How geography impacts policy
By Shahzad Chaudhry
April 17, 2015

The Persian Gulf is a unique geographical feature. It delineates a neat sociocultural division on either sides of it as it lies west to east joining in with the Arabian Sea on its eastern extremity. Littoral nations along the northern stretch of the Gulf carry significantly different social and cultural traditions from their opposing cousins — the nations of the Arabian Peninsula. India, Pakistan and Iran are centres in their own right of empires and dynasties that have had common roots. If it were the men from the Central Asian prairies at one time who swept through large swathes and occupied Persia, it was at another time when the Persians moved deep into India leaving their indelible marks on society and the cultural tradition there. Today’s Pakistan continues to embed such tradition in its sociocultural mores.
North of Iran, Afghanistan and parts of Iraq and Turkey in the west remained under the influence of this empire. The Ottomans from their redoubt in Turkey then expanded into most parts of what is now called the Gulf, and parts of Iran and India. If then Iran, Pakistan, the Muslims in India, Turkey and eastern extremities of Iraq seem to betray similarities in tradition and culture, it is the consequence of such geographical contiguity and inter-racial mixing. The Mughals, Turkmen, carried a heavy Persian influence during their entire rule. Till the Ayatollahs arrived on the scene in 1979, it was common for many Pakistanis to have spouses from Iran. The Ayatollahs closed the space and Iran became increasingly isolated.
The western extremity of the Gulf is another melting pot. The Iranians, Turks and the Iraqis merge to form a cultural mix which links them all together in similarities that have been both a bane and a boon. This intermixing of cultures also gave these people a reasonably similar worldview making recourse to each other natural enough. Sykes-Picot made that possible. Iran, Turkey and Pakistan were all members of Cento, the RCD, and the ECO and continue to find common cause as newer challenges emerge. Iran is now reverting to the fraternity after a hiatus under the Ayatollahs.
Hop across the Gulf, and it is another world. Revered by Muslims all over, the two Holy mosques that remain Islam’s most sacred sites are its centerpiece. If and ever the world were to come to an end with a war, the last Muslim standing will shed his blood there. The geopolitics of the region, however, is another matter, and perhaps hits at the centrality of an argument as to how much of religion should be at the root of geopolitics, and how much of the geopolitics is meant to bolster religion, or its various strains.
Few things, though, stand established. The world economy is universally based on the market. When communists and socialists gravitate in that direction, the die is almost cast, though the last word on it may still be out there. Globalisation, too, is now a reality; the internet, communication, society is all very much pervasive in its internationalised form. Yet the new does not alleviate the distortions of the old and the ancient that lie at the root of a civilisational construct. Visit any of the major cities in the Gulf Cooperation Councl countries and it becomes impossible to differentiate these from what one might see in Europe or the Americas. This is improvised modernity. What, however, continues to govern the mindsets and the social attitudes is still what made these societies in the first place — conservatism, tribalism, primordial, with resistance to newer paradigms, engendering social and cultural isolationism. Thus the two civilisations separated by a significant geographical gulf continue to evolve based on their own sociocultural belief systems. That gives rise to different politics, different societies and different approaches to modernism.
The modern age has manifested the centrality of the nation-state and the geopolitics emerging there — from as the currency of interaction. Religion in the Christian world was relegated to a personal concern, less an arbiter of societal disposition. The Muslim world has had trouble dealing with this vexation. Across the Gulf in the non-Arab world, democracy, politics and modernism in various measures have modified societal responses, though the strains are still around and the effort to establish a more balanced relationship continues. These are dynamic societies. In comparison, most Arab kingdoms betray stagnation and relative regression.
Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey are well assimilated in the international system, while Pakistan and Bangladesh are struggling through the last impediments to realise maturity and stability in their socio-politics and in their societal balance. Iran, with all its attributes of a formidable power based around a historic civilisation, an expansive empire of the past, and the strength of its own economic tradition, is just on the verge of a breakout from the shackles of the religious straitjacket under the Ayatollahs. It is likely that past their current transitions, the belt comprising Turkey, Iran and Pakistan will rediscover its progressive social, political and economic potential. It is also possible that regional contiguity may offer a far greater possibility of cooperation between them which can multiply their gains. The common root of their sociocultural tradition could be a force-multiplier.
The Arab world has had oil as its mainstay for international relevance and material gains. These states found patronage of the powerful which gave them initial sustenance, and as the returns from oil added capacity, those found expression in improved infrastructure and material comfort as improvised modernity. Formidable arsenals bequeath dynastic strength to the rulers. This also gave them the opportunity to spread their largesse as religious donations and developmental support to weak Muslim nations, in turn seeking expanded influence. Patronage to other nations has usually carried an implicit expectation to compensate the sheikhdoms with returns that help them alleviate their inadequacies. Perpetual insecurity, both internal and external, is one such pervasive fear. Therein lies the genesis of what is going on in Yemen.
Arab kingdoms are not militarily weak; they are socially vulnerable. Rather than seek military support, the Arab world needs to focus its capacities on building societies. That will translate into spending money on education, research and technology, or other avenues which can open up their societies to equal opportunity. Without participatory politics, the fear of internal upheavals will continue. It will help to enfranchise their people; constitutional monarchism is the way forward. Else the disparity with their northern cousins across the Gulf will continue to widen. Divergent tracks to state and societal progress across the Gulf remains the biggest threat to peace in the region.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 18th, 2015.