Western perception of the Middle East is often flawed and not factual. The region has its own unique dynamics and it is fast evolving. Why the Western pundits get it so wrong could simply be a manifestation of their outdated, self-inflated mindsets — one that still looks at its erstwhile colonies as if they fall under the shadow of the empire.
A case in point is the visit in recent months of Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, to India and China. In sections of the foreign press, it was portrayed as a ‘cold war’ manoeuvre by Saudi Arabia.
The media dubbed it as if MBS was going East to annoy the West. Though the Middle East was historically a main arena of the cold war between US-led West and Soviet-led East, the young generation in the region no longer feels burdened by old dogmas. They see the world from a different angle, and are mostly focused on their own countries’ interests.
The UAE has taken a lead in this regard. The country has developed its positive relationship with the Western powers and also nurtured new relations with Russia, South Korea, China and India along with newly emerging African centres. Now, Saudi Arabia is seeking venues to strengthen its drive for change and economic reform. India, for example, has been a traditional business partner to countries of the Gulf, and these relations go back centuries — especially in trade and culture.
Steeped in history
Though the Gulf is geographically part of the larger Asian continent, its relations with Africa — especially east and the Horn region — are historical and date back millennia.
So it is perfectly logical to build and strengthen new relationships with these countries, without necessarily jettisoning good and positive relationships with Europe, North America and Australia, for example.
Saudi joint investment and trade agreements with India or China are not meant to be ‘show offs’. They are not directed against the West — or any other power centre for that matter — but rather aiming at advancing interests independently. No one is thinking of bringing Chinese influence into the Gulf to balance the American military presence.
With Opec showing signs of weakness, its main member — Saudi Arabia — must foster new alliances, and Russia finds an interest in collaboration with the Saudis and UAE in this.
That is why Opec+ is now the formula that keeps global energy market balanced and sustained. That’s not directed at the US, which is becoming a leading fossil fuel producer and turning into a net exporter. On the contrary, US can join that formula if it finds it in its interest and in the interests of the global economy.
Think whatever you wish of Donald Trump, but he got it right when he said that if his country didn’t seek deals with Saudi Arabia, these deals will go to others. That may be a money-driven view of international politics, but it is a fair understanding of global inter-dependence based on just relationships between countries.
Unfortunately, old Europe and its allies in the new world of America, Canada and Australia still see the world through a cold war prism. Also, they don’t comprehend fully the change the world has been going through since the second half of the last century. Their view of the Gulf, and probably the whole Middle East, is not fully developed.
Beyond oil and money
Arab Gulf countries are no longer just about oil and money. That caricature is not true, yet the Western press seems to be still captive to the idea. It is something like the mind-image about Jews in Europe, portrayed as usurious long-nosed people belonging to money and subtle power.
Arab Gulf people are no longer Bedouins wasting their wealth in the West. They might still hire a ‘Western’ expert in his field to a position in their businesses, but that expat is no longer the one setting goals and shaping strategies. Gulf talents are there to do that, armed with the highest level of education and erudition.
The perception of privileged blond ‘Westerners’ in the region is not helping, as it clouds the vision of how these countries developed and are seeking their deserved place on the regional and international stages.
That doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning traditional relations based on equal footing and mutual respect, rather it must be the start of the West realising the change in the region.
People grow up and change in the course of maturity, so do nations and states. The Western world needs to understand this: the Arab world in general and the Gulf region in particular have moved on. It is a place of entrepreneurship and vision.
Dr Ahmed Mustafa is an Abu Dhabi-based journalist.