Why we need to talk about the Gulf: the WCIA at the 32nd Exeter Gulf Conference

The region: The Gulf is one of the most complex and important regions in the world, for a number of different reasons.

Islam: The Gulf is home to two of the holiest sites in Islam: the Kaaba (the cube-like shrine in the centre of Mecca’s Al-Masjid Al-Haram towards which Muslims orient themselves during daily prayers) and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (built by the prophet Muhammad in the city of Medina). For most Sunni Muslims, the Gulf is the spiritual home of Islam, and events occurring in Saudi Arabia often send reverberations across the Muslim world.

The complex of ponds and waterworks in the grounds of Reed Hall, University of Exeter.

The region has also seen a rise in sectarian tension between Sunni and Shi’ite factions. In Bahrain, the Shi’a majority who feel underrepresented by the Sunni-led government have regularly protested in large numbers since the Arab Spring. In Saudi Arabia, the large Shi’a minority claim that their needs are ignored and demand reform. Shi’a protestors are often accused of being pro-Iran or pro-Hezbollah fifth columnists, attempting to bring down or destabilise governments from within.

The Yemeni Civil War (2014–), which has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives continues to affect millions in the war-torn country. The Iran-backed Houthi rebels are spearheading the rebellion against the Saudi alliance-backed Sana’a government, in what many are seeing as part of a greater Saudi Arabia-Iran (Sunni-Shi’a) sectarian conflict.

Military: The Gulf states, especially Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, now all sovereign nations, were shaped by British colonialism and most of them only gained independence in the second half of the 20thcentury. These countries, once under British control, were and continue to be of significant geographical importance to Western military objectives due to their proximity to Central Asia and the Far East, and are home to many Western military outposts, such as the Omani-British Joint Training Area in Oman and Al-Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.

Indeed, many of the Gulf nations enjoy such a strong military alliance with the United Kingdom that their leaders, including King Hamad of Bahrain, Sheikh Tamim of Qatar, and Sheikhs Mohamed (Al Nahyan) and Mohammed (Al Maktoum) of the United Arab Emirates, were educated in British military academies. Even Jordan (which is considered by many in the Arab world to be a link between the Shām [Levant] and the Gulf), whose request to join the Gulf Cooperation Council was granted in 2011, is led by Abdullah II, who attended Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and enjoys excellent relations with the United Kingdom and the United States.

Trade: Over the last two decades, the Gulf has emerged as one of the world’s fastest growing economic hubs. Heavily financed by oil rents and mineral deposits, the Gulf monarchies have amassed astonishing amounts of wealth.

After the first discoveries of oil deposits in the early 20th century, the Gulf monarchies transformed themselves from poor, underdeveloped states which were reliant on the declining pearling industry, into trade entrepôts, essential to the global supply chain, and oil-rich rentier states.

Then, after many states reached “peak oil” in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Gulf monarchies, often with the guidance of large multinational consulting groups such as McKinsey and BCG, drew up plans to diversify their economies, to entice foreign investors, and to beckon foreign workers into their growing private sector. These plans also often included the proviso that companies in the private sector must employ a minimum number of locals, in order to entice local workers away from the burgeoning public sector, upon which there was (and still often is) an over-reliance to provide work for nationals.

Part of this great diversification effort by the monarchies was the plan to create sovereign wealth funds, funded by oil rent and mineral surpluses, which would be reinvested in large-scale projects at home and abroad. A further benefit of the overseas investments, in addition to diversifying the sovereign wealth funds’ portfolios, was the considerable soft power gained by financing projects in the West and investing in beloved sports and media organisations across the globe. Examples of this include the financing of the Shard building in London and purchase of Paris Saint-Germain Football Club by the Qatari state.

Another success of this great diversification effort was the great blooming of “Free Zone” economies in the Gulf – geographically defined areas, allocated specifically for growing start-ups and established multinationals, which offer incentives such as zero-tax rates and government investment to encourage growth. The most famous of these is the Jebel Ali Free Zone in Dubai.

Brand new cities were built where ancient ones once stood. Land was created where once was sea. Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Dubai, Doha, Kuwait City, and Manama, all formerly small trading hubs, grew beyond all recognition and transformed into large economic hubs. Real estate boomed in Dubai and Doha, with wealthy locals and foreigners willing to pay millions­­ for residential properties and businesses flashing their cash for the most prominent addresses in Free Zones. This boom, which continued until the storm of the 2008 Financial Crisis and subsequently bounced back, appears to show little sign of letting up to this day.

