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Picture of the forum Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: The economic transformations and the preparations for the post-oil era serve the interests of the GCC leadership, making the Gulf the new center of power for Arabs and an exporter of influence, at the heart of decision-making, a regional strategy conference heard on Monday.

Experts and strategists discussed implications of the power shifts in the Gulf and the emergence of foreign powers in the region on the second panel of the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, entitled “The Gulf Region: Capabilities and Possibilities”.

Speaking in the capital on Monday, they touched on renewable energy, asymmetric warfare, cyber threats and the post-oil era.

Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, Professor of Political Science and Specialist in Gulf Affairs, said the GCC moment and leadership as it is today is more confident than ever as to their capabilities. “When we revisit the regional map of power from the Gulf to the Maghreb, the new, emerging power, and even the one able to lead the region, is represented within the six GCC countries,” he explained.

“The outcome of regional and global shifts in the last 20 years serve the interests of the Arab Gulf, including the US retreat, to help the GCC act more independently, and the emergence of new powers, where we have built partnerships with new powers in Asia or Russia.”

GCC must not be ignored

“The GCC must not be ignored by Western capitals,” Dr. Abdullah said. “The GCC leadership is here to stay, it is young and aspiring and the most salient feature of it is that it flies with two strong wings – Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” Dr Abdullah said.

He spoke of it as the new element in the region, although the biggest vulnerability is living in a difficult, dangerous region with a “difficult neighbor.” “ Security is always a vulnerability in the GCC states,” he added.

However, Dr. Ebtesam Al Ketbi, President of Emirates Policy Center, expressed support for the school of pragmatic policies.

“I do not believe it is a GCC moment because the GCC states possess massive military budgets, but they cannot defend themselves, apart from the reliance on foreign powers,” she explained.

“There is a security vulnerability in GCC states as a whole.” She highlighted that the UAE has massive soft power and the power of AI but on the other hand, Iran has hard power, yet its soft power is quite fragile.

“It has advanced cyber capabilities, but the internal situation does not reflect a model of development nor the welfare of the Iranian people,” Dr. Al Ketbi noted. “Iraq has massive economic potential yet today, it is crippled.”

She spoke of a vehement competition between all parties and those who manage to take the forefront in the distribution of power are those who perceive power in its comprehensive sense, encompassing knowledge, technology, enhancing welfare and good governance.

“Having hard power alone results in wars and the ability to sabotage the situation,” she added.

“Owning soft power alone does not protect, especially in the GCC region.”

The challenge she described is an imbalance in the region and a dichotomy in regional perspectives.

“So the security problem is one of the primary challenges in the GCC,” she concluded. “The way out of this zero-sum game in the GCC is that there will never be stability and welfare if we do not reach an agreement with Iran. But Iran has nothing to lose and the GCC does, so we need to strike a balance”.

Dr. Abdulla bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Chairman, DERASAT, described three different scenarios for the region.

The first portraying the GCC as a united political bloc that contributes to the development of various countries, provides services and becoming a regional center for innovation, business, leadership, cooperation and sustainable development.

“The stability of the region will lead to the containment of Iran,” he said.

“In light of economic growth averages, by 2030, the GCC bloc will be ranked sixth as a global economic power, should the pace of economic growth continue as it is today.”

The second scenario he mentioned is one involving an increase of turmoil and conflicts, coupled with terrorism, sectarianism and the spread of hatred speech.

“Consequently, conflicts increase, which has an impact on social and economic plans, and sustainable development,” he noted. “By 2025, Iran will become a nuclear power leading to more turmoil in the region and a source of concern for the GCC.”

The third scenario involves the situation remaining as it is today, with a continuity of regional conflicts, tension and regional interferences. “However, the endgame is that GCC countries must become a leader to preserve their own security and protect their internal [issues], as well as their investments in hard or soft power,” Dr. Al Khalifa argued.

“There is a dangerous escalation in the region.”

According to Dr. Saad Al Ajmi, Professor at Kuwait University, and Former Minister of Information and Culture, Egypt is paralyzed because of its internal concerns since 2011.

Egypt role is semi-paralyzed

“The Egyptian role is semi-paralyzed, it is not completely absent, but we cannot see Egypt acting as it was,” he said.

“Syria is fractured, and these countries we rely on for regional security are not there. Iran represents a threat, Turkey a challenge, and there is an ongoing conflict with Israel until the Palestinians get their rights.”

With a US retreat from the region and a new dimension with Indian, Russian and Chinese roles, he spoke of a cautious optimism.

“The GCC may be a leader in the field but there is a Bahrain, UAE and Saudi alliance, a retreat from Oman and a crisis with Qatar,” Dr. Al Ajmi explained.

“The decline of Oman to play a role in the GCC allowed Kuwait to take this position. We have a Kuwaiti role which has to be taken advantage of and encouraged, as it has preserved good relations with all stakeholders, tried to abort those scenarios targeting Bahrain and contributed to the Yemeni situation by providing forces to defend Saudi borders in the south.”

He said Kuwait plays a humanitarian role in Iraq and helps Syrian refugees, viewing its role as a source of power for the GCC.

Iran hegemony

For his part, Jameel Altheyabi, Editor in Chief, Okaz Newspaper and General Supervisor of Saudi Gazette, spoke about the GCC region in an optimistic way, explaining that it is on the right path that can lead it to a brighter and better future.

“GCC countries today as a system are interested in setting up Artificial Intelligence (AI) institutions,” he noted. “We are interested in developing this sector and forming cyber units. This is a futuristic orientation.”

However, he spoke of many indicators in the region that have yet to settle many issues, such as Iran’s hegemony, Turkey’s influence and regional conflicts, coupled with the GCC’s internal cooperation.

“The GCC is still a solid bloc but if we measure the current situation with its history, we can notice that things were not accomplished, especially for generations seeking a better future,” Altheyabi said. “Now, there is a GCC will to achieve unity but some refuse this. What is more important for the GCC is to achieve real integration.”