Ras al Khaimah sits at the northern end of the United Arab Emirates, close to the border with Oman. The wealth of Abu Dhabi and the glitz of Dubai seem far away. But this quieter – and more normal – Emirate has one thing its more glamorous cousins down the road do not have: mountains.
The Hajjar Mountains rise spectacularly from the coast and stretch northwards to the northern tip of Oman, overlooking the Straits of Hormuz and Iran. At nearly 3000 metres above sea level, this range of mountains is comprised of a series of high arid plateaus and steep-sided valleys walled in by soaring cliffs. Elsewhere these cliffs would attract the attention of the massed ranks of the rock climbing community but during a day walking in these hills last week, we saw only the occasional shepherd whose ancestors have scratched a living from this beautiful but austere landscape for generations.
It seems strange sitting at the head of a deserted valley, that such a quiet and seemingly peaceful corner of the world should be the focus of so much global attention. The Straits of Hormuz a few kilometres north of here is the epicentre of tensions between Iran and those countries headed by the USA and Israel intent on preventing Iran developing a nuclear capability.
The threat to block the Straits of Hormuz and therefore disrupt supply of the 20% of the world’s oil that passes through the straits every day is Tehran’s trump card in this latest stand-off with its old enemies in Europe and North America. Iran, now subject to further international sanctions, routinely undertakes naval exercises in the straits under the watchful eye of the US Fifth Fleet. The great powers – the US, China, India, Japan, the EU, Russia – all engage in a vexed game of geopolitical chess as they each seek to gain what advantage they can from the situation while protecting their energy supplies. The oil markets jitter in anticipation.
In the past five weeks I have been asked about the likelihood of a military confrontation with Iran in places ranging from Washington DC, Lagos, Shanghai, Delhi, Mumbai and Dubai. Ironically, the further you go from this narrow neck of water at the bottom of the Persian Gulf, the more extreme is the concern. In the US and China there seems to be a stark simplicity to the inevitability of some kind of confrontation. Closer to home in Dubai, there seems to be a sense that behind the military posturing there is sufficient ambiguity of intent and mutual economic interest for a crisis to be averted.
It is interesting to consider whether the perspective afforded by geographical distance results in over-simplification or greater clarity. And conversely, does living next door to the problem breed a blasé excess of confidence or lead to a more nuanced and sophisticated ground truth? No doubt the answer (and the AnnaPurna Consulting’ approach) is some fusion of the two: objective, dispassionate analysis informed by a granular appreciation of the local intricacies.
But sitting on a ledge high above this ancient valley watching a hawk soaring on the warm thermals, it is tempting to believe that all is well with the world. Unfortunately, a few metres below us under the ground are billions of barrels of oil (sadly, not much of it belongs to Ras al Khaimah) destined for anxious customers all around the world each engaged in high-stakes brinkmanship over Iran.
Perhaps Presidents Obama and Ahmadinejad would be advised to spend a day hiking together in the Hajjar Mountains. An unlikely diplomatic scenario, I appreciate. But perhaps at the end of the day, tired and with aching limbs, they would find the inner tranquillity and clear mindedness that a long day in the hills affords. And that has been absent in most of their interaction to date.