Billions were spent on primary, secondary and tertiary education facilities, aiming to provide locals with the education needed to be competitive in the global jobs market and with skills which would help the local private sector thrive. Many prestigious universities from the UK and the USA opened outposts in the monarchies.

Fossil fuels, the environment, and climate change: Of course, the elephant in the black marble and gold inlay room, is the crisis of climate change.

The Gulf monarchies have amassed their fortunes on the back of production and consumption of fossil fuels. The favourable conditions of relatively easy crude oil extraction and low costs of labour mean that the oil giants of the Gulf are willing and able to continue pumping the oil required to power an industrialising developing world and the giant economies of Western Europe and the United States.

In addition to being some of the biggest producers of fossil fuels in the world, the Gulf monarchies are amongst the 10 highest CO2 polluters per capita in the world (Qatar (1st), Kuwait (2nd), Bahrain (3rd), the UAE (4th), Saudi Arabia (8th), and Oman (9th)). Qatari, Kuwaiti, and Emirati citizens, amongst the wealthiest in the world, enjoy lavish lifestyles, with some families owning more cars than there are people, often travelling by plane multiple times a year, and consuming products flown in from across the globe.

The Gulf is home to some of the world’s biggest land reclaiming projects. Millions of tonnes of sand and rock have been piled across the shorelines of the Gulf in order to provide land on which new real estate can be built. The most famous example of this is the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai – the date palm-shaped artificial archipelago on the coast of Dubai. The extent of the damage to the ecosystem of the Persian Gulf has yet to be realised fully, but the harm caused to marine biodiversity has already been devastating. Most blatantly wasteful projects are “The World” development and the Jebel Ali Palm. The former, an artificial archipelago of islets resembling a world map, is largely empty bar a few small resorts, despite its marketing campaign and unconfirmed rumours of celebrities having purchased islands at great cost. The latter project, a larger version of Palm Jumeirah, which was expected to house upwards of 250,000 people, has been put on hold until further notice.

Despite global attempts to curb fossil fuel consumption and develop credible alternatives, the global demand for crude oil worldwide is predicted to continue increasing into the future. The Gulf monarchies with large proven reserves are unlikely to limit their production of fossil fuels if they are able to continue building their reserves from global consumption.

Human rights violations: The great modernisation of the Gulf region, which has seen megacities built where once were small pearling hubs, has come at a great human cost. 

Violations of South Asian migrant workers’ rights have been recorded by various human rights organisations since the early 2000s, when the fist megacities, such as Dubai, were built. Reports of migrants living in squalor, working for less than minimum wage, and having had their passports confiscated by their employers upon entering the country have been documented extensively.

The 2010-2012 Arab Spring protests signalled a changing of the political guard across most of the Arab World. In the Gulf however, generally speaking, protests were few and far between, and, when they were intense, as in the case of the 2011 Bahraini protests, they were brutally suppressed by Bahraini military forces. The Gulf Peninsula Shield Force, ostensibly founded in order to maintain peace in the region, was also used to suppress the protestors. Human rights violations have been reported by charities and NGOs such as the Bahraini Institute for Rights and Democracy.

The question of human rights abuses in the context of modern slavery has come to the forefront of discussion about the Gulf recently, as Qatar has received widespread criticism for alleged use of slave labour to build the stadiums that will be used when it hosts the 2022 World Cup.

Conference background:

The Exeter Gulf Conference is hosted by the University of Exeter’s Centre for Gulf Studies and has been held since 1979. PhD students, aspiring scholars, non-academic researchers, and well-established researchers present their work on a topic in front of an audience of academics and experts.

The University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, which is home to the Centre for Gulf Studies, and has hosted the Conference since 1979.

The event encourages discussion and lively debate during the “Q&A” sessions which follow the talks and offers a rare opportunity for academics from all branches of the social sciences (concerning the Gulf region) to come together at a single event. The competition to present at the Conference is fierce. A “call for papers” with a pre-determined submission deadline is advertised months in advance on social media and in academic journals’ newsletters, after which the lengthy process of narrowing down the number of speakers takes place.

Overseeing proceedings this year was Professor Marc Valeri (Director, Centre for Gulf Studies).

