The Emergence of the Vacuum

  August 08, 2021   Read time 2 min
The Emergence of the Vacuum
Since the turn of the century, the British consistently had taken the lead in Gulf affairs; at the same time U.S. interest in the area was growing.

The Americans, pursuing the Open Door policy, had competed with the British on all fronts. Gradually competition moderated as the two agreed to share in developing the region’s rich resources. By the early 1950s the Americans had begun to surpass the British, largely because they had gained a monopoly in Saudi Arabia, by far the area’s richest oil producer. The more the Saudi fields produced, the more U.S. interests in the Gulf expanded.

Thus, when Britain announced that it was pulling out of the Gulf, many anticipated the United States would become guarantor of the region’s stability. In addition to having extensive commercial interests there, the United States led the Western alliance. Within the alliance, Europe at this time derived 50 percent of its oil from the Gulf; 80 percent of Japan’s oil imports were from there; and 70 percent of both Australia’s and New Zealand’s supplies came from there.8 As the West’s leader, the United States seemed the likely candidate to keep the oil lines open.

That some sort of safeguard was required could not be doubted; on the eve of Britain’s departure, governing arrangements in the Gulf were disturbingly casual. During its tenure, Britain had dealt with the local rulers on a personal basis. In 1971, just prior to its exit, it cobbled together the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a unitary state made up of several minute shaykdoms. It also oversaw the creation of the states of Qatar and Bahrain. These were all fragile entities and hence vulnerable to subversion.

During the late 1960s and into the 1970s radical movements sprouted everywhere in the Gulf region. Ethiopia’s pro-Western regime under Haile Selassie was replaced by a Marxist one. Aden expelled the British and formed a Marxist government. Arab radicals supported by Nasser seized power in North Yemen. Radicalism ultimately intruded into the Gulf proper with the outbreak of a Marxist revolt in Oman. Western interests everywhere were under attack.

The United States did not assume Britain’s responsibilities in the area, largely because of Vietnam. In the late 1960s a formidable antiwar movement was under way in the United States. Although the movement did not enjoy broad-based support, questions about the war raised by the militants troubled many Americans. Since concurrently the U.S. economy had gone into recession—blamed by the militants on Vietnam—Washington could not easily justify taking on yet another costly overseas commitment.

Nonetheless, President Richard Nixon recognized that Western interests in the Gulf must be protected, and—in what appeared to many at the time to be an ingenious solution—he made the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the regional protector for the West.

This study takes the position that Nixon’s scheme was unworkable. The shah lacked the resources for an assignment of this magnitude, and in trying to carry out his task, he thoroughly alarmed the Ba’thists in neighboring Iraq, which basically is what caused the Iran-Iraq War.

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