Will Saudi Arabia run out of oil?

oilThe International Monetary Fund recently published figures suggesting that whereas the ‘break-even’ oil price was higher for the Saudis than for Iran, the fiscal buffer the Saudis have is smaller. If true, these figures portend an acceleration of the power shift already underway in the Middle East.

The break-even price is the cost of producing a barrel of oil. If for instance, it costs US$105 (including infrastructure maintenance, salaries, logistics, etc) for a particular country or company to produce a barrel of oil, it won’t make a profit unless the price of oil is above $105 per barrel.

$105 is, according to the IMF, the break-even price for Saudi Arabia. Oil is currently priced at about $50 per barrel. The Saudis have been purposefully keeping the price down (by keeping supply up) for years, as a way to weaken Iran, which has a break-even price – according to the IMF – of about $80 per barrel. *


(Some argue that the Saudis are keeping prices low to squeeze US shale oil producers into bankruptcy and thereby regain market supremacy. While this might be a factor, I believe Iran was the principal target. I also believe the US was in favour of the low prices – it has forced technological innovations to create efficiencies, has helped its still-struggling economy and has also wounded another of the US’s global competitors, Russia, whose economy, unlike the US, but like Iran, also relies on a high oil price.)

Bleeding money to hurt competitors is fine if you’ve got lots of it (and the Saudis do). But the Saudis have had increased expenses in recent years – they have increased social spending to ward off Arab Spring-like protests, are keeping Egypt afloat, conducting an aerial war in Yemen and sponsoring militias in Syria, as well as losing $50 for each of the millions of barrels they produce.

Much of this increased expenditure is to prevent or slow the increasing influence of both the Resistance Bloc (led by Iran) or the Sunni Islamist Bloc.

According to the IMF, the Saudis only have enough cash reserves to keep up current spending rates for five years (assuming the price of oil remains the same). This means the Saudis will have to decrease its spending or allow an increase in the price of oil (likely both).

The Saudis might be more willing to absorb continued financial pain if they were confident that Iran was not on the ascendancy, or, to put it differently, if the Saudis’ financial pain was an important part of a global effort to thwart the Iranians. However, the Saudis perceive that their previous partner in this endeavour – the United States – has all but left the field. And the Saudis know they can’t stop Iran by themselves. If and when Saudi Arabia comes to see that Iran’s ascendancy is inevitable, then it will likely change its policy so as to put and keep more money in the bank – money it will need to limit malfeasant Iranian activities.

The ironic ramifications are clear – Iran (and Russia) get more money for the oil and gas they produce, and with more money comes a greater ability to pursue their interests. This is an unfortunate outcome for everyone, including America. And since the Saudis have traditionally pursued their own interests by spending money (as opposed to putting troops on the ground), it would indicate that the Saudis will be less able to prosecute their interests.

Rising oil prices as a result of an easing of Saudi production, or a lessening of Saudi largesse in the region, will be a clear sign that the Saudis have concluded that Iran’s rise is inevitable.

This post was inspired by this article.

* I might add, the analysis above is entirely dependent on whether the IMF has got its figures correct. Different analysis, sourced from Deutsche Bank, suggests Iran’s break-even price is $130 per barrel – higher than the Saudis’. This would enable the Saudis to increase the price of oil to around $110 and still hurt Iran.

A question of US energy independence


What would happen if and when America becomes energy independent in the next decade or so? Would Washington escalate its pivot to Asia and place less emphasis on relations in the Middle East? How would such an outcome affect the region? Would Israel and the Gulf States get closer in the face of a rising Iran?

These questions were put to me after my last article. I attempt to answer them here.

Energy independence
The first answer is that American energy independence would not significantly change American interests in the Middle East. America did not guarantee the security of its allies in the Middle East for the last four to six decades to secure oil for America. Rather, America did this to secure oil for the world. American security guarantees are designed to allow energy resources to flow from the Middle East and—importantly—arrive safely in far off destinations (including the ports of its economic competitors).

Were America not to use its global maritime dominance to guarantee the safety of oil leaving the Persian Gulf and arriving in Tokyo, for instance, then Japan would develop a blue water navy for this purpose. And that would make Japan’s neighbours nervous, who would further develop their own defences, and so on.

All this means that if the ‘shale oil revolution’ means America no longer has to import even a single barrel of oil from anywhere, it and the world will still look to America to guarantee the safe passage of oil from the Middle East to foreign ports.