One of the goals of the Conference is to publish the talks in the form of articles that will contribute to the field of study and inspire a new generation of researchers to delve deeper into the Gulf. The Conference also aims to bring attention to current affairs concerning the region and shed light on academic developments in the fields of anthropology and sociology.

The Conference:

Introduction: The 32nd Exeter Gulf Conference, titled “Liberalism and its paradoxes in the Arabian Peninsula”, took place on June 28-29, 2022.

For the first time since 2019, the Conference was held in person at Reed Hall, University of Exeter. The COVID-19 pandemic had meant that meetings between those involved had taken place over Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings.

The title of the talk posed an interesting question. How does liberalism fit in with the Gulf? How does a region so often stereotyped as being averse to social and political reform fit in with the concept of liberalism? How does liberalism, which is often associated with more developed economies in the West, fit in with incredibly oil-rich authoritarian regimes in the Gulf?

On display were books written by many of the speakers from the Conference. Many of the talks given at the Conference will contribute to a greater body of work in the relevant academic field.

The keynote speech inaugurating the Conference addressed the idea of liberalism itself. Rather than introducing the concept of liberalism with a focus on political theory, the speaker focused on aspects of liberalism that apply most to the Gulf. In particular, the speaker brought attention to current issues of sustainability in the oil-producing states and addressed the flaws of laissez-faire neoliberal economics with regard to overconsumption and climate change. The speech concluded that the big challenge of liberalism in the region is to come up with effective and practicable alternatives to fossil fuels which will not jeopardise the prosperity of future generations of Gulf citizens.

Openness: The subjects of openness and cosmopolitanism were particularly prominent during the talks. It was highlighted by some panels that surface-level acceptance of minority groups and the adoption of supposedly “progressive” and “welcoming” world views on the international stage by a number of the Gulf states was totally at odds with the reality beneath. The paradox of Gulf states portraying themselves as societies open to all cultures and all values while treating migrants and minority groups as second and third-class citizens was all too apparent. It raises a number of questions, namely:

How can a government led by a minority denomination portray itself as welcoming to outsiders when its own majority denomination citizens feel unrepresented by their own government and have been subject to targeted harassment and violence by secret police hired mercenaries?

How can a state with a large, vocal minority deny the existence of protests which have taken place since the Arab Spring and even claim that they were orchestrated by anarchists and foreign intelligence-backed fifth columnists hoping to topple the government?

The Conference is the flagship event in the University of Exeter’s Middle Eastern Studies calendar, and is one of the most important conferences of its kind in Europe.

These questions, all equally important, highlight the inherent hypocrisy in the supposedly progressive nature of the governments in the Gulf. As these states start to play a more prominent role on the international political stage, the contrast between the way they portray themselves and reality will need to be scrutinised closely.

Religion: Another panel discussed the changing nature of the role played by religious figures in the Gulf. It was argued that, as we move further into the globalised 21st century, the once inextricable link between political legitimacy of the governing regimes and the religious hierarchies in the Gulf states appears to be fraying. It is, at present, unclear if this overall trend is due to disagreements about whether or not governments have acted in line with Islamic morality or whether this is a move to separate religion from governance on the international stage.

What is clear, however, is that more conservative members of Saudi society feel that the state is turning away from Islam to appease westerners. During the panel’s Q&A session, a Saudi academic in the audience astutely pointed to the example of restaurants in shopping malls being open during Ramadan in the holy city of Mecca, and claimed that many members of Saudi society, both regular citizens and members of the religious hierarchy see this as un-Islamic and potentially contrary to the founding principles of Saudi society. Whether or not this will represent a larger schism between religion and the state remains to be seen.

Education and economy: The panel on education provided some of the most thought-provoking talks, notably, the role of education reforms in preparing the next generation of students for the global employment marketplace.

Using Kuwait as a case study of neoliberal education reforms, the speaker drew attention to what appears to be a government policy of preparing students to go to university and study subjects which are desirable on a global level, but which do not directly address gaps in the Kuwaiti private sector economy. Jobs in Kuwait’s public sector, for which there are long job waiting lists, are few and far between. The public sector is burgeoning, and the situation is financially unsustainable for the state in the long run, especially when coupled with a relatively small private sector.

