Some 3,000 world leaders gathered in Davos for the World Economic Forum (WEF) last month, and there was a record number of Middle Eastern delegates among them. With eight heads of state from the Arab world, as well as many other senior ministers, a lot of people looked forward to an opportunity for fruitful engagement about the most important political, social and economic concerns in the region.
Unsurprisingly, the result was disappointing. Whilst such events have often been critiqued as largely paying diplomatic lip service to things that really matter, the three panel discussions featuring Middle Eastern delegates were even vaguer than usual. Whilst some key issues were identified, the ministers did little to present solutions to regional issues, only emphasising that they must be solved. Many of the leaders present, in fact, avoided most of the issues of public concern, using their platform instead to emphasise national rivalries and avoid criticisms of their own policies at all costs.
Pushing the blame
One would be forgiven for thinking that the “Finding a new equilibrium in the Middle East” panel was not actually a discussion between high-ranking diplomats, but a scene out of a high school drama with students unashamedly criticising their classmates. With each speaker presenting their opening remarks, it did not take long for Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir to mention the Iranian threat overtly, after pontificating on the different kinds of nations in the region, pointing out those with a “vision of light” and those with a “vision of darkness”; the former was epitomised, of course, by Saudi Arabia, the latter by Iran.
Extremism was the theme of the discourse, with all political and economic issues being tracked squarely back to the terrorist threat. The representatives of Bahrain and the UAE gave impassioned speeches on the importance of protecting the nation state, alluding subtly to the allegations of support for terrorism levelled at Qatar, as they reproached nations that sought to undermine foreign governments.
Iran was raised repeatedly as the greatest impediment to peace in the region, with UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash citing an interview with female protesters on the streets of Tehran, who allegedly told reporters, “We want to be like Arab women!”, as he clutched at any evidence that would paint the Gulf as progressive. Gargash continued by warning against “religiously infused” politics and states that were “looking into the past to find the golden age”, a possible reference to a fellow panellist from Turkey, with whom the UAE shared a heated exchange in December, leading President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to celebrate the history of the Ottoman Empire.
In a stereotypical autocratic attempt to appeal to the West, Bahrain Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa called for world powers to continue to be involved in the region, because the people of the Middle East could not be trusted to deal with such issues: “It’s very important here for the world powers and mainly here I’m talking about the US and Russia… to find an equilibrium because if we would leave it to the countries of the region to do it themselves now with this huge conflict happening, it would not necessarily produce the right outcome for us.”
Whilst the Trump era has made the world familiar with dogma presented as diplomacy, and Middle Eastern leaders have certainly been no strangers to rhetoric, the ministers rivalled such legacies, leaving all semblance of diplomacy behind in their desire to critique their regional rivals. Despite all the extensive talk of working together, the ministers served only to project their own diplomatic divisions onto the region, illustrating few steps that would actually contribute towards unity.
For a discussion aimed at addressing concerns other than just foreign relations, the delegates also gave less time to the issues of good governance in their respective countries. Whilst the token issue of youth unemployment cropped up from time to time, to listen to the diplomats you would think that the countries at hand were anything but plagued by the under-provision of social services, a suppression of freedom of speech and numerous human rights violations. By delineating the problem as one of extremism and its alleged backers, the representatives managed to absolve themselves of addressing the issues over which their governments do have control; instead, they took every opportunity to point the finger elsewhere.
The session entitled “A shared vision for the Arab World” featured Qatari and Tunisian foreign ministers Shaikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani and Khemaies Jhinaoui respectively, and aimed to identify diplomatic steps that could be taken in the region post-Daesh.
The discussion seemed promising, with Al-Thani identifying the economic causes that play a part in extremism, a welcome change from the narrative pushed by Qatar’s Gulf counterparts. Jhinaoui stated something similar — “I don’t want to talk about Daesh” — and moved to discuss some of the broader socioeconomic challenges faced by Tunisia. Yet it all too quickly fell apart as he proceeded to present the solution to youth unemployment as emigration, rather than considering areas of investment in job creation. “Our brothers in the Gulf,” he said, “as well as in the Mashreq [East] and even in Europe, we are sure that they need such human potential.” He failed to take into account the unemployment that affects much of the region and the current migration issues that Europe is battling against.
Despite having praised Tunisia’s six-year investment in education just minutes beforehand, Jhinaoui then jumped to the need for “quality” education to teach how to be “a good citizen” in order to defeat extremism. Such a rationale has often been repeated by the region’s leaders, citing the claim that the situation of the people is the result of the region’s grievances, as opposed to state policies.
Once again, the ministers addressed a handful of genuine issues and presented the idealistic shared vision espoused on such platforms, but then failed to dig deeper into the obstacles facing their nations today and present possible solutions.
Behind Vision 2030
If it were not for the controversial political backdrop in the country, the argument for Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, presented in the “Building Saudi Arabia’s Future Economy” panel, could have been convincing. For a country long assumed to be backward and behind the times, one could finally see signs of change in the eloquently presented plans for technological hubs in the north, the introduction of financial and legal infrastructure and the multiplier effect of women’s rights on economic growth.
At the same time, though, the various Saudi diplomats present failed to address the criticisms of the country’s development plan, the biggest being that the project is far too ambitious. Despite claims that the country will be free of its dependency on oil, a clear strategy has yet to emerge, with the proposed new investment channels still relying heavily on petrodollars. The costly industrial projects also necessitate extensive new infrastructure construction that will consume much of the proposed investment fund, but lack evidence that they will produce sustainable revenues. Even the grand plan for a Red Sea resort, which will reportedly generate an annual income of $4 billion, was not backed up with much cost-benefit analysis.
Tackling job creation was finally addressed by the panellists: “Human capital is the new currency,” declared Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud, Vice-President for Development and Planning at the Saudi General Sports Authority. However, the ministers failed to discuss the core ingredients of successful human capital, namely an education system that encourages critical thinking and analysis, both of which have historically been stifled in Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh’s aim to build its economy while discarding political development has made its proposed scheme difficult to trust, and the ministers present did little to alleviate those concerns. The government’s recent crackdown, allegedly on corruption, has also been seen as evidence that the Kingdom’s autocratic nature is set to stay. With an estimated $106 billion raised from the purge, it was hard to believe Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan — who brushed off a question on the corruption crackdown — when he recognised it only as an effort to “level the playing field” for the private sector.
A perpetual power play
Whilst it was not expected that the Middle Eastern delegates would achieve some historic reconciliation or enact regional peace during the WEF, the delegates’ overall impression was nonetheless disappointing. The deliberate vagueness employed by most of the ministers in order to avoid real issues, many of which are the result of poor governance, does nothing to promote confidence in times of uncertainty. Certain leaders bringing up regional power issues at every turn further display an inability to connect with the concerns of the people, which are usually much closer to home.
The continued references to the support of the international community whenever they are pressed to come up with a solution, indicates that Arab governments are both unable and unwilling to enact change without the permission of the West, exporting a large part of their decision-making to foreign powers rather than taking responsibility for contentious issues themselves. Once again the Middle East proved that ambitious projects and statements cannot conceal the inherent failures of regional governance, which must be addressed if long term progress is to be pursued with any real success.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.