03 February 1995 - 05 February 1995

The Gulf: Problems and Prospects

Chair: The Lord Wright of Richmond GCMG

Despite a period of notice rather shorter than usual and the limitations flowing from the start of Ramadan, Ditchley assembled a gathering of valuable spread and diversity to discuss the issues surrounding the present condition and future evolution, internally and externally, of the Gulf region. The region was in some degree frozen by the semi-ostracism, encapsulated in the catchword “dual containment”, of Iraq and Iran, its two largest states, and by the continuing authority in the Lower Gulf of traditional regimes. But could all this last? and should it?

We looked at Iraq, and continued to dislike what we saw. There was no let-up in the coldly self-seeking despotism of Saddam Hussein’s rule, and no clear sign (nor, we suspected, much likelihood) of markedly more agreeable successors to it. Oil sanctions, the impact of which was being cynically manipulated by Saddam to impose on his people avoidable hardships not shared by his coterie, offered little apparent hope of bringing him down; and even their progressive easement - a process which on economic grounds alone would need careful international management, probably in practice by the UN rather than OPEC, if the oil market was to remain stable - would be likely, even at best, to restore Iraq’s economy to a condition in 2000 no more advanced than that of 1980. The tasks of managing a growing population damaged economically and socially by the Saddam decades and at the same time of holding together a country threatened (for example from the Kurdish direction) by a break-up which would be in the long-term interest neither of the global community nor of regional neighbours - especially Turkey - would almost certainly continue to require an authoritarianism unattractive to Western ideas; and Western policy should recognise this reality.

Our views on the pressing question of the future of sanctions were divided (as were those of governments). Some participants urged the intolerability of let-up in these when Saddam had done so little to deserve it; rather more questioned their effective durability, their strict legitimacy and their utility either in weakening Saddam or in heightening the probability of comfortable successors. This latter view mostly looked for an early but phased relaxation, distinguishing carefully between oil-related constraints and others whose maintenance seemed more tenable. Such an approach in no way assumed Saddam’s trustworthiness; it judged, rather, that so long as the Western guarantee of Lower Gulf security remained in place he posed no fresh military threat, and that continuing exclusion of his country from international business would work to the eventual disadvantage rather than the advantage of its neighbours, as Lower Gulf states themselves were now minded to judge.

Iran, we acknowledged, was a notably different case (and we disliked policy slogans that might appear to imply equivalence). The regime itself, despite the fading of immediate post-revolutionary conviction and popular acclaim, seemed under no radical threat; but there was still no dependable moderation or consistency in its behaviour, let alone its rhetoric. The system was marked by factional rivalries which made it hard for the regime as a whole to project any coherent line of political strategy, or to modify past stances on particular issues in ways congenial to the international community - the “no”-sayers were almost always at a tactical advantage, even though the desire for international respect might from time to time generate helpful pressures. Though few of us saw Iran as at all likely to pose an aggressive military threat to its neighbours (and we did not see Iran’s nuclear-weapon activities, much as we disliked them, as invalidating this judgement) the country would probably continue to be an unpredictable and opportunistically awkward neighbour, especially if it saw need to exercise its claimed role as Shia defender everywhere, or to intensify its extreme opposition to the Arab/ Israeli peace process (any failure of which would strengthen Iranian influence, for all that the issue now bulked less large among Gulf states than in the past).

The prospect in Iran was however crucially coloured - darkened, we feared - by the problems of the economy. Iranian oil was of high cost; because of increasing domestic consumption Iran might moreover cease to be a significant oil exporter by the end of the century, and would be disadvantaged meanwhile by any Iraqi re-entry into the market. There were important gas supplies (and further supplies in disputed ownership) but their exploitation needed external investment. The country faced massive population growth - UN projections suggested 144 million by 2025 - under the handicap of a politico-cultural mindset poorly attuned to securing, especially from abroad, the private-enterprise input without which the necessary surge in available jobs looked deeply improbable. The country was by no means lacking in inherent strengths, but few of us felt sanguine about its ability to generate and sustain - inevitably from within - the changes needed for a prosperous long-term social and economic future.

As our discussion turned to the Lower Gulf, we reminded ourselves carefully of its diversity - few propositions about Bahrain, for example (indeed, for the most disturbed example), could safely be generalised to every state. But common features included economies of unusual structure - relatively affluent; with large immigrant components alongside indigenous populations often of low skills yet poorly motivated to accept the service-sector jobs actually available; facing rapid population growth; and having to contend, virtually for the first time in modem decades, with diminished oil wealth and resulting fiscal deficits making it hard to meet customary popular expectations of untaxed support. Adjustment, as for instance to accommodate a growing middle class and develop a genuine private sector, was under way in Saudi Arabia and some of the smaller states; the key question was whether the governing regimes could shape and guide such adjustment rapidly and skilfully enough for social and political pressures to remain manage-able without upheaval. Significant and useful adjustment had mostly been managed so far, but could leaderships cope with the increasing pace and scale necessary?

