12 February 2009 - 14 February 2009

Stability and reform in the Gulf region

Chair: The Rt Hon Lord Luce GCVO DL

The snow was thick on the ground when we gathered to talk about the future of the Gulf region, but the importance and current relevance of the subject-matter soon warmed us up.  Ditchley was pleased to be in partnership with the Sir William Luce Memorial Fund, which had been holding a series of seminars since 2005 on “Political Evolution and the GCC”.  This event was designed to build on that series and the Luce Fund was instrumental in helping to gather senior and experienced voices from the countries of the region to provide the foundation for our debate. 

The Luce Fund findings had identified some key factors underlying political change in the GCC states and these provided a starting point for this conference.  They are worth a brief summary here:

          1.        Political evolution in the Gulf had not kept up with economic change.  Yet the six states had so far proved remarkably stable. 

          2.        Each state had its own history and characteristics and the pace of change would vary from state to state.

          3.        The GCC faced strong internal pressures for reform.  These were being suppressed in some states and social unrest was possible if oil prices fell.  Developments in Iraq were also a relevant factor.

          4.        The growing number of indigenous young people without jobs and large expatriate populations in several smaller states could compound the tensions.

          5.        Reconciling traditional tribal societies with modern economies and imported models of government could add to the challenge, though many Gulf nationals were suspicious of globalisation. 

          6.        GCC governments had recognised that the oil price boom might be temporary and that they could find it hard to hold the loyalty of their populations if economic growth declined.

          7.        Change so far in this region had come from the top.  Liberals were weakly organised and Islamists were suspect.  The monarchical systems had reservoirs of legitimacy which might give them a good foundation for adapting to change.

          8.        It was unknown whether further gradual, stable transition would prove possible;  unpredictable change was a risk.  But to hold back on or reverse transition could increase the risk of radical change.

          9.        Western governments should accept that change had to be promoted from within the Gulf, not western driven, with an understanding of the individual characteristics of each state.  The aim should be steady, managed and peaceful change, indigenously driven but with support from outside, primarily through private advice and practical assistance. 

In meeting to take the temperature on these findings, the conference was conscious of the remarkable progress which the region had made in many respects since the smaller emirates became independent in the early 1970s.  Their size, their wealth, their dependence almost exclusively on energy, the nature of their ruling arrangements and the highly uncertain environment of the wider region made these countries highly unusual.  Yet their resilience had been remarkable through a number of regional and indeed global crises.  These were states whose rulers had a clear awareness of their countries’ strengths and limitations and who cared directly for their citizens, even without democratic institutions.  They were attentive to foreign threats and they dealt with them with firmness or subtlety as appropriate. 

Nevertheless participants agreed that the discussion needed to take into account a number of new factors.  The changes in Iraq, and particularly the current trend towards comparatively greater stability there, had altered regional relationships and had broken new ground on democracy.  Iran had drawn some advantages from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq and the nuclear saga would be coming to a head over the next two years or so.  The global economic crisis had shown that even states with considerable reserves were not immune and that those which had taken risks, such as Dubai, were facing serious challenges.  Information and communication technologies were increasingly making an impact as the pace of technological change accelerated and this was affecting the younger generation in particular.  In the wider region, the intractability of the Israel-Palestine dispute, and not least the graphic violence of Israel’s attack on Gaza recently, risked adding to any trends towards radicalisation in the Gulf.  Finally, there was a new administration in Washington promising a more diplomatic approach to the Islamic world and to this region in particular, but whose capacity to affect developments positively was not yet clear.  We therefore had a number of complex linkages to examine before we could come to any conclusions on the real prospects for reform and stability in the area.

In looking at the internal situation in the various countries, Gulf residents insisted, and outsiders agreed, on indigenous ownership of the nature of reform.  But this still meant that the rulers and citizens of these countries had to set aside the temptation to blame any difficulties they had on external forces.  This was as true of Iran as it was of the GCC countries.  The latter in particular had traditions of respect for the ruling families, whose legitimacy was not seriously questioned.  But some participants felt that traditional, top-down leadership only went so far.  The GCC countries still lacked a common strategy and a common vision for the current era.  Nor did the people find it easy to decide whether they were subjects or citizens.  Aware of rapid developments in the world outside, it was now right to start asking the question of where the new fabric of Gulf society was heading.  Conservative forces were still strong but the population was weighted towards young people and the new generation were not like their grandparents.  They wanted a functioning, connected society.  There was no longer unquestioning obedience and identities were changing as the different forms of modern communication developed.  Many participants felt that it was difficult to forecast the effect of this generational change, let alone to see how to control it.

