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Should a Gulf lobby be in the works?

The GCC states have yet to formalize their influence on international politics and economics

Zaid M. Belbagi

Published: Updated:

The Israelis may grumble about the Iran nuclear deal, but they have a lot to cheer about when it comes to U.S. support. Despite ranking 27th globally in terms of per-capita income, astonishingly they continue to receive $3-4 billion in U.S. aid every year. The overwhelming reason for this is the well-oiled machine that is the pro-Israel lobby, which is a profound example of how a strategic campaign of influencing and lobbying can yield hard results.

The member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council are of significant importance - Saudi Arabia’s accession to the G20 was a clear reflection of this. Economically, their role as linchpin energy providers continues. Together, they produce 25 percent of crude oil and control 40 percent of global proven reserves. In addition, their assets comprise 45 percent of global sovereign wealth funds, their combined value amounting to $2.3 trillion.

Strategic approach

Yet despite these realities, the GCC states have yet to formalize their influence on international politics and economics through a strategic approach to lobbying. Soft power is the cultivation of compliance through the nurturing of goodwill in the international community. Goodwill is essentially gained by building a positive image. Therefore, at the center of efforts to build influence, the GCC states must coordinate their approaches to international communications.

As an identifiable club of countries, the GCC must pool efforts so as to have greater influence

Zaid M. Belbagi

Recent efforts in Yemen are an example of a foreign policy development that required clear and coordinated communication toward international audiences. International public opinion is critical to securing the international political and military support required to conduct a military campaign.

The GCC states are fully-functional and active members of the international community. In 2013, Saudi Arabia provided $109 million for humanitarian emergencies, making it the 20th-largest government donor of official humanitarian assistance. The Bahraini and Emirati contributions to NATO peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan were well-received.

However, such contributions can often go unnoticed within wider stakeholder communities. This is partly due to the overreliance on allocating considerable funds to support high-profile international investment projects that do not necessarily guarantee a significant impact on influencing audiences.

Influencing key debates

A more efficient allocation of funds can be used to influence key debates. Generations of GCC citizens are well-acquainted with the BBC World Service. This institution in international news operates on a relatively modest budget of £245 million ($406 million), but reaches audiences of 250 million. The GCC states could consider strategic investments in English language-media to better represent their case, and to use their financial resources to create real impact.

Recent fluctuations in oil prices have driven home arguments about the vulnerability of budgets to international price fluctuations. In this context, the GCC states must consider organized lobbying as a key facet of their task to transform into fully-integrated players in the international free-market economy. A coordinated campaign of influencing and lobbying in the world’s key capitals is crucial in negotiating trade agreements and enticing foreigners to invest in the region.

There is no doubt that the respect and goodwill garnered by soft-power nations can make other countries pursue their interests and goals. For this to be successful, manifestations of soft power must be well-communicated. As an identifiable club of countries, the GCC must pool efforts so as to have greater influence. With common ties of history, language, people and shared development objectives, this is a feasible undertaking.

One of the leading proponents of nation-branding, Professor Simon Anholt, recently stressed the need for a coordinated effort to confront misleading international perceptions of the region: “The distorted image of the Arab is a shared problem for the region that needs to be addressed at the highest level by a coalition of Middle Eastern nations. It’s tragic how the rest of the world has lost sight of what an Arab truly is.”

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Zaid M. Belbagi is a government communications expert with experience in providing strategic advice in the Gulf. Belbagi is a graduate of the Oxford University Foreign Service Programme (OUFSP), having earned a Masters degree in diplomatic studies from St. Antony's College, Oxford. A commentator on Gulf affairs, he is a fellow at the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) and formerly a visiting scholar at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS). He regularly appears on TV.

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