The pivot to Asia
The pivot to Asia was announced at a time when the Middle East was relatively stable. American forces had tamed Iraq and Iran was relatively weak. Since that time, the Arab Spring erupted and produced a revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt, the toppling of governments in Tunisia and Libya, a few wobbles in the Arab monarchies and, most devastatingly, a civil war in Syria. Iraq has also gone to pieces.

These developments have not prevented a disengagement, of sorts by America from the Middle East. But I think this is more a function of what appears to be a two-pronged Obama Doctrine than a pivot to Asia. I have previously written about the Obama Doctrine.

The first prong appears to involve a slight pulling back from allies (such as Israel and the Saudis) who have long benefitted from US largesse but frequently don’t do what the US asks of them. The rationale is to panic them into realising that US support is conditional, and thereby cause a change in their behaviour to become more compliant.

The second prong is to engage with enemies—to unclench the fist, as Obama said during his first inauguration address. The idea is to make the first move. Instead of waiting for enemies (such as Iran) to become conciliatory as a result of US sanctions or military might, the US will make some amends and invite the enemy to reciprocate (ironically, this is similar to the idea that lies at the heart of my honours thesis (published in 2004), though I would argue that my honours thesis had a chance of working…)

Thus, and entirely separate to the bloody events of the Arab Spring, the US has purposefully taken its foot from Iran’s neck. However, there is little evidence that America’s extended hand has resulted in an unclenched Iranian fist. Iran continues the same regional policies that caused it to become a pariah in the first place, with the exception that it’s now a legitimate nuclear threshold state instead of an illegal nuclear threshold state.

The problem for the Obama Doctrine, is that while it might work well on paper, the results on the ground are that the US is being nasty to its friends and rewarding the bad behaviour of its enemies.

How does the American pull-back affect the region?
It would appear that the main outcome of the Obama Doctrine and the apparent American pull-back from the Middle East is a new awareness among all players that locals (or other interested parties) will have to get their hands dirty—America is no longer coming in to save the day. That’s why the Saudis have so heavily bankrolled what amounts to a military dictatorship in Egypt since the counter-revolution overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Sisi Government. It’s why the Saudis organised a coalition to bomb the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement in Yemen. And it’s why the Saudis have so heavily backed the Sunni Islamist groups in Syria that are fighting both Islamic State and the Iranian-aligned Syrian Government. After decades of not having to take any responsibility for the region, the Arab world’s leadership is now beginning to do so. But the problem is, it is still unprepared to do so and will take some time to learn the ropes.

In the meantime, Iran is very well organised, and will also benefit from the US distancing itself. This is especially the case since, as above, Iran’s maleficent regional policies (of arming, funding and supporting proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen) didn’t change during the nuclear negotiations and haven’t changed since the deal was signed. And even more so since the West will be so keen to have the nuclear deal work that it will not seriously challenge Iran on these regional policies (to be clear, I totally reject the arguments that now that America has signed the nuclear deal, it can and will go hard against Iran’s other nasty efforts).

All this means that Iran will be emboldened by the fact that the US is distancing itself from the region and its enemies in Riyadh are too unorganised to effectively balance Teheran. Expect Iran to push the envelope in the coming months to see if my theory is correct!

Would Israel and the Gulf States get closer in the face of a rising Iran?
There will likely never be a formal Saudi–Israeli rapprochement, even in the face of a rising Iran (unless, of course, a peaceful, viable Palestinian state is created and the Saudis establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. This is a possibility but, in the short- to medium-term, at least, unlikely). However, unofficial contacts have been ongoing for many years and will only be strengthened as America pulls back. Others are more optimistic than me.

Does the Iran nuclear deal advance or undermine US and Western interests?

The P5+1 and Iran

Tom Switzer in the Weekend Australian paraphrased Lord Palmerston’s “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow…” Switzer was writing that the recent Iran deal is a good thing, and might change the Middle East for the better.

While I disagree with parts of Switzer’s analysis, the Palmerston quote made me put aside my instinctive reactions about the nuclear deal and analyse it in light of Western and, principally, US interests.

I have previously written that American strategic interests in the Middle East are few and simple: security for Israel; unrestricted flow of energy sources for the global economy; stability and security for those countries that seek to help the US pursue its interests; and a weakening of those parties that oppose US interests. Second-tier interests include the establishment of a Palestinian state and the spread of human rights in the region. These second tier interests cannot contradict the first. This is why, to date, there is no Palestinian state and human rights are only protected in one Middle Eastern country, Israel.

