Why should anyone feel sorry for the countries of the Arabian Peninsula? The rocketing oil prices are of tremendous benefit to them. Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait watched their balance of payments quintuple from 2001 to 2005! Their economic growth is comparable to Asian levels. Cities and real estate are booming. Domestic demand is exploding and the diversification efforts made in tourism and finance are starting to bear fruit. A new generation wants to embody economic and political innovation: a civil society is emerging that is ready to challenge long-held customs; powerful media groups are spearheading changes in public opinion with which government leaders now have to contend; the economic client-centred approach and “traditions” are being relegated to the background. What seems to be emerging on the threshold of war-torn Iraq and the Near East is what appears to be a new Arabia felix! Yet a growing sense of insecurity and isolation is ushering in this new Golden Age of Oil.
First, there is domestic insecurity. Islamic terrorism has not spared the Peninsula and is being fed by several sources: the Arab society’s opposition to materialism, which has permeated even the countries most disciplined about enforcing the Sharia, the anti-imperialist resistance to the presence of foreign troops, and the desire to topple the incumbent regimes. This terrorism has no unified structure, leadership, or demands. With whom, then, can negotiations be made? The growing commitment of Western countries to anti-terrorism may well be heightening the general tension. As for social solutions—education, the fight against poverty, and democratic openness—they will probably take too long to ensure stability.
The second factor is regional insecurity. With Iran, any escalation could have consequences for all Gulf countries and for the safety of their exports. Yet any nuclearization of Iran would increase the risk of regional proliferation. What advice should be given to Western allies? A hard line? Moderation? Will they be disposed to consider Arabian Gulf countries’ security interests if and when Iran raises the stakes?
Lastly, there is energy insecurity. Like Europeans, Americans are seeking alternative energy sources to oil. Arabian Gulf countries are likely to see this captive clientele slip through their fingers. Russia has cleverly positioned itself so it can alleviate their concerns. So has China. India has been more subtle about it. Europeans cannot be satisfied with merely exporting more goods and services, even if the latter include culture. They have a narrow window of opportunity in which to position themselves as true allies of the Arabian Gulf countries. The latter are no longer asking them to pressure Israel to agree to a forcefully negotiated peace. They want Europe to discuss joint security and a strategy concerning Iran that will address energy, as well as civilian/military nuclear issues. If the European Union is prepared to deliberate—and more importantly settle—these issues, it may find that it has key interests in common with the Arabian Gulf countries.