its western flank. In the 1980s, Iraq and Iran fought a bloody, eight-year war. But Tehran exploited the political and security vacuum created by the ouster of Saddam Hussein to put Iraq under its control. Shia account for 65 percent of Iraq's 31 million citizens and now constitute the majority in the government. Iraq has thus become a vehicle for Iranian actions and will be even more so now that Iran has lost control of Syria.
Both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait would prefer to see an Iran contained to the Iranian plateau. But with 30-35 percent of its population having Persian and Arab Shiite descent, Kuwait will always be careful in its relations with Baghdad and Tehran. Indeed, Kuwaiti authorities have arrested locals suspected of spying for Iran. Kuwait does not trust Iran, and Iran's influence in Iraq only adds to Kuwait's sense of vulnerability, giving the Kuwaitis another reason to align with Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis, however, can afford to alienate Baghdad and work through Kuwait to pressure Iraq and through Iraq to pressure Iran. Saudi Arabia's greater concern is the Shiite power, Iran. An off-balance Iraq limits Iran's reach, and with its setbacks in the war in Syria, Tehran will be even more concerned about its position in Baghdad.
Iran has recently tried to shore up that position by enhancing military cooperation with Iraq. (Iran's defense minister, Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, visited Baghdad in early October, the first visit by an Iranian defense minister since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.) Iraq's Shiite leadership is fractured but will most likely remain under Iran's influence in the immediate future. But over the next few years, questions about Iran's strength may widen the natural divisions in Iraqi politics. Pressure points such as the Khor Abdullah channel -- and more generally, Iraq and Kuwait's competition -- in the northwestern Persian Gulf will rise in importance. Kuwait and Iraq will be more important not only for their own conflict but also because they will serve as proxies for the larger regional sectarian divide.
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