The wider West, which is far less loyal to Israel than the US, has only one principal interest: the continued flow of energy sources. Secondary interests, such as regional stability, help further the primary interest. There are also subordinate interests, such as human rights and the development of democratic mechanisms.

As a result of the Iran nuclear deal (or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA,) UN sanctions against Iran will be dropped. Countries, such as Australia, that have autonomous (that is, additional) sanctions against Iran will likely also quickly drop these. This will allow Iran’s massive oil and fuel deposits to be better developed and exported. On the surface, interest achieved!

But there are ramifications. Iran is engaged in a region-wide hegemonic struggle against the Sunni-dominated status quo, led by Saudi Arabia. This ‘Status Quo Bloc’ (which I have previously written about) consists of Arab countries with pro-Western dictatorial leaders who have long looked to the US for their security. That is to say, Iran is opposed to the US and is the enemy of the US’s client states in the region.

Iran has proxies or clients in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen and has come to hold considerable influence—if not veto power—over those countries’ strategic decision-making. It was once, and is once again becoming a significant sponsor of Hamas. Iran has used Shi’ite militias to undermine Western interests in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion, and is now reportedly aiding the Taliban to do the same in Afghanistan.

The massive injection of cash Iran will receive as a result of the JCPOA will significantly help it pursue its regional agenda. It will use this money to consolidate its hold on Baghdad and could use it to foment trouble in the Shi’ite-populated, oil-rich parts of Saudi Arabia. That is, Iran will use the benefits of the JCPOA to harm US interests.

This is all conjecture, of course (based on Iranian statements and Iranian precedent). Perhaps an Iranian-dominated Iraq will become stable, better run and able to export much more oil than the current mess (which is, in large part, the result of the West being blind to Iranian undermining efforts.)

The issue of trust
When considering interests, another factor to take into account is trust. There is now less trust of America in the region than there was 10 or 20 years ago.

In recent decades, Israel and Saudi Arabia have come to view the US as their principal defender (and the US has made clear it is a partner in this understanding). However, from the moment negotiations with Iran were mooted, both Israel (very publicly) and the Saudis (behind the scenes) have strongly communicated that a nuclear Iran would be a danger to them and the region, and that any accommodation with Iran would both embolden Iran and pave the way nuclear weapons capability.

These increasingly strident warnings were ignored by the Obama Administration, because, in regards to the nuclear negotiations, the priority for the West and especially the US was for a deal to be signed. Far-reaching concessions were made to achieve that priority. (The priority for Iran was to maintain its nuclear infrastructure. It stuck to its guns and achieved its priority, at the cost of stalling its nuclear development by a few years at the most. It was a win-win deal because both sides achieved their priorities!)

In ignoring the warnings of its allies, the US will guide its allies (and not just in the Middle East) to the understanding that the US cannot be trusted. The US earned incredible trust around the world because it has been the guarantor of global stability since the end of the Second World War. It is this stability (particularly that which has allowed the extraction of oil and its transport across oceans) that has allowed the phenomenal growth in the global economy from which we have all benefitted.

However, like good reputations, trust is hard to obtain and relatively easy to lose. I’m sure Lord Palmerston would agree that having allies and enemies believe what you say is a permanent interest, but under Obama’s watch, this interest has been significantly eroded. To be clear, this decreasing trust did not spring from the July 2015 signing of the JCPOA. IT is a result of American mistakes in the Middle East that began with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 (under Bush) but were significantly compounded by the Obama Administration since that time (such as when the US abandoned Egyptian President Mubarak and walked back from ‘red lines’ threats in regards to Syrian use of chemical weapons). This is especially the case in its relations with Iran.

There are three separate but linked ramifications of the US word no longer being worth what it once was in the Middle East. First, countries like Saudi Arabia do not believe that the US will prevent Iran from becoming nuclear, and so are already looking to become nuclear themselves. Second, US allies are no longer absolutely convinced the US will protect them if their enemies attempt to undermine them, and so will be tempted to seek other friends. This lets Russia back into the Middle East, and potentially provides an open door to China, as well. Third, if US security guarantees are no longer thought rock-solid, parties might be more willing to pursues their interests violently. All three of these ramifications lead to a more dangerous region.

Is the House of Saud a house of sand?


