x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The tide is changing in the Gulf, and the region will change with it

The traditional view of Gulf countries as no more than oil economies is quickly coming to an end.

In a few years, Abu Dhabi will boast what will be the two most prestigious museums in the Middle East. The Louvre and the Guggenheim will be the highlights of a grand programme aimed to position the emirate as a regional cultural capital. They also point to the sea change that has been redefining the relationship of the Arab Gulf to the Arab hinterland.

Not too long ago, the Arabs of older and bigger countries considered the Gulf nations as peripheral states with no contribution to make to cultural development. The traditional view was that Gulf countries were no more than oil economies lacking the human infrastructure or the political vision necessary to sustain development beyond the oil era or to assume any kind of leadership position in charting either the cultural or political courses of the area.

Not any longer. Reality, as well as perceptions, are rapidly changing.

Young Gulf cities have become financial and business capitals. Countries that a very few decades ago suffered a crippling lack of educational facilities now host universities affiliated to some of the greatest learning centres in the world.

All the influential pan-Arab media organisations are either owned and financed by Gulf countries or operate out of them. The greatest percentage of intellectual and cultural forums are now held in the Gulf, and the most prestigious literary awards are offered by the Gulf capitals that have become the mecca of publishers.

A historical transformation is taking place. The Gulf countries are becoming the centre of the region as political mismanagement and economic difficulties are marginalising the positions of the older countries that have traditionally assumed leadership of the Arab world. Even in politics, smaller Gulf states are exercising influence way beyond their size.

There is no denying that the amount of wealth generated by oil has made this transformation possible. But the reasons for the transformation are irrelevant here. A new reality has dawned in the region: that is the key issue. And the important question is whether it is sustainable.

The economic performance of the Gulf region, where oil prices are hitting historic highs, will enable the Gulf states to forge ahead with development plans whose fruits will continue to add significance to their regional role. But these countries will not be able to escape the consequences of the deterioration that is weakening the traditional centre.

While Dubai, for instance, has the largest number of cranes at work on its construction sites, Iraq is suffering from the devastating impact of what could be the largest amount of explosives in the world. No matter how hard they try, the Gulf states will not be able protect their development processes from the consequence of turmoil in their neighbourhood.

The region is interconnected in more ways than the current matrix of regional relations tend to indicate. Security is only one obvious domain where the tremors in one country will reverberate in another. But the interdependence goes much deeper. It is human, cultural and developmental.

Sustaining development in the Gulf, therefore, requires a stable regional environment. No matter what steps Gulf states take to bolster their nation-building, they cannot remain unaffected by the consequences of what is happening around them. And what is happening on their borders is not very assuring.

The tense relations between Iran and much of the international community pose a credible threat to the development of the Gulf. So do other regional trouble spots such as Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon. The wave of fundamentalism that is sweeping across the area will not somehow swerve to avoid the Gulf. It will hit here just as it will hit everywhere else.

As the Gulf moves further in asserting its centrality to the development process in the region, it will sooner or later be faced with having to pay the price usually associated with leadership. It will find itself playing a bigger role in trying to create regional frameworks that can ensure cross-border sustainable development.

The Gulf countries have already built the most effective - if not the only - regional cooperation mechanism in the Middle East. The Gulf Cooperation Council addresses the mutual needs of its members, who are tackling similar political and developmental issues. As the inter-connectedness with the other countries in the region grows as a direct result of economic development and the need to protect it, the need for broader regional cooperation will appear stronger.

This process can end in realising one of those key goals that has evaded the Arab world thus far: the regional cooperation structures. In the past, their creation has been blocked by political deficiencies and rivalry among those Arab states with claims to historic rights to leadership. Now, as an inevitable product of the economic and development process that is shifting the balance of power in the Arab world, they could finally emerge.


Ayman Safadi is a former editor of Alghad in Jordan and is a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs