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Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate 2018 discusses the role of power in geopolitics

Sherry El Gergawi , Thursday 15 Nov 2018
Anwar Al Gargash
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Al Gargash during the opening of he fifth Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate 2018 (ADSD)

The UAE's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in cooperation with the Emirates Policy Centre, opened on Sunday the fifth annual Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate (ADSD).

This year's session discussed the role of power in international politics.

The conference, held from 10 to 12 November, was attended by large number of prominent policy-makers, experts, and officials from all over the world.

The first day's sessions discussed the UAE's experience as a model of power building, US power under the Trump administration, Russia's use of force and its ambitions, the geographical and economic boundaries surrounding China's power, Europe's search for a new role in the global balance of power, the rise of India as a major Asian power and Africa's role in this geopolitical sphere.

On the second day, the attendees analysed the challenges facing Arab countries, whether domestically or regionally, such as Syria's war and the situations in Yemen and Libya.

Also discussed were geo-economic transformations and the extent of Turkey, Iran and Qatar's power.

The Middle East

The conference began with an opening speech by UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, who said that he rejects Iran's "destructive policies" in the Middle East.

“Due to Iran’s destructive regional and global policy, we have voiced our support for President Donald Trump’s administration's stance towards Tehran,” he said.

“The UAE, along with Arab states, is increasingly playing a role to address security challenges in the region. We are pushing, alongside the US, to form a strategic alliance to counter these issues,” he said, referring to the Middle East Strategic Alliance, or the so-called "Arab NATO."

“We have spared no efforts in ensuring that peace prevails in the Middle East,” he said.

“This year we celebrate the centennial of Sheikh Zayed, who laid down the values that shaped our country, our people and our relations with the world,” he said, referring to the founding father of the UAE.

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi, president of the Emirates Policy Centre, spoke about how the UAE serves as a unique model in power-building in a region mired in wars and clashes.

“The UAE has been known to be diplomatic and impartial; however, the expedited transformations in the region and international environments made it somehow impossible for the UAE not to interact and respond to this transformation,” Al-Ketbi said.

“This intervention and contribution have come to restore stability, economic growth, development, tolerance, moderation and fight extremism,” Al-Ketbi said.

“We at EPC adopt the concept of smart power, which combines soft and hard power at the same time. This means using the components of a country's power as a decisive element in the international policies of the government – we have to move from analysing power by its conventional concept to power in its smart concept, and the UAE is the first to use smart power when it comes to the power-building model.”

The US

During a panel on 'Temptation of Power: US Policies,' Jasim Al Khalufi, former Emirati diplomat and moderator of the panel, said that no president has generated as much controversy as Trump has.

“Americans probably have fatigue from all this involvement in wars and upheavals,” he said in his opening remarks.

Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, started his speech about Trump by saying that “when it comes to his foreign policy, it is chaotic.”

“The question is whether it is chaotic by design or because of the nature of Trump’s personality, or whether there is logic behind it. Under Trump, as in the past, we have not really had a very proactive foreign policy; we tend to be more reactive.”


On Russia, Oxana Gaman-Golutvina, chair of Comparative Politics Department at MGIMO-University, said in a panel named 'Ambitions of Power: Russian Policies,' that " Russia’s aspirations to power are contradictory, and this aspiration is variational, it includes several motives including striving to ensure its security and to maximise economic benefits, including oil and gas, which account for approximately half of Russian budgets.”

“Russia strives to stop turbulence in the region and considers this region as a space for seeking new approaches and mechanisms for conflict resolution, and while the military component of its foreign policy is sometimes perceived as replacing other global players in the region, this is not the reality. Moscow understands that the stability of the region should not be carried out alone,” she explained.

“Moscow seeks to prevent conflict between Iran and Gulf countries as well as Israel and Iran. It is trying to strengthen its position here without squeezing out the US.”

However, Andrey Kortunov, director-general at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), disagreed, saying “I don’t think Russia is a revisionist power; I think China is.”

“Russia is a status quo power which uses revisionism to make its case. It is not looking to replace the US as a security provider in the Gulf or the MENA region. People in the Kremlin are smart and they understand their limitations,” Kortunov explained.

“No matter how we evaluate the Russian place in the world, we will probably all agree that Russia can punch above its weight.”

Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, member of the UK House of Lords, said that "the great danger at the moment is that there could be much more confrontation much closer to the centre. For Europeans, the big turning point in our relationship with Russia was over Ukraine. It is now very serious because it defied all the rules we had laid down in the past.”

“I would like to see change, but at the moment, I don’t see it happening. We are in a destabilised situation leading to one that can become a major crisis. The lack of ability to control it is extremely worrying.”


Speakers also discussed China's potential of becoming a global power and the implications of this during a panel titled 'Limits of Power: China and Geography Constraints.'

Sonia X. Y. Li, director-general of the Research Centre for People-to-people Diplomacy at CPAFFC, said that “the Chinese nation has gone through many hard ups and downs and forces in its 5,000 years of uninterrupted civilisation.”

"Maybe more important and appropriate is to understand Chinese culture and its impact upon its mentality and thinking pattern rather than just having a biased assumption and analysis."

"China can become a regional or global power, but the philosophy will be followed through because it is the DNA of Chinese culture,” she explained.

“Since it is rapidly becoming the second largest economy with almost 1.4 billion people, indeed it has the potential to become either a regional or global power. However, we are all in the same boat and a new way of thinking of ‘live and let live’ is needed.”

Zhang Yuyan, director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics (IWEP) at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), also sees China as a world economic power

“[China] is the largest trading partner for more than 120 countries, so we are also one of the world powers. But when we look at China in a different way, like financially, its currency is very weak, and the US dollar is the dominant currency in terms of many standards,” he said.