Saudi Arabia and Iran are the principal actors in the Middle East’s spreading Sunni-Shi’ite battle. The two have for the past decade been the respective heads of the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs, but the competition between them was more Great Game than Game of Thrones. However, the related phenomena of the Syrian civil war spiralling out of control and the apparent US decision to pull back (note: not withdraw) from the Middle East has forced the Saudis to a realisation they need to be more hands-on.

Mostly, both parties act to empower proxies, much like the US and Soviets did during the Cold War. The problem for Western interests (because Western interests continue to lie with the Saudis) is that the Saudi product, with which it hopes to encourage proxies and the ‘Arab Street’, isn’t very good—Saudi Arabia is having trouble winning hearts and minds.

The message the Iranians are selling is:

  • Iran is the defender of Shi’ites
  • All other parties in the Middle East cannot be trusted to defend the Shi’ites and will either kill them (e.g. Islamic State, al-Qaeda), oppress them (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain) or overlook others oppressing them (e.g. the US)
  • No one else can or wants to protect the Shi’ites, but Iran can supply Shi’ites with weapons and aid
  • The US cannot be trusted to keep its word so there’s no point Shi’ites putting their fate in its hands
  • The government of the countries where Shi’ites live (unless you live in Iran!) are corrupt and must be overthrown
  • Death to America! Death to Israel!

The message is easy to sell because most Shi’ites in the Middle East believe it. Indeed, cut out the Shi’ite-centric message, and it’s effectively the same message the various Sunni Islamist groups are selling:

  • We [name of group—e.g. al-qaeda, Islamic State, Muslim Brotherhood] are the defender of the Sunnis
  • All other parties in the Middle East cannot be trusted to defend the Sunnis and will either kill them (e.g. rival groups), oppress them (e.g. every Arab government, plus Iran) or overlook others oppressing them (e.g. the US)
  • No one else can protect Sunnis (some groups are able to promise arms)
  • The US cannot be trusted to keep its word so there’s no point Sunnis putting their fate in its hands
  • The government of the countries where Sunnis live (unless they live in areas under our control!) are corrupt and must be overthrown
  • Death to America! Death to Israel!

The problem for the Saudis (and, for that matter, every Status Quo Bloc member) is that they are corrupt and aligned with the US (which is, of course, aligned with—and widely seen as subservient to—Israel). The Saudis also back many of the other corrupt states in the region, including Egypt. Although they are the guardians of the two holy mosques (i.e. Mecca and Medina), they struggle to present themselves as representative of the true Islam. The various Salafi groups out there also present themselves as such but their message is easier to sell because it is much closer to the message of Muhammad. The Saudi message is entirely flawed because what Saudi Arabia is trying to sell is, essentially, hypocrisy.

To mollify their own Islamists, the Saudis have spent billions investing in Wahhabi religious education throughout the Middle East, as well as the rest of the world, for several decades. The Middle East has become more devout—and more extreme—because of this.

There is little wonder that, faced with corrupt, basically secular political leaders, extremist Sunni Islamists felt they needed to take things into their own hands. Al-qaeda and the various militias that were organised after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 really started the process. But the Arab Spring and, particularly, the Syrian civil war let the cat out of the bag. And there’s no stuffing it back in now.

The problem for the Saudis is that unrestrained and popular Sunni Islamist movements are a real threat for the Saudi regime. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Islamic State will continue expanding southward until it overruns Riyadh, but that continuing successes of Islamist movements throughout the Middle East could sufficiently embolden Saudis to rise against their political masters.) The Saudis think that the way to resolve this problem is to have all manifestations of successful Islamist groups fail. That’s why Riyadh has been arming and funding groups in Syria that are opposed to both the regime there and Islamic State (for now, these groups are still under Saudi control, but I would expect that to change after a while). The Saudis have directly interfered in Yemen, in a badly-thought through attempt at defeating the Iranian-backed Houthi movement. And they’ve been propping up the Egyptian military dictatorship in Egypt (which overthrew the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in 2013). Doing so is expensive, as Egypt is hopelessly corrupt, provides endless subsidies to its people, does not garner much tax from them and has no possibility of turning things round any time soon. Pouring money into an endless hole that is Egypt shows how much the Saudis want the Muslim Brotherhood to remain out of power. The Saudis have also tacitly (and sometimes not so tacitly) backed Israel in every war it has fought against Islamist movements Hezbollah and Hamas since 2006.