While there are Kuwaitisation quotas in the private sector which ensure that all organisations adhere to a minimum percentage of Kuwaiti staff (according to each industry’s individual minimum percentage quota), the speaker noted that the neoliberal reforms do not address the inherent shortages in the Kuwaiti marketplace.

The reforms were all part of a great plan to turn Kuwait into another economic hub similar to Dubai, which would rely on the scientific and technological innovation and sharp business acumen of the locals who seamlessly transition from the education system into the workplace. However, the reforms were drafted by multinational consulting groups with little in-depth understanding of the local economy or culture and spearheaded by well-meaning but ill-advised politicians.

There is a very real fear that the money spent on all the educational reforms will be wasted, as private sector businesses in highly competitive industries will probably be tempted to take on the staff necessary to fill the quotas and then recruit more qualified candidates from abroad. Besides, how many “Dubai”s can the Gulf produce? How many economic hubs can one (relatively) short stretch of coast in the Eastern Arabian Peninsula accommodate? The remainder of those Kuwaitis who fail to secure a graduate role that would suit their needs will, in all likelihood, return to the bloated public sector or seek employment abroad, in economic hubs with longstanding ties to Kuwait, such as London.

The topic of education leading to the private sector was also discussed in the context of Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom has, over the last few decades, completely overhauled its education system. The numbers of teachers in the education system, and the numbers of schools and universities which offer a world class standard of education have grown exponentially. Gone are the days when the majority of super wealthy Saudi businessmen and royals would send their children abroad to receive their education. Now, the Kingdom draws students into its education system from other Gulf states, across the Arab World, and even accepts students from further afield.

The situation in Saudi Arabia does suffer from some issues similar to those discussed about Kuwait. The neoliberal education reforms, designed with the aim of creating a workforce that will transform the Saudi economy, were also masterminded by the state and external consulting groups. The reforms have led to a situation where students are highly qualified for high-flying private sector roles, for which there are few job openings.

The system, which has coached those in education into thinking that only certain jobs have social status and are to be valued, has led them to believe that skilled manual labour and non-high-flying jobs are beneath them. This has led to fierce competition for the few high-flying, technical jobs, and a dearth of local workers willing and able to take on roles such as mechanics, and plumbers.

Additionally, the panel referred to a phenomenon which is endemic in Saudi Arabia – the highly-qualified, lazy, Saudi technical middle-class graduates, who occupy largely meaningless managerial roles in large companies and offer very little in terms of salvageable productivity. This phenomenon has been illustrated and explained excellently by Christopher M. Davidson in his book “After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies”, in which he compares the Saudi issue to similar phenomena occurring in other Gulf rentier states such as the United Arab Emirates.

It was also very interesting that many British audience members drew parallels between the U.K.’s problem of having “too many graduates” and Saudi Arabia’s overqualified and unemployable young workforce.

The education/economy panels proved so popular in the Q&A session that many of the questions and discussions had to spill into the lunchtime break and beyond. Education is certain to become a hot topic in the Gulf in the coming years.

Migrants and social hierarchies: The subject of social class in the Gulf states has long been discussed. The region has come under scrutiny on a number of occasions for human rights abuses in the workplace, primarily perpetrated against the Gulf’s population of approximately 15 million South Asian migrants.

The panel, which focused on the subject of social hierarchies and treatment of migrants, was one of the most anticipated over the course of the conference.

Particularly striking was the talk on Sri Lankan workers in the region. The speaker gave a brief background description of the history of Sri Lankan migration into the Gulf, before discussing the everyday difficulties faced by millions.

Many of those who arrive in the Gulf states on temporary work visas experience difficulty in gaining access to public health services.

The beautiful Reed Hall, University of Exeter.

An eye-opening case study of a migrant worker with a large tumour in her stomach was presented to the audience. The worker, who had lived and worked in one of the Gulf states for many years, was prevented from accessing the basic medical care which would allow her to have the potentially lifesaving surgery to remove the tumour which was causing her significant discomfort on a daily basis. This raises the question:

How can an emirate which advertises itself as the most tolerant and welcoming society in the Gulf, which is home to millions of migrant and expatriate workers, treat like slaves the South Asian migrant workers who built the infrastructure that paved the way for the creation of its unfathomable wealth?

The conference concluded with a speech by the Director of Gulf studies, who thanked the panellists for two days of stimulating material and the audience for its spirited participation.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *