The Emiratis think by building tall structures like the West, they will become cultured and turn into the hub of cultural activities in the Middle East. Intellectual capital, not tall buildings make people cultured but who should explain this to the dwellers of city-states?
The writer, who has chosen to remain anonymous, has lived and taught in one of the GCC states and explains why some of the cities have become well known on the global stage.
In October 2013, the Washington-based Middle East focused news site Al-Monitor published an essay by a member of the Sharjah ruling family, Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, titled, “Thriving Gulf Cities Emerge as New Centers of Arab World.” The article tried to promote the idea that the cities of the Persian Gulf states that are ruled by a hereditary primitive tribal monarchical system are replacing Cairo, Damascus and Beirut as centers of Arab culture and thought. Before examining the validity of this claim, we would like to analyze why this claim is being made for nearly a decade in different ways and what are the strategic geopolitical and soft-power aims of such assertion.
Incentives are crucial not only in the daily life of ordinary people and business management, but also in strategic socio-political and geopolitical matters. One of the most precise definitions of the word incentive is something, such as the fear of punishment or the expectation of reward, that induces action or motivates effort. Rewards and punishments were always an integral part of international relations and global politics.
About a hundred years ago, when global political mechanisms were not so refined or sophisticated, the punishment aspect was the main emphasis of interaction between various states and socio-political entities. Today, global politics is a lot more sophisticated, deceptive, and complicated and at the same time a lot harsher than a hundred years ago. The contemporary global political order puts greater emphasis on the rewards aspect of the incentive mechanism, that too often in the long run end up being significantly more damaging than punishments.
Before going into detail about what role the current GCC states play in the Western enforced global order, let us quickly revise the basic module of geostrategic incentives. A powerful state X is struggling to subordinate state I, L, A, G and T. State X tells T and A that they will enjoy exclusive and vast benefits if they give unconditional allegiance to state X. States T and A agree to the offer made by X. State X then goes to state G and offers similar terms; state G looks at the condition of states T and A and thinks that even though it has not been offered identical terms by X, maybe one day it can become the favorite servant and reach the same level as T and A, so G also submits. Then state X goes to I and L that have been resisting its domination and tells them, look at T, A, and G, you can be the same. I and L either choose to resist domination, or slowly get tempted to enjoy “peace” as T and A, and submit to X.
The above simplified model assumes that all actors are states where decisions are made based on rationalized state interests. If we realize in reality, the decisions in the above outlined model that are made by T and A, consider only the interests of the ruling elite, it becomes evident that without T and A, G would not have submitted. Let us put this scheme into a historical and contemporary political perspective. The main reason the US supports authoritarian regimes all over the world, which are mainly based upon the rule of a single autocrat, is because it is easier to pressure, buy and compel an individual/tribe/family to do something than a system.
The US realizes that if regions where it has strategic but illegitimate interests were run by representative institutional state systems, which are based upon their own ideals and interests, the US would not be able to establish its hegemony. In the 1960s, it took only a few meetings for US officials with the Shah of Iran to convince him to exempt US citizens from court jurisdiction in Iran if they committed a crime in the country. It was easy because as an autocrat, the Shah was not responsible for his decisions to anyone. Imagine what would be the outcome if such a decision had required approval of a parliament, council of Islamic jurists or a popular referendum?
American achievements in the GCC follow a similar pattern where it only needs to get the consent of the ruling family/tribe to seal a deal. The GCC’s ruling tribes are not answerable to any system or institution for their decisions except external powers that provide them with economic, political and military backing. On a side note, it should be mentioned that because of this reality it is naïve to think that the US will sincerely work with political actors in the Muslim East whose legitimacy is based upon a system of ideals and popular legitimacy. Even choosing between autocracy and limited popular legitimacy, Washington and its allies prefer autocracy. The example of how the US decided to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood even though it agreed not to overstep Western red lines and what it is now doing to the AKP government, which slightly overstepped its redlines, is one of many contemporary examples. The only time the Western regimes would work with a representative system is if that system is fully on board with their plans or they are unable to overthrow it.
By now the reader would have realized the incentive model mentioned above highlighting the role of T and A relates to the GCC, a group of countries with a terrible record of human rights, corruption, lack of authentic socio-political liberties and completely dependent on foreign powers for survival. Yet, these states enjoy unconditional Western support.
Pragmatically thinking, the West should have dumped the GCC regimes long ago. The US alliance with the GCC has a significant soft-power cost for Washington and its allies. Every time someone wants to highlight Western hypocrisy, all one has to do is point to the open strategic alliance between the GCC and the “freedom loving” West. The question, therefore, arises: why don’t they dump them? The answer is, because they need them as an incentive tool in the Muslim world.
The message to those that choose to maintain their integrity, independence and sovereignty is simple: look what we allowed Dubai and Doha to become; pledge your allegiance and you will have the same. Taking into account the small number of citizens in most GCC states due to racist citizenship and naturalization policies enforced by the ruling tribes and the presence of vast oil and gas reserves, the GCC states make a perfect incentive tool. Western powers created similar incentive models during the cold war in Asia. Singapore, Macao and Hong Kong are some of the clearest examples of this.
Washington and its imperialist allies need the glitz and glamour of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Manama as much as they need their military bases in the region. This is the age of soft-power as much as the age of hard power. Both must exist in order for one to be powerful, but the greater the use of soft-power, the better. In case of the GCC, its soft power is not indigenous; it is an imported Western capitalist/hedonistic soft power repackaged for the Arab audience. In the contemporary world if an entity aims to be a cultural and intellectual center, it must possess an indigenous soft power or it is destined to be a follower, not a leader.
Those who have lived in the GCC’s repressive capitalism-on-steroids socio-political environment and experienced the managerial, bureaucratic and financial mismanagement ask themselves: how does this place still function? The answer is not in complicated and inflated economic data presented through fancy pie charts and spreadsheets; the answer is the concept of incentives in the contemporary global order. The GCC is an incentive tool of Western imperialism, nothing more, nothing less.
Refuting the myth pedaled by a member of Sharjah’s ruling family Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, mentioned at the beginning of this article was not the principal reason for writing this report. Nevertheless, in order to dispel the illusion as to why the GCC is not the center of Arab culture and thought, some key points need to be briefly highlighted.
The above mentioned facts are just the tip of the iceberg of why the GCC is not the center of Arab culture and thought. To be the center of Arab culture and thought, it has to be cosmopolitan, possess indigenous soft power and be economically and politically independent of foreign patronage. The GCC lacks all these crucial ingredients to be a center of Arab thought and culture. The GCC can brag all it wants about its malls and luxury hotels, the reality is that the Arab street does not relate to its notion of “center of the Arab culture” as it is not Arab culture that the GCC represents and certainly not an Islamic one.