The Obama Doctrine and the rising tide
But it increasingly feels as if the Saudis are fighting the rising tide. To a certain extent, the US has realised this (consider President Obama’s April interview with Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, where the former pointed out that the biggest threat to Saudi existence was lack of democracy within its borders).  That said, I don’t believe the US effectively abandoning the field, as it has been progressively doing during the Obama Administration, is a reflection of this realisation (were it so, it could only be described as Machiavellian strategic daring rarely seen in the real world). Rather, I think this US pull-back is part of the two-pronged Obama Doctrine.

The first prong appears to involve a slight pulling back from allies (such as Israel and the Saudis) who have long benefitted from US largesse but frequently don’t do what the US asks of them. The rationale is to panic them into realising that US support is conditional, and thereby change in their behaviour into being more complying.

The second prong is to engage with enemies—to unclench the fist, as Obama said during his first inauguration address. The idea is to make the first move. Instead of waiting for enemies (such as Iran) to become conciliatory as a result of US sanctions or military might, the US will make some amends and invite the enemy to reciprocate (ironically, this is similar to the idea that lies at the heart of my honours thesis (published in 2004), though I would argue that my honours thesis had a chance of working…)

While the Obama Doctrine might work well on paper, to those it affects, it feels as if the US is being nasty to its friends and rewarding the bad behaviour of its enemies (especially since it is happening at the same time as the Middle East is aflame in violence). Iran has not been more conciliatory as a result of softening US policies. It continues to call for the destruction of the US and Israel; it continues to insist on its right to nuclear enrichment and to deny UN nuclear inspectors the right of entry to suspect sites; and it continues to aid proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. As a reward for this behaviour, it appears to be on the brink of the US and international community removing many of the crippling international sanctions against it. These sanctions, I would add, were applied because of illegal Iranian behaviour which hasn’t actually changed.

Saudi Arabia is, indeed, panicked by US distancing. But its reaction isn’t to run, pleading, into American arms, promising all the while to undertake the internal democratic reform that Obama wants it to. Rather, it has been rolling up its sleeves and getting involved—by funding its own anti Syria, anti-Shi’ite and anti-ISIS proxies in Syria, by heading a coalition against Iranian-backed proxies in Yemen, and by agreeing to buy nukes from Pakistan.

The Obama Doctrine feels as if it’s a decade too late; it might have worked when the Middle East was stable (even then, it probably wouldn’t have).

The tide is rising faster and faster
Were the Saudi product a good one, the implementation of the Obama Doctrine probably wouldn’t matter so much. The Saudis could have ridden out the two terms until Hilary Clinton arrives in the Oval Office (an early prediction!) without too much bother. But because the product the Saudis are selling is flawed, and because the Middle East is so unstable at the moment and, especially, because Iran is rising so quickly (with Western acquiescence), the tide will rise faster for the Saudis.

We will see more and more frenetic activity by the Saudis, and more and more money being thrown at unsolvable problems. But the Status Quo Bloc will become progressively weaker relative to Iran, and their respective governments progressively less legitimate in the eyes of their people, to the point where some of the stable countries that were not adversely affected by the Arab Spring might go under (quite possibly including Saudi Arabia itself).

The fact that the governments of Saudi Arabia and every other Arab country are endemically corrupt, with a near total lack of representation (and support the same throughout the Middle East), with the only people presenting a ‘solution’ being the Islamists (since secular democrats are both gaoled by the regime and discredited because secular democracy is seen as a trait of the hated/resented West) means there has always been an air of inevitability about the House of Saud’s house of sand crumbling from within.

I’m not blaming the Obama Doctrine for this approaching calamity, but it has certainly sped up the process.

In and out: Hamas and the Resistance Bloc

hamas_logo_by_juba_paldfIn 2012, with Allawite and Shi’ite bombs raining down on Sunni Syrians, hamas, which is Sunni and was based in Syria, faced a real dilemma — it was aligned with the Allawites and Shi’ites. It wanted out. That turned out to be a poor decision. Now it wants back in again.

Hamas was a member of the Resistance Bloc, a regional grouping of mostly-Shi’ite countries and militias led by Iran and in competition with the Status Quo Bloc.

Egypt was a major player in the Status Quo Bloc (indeed – a symbolic leader). In mid-2012, the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt on the back of Arab Spring protests, which felled the 50-year military dictatorship. The Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power marked what looked liked the beginning of a third bloc in the Middle East. This third bloc was the Sunni Islamist Bloc.

