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Analyzing the Gulf States’ Global Rise

Analyzing the Gulf States’ Global Rise

November 24, 2015
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen Non Resident Fellow in Global Politics and International Relations

During the opening decade and a half of the twenty-first century, the Gulf States emerged as increasingly visible global actors. Using their substantive energy resources and capital accumulation during the oil-price boom between 2002 and 2008 as leverage, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia became more active in global issues. These ranged from reshaping the global financial architecture in the aftermath of the 2007-8 crisis to greater involvement in South-South networks and debates over the international politics of climate change. Such activity occurred amidst changing geopolitical dynamics that not only rebalanced the spread of global political and economic influence but also positioned the Gulf States to be pivotal players in the shifting international order. Newly empowered coalitions of emerging economies challenged and reframed the political and economic architecture of global governance in a process that accelerated after the world financial crisis that began in 2007.

Published in October 2015, my book, entitled The Gulf States in International Political Economy, describes the processes by which the Gulf States have in recent years become embedded in the global system of power, politics, and policy-making. I examine the complex interdependencies that mark the region as such an integral component of contemporary international affairs, and I document and analyze the thickening webs of inter-regional linkages that are creating new ‘coalitions of convenience’ among rising regional powers with a shared interest in reshaping the post-1945 international architecture. These newer patterns of international relations exist alongside and complement (sometimes uneasily) the Gulf States’ longstanding political and security links with ‘Western’ partners, and are consistent with the multilayered approach to foreign policymaking in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states that seeks to balance domestic considerations with regional and international ones.

A key question in the book is the extent to which the far more active – and assertive – involvement of individual Gulf States in international institutions and global governance has merely added another dimension to otherwise little-changed structures or has led instead to something qualitatively new as coalitions of emerging economies challenge the hitherto Western-centric global order. This is closely related to a further dimension of the Gulf States’ uneven engagement with the processes of globalization, namely the degree to which the patterns of conspicuous consumption that have become characteristic of modern Gulf cities such as Dubai and Doha have gradually being augmented by productive integration into global economic structures and flows. Such questions matter because greater conceptual clarity over Gulf States’ perceptions of global governance can enhance policy formulation that incorporates and accommodates diverging viewpoints and objectives among key regional and international participants.

In common with many other ‘non-Western’ discourses, officials in the GCC states have embraced partial aspects of economic globalization and focused on the practical measures of global engagement, over any attachment to theoretical or normative concepts of ‘global governance.’ Rather than posing a systemic threat to contemporary structures of international governance, the GCC states operate in a pragmatic manner designed to maximize influence and leverage in the existing architecture of world politics in which contemporary power and influence is dispersed among a greater number of active participants spread across a wider political and economic spectrum than before. This is also part of a broader trend whereby normative foundations of the international system – from governance and political reform as well as transparency and accountability –increasingly are seen through a prism that diverges from what may be termed the ‘Western-centric’ lens that characterized the post-1945 institutions of global governance and the political element of globalization itself.

Yet such skepticism toward the more political (or cultural) dimensions of globalization has not distanced the GCC states from acting as international players or from participating in the broader rebalancing of the global order. On the contrary, the Gulf States have become increasingly visible and proactive in setting international policy agendas on a wide range of issues, ranging from financial and energy governance to global aviation and food security. As is set out in the book, this holds important implications for the continuing evolution of international institutions in a polycentric environment with multiple centers of influence and competing policy objectives. It is also significant in terms of the regional reordering triggered by the political upheaval across much of the Arab world and the active policy responses of individual Gulf States to the disorder in North Africa and the Levant.

While the emergence of the Gulf States as visible global actors long predated the ‘Arab Spring,’ the process accelerated and acquired a potent new dimension once the initial shock of the upheaval had subsided. Over the past four years, the Gulf States have aligned their growing capabilities (in the political, economic, and security arenas) with a far more expansive policy intent. It was no coincidence that GCC states led the regional response to the pressures triggered by the political upheavals of 2011. Engaging with a muscular Gulf across the Middle East and North Africa has on occasion caused great mistrust and suspicion (both with ‘Western’ partners and among themselves) in the highly-charged ‘post Arab Spring’ atmosphere as the GCC states become more assertive in the international arena and gaps opened up between established and emergent regional players. Syria offers a salutary example of the difficulties that arise when the international community is divided and when regional and international actors pursue unilateral policies that follow competing or, at times, even contradictory lines.

Even as the GCC states have emerged as key players shaping (and reshaping) the pace and direction of political and economic development in the ‘new’ Middle East, recent developments have profoundly impacted their own economic and security dynamics. The more than halving of international oil prices over the past eighteen months has injected urgency into the looming transition from oil-dependent economies toward competitive post-oil political economies. This is the acute policy dilemma that may confront officials in the Gulf as they seek policy responses that balance political stability in the short-term with economic sustainability over the longer-run. Whether – and how – such challenges are resolved will do much to determine the next phase of the interaction between the Gulf States and global political and economic structures as well as their involvement in regional stabilization and reconstruction across the Middle East and North Africa.

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