Wrapping up a year of ups and downs in the Gulf region
The Arab Gulf region received unprecedented media attention in 2017 as it introduced landmark reforms and suffered a series of conflicts, crises and disputes.
To put it plainly, 2017 was a roller-coaster year for the Gulf region, full of ups and downs that are sure to have far-reaching implications.
Among the year’s most significant developments were the war in Yemen where rivalries led to the assassination of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Iran’s meddling in Middle East conflicts and a rift between Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbours that isolated Doha diplomatically and economically.
Saudi Arabia, the region’s main power, tried to cautiously navigate those turbulent events with the aim of maintaining its status as a leading actor in the Gulf and counterbalancing Iran’s ambitions.
The Saudis have taken a legitimate approach given Iran’s expansionist designs, which are masked by a constellation of proxies. To understand the danger they pose, it is important to examine their underlying ideology: Most are Shia militias that adhere to the concept of absolute wilayat al-faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist). It maintains that all issues, including state affairs, must be governed by the Jurisprudent Ruler, a leading Islamic jurist who provides political guardianship over the people and nation.
Of the Iranian proxies, the Houthi rebels have made the most noise in the Arabian Peninsula. On December 19, they fired a ballistic missile towards Riyadh for the third time in two months, reminding the world that Iran’s aggression has in no way diminished.
Washington, which has directly accused Tehran of supplying Houthi rebels with weapons in Yemen, shares Saudi Arabia’s concerns and has pushed for an anti- Iran alliance in the Middle East that could include Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The effects of the diplomatic crisis that broke June 5 between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain might be less serious than Iran’s nefarious activities. Still, the showdown continues without Doha showing serious signs of re-examining its policies.
The four Arab countries severed ties with Doha over its alleged support for extremist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and ties to Tehran, with which it shares the world’s largest gas field. Nearly seven months later, Qatar refused to comply with the quartet’s demands and has carried on with an aggressive foreign policy.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in November that the Arab quartet would not resort to military force over the conflict, as it is a “very small problem.” Jubeir’s statement was an indication the diplomatic crisis was likely to continue into 2018.
Arab countries set their sights on more pressing crises, such as terrorism, Syria’s reconstruction, the conflict in Libya, Iran’s threat to regional security, stability in Yemen and the implementation of financial and social reforms.
Despite the numerous conflicts and disputes, the Gulf achieved cultural and economic breakthroughs in 2017, as well as a wave of key reforms in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The UAE, in particular, made serious progress throughout the year. In line with its vision 2021, the country pressed ahead with far-reaching economic and social development projects, inaugurated the Louvre Abu Dhabi — a stunning museum of the world’s cultural history — and sought to play a more prominent role in regional policy. In doing so, the Emirati government remained focused on achieving its declared goal of making the UAE one of the best countries in the world by 2021, the country’s 50th anniversary.
Rapid changes were introduced in Saudi Arabia, particularly after Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz was named crown prince last June. He has overseen a comprehensive modernisation drive to open the country’s economy, reduce its dependence on oil and relax the country’s conservative social strictures.
This progressive vision has led to several landmark reforms. On September 26, a royal decree was issued lifting the country’s ban on women driving, effective next June. This was followed by the abolition of a 35-year ban on cinemas on December 11.
Crown Prince Mohammed also spearheaded an anti-corruption drive that saw dozens of high-level officials and members of the royal family detained. The goal was to rid Saudi society of a scourge that has undermined its progress and development for decades.
Going forward, Gulf countries must build on their achievements in 2017 and work towards ensuring security and stability in a troubled part of the world. Saudi Arabia, in particular, is expected to continue taking the lead in combating two of the world’s most serious threats: Iranian expansion and global terrorism.