“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” These words from Ecclesiastes apply to the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf, which, while appearing on the surface to be new and unfamiliar, are in fact ancient and utterly recognizable.
To the untrained eye, the region appears to be undergoing a massive shakeup. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, once allies, are now locked in a bitter competition for regional power and influence. Long-time existential foes, such as Bahrain and the UAE on one side and Israel on the other, have normalized diplomatic relations and increased security cooperation. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have reconciled. Turkey has made significant overtures to Egypt and several Gulf states. China is emerging as an increasingly consequential economic and geopolitical player in the region, and the Iranian-Saudi “cold war” appears to have entered a Chinese-brokered period of detente. And all this while the United States continues to vacillate between its much-heralded “pivot” to the Indo-Pacific and its legacy role as cornerstone balancer in the Persian Gulf region.
The region not only appears to be undergoing a shakeup, but a shakeup that is almost inexplicable, attributable at best to the idiosyncrasies of various national leaders and the vagaries of the domestic politics of the region’s powers.
But this is simply not the case. There are several very old geopolitical dynamics at play in the Gulf — dynamics that would have been familiar to diplomats, generals and their political bosses 50 or 100 or even 500 years ago.
Take, for example, the dynamics of great power rivalry — the competition between major global powers for influence, resources and strategic advantage. In the aftermath of the Cold War and the post–Cold War unipolar moment, the region — and indeed the world — has experienced a return of great-power rivalry, with major global players jostling for influence and strategic advantage. Among the key actors, the United States, China, India, Russia, and Turkey have emerged as formidable contenders, each pursuing its interests and asserting its presence in the region.
The Gulf’s historical reliance on the U.S. for security guarantees has been challenged by China’s growing economic engagement, offering an alternative avenue for trade and infrastructure development. Simultaneously, India’s rising economic importance has spurred increased cooperation with Gulf states, while Russia seeks to expand its regional foothold through military partnerships. Turkey has become a significant player, projecting its influence on regional issues. This dynamic is reshaping alliances and diplomatic landscapes, but it is hardly novel. In fact, it’s as old as the international system itself.
Against that backdrop, we have also seen the return of a staple of pre-WWI geopolitics: hard-nosed, interest-based “balancing,” in which states seek to counter or offset the power and influence of dominant or threatening actors by forming alliances, building military capabilities or pursuing diplomatic maneuvers — without reference to identity or ideology.
In one sense, a form of balancing has been the reality in the region since the 1979 Iranian revolution, when the U.S. rallied the Sunni Gulf states to check Shiite Iran’s bid to export its theocratic revolution and assert a dominant role in the region. But since about 2015, balancing has taken on a new form, one more reminiscent of pre-20th century geopolitics.
As the perception grew — in the aftermath of the signing of the Iran nuclear deal and the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” — that Washington was no longer the reliable “cornerstone balancer” it once was, Israel entered the anti-Iran coalition as the new cornerstone balancer. While this development seemed bizarre to some, it was perfectly rational: Given fears that Iran would take advantage of the partial vacuum created by America’s change of course, Israel and the Gulf states saw it in their mutual interests to work together to balance Iran. This new coalition resembles pre-20th century ones in that it is based on neither identity nor ideology, but simply shared strategic interests.
Of somewhat more recent provenance, the concept of détente — a diplomatic strategy employed by states to relax tensions with rivals or adversaries through dialogue, negotiations and confidence-building measures — can also help us grasp what is going on in the Gulf, such as the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Similar to the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s, these two countries have decided to dial down the stridency of their rivalry, moderating both their hostile rhetoric and their conduct toward each other. But, as was the case during the Soviet-American détente, this does not signal the end of their existential conflict. Tensions might be relaxed, but they didn’t go away. In fact, they later reemerged with a vengeance. Similarly, in today’s Gulf, the Saudi-Iranian conflict has not been somehow miraculously resolved. This is simply a quieter phase of their existential struggle for regional supremacy — and, as back in the 1970s, their rivalry is likely to reemerge with a vengeance in the not too distant future.
Finally, “hedging” — the art of maintaining multiple partnerships while avoiding overdependence on any single power — can shed light on the evolving dynamics in the Gulf. Since World War II, Gulf nations have relied heavily on the U.S. for security guarantees and support. In recent years, however, the Gulf states have seized the opportunity presented by the rise of China and India, as well as the renewed activism of Russia and Turkey, to diversify their economic, diplomatic and security relationships.
The logic behind this is as rational as it is timeless. Relying solely on one ally could leave Gulf nations vulnerable to shifting global dynamics or changes in U.S. foreign policy priorities. By seizing the opportunities presented by the entry of new extra-regional, the Gulf states have sought to mitigate risks by opportunistically aligning with one external power on some issues and other external powers on others — all while exploiting the new economic and diplomatic opportunities presented by entry of new regional players.
What we are witnessing in the Persian Gulf is not particularly mysterious, but rather a return to the “factory settings” of geopolitics, albeit with a regionally specific, 21st-century gloss.
One might be tempted to say “move along folks, nothing to see here.” But that phrase can be used in both a conventional register, to convey that there really is nothing to see, or in a more ironic register, to conceal or downplay something that is truly unpleasant or dangerous. I’ll leave it to you to decide which register might apply in the case of the what’s-old-is-new-again geopolitics of the Persian Gulf.
Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.