The Gulf Arab States have a dilemma. One reason that they have been able to avoid upheaval over the last tumultuous year in the Middle East is because they have made their already generous public subsidies even more generous. But within the short-term fix is a set of longer-term problems that could profoundly affect regional stability.
In the most basic sense, wealthy Arab governments increased their spending last year in order to improve internal security. Saudi Arabia, for example, announced plans to spend an additional $130 billion, representing approximately 30 percent of GDP. Much of the money is targeted at housing, salaries, and unemployment benefits-all essentially public subsidies. Qatar, with probably fewer than 250,000 citizens, passed an $8 billion pay raise for public sector employees, representing a hike of between 50 and 120 percent. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) gave $10 billion each to member states Oman and Bahrain to improve housing and infrastructure, spreading the wealth, and stemming the protests. The governments are using plentiful oil money to buy internal peace.
However, that strategy brings with it a high cost, which influences regional as well as domestic politics. When oil prices have been low, the government of Iran has sought regional stability through less aggressive regional policies. When they have been high, the government of Iran has sought to enhance its regional influence. When oil prices dipped in the mid-1990s, for example, President Mohammed Khatami initiated a rapprochement with Iran's Arab neighbors, strengthening ties and lowering the rhetoric that had reached a fever pitch in the years immediately after the 1979 Iranian revolution. Under Khatami, almost two decades of Iranian-Arab hostility gave way to diplomacy. Tehran hosted a summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference-an organization that traditionally has strong Saudi influence-and President Khatami's "Dialogue of Civilizations" effort held out the prospect of coexistence with the GCC states. Iranian ships in the Gulf were more cooperative with the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and Iran toned down its anti-American rhetoric.
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As oil prices crept up after the U.S.-led war on Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iranian-Arab hostility increased again. Iran's apparent nuclear ambitions loomed largest on the agenda, but Iranian actions in Iraq and the increasing aggressiveness of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy-which is now the principal Iranian naval force in the Gulf-also played a role.
Here, then, is the dilemma. The GCC states need increasingly high oil prices to promote domestic security. Yet, those higher prices tend to abet Iranian misbehavior, which threatens their external security. Markedly lower oil prices would threaten domestic stability in Iran and intensify pressure on the current Iranian government. If the past is a guide, lower prices would also nudge the Iranian government toward moderating its behavior. Yet, at the same time, low oil prices would threaten the domestic stability that the GCC states have sought to foster. There is no obvious "sweet spot" for oil prices that curb Iranian malfeasance and still allow healthy GCC subsidies at home. Indeed, whereas several years ago Iran required markedly higher oil prices to balance its budget than its Gulf Arab neighbors, extraordinary Arab spending in the last year has brought the prices required to cover spending closer.
Jon B. Alterman is senior fellow and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
This essay is reprinted from the February 2012 issue of CSIS Middle East Notes and Comment.