Studying Gulf Countries, their Influence and Divides

Where politics leads, scholarship often follows. In recent years, the increased clout and interventionism of the countries that belong to the Gulf Cooperation Council have made them the focus of growing scholarly interest. While researching these wealthy and autocratic countries can be difficult, specialists argue that it is a necessity for understanding the Arab region today.

“Governments in the GCC must revisit their social compacts, focusing on developing national workforces that possess not only the academic credentials but the necessary technical and practical skills required for the labor market.” So writes Adel Hamaizia, a graduate student at Oxford University and one of the editors of a new journal dedicated to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

The first issue of the journal is dedicated to the contentious issue of the GCC labor market, where 45 percent of the population is made up of expatriate workers. Hamaizia’s introduction notes that the labor market is marked by “obstinate divisions”: “national-non-national; public sector-private sector; male-female; blue-collar-white-collar; generation X-generation Y; as well as along tribal and even (increasingly) sectarian lines.”

The journal is yet another addition to the rapidly expanding field of Gulf studies. The increased focus on the region comes as countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have taken the initiative following the Arab Spring, intervening financially and militarily (and many would say recklessly) in conflicts in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.

“The center of gravity is really shifting,” says Eugene Rogan, director of the Middle East Centre at St Antony’s College at Oxford University. “In a Middle East in turmoil, the Gulf is more important, more prominent than ever, and the need to study the Gulf is more pressing than ever.”

The new journal’s approach is cross-disciplinary and includes analysts and government officials from the region. People from opposing sides of the debate mingle their views in the new publication. While Frank Hagemann of the International Labour Organization discusses “widespread abuse of foreign workers, including situations akin to forced labor,” Aqeel Al-Jassim, Executive Bureau General Director of the Council of Ministers of Labor and Council of Ministers of Social Affairs in GCC States, argues that the biggest challenge his organization faces “is to explain to foreign researchers how unique the environment is in member states, and to show that the problems that face expatriate labor are a small fraction when compared to the numerous success stories of positive cooperation between expatriate laborers and the local employers.”

As for the relationship between education and the labor market, several contributors note that the use of oil revenues to guarantee public-sector jobs to citizens has led young people in the Gulf to pursue university degrees merely as credentials, not out of personal interest or to meet job-market demands. Few young people study the sciences, which are in demand in the private sector and are key to building the “knowledge economies” all Gulf states say they aim to build.

Oxford has also just appointed a Gulf specialist, Toby Matthiesen, to a position in its Middle East Centre. Several other British universities already have well-established Gulf studies programs, including the London School of Economics, where programs were created with funding from Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, and Cambridge University. But in 2013 LSE canceled a conference it had organized at American University of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, when a participant who was scheduled to speak on the uprising in Bahrain was denied entry to the country.

Other academics who have been outspoken on issues such as the treatment of migrant laborers have also been banned from entering the UAE recently. All the countries in the region place many restrictions on freedom of expression, as an analysis in the publication Muftah and organizations such as Amnesty International have discussed.

Critics warn that Western universities are giving legitimacy to autocratic regimes and engaging in self-censorship. Other scholars say there is room for critical engagement, and that for professors, engaging in outright activism can be self-defeating.

Incidents like the cancelled LSE conference are very worrying, says Rogan, “in terms of closing down scope for genuine cooperation” between universities in the West and the region. Scholars must calibrate “the level of critical engagement they wish to maintain without burning bridges with the host country,” say Rogan. It may be, he notes, that “we can push the boundaries as Western scholars in ways that local scholars can’t, frame narratives in ways that makes taboos more acceptable.”

But he admits that there are topics that it would be very difficult to discuss freely at universities or academic conferences in the region at the moment. “The Sunni-Shia and Gulf/Iran divide is the most sensitive issue” in the region today, he says, “and one that we as scholars have most responsibility to address.”


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