Instability marks many large Arab countries such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. As a result, power in the region is shifting towards the Gulf. Contrary to popular opinion, the wealth of these nations is not just based on oil and gas, but also rests on old traditions as seafaring communities. Their connections with the external environment create both opportunities and threats for these small nations.
- Although the land-based routes of China’s Belt and Road Initiative bypass the countries of the Gulf, they stand to benefit from its maritime routes. Recently, China signed deals with Abu Dhabi for manufacturing and shipping.
- Instability threatens Egypt. Last week a terror attack at a mosque in the Sinai killed hundreds of Egyptians. At the same time, Gulf countries are becoming more assertive in the region. This summer, Egypt went through the transferring of two islands close to Sinai to Saudi Arabia.
- Saudi Arabia is making a radical turn towards increasing commerce and tourism, and it has plans to build a new coastal city. This transition faces powerful challenges as we argued before.
- This weekend, the Iranian President Rouhani will inaugurate the first phase of the Chabahar Port after receiving the first wheat consignment from India last month.
Connecting the dots
A large part of the Arab world’s geography is marked by deserts; both on the Arab peninsula and in the North African Sahara. This is historically the world of the nomadic Bedouin. In the region of the fertile crescent by contrast, agricultural sedentary societies emerged around river systems such as the Nile, the Euphrates, and the Tigris. Great Arab empires have emerged from these two worlds of the desert and the fertile crescent, and these regions still housed the strongest Arab countries in the 20th century. Recently, however, many of these have come under pressure: civil war in Libya, Mali and jihadism threaten North Africa, on the Arab peninsula there is a chaos in Sinai and Yemen, and Syria and Iraq are instable in the fertile crescent.
Yet, there has always been a third geographic domain in the Arab world and in the current vacuum, which is now becoming more important: maritime Arabia. This has a long history about the Arab traders and mystics who brought Islam to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Other examples are Lebanese and Tunisian seafaring in the Mediterranean. The contemporary core of maritime Arabia is formed by Gulf states such as the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman that have long traditions as seafaring nations.
Dubai emerged in the 19th century as the main regional port through a combination of liberal policies and diplomacy with the British. Moreover, throughout the centuries it has become a refuge for people fleeing neighboring regimes. Its unwavering hospitality to these people forms the basis of its current appeal to foreigners. Another pillar of its maritime strength has been the persistent investment in infrastructure, first in ports but later also at airports, in airlines and e-commerce. When inland tribes settled Abu Dhabi, they made their living through pearl diving. Since energy revenues made it rich, it has also invested in global trade connections through its sovereign wealth funds, and it boosted the infrastructure with a specific focus on aerospace. Oman had the largest maritime empire in this region. It stretched southwards along East Africa’s coast all the way to Zanzibar, and the Pakistani port of Gwadar was Omani until 1958. Bahrain and Qatar, almost entirely surrounded by water, have also long traditions as maritime hubs for the flow of people and goods. Bahrain currently hosts an important U.S. navy base, and Qatar hosts an important air base.
Overall, it is clear that the current success of maritime Arabia is rooted in long traditions as sea-based policies. Their historical ties with the outside world have always created opportunities as well as threats for these small nations. Because of their vulnerability they have often allied with naval powers like England and the U.S., and it required complex diplomacy and alliances. The UAE for instance was established in 1971 between seven emirates to bundle their power. Initially, Bahrain and Qatar were also in talks to join the union, but relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran stood in the way. The current standoff over Qatar shows that these vulnerabilities remain. If the countries of maritime Arabia manage to navigate such regional tensions, they stand to benefit from emerging maritime trade routes.
- Saudi Arabia’s current policies focusing on tourism, commerce, and liberalization can be interpreted as a move in the direction of maritime Arabia. However, it remains to be seen whether this is possible considering its land-based tradition emphasizing stern discipline, a warrior ethos and central power.
- Emerging maritime trade routes from China and from India and Japan provide great opportunities for these countries, building on the ancient tradition of Arab traders in the Indian Ocean.