Gulf War: The Socio-Political Background

By Abdulla, Abdulkhaleq | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Gulf War: The Socio-Political Background


Abdulla, Abdulkhaleq, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


The Arab Gulf region has gone through two tragic wars in nearly one decade. The first war, between Iran and Iraq which began in September 1980, lasted for eight long years. This war has been labeled by some as one of the costliest conflicts in the 20th Century,(1) whereas others referred to it as the longest war.(2) Two years after the cease-fire between Iran and Iraq, the latter, taking the whole world by surprise, invaded Kuwait. The shocking 2 August 1990 invasion set in motion a series of political, diplomatic and military activities which eventually led to the 16 January 1991 war. This second Gulf war lasted for only 42 days, but was nevertheless as damaging and as catastrophic as the first.(3)

Many people in the Gulf thought that the Iran-Iraq War would be the last major war in this vital and sensitive region. The damages and the human suffering caused by the eight year war were thought to be enormous enough to convince the leaders of the Gulf states to avoid further wars and settle their legitimate differences and disputes peacefully. Most of these states were yearning for a peaceful and more tranquil 1990s. The people of the Gulf, too, were optimistic that the worst moment in recent memory was finally over, and they were looking for a new start. As it turned out, this was ill-founded optimism. "The war to liberate Kuwait", turned out to be also a war for the complete and total destruction of Iraq as a major Gulf power.

Ever since the end of the Gulf war,(4) the main topic, once more, has become Gulf security. The Gulf region, while gradually returning to normality, still looks fragile and pregnant with all sorts of uncertainties, challenges and risks which raise fundamental questions about its future direction and possibilities.(5) The tragic events of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait have made the oil rich states, including Saudi Arabia, more insecure and certainly more dependent on foreign protection than ever before. These states are seeking answers to some deeply disturbing questions regarding their viability, identity, territorial integrity and their ability to independently manage their own affairs. The perennial question that preoccupies everybody in the Gulf is, Why is there so much tension in this region? Why do conflicts keep reoccurring so frequently? How is it possible to prevent future wars? But above all, everybody in and outside the Gulf is asking whether the second Gulf war is going to be also the last of the big wars in the region?

This essay attempts to address the last of these questions. It focuses, especially, on the sociopolitical background to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. In essence the article argues that the second Gulf war is basically an extension and a natural consequence of the first Gulf war between Iran and Iraq. These two tragic Gulf wars are intrinsically linked. Furthermore this essay also argues that the same historical and sociopolitical forces that produced the Iran-Iraq war were also responsible for the second Gulf war and indeed for much of the real and latent tensions in the region.

The sociopolitical background to much of the tensions, conflicts and wars in the Gulf include some diverse factors such as; the long lasting colonial legacy, the 1971 British withdrawal, the unresolved border disputes, the existence of a number of vulnerable small states, the 1973 oil price increase, the ongoing international interest in oil, the strains of rapid modernization, the 1979 resignation of the Shah and the consolidation of a revolutionary Islamic Republic in Iran, the continuation of one-man, one-family, one-party regimes and finally the persistence of foreign meddling which only exacerbates local conflicts and easily transforms them into potentially deadly and catastrophic wars with vast global consequences. Each of these sociopolitical factors, which have a bearing on one another, is itself a sufficient source of conflict, but all of them combined have worked over the last 20 years to produce the last crisis and war in the Gulf. …

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