War Arabia and Persia: The Past and The Future

By James M. McDonough For USMilitary.com

There has been much uncertainty over the looming conflict between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, using a historical perspective it is possible to predict future actions in this region of the world. As the “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” and “The Islamic Republic of Iran” are both 20th Century affectations; for this article they will simply be referred to as “Arabia” and “Persia”. There is a purpose for this: as both countries histories stretch back three millennia or more – the past is prelude to the future.

Most countries in the world have longer historical memories than modern urban America and the countries of the Middle East most pointedly so; the inhabitants thereof would find the reversal of a Seventh Century invasion credible.

The Caliph Abu Bakr and the “Caliph” Abu Bakr
As the ISIS leader (Abu Bakr al Bagdadi) attempts to bring all of Iraq under the rule of his Sunni sect he could have chosen any “nom de guerre” from a large selection in the Arabic language. However, he chose the name of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr of the Quhaafah tribe; the companion and father-in-law of Muhammad. While the historical first Caliph only ruled for two years, he put down the final rebellion of the Arab tribes in the Arabian Peninsula and launched the campaign of conquest against the Persian Sassanid Empire by immediately overrunning Mesopotamia (present day Iraq).

There is no coincidence here, Abu Bakr (Junior), along with the rulers of Arabia and Persia, absolutely know every bit of this Seventh Century Muslim history and are intent upon repeating it. This mindset, coupled with the political, societal and economic facts on the ground will very likely lead to a war between the two countries in the next 10 to 20 months. The remainder of this article explains the facts on the ground and how they will lead to the coming war.

Geography is Destiny – Setting the Chessboard
Oddly, amidst the chaos of the present day Middle East, Arabia is an enemy of ISIS – though the Islamic State is Sunni and Arabia is 90% Sunni. This is important because, even if you still think Islam is a religion (instead of a totalitarian political system) there remains a vicious divide between the two sects of this system. This divergence is critical in the analysis that follows.

In the year 632 A.D. the ancient Persian civilization was at nadir and the “True Believers” of Arabia were in an aggressive ascendancy. Persia’s civilization (then called “Eilam”) goes back to about 2,000 B.C. Of course, Alexander the Great truncated the Persian Empire in 331 B.C. by conquest, but Persia remained. The contributions of this civilization are enormous: the first brick buildings, the first coinage, anesthesia, standardized weights & measures, the first monotheistic religion (Zoroastrianism), the caesarian operation, the Sanskrit language, insurance, your favorite decorative carpets and a thousand other significant inventions.

But in the Seventh Century the Persians were weakened and demoralized by a long series of wars with the Byzantine Empire and with the tribes on their northern border. In launching the first Muslim Conquest timing is everything and the forces of Abu Bakr took full advantage. Adam Smith commented in “Wealth of Nations” that in the ancient world the wealthy and pampered civilizations feared invasion and conquest by the poor and ragged tribesmen of the desolate areas.

This is precisely what happened to Persia in 634 A.D. The Arabians then were nomadic tribesmen living upon one of the most desolate deserts in the world. Their agriculture was subsistence and scattered. They were fortunate only in that they lived in the empty ground between actual civilizations. Their best wealth producing activities consisted in being merchants in the overland trade from India and Persia to the Levant and Europe or simply raiding the other people who were merchants. The latter having the higher profit margin. Although the Arabs had no great cities, they had wonderful skill sets for an army of conquest. They were expert travelers, inured to the hardships of the desert, skilled at land navigation, practiced in the use of weapons and hardened by a lifetime of raiding and inter-tribal warfare. All they really needed was a unifying force.

Abu Bakr’s lifelong friend Muhammad supplied that force.
He called it “Submission” (in Arabic: “Islam”). Liberally borrowing texts from nearby monotheistic religions, he created one of the greatest cults of personality in all history. It unified the quarreling tribes into an army of conquest that was ready to take on the world, and did. Within a decade, most of Persia was “officially” Muslim. However, the Persians did not embrace it wholeheartedly, recognizing perhaps that they had been conquered by their inferiors. Large segments of the population did not convert to Islam for centuries (some never); when they did it was finally to the “heretical” Shiite form of Islam.

