Developments Since Independence

Developments Since Independence

Since the early 1970s, increased oil production and regional instability have dominated events in the Persian Gulf. Revenues from the oil industry grew dramatically after oil producers raised their prices unilaterally in 1973; as a result, funds available to gulf rulers increased. Governments began massive development projects that brought rapid material and social change. As of 1993, the turmoil that these changes caused had not yet stabilized. Those states that had benefited longest from oil money, such as Kuwait and Bahrain, made the greatest progress in adjusting to the new oil wealth. Oman--which has used its oil reserves only since the early 1970s and which had suffered under the repressive policies of Said ibn Taimur--saw substantially less progress.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 challenged gulf stability. Many gulf leaders agreed with some of the social goals of the revolution and its efforts to tie Iran more firmly to its Islamic roots. But Iran's desire to spread the movement beyond its borders clearly threatened gulf leaders. Furthermore, several gulf states have significant Shia or Iranian minorities (Bahrain has a Shia majority although the ruling family is Sunni), and gulf rulers feared that Iran would use ethnic or sectarian loyalties to stir up such minorities.

As of 1993, however, Shia of the western gulf had not responded enthusiastically to the Iranian call. Kuwait and Bahrain, which have the largest Shia populations, experienced some limited pro-Iranian demonstrations in 1979. In general, however, Shia in both these states feel that they have more to gain by supporting the existing regimes than by supporting the convulsive changes that have taken place in Iran.

Iran was perhaps more threatening to gulf stability because of its strong anti-Western stance in world and in regional politics. The new Iranian position stood in stark contrast to the gulf amirs' long history of involvement with the British and the close ties to the West that the oil industry entailed. Thus, the Iranian political worldview was one to which rulers in the gulf states could not subscribe.

In 1980 the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War made the Iranian threat more concrete. For the first six years of the conflict, the gulf states sought to mediate between the two countries and to remain neutral. Their position changed, however, in 1986, when fighter aircraft attacked tankers belonging to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Whether Iran or Iraq was responsible for the first attacks remains uncertain, but the gulf states decided to blame the Iranians and began to take Iraq's side in the war. Iran responded by opening up a limited secret campaign against the gulf states. A number of explosions occurred in Kuwait and Bahrain for which many believed Iran was responsible. Such attacks made all the states in the region more concerned about external threats.

In 1981, partly in response to these concerns, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, and the UAE formed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The goal of the GCC has been to provide for regional defense and to coordinate policy on trade and economic issues. Although the GCC has taken steps to increase the military capabilities of various members, the region has remained dependent to a great extent on the protection of the Western powers. For instance, when the Iran-Iraq War made the gulf unsafe for oil tankers in the late 1980s, it was ships from Europe and the United States that protected shipping and cleared the area of mines.

Whereas broader, regional alliances in the gulf have changed dramatically since the 1970s, individual political systems have remained relatively unchanged. All the gulf countries grant ultimate power to a single family, whose leading member rules as amir, but they also provide for an advisory body whose members are drawn from outside the royal family. Kuwait and Bahrain have gone beyond this and have set up separate parliaments with limited power to draft legislation. However, the Al Sabah and the Al Khalifa have sometimes dissolved these bodies; thus, it remains uncertain whether parliaments will become a permanent feature of gulf politics.

The ruling families' hold on power has been challenged at various times. More problematic is the manner in which the gulf states have distributed individual citizenship. Since the 1930s, the population has increased dramatically because of the oil boom, but the number of citizens has not increased correspondingly. Most of the gulf states place restrictions on citizenship, requiring that an individual trace his or her roots in the country to before 1930. Accordingly, the millions of people that have poured into the region since the 1940s have only partial legal status and lack political rights in the countries in which they reside. Although they may have lived there for two generations, they can be asked to leave at any time.

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