Security Studies Program Seminar

Asia’s Growing Footprints in the Middle East: What it Means for America

Geoffrey Kemp
Director, Regional Strategic Programs
Nixon Center

October 15, 2008


Speaker’s Presentation:



Question & Answer Session:

Q. Aren’t Central Asian states competitors with the Middle East for Asian business?  Also, what about proposals for a natural gas cartel?

A. Land pipelines certainly have distinct advantages and appeal over seaborne traffic.  However, Asian strategic thinkers also seem to value redundancy in this regard, and land pipelines are vulnerable in their own ways.  Gas cartel’s prospects undermined by unreliable Russian-Iranian relations.

Q. What are your conclusions for U.S. policy?  What should U.S. policy be toward Iran in the next administration?

A. U.S. foreign policy has to take into account aggregate capabilities for carrying out global obligations.  Huge commitments offered but limited resources for carrying them all out.  In addition to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia are going to be the big impending challenges.  Iranian election is an important marker as well, especially with oil prices falling.

Q. So what happens if the price of oil goes down and stays down?  What does this mean for your projections of trade flows and infrastructure construction?

A. I would take my stocks out of the ski resort in Dubai.  The construction cranes stop operating and projects will fail.  Additionally, desalination plants and nuclear plants are key factors to watch.  If oil falls too far, we would also have to worry about instability in friendly countries as well, including in Saudi Arabia – not just in Iran.  This also depends on whatever energy policy the next president adopts.  President Bush missed an enormous opportunity after September 11th to change American energy consumption patterns.

Q. Where do these two regions rank on each other’s priority lists?  To what extent do events in one region reverberate in the other region’s politics?

A. South Asian labor brings with it a distinct set of South Asia-related political issues to the Gulf.  Home countries are beginning to care about how their expatriates are being treated abroad as well.  It’s not just working class labor anymore, it’s the banks and hotels as well, now.  The Gulf states still put relations with the U.S. as number one.

Q. What about the consequences of possible proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East?  What about the consequences of a potential overthrow of the Saudi regime?

A. Serious terrorist incidents in the Gulf could shut the whole tourism operation down, as could terrorist attacks on oil infrastructure damage the energy trade.  A nuclear Saudi Arabia is a huge problem, but so is Egypt.  If Saudi Arabia goes nuclear, perhaps so will Egypt, and that terrifies the Israelis.  Extensive nuclear proliferation in the Middle East could lead Israel to modify its nuclear doctrine to become more transparent.  Turkey might go nuclear as well.

Q. The world moved on after the U.K. left east of Suez.  Why can’t we think of a Middle East without the U.S. as manageable?  Is Indian Ocean piracy a problem worth billions of U.S. dollars?  Don’t the Persian Gulf states have sufficient incentive to police their own exports? 

A.  I think we could draw down this commitment over perhaps a 25-year period.  The British withdrawal did have consequences for the U.S., it wasn’t costless.  The Iraqi army could have moved south into Saudi Arabia in 1990 and we feared we would have been powerless to stop it.  Now we worry about the Iranians as the would-be hegemon if the U.S. were to leave.  Taking out Saddam Hussein left Iran unbalanced.  Iraq in theory could become a strong state again if they were to get their act together.  But the two persistent concerns for the U.S. in this region will be energy security and the regional balance of power, as well as the nuclear issue.  We could draw down and have more cooperation with the neighbors, however.

Rapporteur: David A. Weinberg

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Fall 2008