With talk of the “Arab Spring” focused on whether it presages winter or summer, the whiff or metaphoric chlorophyll wafting through the desert misses a truly apt “spring” metaphor. The demonstrations rocking the Arab world are a surface phenomenon, a hot spring bubbling up from fissures in the tectonic plates beneath the Middle East. The post-Ottoman regional configuration is eroding, and the battle to influence its successor has begun.
American policy has helped draw the battle lines. Bush’s toppling of Saddam and Obama’s abandonment of Mubarak removed two giants from the regional equation: Iraq and Egypt are too inwardly focused at the moment to project much influence abroad. With the U.S. withdrawing, the EU a spent force, and Israel unable to effect Arab behavior, only two contenders for regional dominance remain: Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The emergence of a new so-far-mostly-cold war between them is evident, but relatively few commentators have put the pieces together. Even the Jerusalem Post, whose coverage has been better than most, quotes a Saudi commentator: “There is no one single Saudi policy. Each issue is handled from a different point of view and they (the princes) are all very old and sick.” Yet Saudi behavior is coherent. In Iraq, they have kept al-Maliki’s government at arms length, contending that he is too close to Iran. In Bahrain, Iran helped agitate Shiite protestors; the Saudis led a GCC force quelling their nascent rebellion against the Western-leaning Sunni monarchy. In Syria, the Saudis are reportedly supporting demonstrators opposed to the Iranian-allied Alawite regime.
Perhaps the most significant front in this battle, however, is one that has received almost no attention as it relates to the bigger picture. That front is OPEC. Demographics and reserve levels (i.e., not ethnicity or ideology) create a permanent strategic divide among the oil producers of the Gulf. The GCC countries–Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Qatar–have relatively deep reserves and small populations. Iran and Iraq have smaller reserves relative to their populations. Given that all petrostates trade government subsidies for popular acquiescence, countries like Iran and Iraq almost always need greater short-term revenues than do their GCC neighbors. As a result, Iran and Iraq lead OPEC’s “Price Hawk” contingent pushing for higher prices, while the Saudis lead its “Demand Hawk” contingent pushing to avoid prices high enough to spur additional exploration, development, and conservation (i.e., anything that might reduce demand for OPEC oil).
This divide explains why Iran and Iraq are constant belligerents: Their entire state apparatus rests upon their abilities to “persuade” their neighbors to curtail production. The overt tension that emerged at the last OPEC meeting suggests that this divide is bubbling to the fore. The Saudi announcement of increased production despite the lack of OPEC agreement, coupled with the global announcement of plans to release oil from strategic reserves, represents a powerful blow against Iranian interests. No one should be surprised if Iran strikes back soon–with consequences likely to ripple throughout the global economy.
Reporting on the Arab Spring, for the first time in memory, has pushed oil from the forefront of Middle East coverage. That diversion is a mistake. For when the true source of that hot spring becomes clear, we will once again find that familiar black stuff bubbling up from below.