It was different from the (Sunni) Status Quo Bloc in important ways. The Status Quo Bloc leadership (despite pretensions) are corrupt and secular. They look to the US for security and want America to retain its presence in the Middle East. They want a Palestinian state to be established alongside Israel. They epitomise an acceptance of realpolitik. The Sunni Islamist bloc want the opposite in all these thing; religious leadership and society, no US presence in the Middle East and for a Palestinian state to replace Israel. Like the Status Quo Bloc, however, the Sunni Islamist Bloc was suspicious of Iranian hegemonic ambitions, and generally didn’t like Shi’ites.

The coalescence of the Sunni Islamist Bloc was the result of numerous, concurrent regional occurrences. First, all Arab Spring protests that resulted in elections saw Sunni Islamist governments come to power (most significantly in Egypt, long the symbolic leader of the Arab world). Second, Sunni Islamist militias were (in mid-2012) beating back all other Syrian opposition groups as well as Syrian Government-backed forces. For those looking for such an outcome, it seemed only a matter of time until the government was overthrown and all Syria was under Sunni Islamist control.

Qatar and Turkey, both long on the fringes of the Resistance Bloc (due to their competition with the Status Quo Bloc) saw in the nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc a movement they really agreed with. They became card-carrying members. Hamas thought the nascent bloc was ascendant (and an answer to its discomfort over its Shi’ite and Allawite partners killing Sunnis) and leapt. Doing so meant no longer receiving funds, arms and training from Iran and Hezbollah, but it thought the shortfall could be made up by friendly governments in Cairo, Doha and Ankara.

It was all going swimmingly until the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was overthrown by a (popular) coup. The military in Egypt was (and is) firmly back in control. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership was arrested and many sentenced to death. The border between Egypt and Gaza was closed, and Egypt worked to destroy the dozens of tunnels underneath that border. In recent weeks, Egypt has moved to raze all buildings within a kilometre of the border (on the Egyptian side), leaving thousands homeless.

The hamas-Israel war of July-August 2014 was launched because hamas was in trouble, and needed the international attention (and subsequent aid money) the war brought to rescue itself from real financial troubles. It didn’t work out as well as hamas hoped – it’s still in need of money and friends.

Facing reality, hamas has reached out to Iran for help. In what must have been a humiliating mea culpa, hamas has been looking to patch things up. A series of friendly, coordinated statements about hamas have been released by Iran and hezbollah in recent weeks. Hamas has issued a statement saying non-violent opposition to the Syrian government is justified (that is, everyone should just let the Assad Government retain power). Expect a visit by hamas leader Khaled Meshal to Iran in the coming months. And, around the same time, a grovelling hamas statement that Assad isn’t so bad after all, and all opposition to him is a Zionist conspiracy.

What it means, in short, is that hamas will be welcomed back into Resistance Bloc, and will receive much-needed funds and arms (given the lack of tunnels, it might have trouble receiving them). But the reason it left in the first place – discomfort that its Allawite and Shi’ite friends are killing Sunnis – won’t have been resolved. It’s not a great position for hamas to be in and will cost it friends on the ‘Arab Street’ (in the Arab palaces – that is, the power centres of the Status Quo Bloc – hamas is detested).

In theory, a fatah that had the trust of the Palestinian people would be well-placed to take advantage of hamas’s misfortunes. But fatah still lacks strategic direction, is hopelessly corrupt, and doesn’t have the support of its people. So not much will change on that front in the foreseeable future.

What is the big picture?

middle-east-map-politicalOver the last few decades, the Middle East has coalesced into two broad groupings, which I and others call the Status Quo Bloc and the Resistance Bloc. The Arab Spring created the conditions which, in turn, created a third, still-nascent bloc, which I’ll get to in a bit. It is the creation of this new bloc which is the reason for much of the violence and instability in the Middle East today.

The Status Quo Bloc consists of most of the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf (led by Saudi Arabia), Egypt and Jordan, with a few hangers-on. Basically, these countries are stable dictatorships (or kingdoms) and will usually swat away clumsy Western attempts for them to democratise. They are Sunni and Arab. They look to the US to guarantee their security. They want the status quo to remain exactly as it is. Israel is a proxy member.

