PHOTOS: The nuclear powered American aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf in 2014. (U.S. Navy photo.) Mighty warships are the carriers, but in the constricted waters of the Gulf, vulnerable nevertheless. Below: A map of the Gulf, showing the proximity of Saudi Arabia and Iran to one another; a Canadian CF-18, somewhere.
When the habitually belligerent and militaristic leaders of Canada’s conservative political parties gather in their places of worship this weekend, will they be praying uncharacteristically for peace in the Middle East?
Here’s betting they are.
After all, at the moment their sole electoral comeback strategy seems to consist of exploiting the real and imagined impact of very low oil prices on Canada’s and Alberta’s economies to persuade voters our collective economic problems are caused by federal Liberal and provincial NDP mismanagement.
This is a pretty hard sell given that the economic troubles in question started on their watch in both Edmonton and Ottawa, and that it was Cap-C Conservatives who decided keeping all our economic eggs in one basket and becoming an “energy superpower” was a viable way to run a country. Nevertheless, the longer low oil prices drag on and the lower our Loonie sinks against the U.S. dollar the more plausible this interpretation is likely to appear to many voters.
So at the risk of sounding excessively cynical by mentioning the blindingly obvious, the suddenly soaring tension between predominantly Shia Muslim Iran and predominantly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, which are right across the Persian Gulf from one another, has the potential to wreck this desperate Canadian conservative election game plan.
This is because one likely consequence of even a protracted cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is higher oil prices, as real supplies tighten or are threatened, and traders react, often with emotion and irrationality as is quite typical in unregulated markets.
If the war turns hot, there is an inevitable possibility that petroleum prices will surge very high, very quickly, especially if the fighting results in shipping disruptions in the constricted waters of the Persian Gulf, as could easily happen in such a circumstance.
And if such a war got hot enough to damage vulnerable Saudi oil production facilities like the processing centre at Abqaiq, the world’s largest, there’s no telling how high the price of oil could go, or for how long.
Once this kind of trouble really gets rolling it can be very difficult to ratchet it down again. This is especially true if, as in the Middle East today, there are regional players such as Israel and Turkey that may see it as being in their interest to encourage tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This would be true whatever their American ally wants, which seems at the moment to be a continuation of lower oil prices and enough quiet in the Gulf to let them concentrate on their regime-change game in Syria.
The Islamic world has long been divided between the majority Sunni and minority Shia streams of Islam. Like most Westerners, I can’t pretend to understand the theological or cultural basis of this schism, which is said to date back more than 1,300 years.
But this much we know to be true: Garden-variety geopolitical crises can be very difficult to solve in the best of circumstances. Toss in sincerely held religious doctrines and a history of persecution and martyrdom over doctrinal differences between two large and well-armed regional powers and they easily become intractable.
In this, I suspect, we are looking at circumstances not dissimilar in some ways to the great rivalry between Catholic Spain and newly Protestant England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, a situation with which many Canadians will be more familiar for historical cultural reasons. As we know, some aspects of that rivalry were still playing out in the British Isles in the last decades of the 20th Century.
The proximate causes of the sudden deterioration in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are the persecution of Saudi Arabia’s significant Shia minority and in particular the execution – some would say judicial assassination – of Nimr Baqir al-Nimr along with 46 others by Saudi Arabia on Saturday. Saudi Arabian authorities had accused the prominent Shia clergyman of “terrorism,” though it is important to remember from a Western perspective that the Saudis include non-violent criticism of the country’s royal family within their definition of terror.
Take a situation like this and throw in modern anti-ship weapons and worse and, well, the possibility of much higher oil prices edges toward probability.
This led a commenter on the New York Times website on Sunday to contribute the following commentary: “Cui bono? The most productive oil wells in Saudi Arabia are in the east of the country where most of the Arab-speaking tribes are not Sunni but long-oppressed Shiites. If armed conflict erupts between Tehran and Riyadh, and Shiite insurgents disrupt the flow of oil from SA’s eastern wells, then this will drive down the supply of crude from the Near East and drive up prices of global oil.
“In this case, who will benefit most from their increased oil export revenue and improved balance of payments with the USA? Yes, you guessed it – Canada! Canada is by far the biggest single supplier of foreign crude and petroleum products to the US market and thus would benefit most fiscally from this scenario.”
Actually, this analysis pretty well nails it, even if the author’s subsequent stab at humour was misplaced given the potential for horror in this situation. The pseudonymous “Colenso,” apparently of Cairns, Australia, went on: “I know they look so civilized, innocent and wholesome, but there’s more to Canadians than just their love of ice hockey and maple syrup, Vancouver Harbour and healthy outdoor sport. … The most cunning enemy hides in one’s own shadow.”
Given this thought, perhaps there will now really be a temporary change of heart among the Canadian conservatives who have been braying for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to break his campaign promise and let Canada’s six Kuwait-based CF-18 fighter-bombers continue to fly as part of the U.S.-led coalition in the region, doing whatever they’ve been doing there. This hasn’t seemed very often to actually involve fighting ISIS, which may very well be Saudi Arabia’s surrogate in Syria and Iraq.
But I suspect that for one weekend at least Canadian conservatives will quite sincerely be seeking the intercession of the Almighty to keep Saudi Arabia’s wells pumping and the Persian Gulf wide open to peaceful navigation.
That way, Canada’s economy can remain “stuck in the awkward place,” as an economist quoted by Bloomberg News recently put it. And if that is the worst possible place for it under current circumstances, that is precisely where the conservatives want it to be.
This post also appears on Rabble.ca.