Emirati author chronicles rise of Gulf countries

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla contrasts the rise of Gulf countries with the decline of the rest of the Arab world at a time that globalisation sweeps the world.
Sunday 29/07/2018
New twist. Cover of  Abdulkhaleq Abdulla’s “ The Gulf’s Defining Moment in Modern Arab History.”
New twist. Cover of Abdulkhaleq Abdulla’s “ The Gulf’s Defining Moment in Modern Arab History.”

A book by Emirati researcher Abdulkhaleq Abdulla gives a new twist to the expression “moment in history” in the context of the Gulf region. Recently published in Arabic by Dar al-Farabi in Beirut, the book describes a reality imposed by Gulf Cooperation Council countries on the region and the world.

The title of the book may be translated as “The Gulf’s Defining Moment in Modern Arab History” and Abdulla contends that “the Arab Gulf region is reclaiming its influence and announces its world presence after a long absence.”

The word “reclaiming” may be inappropriate in the case of the Gulf countries but it is quite clear they are embarking on an adventure that may turn out to be crucial and defining for the Arab ummah, a role some Arab countries had claimed.

The book contrasts the rise of the Gulf countries with the decline of the rest of the Arab world. Abdulla dug deep into the roots of the Gulf’s “moment” and claims that it has been predicted by Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” theory and Samuel Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilisations.

Abdulla writes: “The Gulf’s moment is unprecedented in Arab history and coincided with the collapse of the entire Arab world and the decline of the influence of some leading [Arab] countries; it also coincided with the coming of a new defining moment in world history, namely globalisation.”

To discuss the status of the Arab Gulf, it is necessary to look at the theoretical framework for the concept of “state” in the 21st century. The Gulf region is soaring at a time the entire world is redefining its foundations. In a globalised world, state borders become virtual and totally pervious to inter-country interests and management styles. Abdulla’s book admits that globalisation “changed the nature of the “national state” such that it no longer enjoys complete sovereignty; the era of complete sovereignty is gone.”

Abdulla also admits that the financial factor was key to qualifying the Gulf countries to play key political and strategic roles in major world affairs. He focused on “the moment in history of Gulf capital.” He surveyed the Gulf countries and then zoomed on two economic giants in the Gulf whose economies have propelled them to political leadership roles: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“They are the biggest economies of the Gulf and in the Arab world with a combined GDP exceeding a trillion dollars; that represents 75% of the combined Gulf GDP and 42% of the combined GDPs of Arab countries. Saudi Arabia and the UAE alone represent about half of the economic power of the Arab world,” Abdulla writes.

Money, however, is not the entire story. Speaking of the UAE, Abdulla writes: “After the decline of Qatar, Turkey, Iran and before them Egypt and Lebanon, the UAE’s star rose as the top soft power in the Gulf and the Arab world.” He describes the elements of soft power in the hands of the Gulf countries and says that the region has moved to hard power.

“Contrary to expectations, some small Gulf countries have become recognised military giants with a sizeable stock of the most advanced defensive and offensive weapons in the world,” Abdulla writes

History will show that some Gulf monarchies have peacefully relayed power to a new generation of leaders “who are leading the Gulf’s moment in modern Arab history,” he writes. The power relay is concomitant with a social evolution that has touched primarily women and to which the author devoted a good chunk of the book.

Despite the celebratory tone, Abdulla betrays a feeling of sweet revenge that can also be found in the writings of other Gulf intellectuals. He writes: “The Gulf countries have long suffered and still do suffer from being belittled by the rest of the Arab world. One should not now replace this inferiority complex with a fake superiority complex. Talking about the Gulf’s moment in history does not mean to belittle the rest of the Arab world.”

To be fair, the author has probably gone slightly overboard by taxing the rest of the Arab world with snubbing the Gulf countries. The snubbing may be mutual and public opinion in the Arab world regarding the Gulf countries has changed. At some time, the other Arabs may have been prisoners of stereotypical images of the Gulf and its inhabitants but it is clear that everybody in the Arab world recognises the tremendous advances achieved in the Gulf.

One has the feeling that in his book Abdulla was riding the crest of the tremendous wave of progress in the Gulf in the past few decades. Whenever he reaches the top, however, some unknown fear grips him and he reins in the reader’s enthusiasm. He writes: “The Gulf’s moment in modern Arab history is a promising foundational turning point but, like any other moment in history, such as the moment of globalisation or the moment of Asian countries or the moment of America in the history of the world, it is full of strengths and weaknesses and faces old and new dilemmas, crises and challenges.”

On the topic of crises, Abdulla pulls one alarm: “The biggest existential danger to the Gulf’s moment in history is internal. It emanates from the demographic composition of the Gulf populations where the ratio of Gulf citizens is falling to unprecedented and unacceptable levels.” This aspect of the Gulf societies should remind us that many of the assumptions behind Abdulla’s study are debatable.

Abdulla has recognised the crucial role of unchecked globalisation in achieving the Gulf’s moment in history. The question that merits close examination by Gulf intellectuals is this: If the rise of the Gulf is due to opening borders to foreign skills and expertise, what would happen if these borders become closed to the world?

This and other structural questions in the Gulf require quick answers.