GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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Paper Proposal Text :
Perceptions of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states, particularly in the Western media and amongst decision makers and opinion formers, has changed markedly over the past decade.
Much as occurred during this period to bring about this change including: the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ unrest and its aftermath, changing US policy in the region under President Obama, the onset, impact and aftermath of the global economic recession of 2008 and 2009, the emergence of China and latterly India as would-be Asian hegemons challenging a traditionally Western ‘sphere of influence’ – not least through China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ development strategy – and US attempts to reset relations with Iran, primarily through the aegis of JCPOA, the international nuclear agreement.
The arrival of a new administration in the US, the UK’s historic vote to leave the European Union in 2016, and a year of potentially highly significant elections in Europe, make 2017 a propitious moment to assess the current state of Western perceptions and attitudes towards the GCC, as reflected in both mainstream and social media. Not only will this offer ‘a stocktake’ of how far Western attitudes and opinions have shifted over the past decade but it will also offer a new baseline against which future shifts of perception and opinion can be gauged.
Using a mix of qualitative assessment and discourse analysis, this paper will consider how perceptions of the GCC have shifted in the following key areas that impact directly on broader Western perceptions of ‘The Gulf’:
a. Economic dependency on oil. As the GCC states themselves strive to diversify their economies away from previous dependence on rentier income, it is suggested that international commentators and researchers have been unwilling to embrace the genuineness of the GCC’s resolve to bringing about real economic change. It often appears that commentators take the view that the GCC “talks a good story” about diversification away from fossil fuel dependency and a drive towards increasing reliance on renewables – the UAE has recently declared its ambition of 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2015 – but remains less certain that these ambitions are either genuine or achievable.
b. Security Self-Sufficiency and the Decline of US Engagement. The Saudi-led coalition intervention in Yemen has been widely framed as a demonstration of Gulf self-determination and willingness to take greater responsibility for regional security and defence. Some Western analysts have interpreted this as a reaction to the Obama administration’s determination to halt military entanglements, not just in the Gulf region but across the whole of Western Asia. While the outcomes of events in Syria, Yemen and Libya have shown mixed results, Western opinion leaders are seen to have understood the change of strategic stance as both a reflection of concern over US reliability and willingness to become more assertive in strategic direction of the region, particularly in opposition to Iran. The paper will explore the extent to which this is the case and whether it will be sustained with the arrival of President Trump in the White House.
c. Political Responses in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring. Since the uprisings of 2011, widely characterised in Western media as ‘The Arab Spring’, there has been extensive interest in both the differing responses within individual Gulf Arab states and the question of why Gulf monarchies appear to have emerged from the political turmoil, largely untouched and unchanged. These parallel lines of scholarly inquiry have influenced the views of Western observers, many of whom have concluded that the Arab Spring has set back the evolution of political reform across the region, with it often being asserted (Davidson et al) that this is not only storing up trouble and instability for the future but also has revealed the extent of the Islamist fault-line dividing the region. These political developments have encouraged perceptions of leaderships “buying consent” through a system of generous public subsidy and national exclusivity. The paper will examine the extent to which this perceived political discourse is accurate and how it may continue to influence perceptions of the Gulf states more generally.
d. The Asian Pivot. Since the onset of the 2008 global economic crisis and growing economic outreach across Asia from China (One Belt One Road) and India, together with more ambitious economic outreach from Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia, a further broad perception that has taken hold in relation to the GCC, particularly amongst Western commentators, is of a Gulf pivot towards Asia. This has been manifest in high level visits to and from the region together with a slew of economic initiatives. In addition, energy analysts continue to highlight new oil production agreements with Asia-based companies at the expense of the region’s traditional ties with the West’s so-called ‘Seven Sisters’. The paper will outline the extent to which this perceived shift of economic preference is supported by reality. It will also explore suggestions that this so-called Asia Pivot is driven by collective Gulf frustration with the West’s over-pre-occupation with human rights and expansion of democracy.
e. Proxy Struggles with Iran. The paper will explore the perception of an unceasing strategic struggle between Iran and its Gulf neighbours, most obviously from Saudi Arabia but also with the support of the other Gulf states. This notion of so-called ‘proxy struggle’ is regularly debated amongst strategic analysts as a key determinant in Western perceptions of the region. It notably earned the British Foreign Secretary a public rebuke from Prime Minister Theresa May when Boris Johnson suggested it as a matter of concern in the region in a speech in 2016. Whether Mr Johnson merited this response or not, his remarks served to underline the extent to which this has become a key theme in broader perceptions of the Gulf region and its relationship with Western interests.
f. Alleged GCC Sponsorship of Terrorism. Ever since Al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in September 2001 – so-called ‘9/11’ – there have been regular assertions of GCC involvement in the sponsorship of Islamist extremism, particularly in backing al-Qaeda and supporting Daesh. While few of these allegations has been proven, the fact that 17 of the 19 ‘9/11’ hijackers came from the GCC – 15 from Saudi Arabia and two from the UAE – has frequently drawn comment concerning the extremist leanings of influential elements within the Gulf states, if not amongst the leaderships themselves. For some Western analysts, this has encouraged suggestions of GCC complicity in the export of jihad and a view that Iran may no longer be considered the principal sponsor of terrorism against Western countries. It is also likely to become a more prominent element within Western discourse, when the families of 9/11 victims start to pursue claims against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and possibly the UAE under the recently legislated Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) in the US. The paper will consider to what extent these perceptions are justified, how they continue to shape Western understanding of the GCC and what steps Gulf leaders have taken to rebut the more egregious allegations of culpability for terrorist extremism.
g. Human Rights in GCC. Under the Obama administration in the United States over the past eight years and through successive rulings in European courts on human rights issues, human rights campaigners regularly direct criticism against the GCC regarding its collective record on human rights. Whether in the treatment of migrant workers from south Asia, the response to political challenges or even the alignment of Muslim custom and tradition with Western liberal concepts of equality, liberty and freedom of expression, the perception of deeply conservative and uncompromising repression of individual rights continues to influence GCC-Western relations. Some commentators have suggested that the election of Donald Trump will see a reduced emphasis on human rights as the US shifts towards a more “transactional” form of diplomacy and engagement in the Middle East. The paper will offer a brief, evidence-based analysis of the extent to which human rights considerations have shaped GCC-Western decision making and how perceptions of human rights conservatism continue to influence international approaches to the region.
Of necessity, this will be a wide-ranging paper but it is believed that it will be of benefit to the Workshop in establishing a broad baseline of GCC-Western perceptions against which the over-arching theme can be better explored and assessed. It will make particular use of the authors’ extensive database of public comment and opinion developed over the past 12 years. It is also hoped that it will provide a welcome platform to encourage further and more detailed research into the various themes that presently comprise “Western perceptions of The Gulf.” It will use both mainstream and social media discourse and offer ideas of how these media themselves are being used to change the public debate.