The title of today’s column is inspired by “The Gulf Moment in Contemporary Arab History” by the Emirati researcher and political science professor at Emirates University, Abdul-Khalek Abdullah. Initially presented in a seminar in 2009, it was published as a research paper by the University of London in 2010. It subsequently appeared in book form in 2017, and then in an Arabic edition in 2018.
It posits that the moment of the six states that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — started when they began to come into their own after Egypt faded from the regional scene following the death of Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
Then, after a three-decade period of confusion and lack of direction (1970-2000), the Gulf arose to embrace a new historic moment. Their state-building processes were complete or nearing completion, oil prices stood at over $100 a barrel and surplus wealth had accumulated, modern technologies and processes had poured in and were taking root, education and health met the highest international standards, and military might was expanding.
This latter moment would face a major test in second decade of this century, a point at which the “Arab Spring” delivered a debilitating blow to the Arab immune system.
Abdul-Khalek Abdullah’s thesis came up again for discussion in the Sixth Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, hosted by the Emirates Policy Centre on 9-11 November. This year’s conference was given the title “Old Power’s Competition in the New Age” and the discussion in question occurred during the session on “The Gulf Region: Capabilities and Possibilities.” The Arab region and the Gulf are far from where they stood a decade ago when Professor Abdullah first introduced his concept and when many think tanks were contemplating the Gulf’s rising star.
During the past two years oil prices have plunged to half their level in 2009. Tests of military balances have resulted in brutal Iranian interventions in the region, active Turkish aggression and territorial occupation in Syria, and Israeli territorial expansion with the annexation of East Jerusalem, the Golan and, probably soon, more parts of the Palestinian West Bank.
Also, divisions within the GCC have turned the “Gulf moment” into something less like a state of strength and more like a state of precariousness in which Qatar plays the Trojan horse. Meanwhile, the “US ally” is acting like a spectator who popped over to this region carrying invoices for services rendered and demanding pay.
To conference participants from Egypt or the Levant, talk of difficult times in contemporary history, of states of frailty that court setbacks and defeats, or even of allies who proved not up to expectations in both responsibility and courage, was hardly new. But there was another note to the general sense of disappointment in Abu Dhabi, a notion that this difficult time had something to do with Egypt being “absent” or, in the words of one participant, “paralysed” or “semi-paralysed”.
In Abdullah’s original book, the “Gulf Moment” began 20 years after Egypt’s Nasserist moment. There followed 30 years of confusion and lack of direction (as though the 1973 War had not occurred, Egypt had not recuperated Sinai and brought the first shrinkage in the Israeli empire, and Egypt and Israel had not signed the peace treaty that brought the first application of the principle of land for peace and that ushered in a new regional order). Then, since the beginning of this century, some decades after the Gulf countries won their independence and were now some phases into their modernisation processes, the Gulf soared to a new status in international and regional relations.
If circumstances in the Middle East and the Arab region, in particular, had been propitious for the rise of the “Gulf Moment” around the turn of the millennium, the second decade of the 21st century showed little mercy for the region. It opened with a first wave of the so-called Arab Spring which culminated in an Islamist fundamentalist hegemony, as manifested in Muslim Brotherhood control in Egypt and Turkey, and the rise of their Shia counterparts in Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
The assault was vicious. It precipitated civil wars and threatened to wipe out entire national states across the region. The conflagration could have been even more horrifying than it actually was. Fortunately, the “Gulf Moment”, with its constituent parts, managed to buffer the GCC countries from the gale force hot and sandy winds of that “spring”. It then helped make resistance possible, as was first manifested in the 30 June 2013 Revolution, which brought the first major retreat of that wave.
Soon followed an upsurge in genuine and radical reform processes in many Arab countries, foremost among which were Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman. As for the UAE, its drive to catch up with the modern age had begun well before this.
More recently, before this decade drew to a close, a new wave of “spring” arose. This one, however, has conferred a stamp of “maturity”, in Lebanon and Sudan; stamps of the approaching delivery of the nation state into the modern age, not only intact but also with a system of government transformed from a sectarian/ethnic based quota system to a fully-fledged democratic civil state.
To a certain extent, the “Gulf moment” was accompanied by an “Egyptian moment” that was different from its predecessors in modern Egyptian history. This one emanated from the age we live in, an age governed by different modes of international relations and new and different regional circumstances.
But, if there are differences between the Egyptian moment and the Gulf moment, this is not the time to quibble between them. Instead, current realities dictate an urgent need for a new “Arab moment”, one that creates a new regional balance of powers and revives the immune system of the Arab order in order to safeguard it against the evils of the decade that is about to end.
The key to the new “Arab order” is reform. Profound reform. This is what is in progress in Egypt which is shedding the shackles of an ancient bureaucracy and stretching its limbs from the narrow confines of the Nile Valley through vast desert expanses to the coasts in the framework of a policy outlook that has shifted from the management of poverty and its multifarious aspects of underdevelopment to the management of the wealth that lies both below the sands and above.
In the framework of this decentralisation, reform is unleashing untold energies through the inclusion of broader segments of society and striking new and more powerful combinations of soft and hard strength.
The Saudi process is no less important. There, reform means engineering a rapid breakthrough from an old world that had defied progress and modernisation to the current age in all its political, economic and cultural dynamics.
The UAE appreciated the virtues of modern technologies early on in its “old era”. According to all known theories of progress, the newcomers to the latest levels of advancement stand to benefit once they excel in the skill to ride the highest waves.
Whether for a single state or a group of them, reform is the key to ensure that the moment is not a narrow fleeting one fought over by prowling wolves and serpents, but rather a moment that opens its arms to the whole ancient nation. Unfortunately, there was not enough time in the conference in Abu Dhabi to get to that point. Still, this is a conversation with sequels.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.