Sometimes in our life we come across people who live by the old ways of thinking, believing that time has stood still at a certain moment, or that the world around them has never changed. They think that they can respond to people, events and developments in the world with the same mentality that prevailed in the past. This is not particularly strange and we see many examples of it today, especially with political religious groups that aim to take our countries and societies back to the time of the Caliphate and the early periods of Islam. In doing so, they ignore historical facts and human civilisational development. What is really strange, however, is to find Western think tanks, that are supposed to be well-established with solid scientific and research traditions, adopting the same approach and addressing the issues of our region in the 21st century with a 19th century mindset.
I came to this conclusion while watching the proceedings of the 15th edition of the regional security conference, organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Bahrain, from November 22 to 24, 2019.
We should not let these institutions [foreign think tanks] determine our interests and policies, as was the case in the 19th century; rather, this work should be carried out by our people, who best understand our region and its interests.
The method the Institute adopted in organising the conference gives specialists in these types of proceedings, and researchers familiar with the operating mechanisms of research institutions, the belief that the Institute has managed this important event, which saw significant political participation, as if it were an all-British affair. It appeared as though Britain was still the Great Britain that controlled the region during the 19th century, imposing its administration over the region and making resolutions on its behalf.
All of the conference’s public panels, with no exception, were chaired and run by the director general and chief executive of the IISS, alongside a number of other British IISS employees. No one else was given the opportunity to chair or run the conference’s panels, not even experts from the host country itself, which had spared no effort to provide the right resources and conditions to make the conference a success.
The same observation can be made of the lecturers and participants in the conference’s panels and proceedings, which were dominated by British figures, particularly retired generals and IISS employees from London, who came to dominate the final panel. Moreover, most non-British participants were from countries that had been British colonies, in addition to a number of other Western officials, particularly from the US Congress. One member of the US Congress who participated in the conference visited the home of Bahraini detainee Nabeel Rajab, to the dismay of many in the host country and a few of the Gulf officials in attendance.
How is it possible that we are returning to the 19th century when we were under the hegemony of colonial powers, allowing them to regain control of our affairs in the 21st century, while we possess all the tools of knowledge and advancement...?
The conference was described as ‘regional’, mainly concerning the Middle East and Arabian Gulf. Scholarly integrity and objectivity required the participation of more Gulf and Arab experts and officials, pursuant to the old adage of finding local solutions to local problems, as expressed by the phrase, “the people of Makkah know best its narrow streets”.
However, the conference was organised by the IISS, where the mentality of its staff seems to be entrenched in the past, with a mindset that the British understand the region better than its people, as they did in the nineteenth century. Participants in the conference sessions were chosen in a way that did not give enough room for people in the region to put forward their visions and ideas. Instead, it made room for the British to express their views in a region that emerged from beneath their control decades ago, further reinforcing a mentality that denies this fact, which was made evident.
This was clearly reflected in the nature of the topics discussed, which were tackled in a weak or superficial manner. They talked about what is already known, even for novices in security and political fields, presenting unrealistic insights and approaches, addressed from a point of view that does not reflect the concerns of the Gulf and Arab states and their national interests. These discussions were more reflective of the concerns of the British themselves, and what they see as a threat or challenge to their own interests, or those of their Western allies in the region. I can give an example — the position expressed by British lecturers and moderators on the growing Gulf relations with China and India.
We could easily discern from their input some concern about the growing influence of China and India in the region, and the probability that this influence may incorporate a military dimension in the future to protect the economic interests of the two countries, especially China, which is moving forward in strengthening its relations with the Arab Gulf states, and is expected to witness a major boom as it implements its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
This was viewed by the British institute’s researchers, as well as the British and Western conference participants, as a challenge to their interests and influence in the region. However, China’s interest in the region, and growing Sino-Gulf relations, represents to us in the GCC and Arab countries, an opportunity to diversify our foreign relations, as well as to increase trade and investment opportunities that benefit our countries.
Absence of intellectuals
While following the proceedings of the conference, another matter became apparent; a sense of formality prevailed among the speakers and participants, most of whom were ministers and political and security officials. This was amid a clear absence of intellectuals and academics who could have enriched the debate.
Although this can be beneficial in terms of providing a platform to exchange political opinions, as well as a framework for dialogue and interaction between these officials, there are negative aspects, such as the inability to put forward solutions, ideas and recommendations that would contribute to settling regional security issues and addressing the topics in question.
This is because politicians and officials are often conservative in advancing ideas and are constrained by the policies and protocols of their respective countries. Intellectuals and academics, on the other hand, especially those who belong to the region, could have contributed to in-depth analysis of the events and issues in question, and presented creative and innovative recommendations and ideas that offer solutions, initiatives and strategic visions for addressing existing crises, free from protocol and political constraints.
I do not mean to be critical or to detract from the efforts exerted to successfully host and organise this important conference, especially by my brothers in the Kingdom of Bahrain who spared no effort to ensure the right conditions to make the event a success. However, as a Gulf and Arab researcher and intellectual I was frustrated when observing the proceedings of this conference, which was clearly directed by the London-based IISS. Is it reasonable in the 21st century, when our Gulf and Arab countries have reached such a significant level of cultural and knowledge advancement, to wait for the British, or any other Western think tank, to determine our vital issues and concerns, as well as the threats and challenges facing us and how to cope with them? How is it possible that we are returning to the 19th century when we were under the hegemony of colonial powers, allowing them to regain control of our affairs in the 21st century, while we possess all the tools of knowledge and advancement that allow us to not only compete with them in the future, but also surpass them?
In conclusion, I would like to emphasise that I comment from a purely scientific and research-based perspective, given that I am a researcher specialised in political science and am aware of the operating mechanisms of think tanks and strategic studies centres.
This also stems from my eagerness to serve the national interests of our Gulf and Arab countries. Discussions of issues relevant to our region and seeking the best ways to ensure their security, stability and progress should be carried out through national think tanks and national intellectuals focused on their homeland’s affairs and future.
This is not a call to cease collaboration in areas of scientific research, exchange of expertise and knowledge with foreign and international think tanks. This indeed is essential and desired, however, we should not let these institutions determine our interests and policies, as was the case in the 19th century; rather, this work should be carried out by our people, who best understand our region and its interests.
— Dr Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi is a UAE author and director-general of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research.