Some years ago I wrote about the febrile situation in the Middle East. I noted:
It's about as certain as it can be that, in so unstable a region, one kind of conflict will inevitably spill over into other kinds of conflict as well. The entire Middle East and Persian Gulf region is a giant tinderbox of religious, cultural, ethnic and political sensitivities right now. One spark, and...
Many of the conflicts I predicted in that post have since come to pass. I fear another is looming, this time between Saudi Arabia and Iran. They've been fighting a proxy war in Yemen for the past year or more. Now that looks to be mutating into direct conflict. The Telegraph reports:
Saudi Arabia’s drastic decision to behead the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr marks a point of no return in the bitter Sunni-Shia conflict engulfing the region. It is a dangerous escalation in the Kingdom's struggle with Iran for regional hegemony.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has vowed swift and harsh revenge, promising to bring down the Saudi dynasty in short order to avenge this “medieval act of savagery”.
. . .
Helima Croft, from RBC Capital Markets, said investors have yet to wake up to the full danger. “If we’d had scenes five years ago of the Saudi embassy in flames in Tehran there would have been a big move in the price, but right now there is so much over-supply and people just seem to think this is all noise. They have yet to get their heads around what can go wrong,” she said.
The risk for the Saudis is that the execution of Sheikh Nimr for what is essentially peaceful political protest ignites a long-simmering revolt by an aggrieved Shia minority, who make up 15pc of the population and are sitting on top of the giant Saudi oil fields in the Eastern Province. There were violent protests in the Sheikh’s home-town of Qatif on Monday, with at least one protestor shot dead by police.
Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, said Qatif is the nerve-centre of the Saudi petroleum industry, the so-called “Grand Central Station” where 12 pipelines come close together to supply the huge oil terminals at Ras Tanura and Dharan.
These pipelines are close to major roads and towns, making them hard to police against “hit and run” attacks.
Most of Saudi Arabia’s 10.3m barrels a day (b/d) of output passes through the Shia heartland, now seething with fury. While global crude stocks are at record levels, there is no spare capacity outside Saudi Arabia. A disruption lasting more than a few days could cause oil prices to spike violently – possibly to $200 or more – triggering a worldwide economic crisis.
Mr al-Ahmed said the mass executions have set in motion a fateful chain of events that nobody can now control. “It will likely trigger a bloody civil war that won’t end until the Saudi monarchy ceases to exist. This cycle of violence will not spare anyone or anything, including the coveted oil installations,” he said.
Bahrain and Sudan have already followed Saudi Arabia’s move to cut off diplomatic relations with Iran, and the United Arab Emirates has recalled its ambassador. The lines of cleavage are painfully clear in a Middle East already convulsed by four wars, and sliding closer to all-out conflagration.
. . .
A serious attack on Saudi Arabia would be a dangerous gambit for Iran, spelling the certain end to its rapprochement with the West and to its hopes for an end to sanctions.
Yet it cannot be ruled out. There are powerful factions within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that would welcome any chance to sabotage the nuclear deal. Saudi Arabia has just given them the perfect pretext.
There's more at the link.
The Persian Gulf is so vital and strategic a region of the globe that its importance can't be understated. Much of China's oil comes from Gulf states. Russia is a major supplier to and diplomatic ally of Iran. The USA and Europe are dependent on the flow of cheap Saudi oil to keep the rest of OPEC under control (and fuel their economies at the same time). All of those powers would be drawn into the confrontation if Saudi Arabia and Iran come to blows.
Keep your eye on this situation, friends. It could go anywhere.