“We were just two percent that of the US, but today we are two thirds; a fundamental change took place in the past 40 years, especially during the past two decades. It is why people view China as a rising power, but in China, it is still a point of debate.”

Roy Kamphausen, senior vice president for research at the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) said in the same session that “China’s military has also experienced tremendous growth and has been largely regionally-focused up to this point. But we are also seeing China change its orientation, adding a strategic dimension to it and it will be more present globally as a result.”

Sarah Kirchberger, head of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Strategy and Security at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, sees that Europe's economic approach towards China is more of a business competitor than anything else.

"But this perception is now changing; we also now discovered there are possible concerns that affect European interests. We fully realise that there are huge domestic Chinese concerns and constraints that play into China’s rise," she said.


The fifth panel discussed the challenges faced by Europe in exerting power and its longing to restore its old role.

According to Jean-Marc Rickli, head of Global Risk and Resilience at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) and moderator of the session, European projects in the 1990s had a lot of optimism in terms of building a new government structure integrating Western and Eastern European countries.

"It peaked in 2004 and seems to have declined since because of the financial crisis and international relations where Europe has not been a very strong actor," he said.

Franco Bruni, vice president and co-head of Europe and Global Governance at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), said that "we have been recovering with a series of measures and our union is now more robust financially."

"The growth rate is still inadequate and lower than the potential. There is no incentive to accelerate structural reforms that would [see] an increasing convergence of European economies to make Europe more uniform and robust. We have a lot of plans for the future which I am not sure will be successful when comes to political decisions, but the plans are there."

Guillaume Klossa, special adviser to the vice-president of the European Commission, sees that everybody in Europe is aware that the alliance with the US is not what it was before, as there is now a risk with Russia, and stressed the need for Europe to organise itself for its future.

"It’s relatively new, and step by step, we are going towards a more autonomous European defence."

Power is becoming harder to retain, Rastislav Káčer, Ambassador of Slovakia to Hungary and Honorary Chairman at GLOBSEC in Bratislava, said "We usually tend to see Europe as the soft power king of the world"

"Europe, for being a cluster, was extremely efficient in power, though being a soft power. We are a half billion market and that share of a market is disproportionate."

Sir Michael Leigh, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said that Brexit is one challenge the EU is facing at the moment.

"We should not underestimate the impact of this for the EU. The main reality now is that the EU is facing many internal challenges and it must come to terms with these if it wishes to exercise a role in the world and to resume its claim to be a normative power that can influence others," he said.

"The idea that with the UK out, it will be much easier to pursue reforms, I take with a pinch of salt.”

“The UK is the second largest economy in the EU, and one of two [European] member-states that are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, so it will have a significant impact on both sides," he said.

"The EU is full of ambition as far as reforms, but we also see very serious breaks on this reform process. And it could well be that the elections for the European Parliament next May might turn out to be a tipping point in this process."


Experts also discussed India as an emerging power on the global stage during a panel entitled 'The Rising of Power: India’s New Role.'

Samir Saran, president of the Observer Research Foundation in India, said that India is "a security actor, provider, underwriter of stability in the region, an intervening force in its neighbourhood in the last few decades and a global public goods provider in the defence and security domain."

"India’s defence budget became larger than Russia’s this year, with a $2.6 trillion economy, and a $250 billion defence budget in the next 15 years."

"This could range from simple soft activities like human assistance and relief, and evacuations from countries like Yemen, Syria and Libya," Saran said.

"I have no doubt India will contribute annually close to $10 billion in development activities,” he added. “India will roughly contribute $100 billion to its friends and neighbours in the next 15 years, which will change the development narrative in its region and in regions far beyond its shores."

As for the relations between India and Gulf countries, Sarin said "the Gulf has become one of our most important economic and trading partners, and we see the Gulf as the single most important contributor to India’s infrastructure and economic growth going forward, as we are no longer just trading in oil and gas, but setting up downstream infrastructure."

N Janardhan, senior research fellow at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, sees that the Gulf-India relationship must be looked at from a Gulf-Asia perspective.

"Moving forward from oil trade, expatriates, to strategic arrangements, we have cross-investments taking place,” he said. “It will be multi-lateral partnerships and hopefully also a completely different security architecture which will be Asian-led and in which India will have a great role to play."


Africa’s strengths, weaknesses and potential to become a rising power were also discussed in the last session of the first day.

Abdullah Al-Seyid Wald Abah, professor of philosophy and social studies at the University of Nouakchott, said that "Africa is the future of the world, and this is not a judgement based on a vacuum."

"The big renaissance in Europe and in the United States was based on what happened in Africa, thanks to the youth of African resources and labour, namely the slave trade in the 16th and 17th centuries," he explained.

"Africa is now showing a new face – with African countries developing and emerging both in the East and West – that has made it a rising continent that is attracting China and the US."

H.E. Victor Borges, independent consultant and former minister of foreign affairs of the Republic of Cape Verde, sees that Africa is moving forward but still faces a lot of challenges and that it has to develop its capacity to face and solve all these challenges.

"We could see the size of land mass, the surrounding seas and oceans, trade routes and proximity to Europe, the Americas, Asia and the Gulf. But Africa also has a lot of national resources, land for agriculture and biodiversity, tourism and a young population," Borges said.

"We tend to speak about governance and public administration, but we must see the capacity in the private sector, social organisations, and in the field of science and technology. We need a strong capacity at the scientific and technological level to master natural resources."

On relations with the Gulf, Abah said that "from the Gulf to the Arab Peninsula, where vital security is linked to the Horn of Africa, to East Africa, and North Africa, adopting a political approach is one way of becoming a power."

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