Kristian Coates Ulrichsen (ed.), The Changing Security Dynamics of the Persian Gulf

Strategically located and geopolitically important, the Middle East forms a natural bridge between the three oldest continents (Asia, Europe and Africa) in terms of politics, economy, culture and security. Throughout recent decades, the energy factor has bestowed additional significance on the region, and the Gulf area has taken centre stage among neighbouring regions in the Middle East. Moreover, following the 1979 Iranian Revolution (along with the Iran-Iraq War and the chaotic circumstances of the post-9/11 period), the Gulf’s security dimension became crucial for the region itself and beyond.

The Changing Security Dynamics of the Persian Gulf, edited by Chatham House associate fellow Ulrichsen and published by the Oxford University Press, focuses on the recent challenges threatening the internal and external security environment of the Gulf region in the aftermath of the events of the Arab Spring. Ulrichsen has also authored two other books on the Gulf affairs: The End of Uncertainty and the Transition to the Post-Oil Era (2011) and Qatar and the Gulf Spring (2014).

Ulrichsen’s detailed and timely research supported by well-known regional experts such as Nader Entessar, Gawdat Bahgat, Joseph Kechichian and other perceptive and talented scholars, offers a rich variety of regional expertise and in-depth observation regarding the domestic and regional / international dynamics shaping the security architecture of the region.

The Changing Security Dynamics of the Persian Gulf (especially when discussing security and foreign policy in the third chapter) can also be reviewed as a continuation and updated version of The Transformation of the Gulf, which was published in 2012 and co-edited with David Held in the more immediate aftermath of the Arab Uprisings.[1]

In his latest work, Ulrichsen focuses on three main topics: i) domestic politics, which includes business and politics, politics of succession, youth and protests, and Islamist / non-Islamist opposition circles; ii) foreign policy including Arab Uprisings, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) -regional states relations, the threat of Iran / Shiite communities, ISIS and challenges in Syria and Iraq; iii) political-economy which looks at rentier state structure, the global energy landscape, economic-strategy implications and commercial relations with international actors.

On some specific issues, such as Saudi succession politics; the rise of new political elites in Kuwait or India’s influence in the Gulf, Ulrichsen gathers scholarly articles to reflect on a broader perspective, namely the global energy landscape and its implications in the Gulf, GCC states’ foreign policy towards North Africa or business-politics nexus.

In his first two chapters Ulrichsen constructs the following three-dimensional analysis to discuss the Gulf’s changing security environment: i) national-domestic level with the challenge of low oil prices and its domestic implications, ii) regional level with the rise of radicalism and ISIS threats, iii) international level with increasing volatility and rising uncertainty following the election of Trump as president of the USA.

He also relates domestic issues to the regional/international security architecture by saying, “the Gulf’s external security alignments, both bilaterally with the US and multilaterally through the creation of the GCC, meet this requirement by reinforcing regime security against internal dissent as well as foreign threats” (p.11).

In the theoretical framework, Ulrichsen refers to realist conceptualization of balance of threat and balance of power analyses and describes the enduring dynamic between the Arab Gulf states and Iran within the mix of constructivist and realist approaches. He also expresses Rami Khouri’s righteous observation on the war in Yemen as a ‘rite of passage’ for GCC members who are asserting their power and the maturity of their statehood by launching a war against a weaker neighbour (p.17).

Matthiesen’s following observation, while describing changing foreign policy of the Gulf monarchies, summarizes the pro-active approach they have adopted since 2011 as a response to perceived threats: “A profound shift has been witnessed in the foreign policies of the GCC states from petrodollar diplomacy to direct involvement in politics and even military operations” (p.43).

This argument is true for Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, and to a lesser extent, Kuwait. Such interventionist foreign policy is also a striking shift for GCC countries from long term alliances with great powers, mostly the UK and the USA, and would most likely create unanticipated domestic and regional outcomes for the same monarchies.

An important shortfall of the book is the oversight of the role and influence of the global powers, particularly China and Russia, despite a separate chapter being dedicated to India and the hegemonic role of the USA as discussed in detail by several contributors. It would perhaps have been beneficial to have analysed more closely China’s rising influence, along with Russia’s return to the global stage, with President Putin and increasing activism not only in the Gulf but also across the whole region in terms of politics, economy, energy and military cooperation[2].

As a second point of criticism, Almezaini identifies the UAE as a ‘smart power’ because of its combination of soft and hard power elements in foreign policy (p.198). However, Prof. Mehran Kamrava offers another definition for Qatar; ‘subtle power’[3] While analysing small states’ increasing role and efficiency in world politics he highlights the terms’ main elements as; safety/security, prestige, brand recognition, reputation through proactive presence as a global good citizen, and influence.

For The Changing Security Dynamics of the Persian Gulf, comparing Qatar and the UAE would be interesting in terms of the use of soft and hard power in their foreign policies within the conceptualization of smart and subtle power.

To conclude, Ulrichsen’s book presents a timely and concise analysis of changing internal and external security dynamics affecting the Gulf region and the Middle East. In this context, security environments can rapidly deteriorate in the region, as the continuously hostile and conflicting nature of the statements and actions of Iranian and Saudi leaders clearly reflects.

An interesting point regarding the current chaotic circumstances surrounding the Gulf, paradoxically having emerged as early as February 2003, is the warning of then Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal to President Bush that he would be ‘solving one problem and creating five more’ if Saddam Hussein was removed by force (p.32). The events of the last two decades in the Middle East have proved the Saudi minister right and there is little room to be more optimistic about the future of the region.


[1] David Held & Kristian Ulrichsen (Eds.), The Transformation of the Gulf: Politics, Economics and the Global Order, (London: Routledge, 2012).

[2] Mehmet Akif Koç, “The Instrumentalization of Energy and Arms Sales in Russia’s Middle East Policy”. 9 March 2019, E-International Relations,

Dmitry Trenin, Russia in the Middle East: Moscow’s Objectives, Priorities, and Policy Drivers. Carnegie Moscow Center, April 5, 2016,

Anna Borshchevskaya, Russia in the Middle East: Motives, Consequences, Prospects. Washington: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 2016.

[3] Mehran Kamrava, Qatar – Small State, Big Politics, (New York: Cornell University Press, 2013), 46-68.