This connected with the whole issue of political and social reform.  There was a dilemma here.  Since the gradual reform so far attempted had been largely top-down, a feeling of security and stability was necessary for governments to be confident about continuing.  Yet without a sense of crisis – and, on the whole, the GCC countries were not in crisis mode – the natural caution of the ruling elite would dominate.  Some countries were better at experimenting with reform than others, with Kuwait having set the earliest models.  Countries with smaller populations were inherently more cohesive and, with the possible exception of Bahrain, were not under particular pressure.  But we recognised that there was a premium on wise leadership and most people thought that the generation gap was significant.  As for progress towards democracy, no-one was clear that this was the right prescription, both because it did not fit easily with the history and traditions of the region and because there were such large expatriate populations present.  Yet many people thought that governments might not be able to ensure development at a pace which met the demands of the population and that this might present opportunities for either external influences or Islamic extremism to fill the vacuum if it continued. 

We recognised that economic performance was relevant to political and social change.  Diversification away from energy would be necessary to create jobs for growing populations and this was occurring at different speeds in different countries.  If unstable oil prices continue to create boom/bust cycles, this would make the process more difficult.  Yet a trend was beginning of western corporations linking up with sovereign wealth funds to stimulate the kind of economic diversification which would benefit the indigenous population.  This needed greater attention.  It would also be necessary in most countries to develop a commercial middle class that was separate from the government bureaucracy and moved beyond family-owned companies.  It would certainly have a stultifying effect if the citizenship relied upon a culture of entitlement from the paternalistic and redistributive nature of the state and failed to develop an innovative and knowledge-based set of economies.  Here it was encouraging that education, including women’s education, was a strong priority within the GCC states, which suggested that new generations of graduates would be feeding into business innovation.  But it would still be necessary to ensure that jobs were created for them. 

Finally, on the internal scene, we looked at the growth of civil society in the Gulf region.  Development here was perhaps slower than in other parts of the world, with civil society largely co-opted by the government to fulfil its own purposes.  ICT development might make it possible for private organisations to develop more independence, but at the same time new technologies could benefit governments themselves.  It would help if freedom of speech was given more room, both in the media and in newer forms of communication.  Too often, however, civil society was seen by governments as a form of opposition, when this was not clearly the case.  It was time to raise standards of literacy and civic understanding and to encourage the grass-roots level of citizen activity.  Improvement in the quality of governance and reinforcement of truly independent legal structures were also needed.  In the circumstances of most of the countries of the region, this was perhaps a less problematic way to go than developing democratic institutions. 

In looking at the potential for further Gulf cooperation, especially in the field of security, participants recognised that there was a broad area of shared interests between the countries of the Gulf, though perhaps too little recognition in practice that the problems which the region faced were deeply and inextricably linked.  While the GCC had made some progress in internal coordination of security issues, there was still some way to go before it developed real defence capabilities.  There was further scope for external strategic partnerships with different parts of the international community.  At least, it was pointed out, the GCC and its individual governments had impeccable credentials of legitimacy in representing the region and in seriousness of intent in security matters. 

The discussion then quickly turned to Iran.  Strong regret was expressed that the Arab countries of the Gulf had not been sufficiently consulted on what to do about Iran.  A much more open exchange was needed on what the two sides of the Gulf were really looking for.  It was felt that the United States, having made a serious mistake over the Iranian revolution thirty years ago, now needed to bring the whole region along in rectifying that.  The Iran situation was not just a matter of bargaining between Washington and Tehran.  The Iraq-Iran relationship was also highly relevant, with no clarity at present on the direction it might take.  It was firmly stated that Iraq would not accommodate Iran as a regional superpower;  nor would it be possible for Iran to throw its military weight around.  Saudi Arabia, too, was a heavyweight which would have to be closely consulted.  We did not come to any hard conclusions about how the Iran nuclear issue should be handled, though there was a majority inclination to give diplomacy priority.  But most participants favoured an approach at some point soon, whether or not force had to be used in the context of Iran, which promoted a regional security architecture including Iran as a major and trusted partner.  At the same time some participants noted (and others doubted) the possibility of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East as an ultimate remedy for the proliferation problem or as an alternative to international joint nuclear enrichment.

