Mid­dle East tur­moil spreads

The Phoenix - - OPINION - Adam Goldin Colum­nist

When one thinks about Mid­dle East tur­moil, one tra­di­tion­ally en­vi­sions the north­ern coun­tries. Con­flicts be­tween Is­rael and Egypt were com­mon un­til the 1979 peace agree­ment, and skir­mishes be­tween Is­rael and Le­banon oc­cur all too fre­quently to­day.

The Iran/Iraq war raged in the 1980s, Iraq in­vaded Kuwait in the early 1990s, and to­day Syria, Iraq and Libya have all re­cently been sub­sumed by war.

Con­versely, re­la­tions be­tween the gulf monar­chies of Saudi Ara­bia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emi­rates have been rel­a­tively tran­quil. How­ever, Saudi Ara­bia’s strug­gle with Iran for re­gional hege­mony has led to ris­ing ten­sions be­tween a Saudi-led group of na­tions and Qatar.

The ori­gins of the Ira­ni­anSaudi ri­valry, like most of the re­gion’s re­cent strug­gles, lie in the Shia/Sunni di­vide.

The two sects have con­stantly vied to dom­i­nate the other. Saudi Ara­bia is the pre­em­i­nent Sunni na­tion in the re­gion, while Iran is the pre­em­i­nent Shia one, and both de­sire re­gional supremacy.

Over the sum­mer, a group of pri­mar­ily Per­sian Gulf na­tions led by Saudi Ara­bia sev­ered diplo­matic ties with Qatar and im­posed trade and travel bans, ac­cus­ing it of sup­port­ing ter­ror­ism and in­ter­fer­ing in their na­tion’s in­ter­nal af­fairs. Qatar refuted these claims, em­pha­siz­ing that they host the largest U.S. mil­i­tary base in the Mid­dle East and have helped the U.S. fight ISIS. Some an­a­lysts believe the Saudi-led group are re­ally try­ing to pun­ish Qatar for its close re­la­tions with Iran and its at­tempt to cre­ate a rel­a­tively in­de­pen­dent for­eign pol­icy free from Saudi in­flu­ence.

Like most geopo­lit­i­cal con­flicts, the is­sues are com­plex; rarely is one side com­pletely in the right. Many of the Saudi-led group ac­cu­sa­tions have merit, yet Qatar has le­git­i­mate na­tional self-in­ter­ests in set­ting a more in­de­pen­dent for­eign pol­icy

here­fore, the U.S. must help tamp down this con­flict lest it metas­ta­size into a full-blown con­fla­gra­tion with Iran that could have global eco­nomic im­pli­ca­tions more se­vere than the ones wrought by the wars cur­rently rag­ing across the Mid­dle East. To date, the ad­verse eco­nomic im­pact of the fight­ing in Syria, Iraq and Libya has largely been con­tained within the re­gion; global eco­nomic growth has con­tin­ued apace be­cause the price of oil has re­mained qui­es­cent.

But a shoot­ing war with Iran, or any es­ca­la­tion that threat­ens crude oil ship­ments through the Strait of Hor­muz, the strate­gi­cally im­port con­duit for much of the gulf’s oil, would send shock waves through oil mar­kets and the global econ­omy.

On the geopo­lit­i­cal front, an Ira­nian-Saudi con­fronta­tion would re­ver­ber­ate fur­ther afield, much as the Syr­ian civil war has re­ver­ber­ated be­yond its shores. The civil war has bled into the Euro­pean Union by caus­ing a mass ex­o­dus of refu- gees into the re­gion, which has tested EU unity and boosted the elec­toral suc­cess of sev­eral right-wing, anti-EU par­ties. Dis­cord in the Gulf that dis­rupted the world’s oil sup­plies would cer­tainly risk drag­ging in China, Rus­sia and the U.S.

Iran has stated that the con­flict be­tween the Saudi-led group and Qatar should be re­solved peace­ably, which makes Pres­i­dent Trump’s be­hav­ior so mad­den­ing.

At the out­set, Pres­i­dent Trump tweeted that he ap­proved of the Saudi moves and pub­licly vil­i­fied. Qatar. In what is be­com­ing all too com­mon, both the Pen­tagon and the State Depart­ment later took more nu­anced and diplo­matic ap­proaches as they tried to me­di­ate the breach as hon­est bro­kers.

Yet on one oc­ca­sion Pres­i­dent Trump ac­cused Qatar of fund­ing ter­ror­ism on the same day Sec­re­tary of State Tiller­son sug­gested the Saudi-led group ease its eco­nomic block­ade against Qatar.

With luck, cooler heads than the pres­i­dent’s will pre­vail so U.S. pol­icy can de-es­ca­late the cri­sis. We cer­tainly shouldn’t be es­ca­lat­ing it, yet that is pre­cisely what of­ten fol­lows Pres­i­dent Trump’s clumsy for­ays into in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions. The Mid­dle East can ill af­ford more tur­moil.

Adam Goldin is a Philadel­phi­abased econ­o­mist with mas­ter’s de­grees in both eco­nom­ics and in­ter­na­tional af­fairs. He re­sides in Ch­ester County. Email: adam.goldin@out­look. com

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