The Next Thirteen Centuries
After the Muslim Conquest the Persians continued to live in their great cities, engaging in trade, agriculture and manufacture with large minorities of the population still practicing Zoroastrianism, Judaism and even Christianity. Over several centuries the Shia sect of Islam gradually dominated. But their great civilization, continued to create, advance science and accomplish profitable trade. To this day Persia is the largest and most powerful of the Shia majority countries; something of which they are keenly aware.

Through the centuries from the Arab Conquest to now, just exactly what were the Arabians doing? Like other militarized nomadic conquerors, they lived for generations off the fruits of the conquest. They took over the great cities they overran and harshly ruled them for the centuries to come. In their own land they used the great fortunes to build palaces and mosques. What they did not do was improve Arabia itself. Nothing was invested in improved agriculture, crafts, manufacturing or transportation; in spite of having access to the most advanced of these technologies at the time. However, with the Hajj (pilgrimage) they created a new form of religious tourism; much like the Christians had done in Jerusalem centuries earlier, which still pours money into Arabia.

The 19th Century came as a terrible shock for the Islamic world. After the Crusades had faded away by the 12th Century, the militarized Caliphates, making use of the advanced science from the Persians, Christians and Hindus, sat comfortably ensconced upon the east-west trade routes demanding tribute and “taxes” from the merchants. Starting with Isabel of Spain, the Europeans built great trading empires that went around the satisfied Muslims sitting on the old trade routes in the Levant and Africa.

By the 18th Century the Europeans had advanced science, industry, shipbuilding and the military arts past anything the Muslims brought down from the old civilizations they had stolen. Rather than just being turned back at the gates of Europe, they could now be conquered themselves. However, as Europe’s empires could bring their trade goods by sea around the Muslim territories, and they were already advancing past the Islamics in other areas of endeavor; there was simply no reason to conquer the Muslims. Nobody needed what they had. That is until 1859 when a gentleman in Pennsylvania named Edwin Drake drilled the first oil well.

Tribesmen vs. City Dwellers
Pretty much every literate person on the planet knows of Arabia’s incredible “robes to riches” story starting in 1935. Through no fault (or effort) of their own, the recently established “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” claimed ownership of all the minerals under the sand beneath their camels – the greatest windfall of all history.

Within the next few decades Ibn Saud and his family discovered that they could buy anything that they wanted. They could have used their money to build infrastructure, educate their poor, illiterate population; in short – build a modern country. They did not do that. They followed the old ways and divided the spoils among their family, clan and tribe. They did build more palaces, and cities grew up around them. They upgraded Mecca and Medina with a respectable increase in the religious tourism.

Although the members of the Arabian royal family were among the richest men on earth; they still acted like tribesmen, dressed like tribesmen and thought like tribesmen. But across the Persian Gulf the people had been busy for the last century.

Reza Shah Pahlavi, starting in 1925, arguably did the most for the people of Persia than had anybody in centuries. Of course he was a hard-nosed military man who basically made himself the new King (Shah). What Americans seem to forget is this was exactly how things were all over the world for thousands of years until that little confab in Philadelphia in 1776. Reza was just supplanting an old monarchy. Persia had suffered internal upheaval and foreign incursions right up through the reign of Reza.

But using the model of Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk, he worked hard to create a secular government based on modern technologies and methods. He swelled the ranks of the middle class, expanded infrastructure, improved public health and reduced poverty. He was actually pretty popular with everybody in Persia – except the Islamic “clergy”. When the Soviets and British occupied Persia in 1941 the two allies exiled him to South Africa and put his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (age 22) on the throne, who then aggressively carried on what his father had been doing. He dramatically raised the status of women, expanded education, improved the legal system, adopted new technologies and vastly improved their national defense.

For Persia today the important legacy of the Pahlavis is the military infrastructure they inadvertently “bequeathed” to the Ayatollahs. Because of the US/UN embargos the Pahlavis simply built their own “Military Industrial Complex”. Instead of buying weapons they bought weapons factories. Between embargos the U.S. even sold Mohammad Pahlavi a complete drone factory, which explains why they now have fleets of very serviceable drones for combat deployment. For a decade they have been building warships (7 corvettes & scores of missile boats), missiles by the thousands, tanks, artillery pieces, helicopters, infantry weapons of every type and ammunition for all the above. Imagine what another $150 billion will do.

The chessboard is now set for the modern day story to be presented. The Persians remember the past hundred years where American and British governments have changed by force the course of their nation. The following scenario presumes that neither of these two countries has the will and/or the capability to intervene in any major military action in the Middle East – as we have not in the last six years.