The Resistance Bloc wants to shake things up. Although its members have different goals, they are united in their desire to remove America as the source of Middle Eastern stability (since America props up their enemies). Led by Iran, the Resistance Bloc includes ‘official’ Syria, hezbollah and, until relatively recently, hamas. Iraq is a recent member (Iraq is mostly ethnically Arab, and mostly religiously Shi’ite. With America asleep at the wheel, Iraq has been allowed to drift into Iran’s orbit of influence, a stunning defeat for US foreign policy given all the blood and treasure it spent ‘liberating’ Iraq from 2003).

Iran is religiously Shi’ite and its rulers are ethnically Persian. Iran wants to be the regional hegemon. The Sunni Arab states fear it. It is this fear of Iran that drives much of the really important stuff that happens in the Middle East, including the origins of the Syrian civil war.

Emergence of a third bloc
The leaders of the Status Quo Bloc are generally secular. And Iran is Shi’ite. So, where does this leave Sunni Islamists? First, let’s take a step back. Basically, an Islamist is someone who wants their country run according to their interpretation of Islam. And there are two types of Islamists; those that wish to achieve their objectives using political means, and those that justify the use of violence to achieve their objectives.

Generally speaking, over the decades, the religious establishments in Arab states have been tolerated, with one important proviso; the religious leadership (or anyone else) were to make no complaint about or attempts to usurp the ruling elite. Over time, in various Arab countries, there have been very bloody bouts of repression, where thousands of people have been imprisoned or killed because a religious movement overstepped this mark.

Thus, the political Islamist movements (like the Muslim Brotherhood) went underground and bided their time, and the Islamists that justified violence formed various groups that have attacked Muslim and non-Muslim targets over time.

The Arab Spring offered the underground political Islamist groups an invaluable opportunity. In those Arab countries where the Arab Spring took off, the movement was originally a genuinely popular movement of people wanting more rights than they had. But in every case where elections were held, Islamists won. This was because the political Islamists had been highly organised, with trusted members and charismatic leaders, for years. The liberal democratic groups that we in the West hoped would have won were newly created, highly factional and rarely had a single charismatic leader behind which to unite.

The stunning ascendance of Sunni Islamists in the wake of the Arab Spring created a still-nascent third bloc in the Middle East. Although this Sunni Islamist Bloc immediately made a big impact on the Middle East, it is too soon to tell if it will form into a viable, lasting bloc.

Some of the big impacts made by the Sunni Islamist Bloc:

  • The Muslim Brotherhood was elected to power in Egypt (June 2012).
  • Turkey, which had dallied with the Resistance Bloc for years, became a firm member of the Sunni Islamist Bloc. Likewise Qatar.
  • Hamas, which had for years been in the Resistance Bloc, joined the Sunni Islamist Bloc (both because of the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and also because the wholesale slaughter of Sunni Muslims by the Resistance Bloc’s Syria was making hamas’s ongoing membership of the Resistance Bloc increasingly unpopular.)

But the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt overstepped its mandate, attempting to impose its Islamist agenda too quickly. Egyptians went back out on the streets. They brought about a counter-coup in July 2013 and re-installed the military as the arbiter of Egyptian political life. Egypt, though it retains a pretence of democracy, is now to all effects and purposes a military dictatorship once again.

Under the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt was clearly the leader of the emerging Sunni Islamist Bloc. The Brothers’ demise embarrassed Turkey, Qatar and hamas, which had heavily bet on its success.

The most immediate impact was that hamas was now without a patron. Having unceremoniously left the Resistance Bloc, hamas was no longer receiving significant funding from Iran. And with Egypt firmly back in the Status Quo Bloc, the free passage of money and arms in the tunnels under the Egypt–Gaza border was quickly cut off. Hamas was in a difficult position and it was this, more than any other reason, that caused it to prod Israel into war in July 2014; hamas knew that Israel would over-react, and that the civilian casualties in Gaza (mostly caused by hamas purposefully putting civilians in harm’s way) and physical damage would cause the international community to pressure Israel into weakening its embargo on Gaza. Weakening this embargo would strengthen hamas both politically and economically. The embargo hasn’t yet weakened, indicating that Israel didn’t lose the war. However, the UN fact-finding mission will only release its report in March next year. International pressure as a result of that report might well hand hamas its victory, encouraging it to pursue more violence in the future.

As for the Sunni Islamist Bloc, it is too soon to tell whether it will last, but the Status Quo–Resistance enemies have a common enemy in the Sunni Islamists, and are working together to destroy it.