Imagining 2030 is a series in which PS21 writers describe the world as they see it in 14 years time.
The year is 2030. 10 years have passed since the third Gulf War, and the spectre of conflict again appears on the horizon. The cause of the war between a US-Saudi Coalition and an Iranian nuclear state, with surprisingly little Israeli involvement, is now well known. President Trump’s bellicose rhetoric in the lead up to his presidential nomination in 2016 was not all bluster. Thankfully, it was his only “serious” foreign policy venture.
The weak Jus ad bellum for the 2020 conflict – Iran’s “imminent” use of their nuclear arsenal on Israel – proved unfounded. Many analysts have since speculated that this was due to the Coalition concentrating on naval engagements, alongside limited strikes on Iranian coastal positions and military centres. Since the conflict, Iran has refrained from marking a red line in the sand for nuclear deployment. A source of both security and concern for the region.
As in the last war, the fate of Bahrain remains central to power projection in the Gulf. Manama, the capital of Bahrain, has recovered since the war and returned to become a thriving city of nearly three million people. Coalition presence has also expanded, and Manama now hosts one of the largest concentrations of US-UK military force abroad. This is only surpassed by permanent garrisons in Europe and the US commitment towards the now 77 year old Korean conflict.
The recent militarisation of Bahrain can actually be traced to the re-construction of HMS Jufair at the Mina Salam port, all the way back in 2015. This heralded a return of UK naval interests beyond the Suez Canal. The Prince of Wales, one of the UK’s two aircraft carriers, has been on permanent station just offshore. Since 2017, the port was expanded significantly to accommodate large elements of the US 5th fleet, the basing of which proved pivotal in the shaping of the 2020 conflict.
Since the 2020 Damascus peace deal – made possible with the stabilisation of Syria – Iran and Saudi Arabia have both made commendable efforts to foster better relations. Two notable examples include the re-opening of the Iranian embassy in Riyadh and the proposed Saud-Khomeini highway linking Saudi Arabia and Iran through Kuwait and Iraq.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have developed the warmest relations within living memory. So why is the Gulf now more unstable in 2030? Persistent underlying suspicion is certainly a factor. Even the smallest of issues – for example, what Saudi Arabia calls the Arabian Gulf, Iran calls the Persian Gulf – remain fiercely contested. Nevertheless, the driving elephant in the room is the Saudi Arabian nuclear weapons programme. Despite coming under intense international criticism, Saudi Arabia persists in pursuing nuclear weapons. The reasoning, some have argued, is latent unease with Iran’s nuclear monopoly and increasing economic strains in the region since the move away from fossil fuels. Arguably, control of trade routes in the Gulf, escalated by fears of nuclear competition, is the rationale behind the Iranian Supreme Leader’s increasingly aggressive statements. Of the claims, the UAE’s reclamation of the islands of Abu Musa, and greater and lesser Tunb have received the most attention. Of more concern for escalation is Iran’s claim to Bahrain (which it calls Mishmahig), which had originally been dropped in 1971. This may merely be sabre-rattling, but Iranian concerns over a nuclear Saudi Arabia are very real and shouldn’t be taken lightly. This concern is arguably why the planned drawdown of the US-UK military presence in Manama has been quietly shelved, with further commitment expected.
The Saudi Kingdom also faces another security concern that cannot be ignored. The now decade old chaos in Yemen and now Oman threatens to spill-over into Saudi Arabia itself. If Saudi gained the bomb, they would face very similar security concerns in their hinterland as a nuclear armed Pakistan in the mid-2010s.
Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.
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