If you need evidence that the Gulf is a pivotal region in a globalised world, don’t just look at its towers or its wealth; look at how the world courts it. Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, rushed to ask for Gulf money. George W Bush, the outgoing US president, is about to host a G20 meeting that includes Saudi Arabia. The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, just ended a tour of the region, as did the Chinese defence minister.
It is not just governments who are engaged in this dance. Last week-end, several hundred leaders from government, business, academia and NGOs descended on Dubai for the largest-ever brainstorming exercise on the future of the world. And with the fallout of the financial crisis clarifying, the election of Barack Obama, and the upcoming G20 summit in Washington, the World Economic Forum’s Summit on the Global Agenda could not have been better timed. All the angst and promise of the moment were palpable, a vague sense of being present at the creation. This was something the organisers hoped to channel into defining a “Global Agenda” that governments and corporations will have to address.
This is indeed a moment of unprecedented fluidity and opportunity in global politics and yet, in several respects, it seems that the Gulf is not able to capitalise on it because it has not yet articulated a vision able to complement or compare with competing ones. There are legitimate reasons why this is so: the Gulf states are relatively young, they have been hesitant to assert themselves in such a volatile region, and lingering mistrust among themselves has obstructed regional integration, as has their preference for bilateral relations.
However, unless they demonstrate greater self-confidence they risk losing a unique chance of joining the major league and helping define its rules. For instance, there is a sense that the Gulf had no unified and forceful message to convey to Gordon Brown during his visit, although he was the one with the begging bowl, and that Saudi Arabia will not push for a greater say in world governance at the G20 meeting.
Until Saudi Arabia becomes the industrial power that King Abdullah wants it to be, and the UAE the educational and innovative hub, the Gulf needs to be truthful about its inherent power. Taken together, the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman) constitute the world’s 12th largest economy for a total population of nearly 30 million. Impressive by all means, but if complacency prevails and modernisation is halted by the travails of the world economy, it won’t be sufficient to ride the coming storms.
The fall of oil prices will affect this position, but as Opec’s power to set prices erodes and the source of Gulf muscle shifts from oil to capital, the Gulf is discovering that liquidity and the ability to move it quickly are just as precious instruments as oil. That’s why the GCC should ask for a redistribution of voting rights at the International Monetary Fund.
The success of the Gulf so far has been the recognition of the limits of its power. Its driving principles have an intimate involvement in all the mechanisms of globalisation; a diversification of political and strategic relationships, a commitment to cross-cultural exchanges to combat the perception of radicalism and reach out to new partners, and a tentative desire to separate the fortunes of the region from the messiness of the broader Middle East.
Now is the time to go beyond this defensive agenda. If governments in the region are serious about educational reform, support for research and development in the fields of science and industry, better regulatory frameworks, and transparency at all levels of society, then there is a world of opportunity waiting.
What is needed is intellectual muscle and creativity. For a start, the region has capable leaders who have defined ambitious national agendas, but they run into structural obstacles (inefficient bureaucracies, inadequate labour supply and markets) they can only solve with time, commitment and education.
Just as importantly, to secure its place on the world stage and help shape the future of the global order, the Gulf needs to be much more engaged in the battle of ideas. What does the rise of the Gulf mean to the Middle East, Asia and the world beyond mere wealth? What is its cultural and intellectual dimension? What, beyond energy and capital, makes the Gulf so vital to the rest of the world? What future relationships can we expect?
The dearth of indigenous public discussion of these issues affects how the rest of the world thinks of the Gulf. In fact, at the WEF meeting, what was most conspicuous was the silence of Gulf participants in plenary discussions.
Take the example of nuclear proliferation and the undeniable risks it poses to the region. There is an indigenous and perfectly reasonable proposal, developed by the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre and endorsed by several Gulf states, to create a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone in the Gulf. The hope is that such a zone would reassure Iran enough to prevent it from going nuclear. The proposal faces numerous hurdles, including the insistence from other states in the Arab world that Israel be included. Beyond public statements, though, the Gulf states have not embarked on a campaign to put the proposal on the world’s agenda. They should take full ownership of the idea and make it part of any discussion on regional security.
The good news is that the Gulf is building the capacity to answer these intellectual challenges. The Dubai School of Government, the Gulf Research Centre and the various new foundations already provide analytical and policy innovation. Trusting and empowering these centres of thought would go a long way in the Gulf’s quest for power.
Emile El-Hokayem is a Non-Resident Fellow in the Southwest Asia/Gulf Program at the Stimson Center and the Politics Editor of the UAE-based The National newspaper. This article first appeared in the National on November 12, 2008.