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Make Gulf nationals fathom their strategic and economic importance to the world

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

Western think tanks regularly convene events on Gulf issues. Gulf people are massively underrepresented at these events primarily due to their indifference to such gatherings. They need to excise this anti-intellectual strain and realize the role that such events play in shaping foreign policy.

The Arabian Gulf’s geo-strategic and economic importance to the world means that it attracts the attention of many Western think tanks, either in the form of dedicated programs, or sometimes in the form of wholly dedicated institutions. These organizations influence policy by producing research that is read by policymakers, their aides, and the wider public.

Think tanks also hold events that contribute to the spread of their ideas, and that allow professional scholars and the general public to interact directly with the people in charge of foreign policy.

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The most straightforward evidence of the importance of these seminars and forums to foreign policy is the high caliber of international attendees. For example, it is not uncommon to find undersecretaries, ambassadors, and other high-ranking officials present, either as speakers or simply mingling among the crowd, without honoraria or speaking fees changing hands.

As a think tank scholar focusing on Gulf issues, I have been regularly participating in these kinds of gatherings for the last ten years. An alarming phenomenon that I have noticed is the low incidence of people from the Gulf in either the speaker lineup or among the participants. Naturally, physical distance plays a role, but the pandemic-induced switch to virtual events shattered the illusion that the cost and inconvenience of travel was the primary barrier.

In a recent virtual event on Gulf issues where I was a speaker, the number of Gulf citizens attending was exactly zero out of 60, despite the event being well marketed, and it being open to the general public for free.

Gulf people’s complaints about neocolonial Western foreign policy are undermined by actively squandering the opportunity to influence it, and to gather important information regarding its genesis.

A view of the sign showing the logo of Saudi Arabia's Stock Exchange Market (Tadawul) bourse in the capital Riyadh. (Reuters)
A view of the sign showing the logo of Saudi Arabia's Stock Exchange Market (Tadawul) bourse in the capital Riyadh. (Reuters)

In contrast, when Gulf civil society organizations hold events in person or virtually, one often finds employees from local embassies in the audience seeking to understand indigenous perspectives, and occasionally interjecting to correct misconceptions regarding the nations they represent.

Unfortunately, the anemic participation of Gulf citizens in Western think tank events about the region is primarily due to a combination of ignorance and indifference.

First, many find it inconceivable that such events could have any bearing on foreign policy. This is partially due to the distorted function of similar events in our region, where seminars are usually much about a speaker conveying their high social status – and the audience conveying their respect – than they are about exchanging useful information or forging influential ideas. The opacity of foreign policy formulation in the Gulf region also contributes to this perception.

While the line from scholar to policymaker is clear in the American foreign policy establishment, in the Gulf, even insiders wonder if researchers have any ability to influence decisions, meaning that the general public would never imagine such a link to exist.

Second, the comfortable, low-effort lifestyles enjoyed by the middle and upper classes of the Gulf region since the 1970s due to their oil wealth have created a general indifference toward intellectual pursuits.

With the right connections, many people have been able to become very rich and hold elite positions without working very hard or knowing very much, skewing incentives regarding education and intellectual pursuits.

For decades, a wealthy young person in the Gulf will justifiably spurn attending a seminar on US policy in the Middle East, as they could be investing that time in vapidly schmoozing with elites in one of the local majlises.

On a more positive note, the gradual increase in homegrown Gulf researchers over the last 20 years means that a new generation of erudite scholars is penetrating the ranks of speakers in these Western think tank events.

However, the crowd is still lagging.

It would greatly help to see our own undersecretaries, ambassadors, and other high-ranking officials attending, listening attentively, and making intelligent interventions. In the meantime, the longer Gulf people continue to marginalize themselves in such events, the longer they will marginalize themselves in Western policy in the region.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.