What an eventful year 2017 has turned out to be for the Middle East! This is the year that may be known for the great Gulf divide, with traditional friends and allies of the Arabian Peninsula turning on each other. The GCC crisis couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time for the region that has already been battling the unsettling effects of the long slump in oil prices and the global economic slowdown.
This is the year that also saw dramatic changes in Saudi Arabia, the largest Arab economy and the birthplace of Islam of course. The Kingdom is finally opening up and is arguably changing for the better.
The freedom of movement granted to Saudi women, including the historic decision of allowing them to drive, under the new Saudi leadership is only a small and but significant part of this change. Goes without saying it is an incredibly positive and heartening development. Some cynics have suggested that the Saudi reforms are driven by economics, rather than by a genuine desire for change. Whatever the motives, the change in this ancient land has long been due and should be welcomed.
I have always believed and argued that given its size, strategic importance and influence in the Arab and Islamic world, a positive change in Saudi Arabia would have a lasting impact on the entire Middle East and the Muslim world.
Besides, given the pace of change that the rest of the world has been witnessing and experiencing in the past few years, no country can afford to remain an island or indifferent to the demands of progress. Although oil prices have substantially improved this year, the good old days of pre-eminence of Gulf oil when the Arabs could largely determine the price of their much prized product may never come back.
The unexpected entry of unscrupulous US shale producers offering their oil dirt-cheap has added a whole new dimension keeping the prices down. Besides, given the role fossil fuels have apparently played in global warming, there is a race to come up with alternative, healthier modes of transportation such as electric automobiles. It is estimated that in the next 30 years, electric vehicles may become affordable and easily available for everyone.
The region therefore can no longer remain dependent on the liquid gold as its chief source of income. It desperately needs to find new, alternative and more sustainable sources of revenue. Already, the effects of low oil prices have been most disastrous for many in the region, especially for the large expatriate work force that has played a critical role in its development and growth for the past four decades and more.
These days you hear of friends, relatives and acquaintances losing jobs almost on a daily basis. As more and more businesses become a victim of the slowdown, jobs are fast disappearing. The few that remain are being taken up by locals as governments step up efforts to employ more and more nationals.
The situation back home in the countries of their birth is not very reassuring either. Besides, having spent much of their time abroad — for many, it is a lifetime — in the comfort and relative safety of the Gulf, it is not easy finding their feet and starting afresh. Many end up spending all their income on keeping up appearances of a dignified life abroad and save nothing for a rainy day, as it were.
The Gulf wealth made a huge and visible difference to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, not to mention poorer Arab countries like Egypt, Sudan and Yemen. In regions like Kerala and Hyderabad in India, it has lifted millions out of poverty.
Unfortunately, just as many Gulf states have failed to extract lasting benefits from long years of oil wealth, many in cities like Hyderabad, home to thousands of Gulf returnees, have not made use of this prosperity to build strong institutions for the community. Most Hyderabadis squander much of their wealth, earned in the Gulf with sweat and blood, in absurdly ostentatious weddings and bizarre banquets. As a result, when they eventually go home or are sent home, they often go home empty handed, rueing missed opportunities and squandered resources.
The same fate is staring many Gulf countries in the face, which have been rather laidback in the face of change all these years. The United Arab Emirates may be the youngest and one of the smallest countries in the Gulf and yet enjoys massive political and economic clout. Thanks to its visionary founder, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and the successive leadership he groomed, the UAE realised the ephemeral nature of the oil wealth.
The country consciously diversified its economy on the one hand and invested its wealth in infrastructure development, tourism and rewarding projects around the world on the other. More importantly, it has heavily invested in its people, which remains its most precious resource. Which makes sense considering it boasts one of the youngest populations in the world.
As a result, the UAE economy today is easily the most diverse and one of the most vibrant in the region. It is also the most prepared for the challenges of a post oil world. Dubai, the most famous emirate of the country epitomising the young nation’s chutzpah and ‘can-do’ spirit, perhaps best illustrates what right vision, determination and leadership can achieve against great odds.
Dubai does not have oil, at least not as much as its many wealthy neighbours. Yet using its enterprising spirit and common sense of old Arab merchants, the Dubai leadership has turned a sleepy fishing village into an attractive global destination of investment, commerce and tourism. Having lived in this part of the world, one has seen it literally grow and flourish before one’s eyes. And this is just one man’s dream come true. Literally!
Much has been said and written about the extraordinary leadership of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Dubai Ruler and Prime Minister of the UAE. Yet no words can truly measure the greatness of his vision and transformative nature of his leadership. It still feels rather surreal to see this great leader of men go about dreaming big and fashioning a new future for his people, day after day, against impossible odds.
One realises the magnitude of the Dubai dream when one visits other countries in the region. The difference you experience in the way you are received at other airports in the Middle East — or even back home — and the way you breeze through immigration checks at the Dubai International Airport is stark and speaks volumes about the change that the UAE has come to represent. It is leadership at work.
We need more such leaders across the region and around the world. The leaders who are able to see far ahead of their time and prepare their nations and people for the challenges of the future.
For those who are not willing to change or aren’t prepared for the future are simply cast aside. There is no dearth of such examples in the region or the wider world. As Sheikh Mohammed himself has said on more than one occasion, advising the Arabs that change is the only alternative for the region: “If we do not change, we would be changed.”
(Aijaz Zaka Syed is an independent writer and former Khaleej Times editor)