Regional security remained a constant focus throughout our discussion.  Terrorism had to remain a serious concern, though no participant suggested that it was an existential threat.  Just as worrying was that the Gulf not only had problems of its own, but was geographically connected with other serious flashpoints.  Palestine and Afghanistan/Pakistan were undoubtedly the most serious of these.  With Iraq’s future still needing to be settled, Iran a massive uncertainty and the Middle East Peace Process, with Syria and Lebanon, still unproductive, a comprehensive approach had to be devised which realised the full potential of a constructive American approach under the new Administration and which established a framework for all the countries of the region to contribute as their sovereign interests required.  Without this there was a serious danger of fragmentation.  Unsurprisingly, even though our Chairman persuaded us not to take up Palestine too emphatically, the impact of a failure to make progress in the peace process was regarded as directly relevant to the Gulf’s longer-term security.  At the moment the search for a two-state solution was going in the wrong direction and this had to be regarded as an issue of the utmost concern.

In examining the Gulf’s external relationships, everyone agreed that the United States was, by some distance, the most essential partner.  Europe rarely featured in our discussion, though it was noted that European political support and commercial interest remained important.  The UK in particular had strong traditional ties to the region.  Global economic power was being redistributed and the Gulf region’s links with Asia, and particularly with China and India, would play an increasing role.  We were uncertain, however, whether there was yet a firm intention in either Delhi or Beijing to engage with the region more actively.  Even Iran, which had been a leader in this respect, was meeting uncertain results.  But this might be a theme for the future.  We recognised that future foreign investment in the Gulf would come from a much wider variety of sources than in the past and this was bound to develop into a more global set of relationships.

We did not have time to cover every aspect of this vast and complex set of issues.  We spent less time on Saudi Arabia than we would have wished, though there was no suggestion that the current picture of a stable Kingdom was likely to change.  Instability in Yemen worried us, as a place where terrorist groups might find greater room to base themselves.  We also barely touched on Shia-Sunni tensions, though we noted that engagement with Iran and the failure of Al Qaeda and other extremists to appeal to the Sunni population would move things in the right direction.

A summary of our main conclusions, even allowing for some disparate voices within this broad-ranging gathering of experts, would produce the following:

-      So many of the challenges facing the region were linked that it was important now, not least for Washington, to develop a strategic approach to the whole region which provided a framework for addressing those linkages and engaging the different countries in a much better understanding of how they could accommodate each others’ priorities; 

-      Each country nevertheless had its different characteristics and a collective approach would have to be flexible enough to take account of these; 

-      Gradual reform should continue, but there was enough current stability within the GCC countries in particular at present to provide opportunities to be braver in this respect.  Global change required regional adaptation and judgements on this would have to be made within the Gulf countries themselves.  The development of civil society, of good governance and of the initiative and talent of individual citizens was as important as institutional political change;

-      Iran must be engaged, at least as an experiment over the coming period to see what that might produce.  In handling Iran, much more attention should be paid to the history of the country and its real aspirations as a nation, rather than as a putative exporter of Islamic radicalism;

-      The impact of Palestine on the Gulf region could not be ignored and was an added reason for the most vigorous attempt in the coming months to find a new way forward; 

-      Finally, friendship mattered.  The outside world had a strong contribution to make to the future of the region. 

This was in many ways an extraordinary debate, taken very seriously by an impressive group of senior experts from the region and some very experienced and committed observers from both sides of the Atlantic.  Ditchley would like to express its gratitude to the Luce Foundation for laying such an excellent foundation for the conference and for providing the wise guidance of our Chairman in steering what could have been a difficult discussion.  We were all very conscious at the end of the uncertainties facing the region and of the need for a good deal of wise leadership, both internally and externally.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chair: The Rt Hon Lord Luce GCVO DL
Life Peer, Crossbench (2000-);  Founder, Sir William Luce Memorial Fund.  Formerly:  Lord Chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth II (2000-06);  Governor of Gibraltar (1997-2000);  Vice Chancellor, University of Buckingham (1992-96);  Minister for the Arts (1985-90);  Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (1979-81), then Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (1981-85), Foreign and Commonwealth Office;  Member of Parliament (1971-92).

