“Disaster Area”

Hanging in my kitchen I have a so-called “New Zealand Tourist Map of the World.” Like other humoristic maps of its kind, it carries a brief description of each region. New Zealand, painted green, is best of all. It occupies an entirely disproportionate part of the map and is marked as having such things as “the biggest fish,” “the muddiest mud,” and “the friendliest mermaids” in the world. By contrast, Australia is a “desert island populated by a backward tribe known as strines.” Japan has “earthquakes,” the US, “hamburgers,” and Africa, “wild women.” These are just examples; most of the world has more than one epithet applied to it. Not so the Middle East, which is summed up in just two words: “disaster area.”

Fun aside, for a hundred years now the Middle East has in fact been a disaster area, much to the loss of most of its unfortunate inhabitants. Nor, the recent agreement between Presidents Trump and Putin notwithstanding, does there seem to be any immediate prospect for the turmoil to end. In this brief article I propose, 1. To trace the conflicts themselves; 2. Explain, very briefly, the factors that have prevented peace; and, 3. Say a few words about the probable shape of the future.

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Many of the problems in the Middle East go back far into the nineteenth century. For our purposes, however, a good starting point is formed by World War I (1914-18). In 1916-18 the British, coming from the Sinai as well as the Persia Gulf, defeated the Ottomans and overran the entire Middle East. Next they divided the spoils with their French allies. France got Syria and Lebanon, whereas Britain took the rest.

The aftermath of the war saw the establishment of the colonies—which later developed into independent states—of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, the Gulf, and Trans-Jordan (as it then was). Saudi Arabia, which was never occupied by either Britain or France, became independent by default. Last not least the Balfour Declaration, which was issued in November 1917, promised that His Majesty’s Government would “view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” As one Arab resident wrote to Winston Churchill, who as colonial secretary had been entrusted with fixing the various borders and toured the country in 1922, as long as the Declaration was not repealed peace would “never” return to that country.

Since then the peace to end all peace, as it has been called, has remained the source of endless trouble. First the British had to cope with Arab uprisings in Palestine and, on a much larger scale, in Iraq. No sooner were those revolts suppressed than trouble broke out on the border between Trans Jordan and Saudi Arabia, an entirely artificial line on the map that the local tribes refused to respect. In 1927-29 it was the turn of the French to cope with what is still remembered as the Great Syrian Revolt. Additional Arab revolts broke out in Palestine in 1929 and 1936-39 and in Iraq in 1940.

No sooner had World War II ended than Palestine witnessed another anti-British revolt, albeit that this time it was the Jews who revolted. The establishment of Israel in 1948 was immediately followed by an entire series of Arab-Israeli Wars that lasted until 1973. But trouble was not limited to Israel and its neighbors. The British having gone, during much of the 1950s and 1960 the Kurds in Iraq waged more or less open warfare against the central authorities in Baghdad, a problem that has still not been resolved. The Kurds also tried to break loose from Turkey, another problem that has still not been solved.

In the 1960s Yemen was devastated by a civil war (as, at present, it is once again). In 1970 the Syrians briefly invaded Jordan which was just then engaged in civil war against the Palestinians in its territory. Six year later civil war broke out in Lebanon, and six years after that Israel launched a massive invasion of the latter country. It took until 2006 ere another massive Israeli blow finally brought hostilities in southern Lebanon to an end—and even so there is no guarantee that they will not break out again at any time.

The 1980s saw a massive war between Iraq and Iran. No sooner had it ended than Iraq made a grab for Kuwait and had to be expelled by the United States and its allies (1991). In 2003 hostilities in the Persian Gulf resumed. This time not only Iraq’s armed forces but its government was smashed, leading to chaos that, fourteen years later, shows hardly a sign of abating. Worst of all is the situation in Syria where civil war broke out in 2011. As of this writing it has succeeded in turning much of the country into a wasteland from which t will take decades to recover, if indeed it ever does.

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How to account for all this trouble? Perhaps the most important answer is the extraordinary complexity of the region. A complexity which the new states, lacking firm roots in the population as they did, never succeeded in controlling. There are, of course, Egyptians and Syrians and Iraqis and Saudis and so forth. But there are also Israelis and Palestinians. And Arabs and Kurds. And Egyptian Muslims and Egyptian Copts. There are Sunnis and there are Shi’ites (and there are Allawi’s, whom some do not recognize as Muslims at all) and there are Druze. There are also many kinds of Christians. True, the Christians’ overall role in the region is declining into insignificance. But how strong the hatreds among them are can be seen on major feast days when monks belonging to different denominations at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher regularly take up cudgels and bicycle chains and go after each other.

