The Arabian Peninsula is the largest peninsula in the world. It has been a centre of world trade and culture for centuries and is the birthplace of Islam and home to the religion’s two holiest sites: Mecca and Medina.
Nearly every country on the Arabian Peninsula has joined the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Currently, only war-torn Yemen remains outside it. The GCC is an alliance that aims to strengthen the economic, cultural and political bonds among member states which share the same Arab-Islamic cultural background. In the previous century, there had been previous attempts to form political unions of Arab nations, most notably the short-lived United Arab Republic which witnessed a brief union of Egypt and Syria.
The Gulf lies to the northeast of the Arabian Peninsula. It is an enclosed sea which is linked to the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Hormuz and one of the world’s most strategically important waterways. Landbound travel has also been a key feature of the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, the pre-Islamic peninsula was populated largely by nomadic tribes. Many citizens of the peninsula can still trace their lineage back to such nomadic ancestors. Travel for pilgrimage has also been a long standing feature, particularly for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which every year sees many millions of pilgrims attend Hajj and Umrah.
With its important role in culture and the economy, the peninsula has historically attracted foreign attention. In the colonial period, western powers like Britain entered into a series of agreements with ruling families, putting much of the peninsula under British protection. The 20th century was one of the most transformative for the region. The era was one of self-determination and some of the most rapid economic development the world has ever seen due to the discovery of huge oil reserves and bold and visionary development policies. But it was also one of significant upheaval that saw war, terrorism and social unrest, most recently with the catastrophic civil war in Yemen that highlights the stark divides when it comes to stability and prosperity in the region.
While difficulties remain, the development of the Arabian Peninsula during the last few decades still represents one of the world’s most remarkable economic ascents. The region is in the midst of transforming itself once again, with the GCC states pursuing unprecedented economic structural reform to reduce their future dependence on oil. With so much cultural and economic clout, the Arabian Peninsula will remain for years a region in which Britain will find some of its most crucial allies.
Though close in proximity, Iraq differs from the other Gulf states. The country today known as Iraq, created in 1932, tells a fraction of the story of the region at the centre of the Middle East, that has been central to both its civilization and conflicts.
Iraq’s nodal geographical location makes it a vital nation in the Middle East, bordering the key regional players of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Iran. It is virtually landlocked apart from a 58 kilometer of coast in the northern Arabian Gulf. In its recent history Iraq has played host to a number of foreign interests, yet it boasts arguably some of the oldest and most significant history and civilization in the world.
Often referred to as one of the cradles of civilization, the fertile region between the rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates that run south through Iraq has been and still continues to be the strategic and cultural heart of the region. The area has been home to successive civilisations since the 6th millennium BC, including the titanic empires of the Babylonian, Sassanid and Abbasids. The region has been the site of a vast number of empires, tribes and religions, as much as it has outsourced innovations and experts in poetry, architecture, painting and writing. The city of Baghdad, having been at the center of the commercial and intellectual world, now plays an important strategic role in the region, as a centre of security and administrative control.
Iraq’s diverse ethnic makeup, as well as its geography, tells the story of both its successes and conflicts. The creation of the Kingdom in 1938 grouped ethnicities including Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and Yazidis under the same flag. As such, certain leaders and groups have exploited such ethnic divides to engage in sectarian violence that has marred the country's growth in recent decades. Atrocities against ethnic groups, especially the Kurds, have been carried out by both Saddam Hussein and ISIS. The concentration of Kurds in the mountainous northern region of Kurdistan had been an ongoing source of conflict for decades, in which Kurds long fought for independence from Iraq. Following the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, a semi-autonomous Kurdistan region was established in Northern Iraq.
The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI)
The Kurdish people and their identity has long been defined and born out of oppression and resistance. Once assumed to received full independence via the Treaty of Sevres, the Kurds have experienced a history of betrayal, oppression, and genocide.
Genocidal events such as the Anfal campaign, in which Saddam Hussein’s forces killed between 50,000 and 182,000 Kurds in the 1980s, have become an important constitutive element of Kurdish national identity. The Kurdish people, with a population estimated at over 30 million and a large and active diaspora, are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state. They are spread out geographically across the region between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Armenia. The fate of their region and its autonomy is largely influenced by its regional neighbours.
The geography and ethnic makeup of Iraq has meant it is susceptible to instability and violence, particularly from foreign actors and terrorist groups such as Iran or ISIS. Iraq is currently experiencing relative calm as it recovers from decades of unrest and war, from the 2003 Invasion to the growth in territory of ISIS. The diminishing presence of foreign troops in the region as well as scheduled democratic elections in October 2021 signal renewed hope for the region in returning to a state of stability and prosperity. As Iraq rebuilds, the UK has an opportunity to redefine its relationship with the nation and region at large, becoming an economic partner as well as a strategic ally.