We were fairly warned against projecting onto these states unsuitable stereotypes, whether of what existed now or of what was desirable for the future. The leaderships rested on a robust basis of traditional legitimacy; they were not artificially propped up by external force; their recent history was essentially one of stability; their general closeness to their peoples made analogies with the Shah inapposite. But the tasks of transition ahead - even if, as we agreed, these need not include adaptation to Western patterns of government that did not fit regional cultures - were formidable, and we reached no consensus on whether the régimes, or which among them, could tackle these successfully amid the internal and external pressures for reform, especially for wider participation and a more effective civil society. Some of these pressures could carry the banner of Islam, though it seemed likely that across much of the spectrum this might be taken up just as a general legitimating claim available to oppositions (Communism and nationalism having conspicuously failed) rather than as the true source of a specific ideological agenda for change. We doubted whether the West could do much to influence helpfully the processes of political and social evolution, though it could justifiably continue, in the role of candid friend, to express views on such issues as universal human rights.

In matters of foreign and security policy cohesion among the Lower Gulf states remained sketchy. All were in practice comfortable - more so indeed than in previous decades - with the reality of Western protection; but that very comfort weakened the incentive to local agreement and joint action. Attitudes to Iraq and Iran varied considerably (with, for instance, Saudi Arabia probably more uneasy in the long term about Iran’s ideological agenda than about Iraq, and others inclined towards tactical reconciliation with Tehran) and the Gulf Co-operation Council - hampered by an extreme rule of unanimity as essential for any collaboration, and possibly also by a desire not to seem to accept Saudi predominance - was making poor headway in entrenching the local contribution to regional security. Again, it was not easy to discern much Western leverage in improving matters, save perhaps in encouraging the resolution of border disputes - and in abating arms sales whose true added value in augmenting external security might scarcely be commensurate with the penalty in resources diverted from domestic social purposes.

We attempted no overall evaluation of Western policies towards the region; unanimity would certainly have eluded us, and we recognised moreover the impediments to early movement in United States policy that were posed by the current political configuration in Washington. We were aware that long-term Western interests did not relate (and would relate still less in future) to oil alone; and we noted briefly that Russia must be accepted, for several reasons, as a significant actor. Ideally, many might have yearned for a “natural” Gulf security structure not materially dependent on external influence; but we saw that Iraq and Iran were both too large and too awkward for that to be a realistic policy goal. At the same time, stability for the region could not permanently be provided from outside through a West-imposed quarantine upon these two. Many participants believed that the present general Western stance - the “dual containment” - ought to be seen (especially given growing dissension among key countries about its merits) as a holding operation that had substantially had its day, rather than as a policy; and that a genuine policy must very soon look forward not to arrest change in the region but to recognise its inevitability and so far as possible to influence its direction realistically in ways helpful to the compatible concerns of regional well-being and Western interest. The debate continues.

 This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: The Lord Wright of Richmond GCMG
Life Peer (Cross Benches)



Rear Admiral Richard Cobbold CB
Director, Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, London

Mr Basil Eastwood
Director of Research and Analysis, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)

Dr Rosemary Hollis
Head, Middle East Programme, Royal Institute of International Affairs

The Rt Hon Sir Richard Luce DL
Vice-Chancellor, The University of Buckingham

Professor Timothy Niblock
Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Director, Centre for Middle East and Islamic Studies (CMEIS), Durham University

Emma Nicholson MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative), Devon West and Torridge

Mr Sinclair Road OBE
Consultant, Committee for Middle East Trade (COMET)

Mr John Roberts
Editor, Middle East Monitor, Edinburgh

Mr Patrick Seale
Writer on Middle East affairs.

Professor Paul Stevens
BP Professor of Petroleum Policy and Economics, University of Dundee, Scotland

Dr Charles Tripp
Lecturer in the Politics of the Middle East, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Mrs Valerie Yorke
Co-ordinator, Economist Intelligence Unit’s PEACE-MEDIA project on the economic dimension of the Middle East peace process, funded by the European Union

Ambassador Peter Sutherland
Canadian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Dr Michael A Köhler
Directorate-General I, Directorate H (Mediterranean Affairs), European Commission, Brussels

Monsieur Eric Rouleau
Author, lecturer and broadcaster;

Dr Olivier Roy
Researcher, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS),

Herr Joachim von Arnim
Deputy Director, Planning Staff, Auswärtiges Amt, Bonn

Dr Udo Steinbach
Director, German Orient Institute, Hamburg

Dr Shahram Chubin
Director of Research, Programme for Strategic and International Security Studies, The Graduate Institute of International Affairs, Geneva

Dr Manshour Varasteh
Consultant on Iran and the Gulf; author, including “Iran and the International Community” (1990);

Mr Laith Kubba
Director, International Relations, Al-Khoei Foundation, London

Mr Sadaaki Numata
Minister Plenipotentiary, Embassy of Japan, London.

HH Prince Feisal bin Salman
Graduate student, St Antony’s College, Oxford

Rear Admiral Harold J Bernsen
Independent consultant on Gulf defence issues to research and analysis organisations

Professor Nazli Choucri
Professor of Political Science, Associate Director, Technology and Development Program and Head, Middle East Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Professor F Gregory Gause III
Fellow for Arab and Islamic Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, New York

Dr Joseph A Kechichian
Associate Political Scientist and Consultant on national security affairs, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica

Professor Martha Brill Olcott
Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia PA
Dr Gary Sick
Visiting Scholar, Research Institute on International Change, Columbia University, New York