Dehydration, Iran and liberalism: the biggest threats to the Gulf

At a recent conference in Bahrain, experts discussed and debated the threats facing the Gulf region

Jamal Khashoggi

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“Which is a bigger threat confronting the Gulf? Thirst or Iranian domination?” No one likes this kind of hypothetical question, particularly elite officials, politicians and researchers with whom I spent two days discussing what threatens Gulf countries, national and regional questions. The meeting was convened under Bahrain’s Center for Strategic, International and Energy studies

Iran, its expansionist aspirations and its desire to interfere and dominate of course came first among the list of threats facing the Gulf. A new threat facing the Gulf is the “unprecedented rift” among Gulf countries - as Prince Turki al-Faisal put it. This rift is about to waste our greatest gains - that is the Gulf Cooperation Council itself. Despite its dereliction, it provided an infrastructure via political and military agreements in its endeavor towards “collective security.” Prince Nayef Bin Ahmed Bin Abdulaziz, a strategy and security researcher, addressed this issue in detail during the conference.

The third threat facing the Gulf is “American retreat” or lack of trust in the Americans who are supposed to be allies of the all Gulf states after they signed dozens of security and defense agreements with such states. The participants had a deep feeling that the Americans are one of these threats though an Omani researcher refuted these arguments and mentioned the number of times the U.S. committed to defending Gulf countries.

What if a military confrontation breaks out and Iran, which desires to dominate the region (or another player), targets desalination plants at a time when we are squandering our subterranean water?

Jamal Kashoggi

Overlap in the concept of security beetween different facets of authority may have been a reason to expand the concept of “threats” which even targeted reforms and people’s aspirations of freedom and political participation. Chair of the political sciences department at UAE University Dr. Mohammad bin Huwaidin considered the latter as threats because “they threaten the nature of our conservative Gulf system.” This suggestion provoked researcher and political sciences lecturer Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdullah - also a UAE citizen like Huwaidin. Abdullah responded to Huwaidin, saying that reform cannot be threatening and that it actually confronts and ends security threats against the Gulf countries.

Amidst all these political and security threats, the Saudi minister of water and electricity Abdullah al-Hussayen said in his speech that “water security of Gulf countries is considered the biggest of threats and challenges because it represents a domestic challenge.” He then detailed the amount of waste of this scarcest and most precious resource in our desert-climate countries. The squander showed that Gulf citizens set high records as the biggest consumers of water - bigger consumers than the Germans or the Canadians who swim in sweet-water lakes.

‘Slow suicide’

Researcher Dr. Abdulaziz al-Turbak described the way we deal with the water issue as “slow suicide.” What’s good is that he’s director of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Unified Water Strategy. This means that Gulf countries are concerned with preventing this “slow suicide” on the official and institutional levels. However, it was clear that neither the water minister of the biggest Gulf country nor the strategy director have enough power to impose legislations that limit what was described as “waste that poses the threat of water poverty in GCC countries” - as the minister put it. This means there will come a day when we either die of thirst or leave, like Arab tribes did several times whenever the Arabian Peninsula suffered from drought.

However, this is the 21st century and such migration is longer acceptable. It’s also illogical to leave our precious oil behind. It seems the age of our oil is longer than the age of our subterranean waters which reserves took thousands of years to form and which we foolishly consumed within two or three decades of the oil boom.

The irony is that all efforts to raise awareness are directed towards the consumption of water in homes. Hussayen said the consumption of water will not be moderated until citizens pay the real price of water, and he’s right. However, in his speech, he also noted that agriculture is what consumes 80 percent of water.

Following his speech sounding the alarm bell, we returned to discussing the Iranian threat, political Islam and American retreat. The minister then headed east of the kingdom to inaugurate a desalination water plant in Ras al-Kheir. The plant is the biggest desalination facility in the world on the production level and the most costly. It joins 17 other plants on Gulf shores and on the coast of the Red Sea. This plant, along with other desalination plants in the Gulf, is described as a “duck on a lake” to signify their security exposure should a war break out in the region.

Perhaps the security dimension regarding the importance of preserving water in the desert can be further clarified if I rephrase the question I introduced the article with: “What if a military confrontation breaks out and Iran, which desires to dominate the region (or another player), targets desalination plants at a time when we are squandering our subterranean water?”

This article was first published in al-Hayat on April 27, 2014.


Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

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