Persian Gulf nations modernizing under new generation of leaders

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The 37th annual summit meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) wrapped up in Manama on December 8. For the most part, the final communique reiterated long-standing GCC views that reflect the fundamental alignment of the Gulf states with U.S. policies and perspectives.  

The six member states condemned Iranian interference in the region, reiterated their determination to combat violent extremist organizations, especially Da’esh, and reaffirmed their support for Iraq’s unity and territorial integrity as well as an independent Palestinian state.

The leaders did use the annual meeting to criticize the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) and called for Washington to “re-think” the legislation. But, the Summit’s message of continuity masks a more important trend.  

The underlying reality in the GCC today increasingly reflects fundamental societal change driven by a generational shift in leadership.

To be sure, new leaders in the Gulf states advocate retaining many of the key pillars of GCC policy. But they are also steering the organization and the region toward policies designed to promote greater economic growth and diversification.  

The future security and stability of the region — accommodating the needs and demands of a burgeoning population and reducing dependence on a challenging energy sector — will depend in large measure on the success of the initiatives that have been advocated by this new leadership.

The Vision 2030 initiative, a project of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, envisions sweeping economic and social changes in Saudi Arabia. It is the highest profile undertaking within the GCC.  

In Doha, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani similarly has launched several high profile projects to raise Qatar’s international image and move the country away from its reliance on huge natural gas investments and toward economic diversification.

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Zayid, is not only a national leader, but also a dominant force within the GCC.

The crown prince is pressing for progress in modernizing GCC societies socially and economically. Emirates officials note with pride that only 30 percent  of the nation’s GDP is sourced from its oil and gas industries.  

Dubai is the anchor of UAE’s economic diversification and, within the  Federal Supreme Council, Dubai’s Amir, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, is a key ally of Mohammed bin Zayid.  Others on the council are also keen advocates of economic growth and diversification.

Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi, the University of Michigan graduate who has ruled Ras al-Khaimah since 2010, was the major force behind his emirate’s development into a leading global producer of ceramics. This move led to Ras al-Khaimah’s dramatic growth in per capita income – nearly 50% within 5 years – earlier in this century.

The emergence of leaders across the GCC committed to addressing the social and economic challenges confronting their countries, while retaining the core principals of regional policy, provides an opening for the Trump administration.  

Their success will mean that the U.S. will be in a position to sustain critical foreign policy and national security goals in the region and that the U.S. private sector will be in an advantageous position to participate in its economic growth.

 It will be wise for the Trump administration to look for early opportunities to develop stronger relations with this promising new leadership.      


Amb. Gerald M. Feierstein is the former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, and is now a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Gulf Affairs at The Middle East Institute, in Washington, DC.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Gulf Cooperation Council Iran Modernization Qatar Saudi Arabia Social change UAE

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