Had the men—there were no women among them—who made the modern Middle East back in 1915-22 been as saintly as Christ and as wise as mandarins, they would have been hard-put to take all these complications into account. Let alone bring them to an end. If anything, the contrary. Operating on the old, old principle of divide et impera, as when the French separated Lebanon from Syria and the British in Egypt favored the Copts, often they did what they could to accentuate them.

Next, poverty. Early in the twentieth century the countries of the Middle East were, without exception, poor and undeveloped. So much so that, by one estimate, per capita income in what later became Israel, which even then was starting to emerge as one of the more developed regions, stood as just four percent of the US figure (currently it stands at 56 percent). Israel apart, no country in the Middle East has managed to cross the threshold into a mature industrial, let alone post-industrial, society. An antiquated social structure, based on extensive ties between extended families and clans, acts as both cause and effect of this fact.

True, over the last century agriculture has declined and urbanization spread. Yet most of the urban population remains very poor indeed. Nor do most of these people have the kind of education needed to create and maintain a modern economy. As a result, what wealth there is owes its existence mainly to the primary sector. Chiefly oil and related products such as natural gas.

But not all Middle Eastern states possess significant reserves of the precious black liquid. Both in those that do and those that do not, income is so unevenly distributed as to act as the source, not of progress but of conflict, some of it armed. These conflicts in turn are tied to the fact that, again with the exception of Israel, no Middle Eastern country has ever succeeded into converting itself into a true democracy. Meaning one characterized by popular elections, a freely elected parliament able to supervise the executive, human rights anchored in law, and an independent judiciary. Iraq and Syria until they were torn apart by war, and Jordan and Egypt right down to the present day, were or are run by a team of four: namely the head of state, the ruling party, the army, and the secret services. Security of life and property exist, if at all, only to a very limited extent. And liberty is a very occasional guest.

To the internal factors must be added external ones. From antiquity on, the Middle East has always been an extraordinarily important region, geopolitically speaking. The reason is because through it passed the lines of communication leading from north to south and from west to east. With the discovery of oil early in the 20th century, which led to some of the greatest concentrations of wealth in history on one hand and to the most intense competition on the other, its role became even greater. Going back at least as far as 1918 and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, not for five minutes has the Middle East been free of foreign intervention.

At first, as already explained, the leading role was played by the British and the French. After 1945 it was mainly the Americans and the Soviets who called the shots. Both superpowers sought to extend their own zone of influence and expel the other. Now by treaty, now by economic aid, now by assisting a rebel group to mount a coup and overthrow a government, and now by having their respective clients fight one another. Nor were the US and the Soviet Union, later succeeded by the Russians, the only ones with a finger in the pie. As is exemplified by the fact that, currently and at any rate on paper, no fewer than 68 countries are officially committed to fighting Daesh.

Many of the countries in question are at odds not only with their local rivals but with each other too. Take, as an example of the resulting complexity, the case of Syria whose regime has been fighting its own citizens for the last six years. In Syria alone there are said to be some fifty different militias, some fairly large, others very small. Though all or most seem to have this in common that they hate President Assad’s government, many also reflect various religious, ethnic and local interests. The Russians, the Iranians and the terrorist organization Hezbollah (which has its roots in Lebanon, and is made up of Shi’ite fighters operating in Syria, which is mostly Sunni) have all been consistently supporting Assad.

The Turks claim to be fighting terrorists, but in reality they are more interested in keeping the Kurds down and the Iranians, out. The Saudis, bent on bugging Iran wherever they can, are determined to get rid of Assad and provide the Syrian rebels with weapons by way of Jordan. Ostensibly to prevent the war from spreading to that country, the US has stationed troops there. It is also bombing both Assad and his opponents, Daesh. To not much avail, as far as anyone can see. With the US are, as so often, some of its NATO allies playing the role of the jackal. As for Israel, up to the present it has managed to keep out of the conflict. But this does not prevent it from constantly calling on others to topple Assad and so, hopefully, pulling its own chestnuts out of the fire.

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Niels Bohr, the Nobel-Prize winning Danish nuclear physicist, is supposed to have said that prediction is difficult, especially of the future. The Talmud concurs, saying that “the gift of prophecy is handed out to fools.” One does not, though, need divine insight to understand that, the abovementioned agreement between Trump and Putin notwithstanding, the Middle East is indeed a “disaster area” and likely to remain so for a long time in the future. To proceed in reverse order, one reason for this is foreign intervention which has often aided and abetted local conflicts. Then there is the absence of democracy, representative government, and human rights; all of which, along with the frequent presence of thuggish rulers, are rooted in societies most of which have never succeeded in overcoming their tribal character. Thuggish rulers—in truth, it is hard to see how anyone but a thug could govern the countries in question—are responsible for the fact that free economies could not develop and the distribution of wealth is as unequal as it is.

