The GCC countries’ recent high-level visit to China concluded warmly. Still, the imbalance between the two sides extends well beyond population and economics: China understands us because it invests in researching us, but we do not understand China because we do not invest in exploring it. We must address this asymmetry.
In the King Faisal biopic “Born a King,” the young Saudi prince dines with the British foreign secretary Lord Curzon, whom he must convince of recognizing the nascent Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) poses his Saudi guest a tricky question; Faisal bin Abdulaziz responds that talking about work during a meal is not appropriate decorum for a British dinner party. The comment allowed him to evade the question and impress his elite hosts, who would negotiate in the smoking-room successfully.
The moral is that in-depth knowledge of British customs gave King Faisal a decisive advantage. He might have failed in his mission to gain British recognition of Saudi Arabia had he relied on knowledge of negotiations, diplomacy, English linguistics, or other traditional disciplines. What saved him was holistic knowledge of his hosts.
The desire to understand foreign cultures to develop better policies is a crucial element of modern statecraft. Anthropology advanced considerably during the 19th century as the British government-funded scientific analysis of the tribes they wanted to subjugate in Africa and Asia, exemplified by Lawrence of Arabia.
The discipline of “area studies,” which includes Middle Eastern studies, Latin American studies, Russian studies, and so on, snowballed in the US during the Cold War due to public funding. The US government correctly surmised that advancing its interests worldwide required a deep and holistic understanding of other countries. Having scholars specializing in international relations or economics was not enough. What was needed was people specializing in certain cultures and geographical areas and who spoke those people’s languages literally and figuratively, as demonstrated by King Faisal in “Born a King.”
Today, China is making considerable investments in studying foreign cultures and is reflected in the proficient tweets of the Chinese ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chen Weiqing. They have research centers and university departments dedicated to Arabian and African studies. Consequently, when Chinese diplomats forge policies for a particular country, they have a good understanding of what that country wants, its strengths and weaknesses, and how it is likely to respond to Chinese proposals.
The same is not true of the GCC. In a research project I am currently undertaking with colleagues Deema Almoayyed and David Verhagen, we found that a typical US university has approximately five area studies’ programs, with some, such as the University of Oregon, boasting 14. In contrast, the 170 universities in the GCC collectively have one area studies program: a Gulf studies program that tells us nothing about foreign peoples.
Various think tanks in the region, including the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, have Asian studies units. Still, the intellectual firepower of our well-funded universities doesn’t study foreign cultures. Thus, while I know many Gulf economists, legal scholars, political scientists, and so on, I know precisely one Gulf China expert (my Al Arabiya English co-columnist, Dr. Mohammed al-Sudairi).
Like Saudi Arabia during King Faisal’s 1919 visit to Great Britain, the GCC has much to gain from deepening its relationship with China. However, the lack of systematic knowledge of China in the GCC is a significant impediment to maximizing the value of our relationship with the Asian country.
A rational proposal would be to benefit from the dozens of Chinese studies programs in the US and elsewhere outside the GCC. However, these constitute a poor substitute for homegrown research about China for two reasons. First, only our scholars truly understand our perspective about China and know which parts are of most interest to our nations. Second, only our scholars can be trusted to give advice consistent with our national interests.
We need to understand foreign people, especially those who differ significantly from us, like the Chinese, and share many vital interests. External powers have coveted the Gulf countries’ hydrocarbon resources for almost a century, so the Gulf people would do well to note the American author L. Frank Baum’s observation: “No thief, however skillful, can rob one of knowledge, and that is why knowledge is the best and safest treasure to acquire.”