Almost 75% of Arabia’s oil fields are inside a 200 kilometer circle drawn around the city of Dhahran; also inside that same circle are 90% of the Shiite population of Arabia. Both of the above facts are of critical importance because Dhahran is right on the coast in the center of the Persian Gulf.

The Persian city of Abadan is on the Iraqi border about 50 kilometers northeast of Kuwait. With the compliance of their Iraqi Shiite brethren an armored force could pierce the Arabian border fence and race to the heart of the oil fields in a 300 kilometer dash. Of course, to seize the oil fields intact, you would be wise to prepare the above mentioned Shia population to coordinate with a Persian amphibious landing on the coast near Dhahran. As the Persians control the major islands in the Persian Gulf and have significant naval bases on them (and have amphibious ships) this is not a difficult endeavor.

One might expect that a rich country like Arabia would have a military large and capable enough to throw back an invader. Well, on paper their army (“Land Forces”) has 175,000 men and their “National Guard” has 100,000 men. Their National Guard is not like America’s, they are full time soldiers, but chosen from the tribes and clans loyal to the royal family. (Essentially they were created to protect the king from a coup by the Land Forces.) The Land Forces are not well regarded as an effective fighting force; the Guard even less so. The Persian armed forces claim 550,000 regulars and 650,000 reservists allowing them to field a 1.2 million man army (a four to one advantage).

Noting that the great majority of the Arabian population lives on the Red Sea coast of the peninsula; the vast oil fields look to a Persian military mind as an easily accessible prize with few collateral issues and a large “fifth column” of willing Shiite helpers. In that one of the most important jobs of anybody’s top generals is to plan for all possible military threats or opportunities, there are most certainly plans to affect this sort of invasion stored in the Persian military headquarters.

The Reward
Oil production is generally expressed in terms of Million Barrels Per Day (MBPD). The United States at 9.3 MBPD has inched past Arabia at 9.2 MBPD. The Persian fields are down to 3.7 MBPD. Since ISIS, Iraq is producing around 3.3 MBPD. So, if this Persian Army swept out of northwestern Persia, turned south and linked up with an amphibious assault force in the oil fields; what would be its reward? Using the above production numbers, Persia could theoretically come to control 16.2 MBPD of production or 18.2% of the world’s oil supply.

As the army of conquest went from east to west, the Persian leadership would see themselves moved up in the global power game by several orders of magnitude. It is likely that the jihadist youth of Arabia (especially Shiite) would be drawn immediately to the new ”strong horse” in Arabia. This could lead to complete collapse of the royal regime and present the invaders the opportunity to secure the eastern half of the peninsula. By sincerely claiming not to want to harm the “sacred two mosques”, the Persians could likely negotiate the establishment of a western Arabia satrapy under a “religious” leader.

What About the USA?
In the seventy years since the end of WW II, through competent and inept American administrations the leaders of other countries almost always knew where the US stood; not any more. Between the fading “red lines”, the catastrophes in Libya, the ineptitude in Iraq and the “cooked” intelligence reports; most any foreign leader would be perplexed.

The last two kings in Arabia were not unreasonable in believing that having someone who was raised a Sunni Muslim (in Indonesia) sitting in the White House would be a great positive for their kingdom. It has not worked out that way. Most American politicians cannot tell you what the current administration stands for on any given day.

With a bit of luck, the above scenario may never happen. But if the US continues to sit on the sidelines, war may break out across the entire region. Arabia will likely be crushed. One fifth of the world’s oil will be in the hands of the Persian Ayatollahs. When that happens, it will likely change our world more profoundly than did September 11, 2001.




3 Responses to “War Arabia and Persia: The Past and The Future”

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military dot image Russ    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0


Very robust history lesson. This helps to put the current state of affairs in perspective.

Not sure about what specific intervention can stabilize the situation. Radical forces are filling the void and don’t seem ready to stop until victorious or dead in the attempt.

Certainly another interesting time in history. Let’s hope we all survive to tell future generations about it.

military dot image Christina    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Very informative and enlightening. Should be required reading for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave!

military dot image Mike M    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

You [the author] demonstrate a keen grasp of world history, culture, geopolitics and current events. I appreciate your thoughtful analysis. Let’s hope our policy-makers at State and Defense will give your piece due consideration. Thanks!

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