These facts and many others like them explain many things. They do not, however, explain everything. Some years ago I had the pleasure of coming across a book by the aged doyen of “oriental studies,” Bernard Lewis. Titled What Went Wrong and first published in 2002, it tried to explain how and why the brilliant civilization of the Middle Ages had declined until, finally, it reached the point where the epithet “Arab” is positive only when applied to a horse.

Though I read it twice, I still do not know.

Guest Article: Air Forces – Balance of Power in the Middle Eas

By: Karsten Riise

Air forces are of colossal importance in the Balance of Power between states. Without air superiority, a state is open for huge devastation from potential adversaries. To get a clearer picture of the Balance of Power in the Middle East, I therefore decided to focus on the balance of assets for air superiority in the Wider Middle East – see figure 1:

Figure 1

Methodology

My methodology in figure 1 is straight forward: Only high-end fighter (or multirole) aircraft in service are relevant for the contestation of air space. It is assumed high-end fighters in service have received all technical upgrades for high-end status. Light or older fighter aircraft are shown, but may quickly be eliminated.  To keep the methodology robust, I focus on the sheer number of high-end air superiority fighters. Only easily available, open sources have been used.

Readiness is a significant quantifiable factor which has not been easily available. If a modern air force has a normal readiness of for example 70%, it may well be, that Iran, due to lack of spare parts, lack of instruments, lack of trained pilots and technicians, may have a readiness of only 35%. If that is the case, the effective force of Iran would be only half of what her number of 44 high-end units indicates, bringing Iran’s total force down to 22 comparable “units of force-level”.

The “qualitative factors” like pilot-training, support-structures, leadership, configuration of bases, communication, support from other assets (ground-sensors, AWACS, satellites) etc. can be decisive. Also lethality and availability of modern munitions (e.g. air-to-air missiles) go into this. A “quality-factor” is difficult to measure, but it is still possible to say something in general about “quality” level. If USA=100 in “quality-factor”, it is generally accepted that Israel’s “quality-factor” is probably quite above 100, that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are probably a bit below 100, and that Iran is very much lower due to lack of training, and other modern assets. In this analysis, I will not measure “quality-factors”, just point to them.

Overview

Figure 1 brings up four issues for my discussion: First, Iran’s obvious lack of air power against all of her many competitors. Second, the enormous increase in GCC air power, not least in Saudi Arabia. Third, the balance of power in relation to Israel. Fourth, the issue of nuclear weapons.

Iran – vacuum of air-power

Iran has only got 44 high-end aircraft to disperse, and they may not all be upgraded to deserve “high-end” status. Due to lack of training, spare parts etc. it may well be that Iran’s readiness factor is only half of her neighboring countries, which means that her 44 units may only count as a “force-level” of 22. These 22 units of “force-level” have to be split up in (minimum) 3-6 sectors to defend a vast territory of 1,6 million km2, leaving only a meager 3-7 units of modern “force-level” per defense sector. It is obvious, that Iran does not possess any of the air assets necessary to protect her air space, not even against the air force of her smallest neighbors. Deficits in other “qualitative” combat factors like pilot-training only reinforce this conclusion. A few S-300 anti-air missiles may serve as a “trip-wire” for point-defense, but without a comprehensive, layered integrated air defense system, a few S-300 do not change the overall picture of a nearly undefended air space. The regional stability risk, therefore, seems not to be that Iran becomes “too strong”, but rather, that Iran in terms of air defense is a power-vacuum, which could invite intrusion from any of her numerous competitors. Iran does possess a substantial number of surface-to-surface missiles of considerable range, which are often cited (especially by USA sources) as a “threat”. But you cannot win a war with surface-to-surface missiles alone, and all of Iran’s competitors have got effective Patriot missile defenses. In view of Iran’s lack of air power, Iran’s surface-to-surface missiles are a stand-alone capability. Iran’s missiles must merely be seen as a deterrent, in other words a defensive capability, which stabilizes the region, because Iran’s missiles discourage attack on Iran. Iran also possesses a capability of armed speed-boats, land-to-sea missiles etc. which can obstruct the oil traffic in the Persian Gulf. This marine capability, like Iran’s conventionally armed land-to-land missiles, must also in the overall context be seen as a deterrent, discouraging attack on Iran, but not a capability which gives Iran encouragement for a very adventurous strategy. As it will appear below in figure 2 and 3, Iran is not investing an overly great portion of her economy in military.  

Is this “good” or “bad”? Well, anyone reserving a “right” to attack Iran, may think it is “good”.  Given the troubling experiences in the region of turning a functioning country into havoc and chaos, it may arguably also be “bad”.

GCC – enormous increase in air-power

All the GCC countries relative to their size possess very large quantities of high-end air assets. The GCC total is 409 aircraft, and with 349 units more on order, this group is on way to an inventory of 758 units. In comparison, France and Britain have a total of 369 high-end units, according to the same sources. Even the smaller GCC-states have by a wide margin plenty of assets against Iran. Saudi Arabia alone has got 222 units, and 156 more on order, for a total of 378 units. An additional order of 72 Eurofighters is under consideration, which could bring Saudi Arabia up to 450 units. According to GlobalSecurity.org, Saudi Arabia has also asked for 100 units of F-35 “stealth” fighters. If Saudi Arabia is denied F-35 from the USA, she may instead choose to buy J-31 “stealth” fighters from China. That might bring the Royal Saudi Air Force up to 550 units. Saudi Arabia also possesses 13 units of E3-sentry AWACS. In comparison, NATO for patrolling all its Eastern flank from Norway to Turkey (4,000+ km) has got about 16 similar units.

The question comes up, why Saudi Arabia invests in air superiority assets on such a large scale. Air force may be the most expensive part of Saudi Arabian military spending, and Saudi Arabia’s military spending of 13.7% of GDP in 2015 is the third the highest in the world after Oman (and South Sudan, not shown) – see figure 2:

Figure 2

Oil prices have been high for many of the preceding years. Surplus money may tempt military spending. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s high air force investments are felt now that oil incomes have been depressed the last few years, and Saudi Arabia also wants to invest huge sums of money in diversifying her economy to achieve a broader economic footing to prepare for her “post-oil” era in due time.

Intentions are never known for sure, and may even change. I will go through a range of seven theoretical types of thinkable intentions. First, air forces have prestige. But the “bling” factor can hardly explain investment on this scale. Second, “defense against Iran” can be ruled out as a reason, because the Iranian air force is so small, ref above. Third, the Saudi Arabian and GCC assets are so numerous, that an offensive strategy (for example against Iran) may be a possibility, especially if the Patriot systems (which all the GCC countries have) are effective to defend against possible retaliatory missile strikes. Fourth, protection of Saudi Arabia against internal revolts, might theoretically be thought of, but the Saudi Arabian air force seems bigger than needed for that. Fifth, Saudi Arabia might seek the role of a great regional power. For the general role as a regional power, Saudi Arabia will need a strong navy to complement her air force in power-projection. And according to the open sources used here, Saudi Arabia actually has got an ambitious navy program with 7 frigates, 4 corvettes, and contemplates buying 2-3 destroyers, including the powerful American Arleigh Burke class, plus the advanced Freedom class littoral combat ship. Submarines are missing. For power projection, Saudi Arabia also has 2 tanker aircraft, 3 more tankers on order, plus a number of heavy transport aircraft. Saudi Arabia also has a satellite program, but her missile force seems not built out. Sixth, Saudi Arabia might not rule out, that a conflict with Israel could erupt one day, willingly or unwillingly, perhaps just due to misunderstandings. Here, however, Israel is in possession of the “great peacekeeper” in form of nuclear devices. Seventh, we may look at the timing of Saudi Arabia’s increase in military spending – see figure 3:

Figure 3

The acceleration in Saudi Arabian military spending started 2004/2005, after the USA war for “regime change” in Iraq. It might be thinkable, that Saudi Arabia wants to have an “insurance policy”, that such an American action should never be turned against Saudi Arabia. To make this effective, Saudi Arabia would need to add aircraft from non-US suppliers, and (better) to have themselves the kind of “devices” which Israel has in possession. All this is of course theoretical, because the surge in Saudi Arabian military spending since 2004/2005 also to some degree coincides with a higher general level of oil prices.

The balance

Iran’s air force is not a threat to Israel – probably not even Iran’s missiles, due to Israel’s layered missile defense systems. However, figure 1 shows that Israel soon will have 366 fighter aircraft against 1,046 fighters from the GCC-countries, Egypt and Jordan – and they are out to buy more. These countries are not Israel’s enemies, and Israel has good practical relations with all of them. Still, a numerical disadvantage of 3:1 is something to think about, even taking into account Israeli historical superiority in training, her satellites etc. – but above all, her nuclear weapons.
 
Israel being free from major conflict hinges on Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons. This will also apply, if more sides possess them. Nuclear weapons, however, do not hinder that “Low-Intensity” War will continue.

Karsten Riise
Partner & Editor

CHANGE NEWS &
CHANGE MANAGEMENT

Karsten Riise is Master of Science (Econ) from Copenhagen Business School and has university degree in Spanish Culture and Languages from University of Copenhagen. Former senior Vice President Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of Mercedes-Benz in Denmark and Sweden with a responsibility of US Dollars 1 billion. At time of appointment, the youngest and the first non-German in that top-position within Mercedes-Benz’ worldwide sales organization.

Karsten Riise can be reached at Changemanagement.dk@gmail.com

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