Ambassador Gordon Venner

Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet for Foreign and Defence Policy, Privy Council Office, Government of Canada.  Formerly:  Director-General, Middle East and North Africa Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), Ottawa;  Ambassador of Canada to Iran (2004-06).

Dr A. G. Dizboni

Assistant Professor, Comparative Politics, International Relations and Politics of the Muslim World, Department of Politics and Economics, Royal Military College of Canada;  Associate Researcher, Université de Montréal, McGill University and Queen’s University.

Dr Sameh Aboul-Enein

Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Minister Plenipotentiary/Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Egypt, London (2007-).  Formerly:  Director, United Nations Affairs Department, Cairo (2007);  Director, UN Specialised Agencies and International Organisations Department, Cairo (2006-07).

Mr Victor Gervais

PhD Candidate in Political Science, Institute of Political Studies, Paris (Sciences Po);  Visiting Researcher, Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (Abu Dhabi).

Dr Mowaffak al Rubaie

National Security Adviser, Government of Iraq (2006-);  Member (United Iraqi Alliance), Iraqi Council of Representatives (2005-).

His Excellency Abdullah al Bishara

President, Diplomatic Centre for Strategic Studies, Kuwait.  Formerly:  Secretary-General, Gulf Cooperation Council;  Ambassador of Kuwait to the United Nations.
His Excellency Mr Khaled al Duwaisan GCVO
 Ambassador of Kuwait to the United Kingdom;  Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in the United Kingdom.

His Excellency Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah

Minister responsible for Foreign Affairs, Sultanate of Oman.

Mr Nasser al Jaidah

Member, Advisory Council, State of Qatar;  Chief Executive Officer, Qatar Petroleum International, Doha. 
Professor Sheikha Abdulla al Misnad
President, Qatar University (2003-);  Member, Board of Directors, Qatar Foundation;  Member, Supreme Educational Council;  Member, United Nations University Council (2004-).

Dr Steven Wright

Assistant Professor of Gulf Politics, University of Qatar.  Formerly:  Sir William Luce Research Fellow, Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, Durham University.

Dr Awadh al Badi

Member of HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal’s group.
His Royal Highness Prince Turki Al Faisal
Chairman, King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.  Formerly:  Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United Kingdom and Ireland;  Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States.
Dr Mohamed al Osaimi
Member of HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal’s group.

Mr Mohammed al Suwaidi

Assistant Researcher, The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research;  BA International Studies (International Relations).

Mr Dominic Armstrong
Managing Director and Co-Founder (2002), Aegis Defence Services Limited, London.  Formerly:  Managing Director and Head of Research, ABN AMRO, Singapore (1999-2002).
Mr Michael Crawford CMG
HM Diplomatic Service (1981-);  Counsellor, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London (2001-).
Ms Chloe Dalton
Special Adviser on Middle Eastern Affairs to the Shadow Foreign Secretary and Senior Member of the Shadow Cabinet, The Rt Hon William Hague MP (2006-).
Sir Richard Dalton
Associate Fellow, Middle East Programme, Chatham House.  Formerly:  HM Diplomatic Service (1970-2006);  Ambassador to Iran (2003-06);  Ambassador to Libya (1999-2002);  Consul-General Jerusalem (1993-97).
Dr Christopher Davidson
Lecturer in Middle Eastern Politics, Durham University (2006-);  Visiting Associate Professor, Kyoto University (2009-);  Expert, United Nations Alliance of Civilisations (2008-);  Member, Sir William Luce Memorial Fund (2006-).
Professor Anoush Ehteshami
Head of School and Professor of International Relations, School of Government and International Affairs, University of Durham;  Member, Centre for Iranian Studies;  Special Advisor, Islamic Criminal Justice Project, Centre for Criminal Law and Criminal Justice.  Author.
Dr Rosemary Hollis
Director, Olive Tree Programme and Visiting Professor, City University, London (2008-).  Formerly:  Director of Research (2005-08) and Head of Middle East Programme (1990-05) at Chatham House, and RUSI.
The Rt Hon Field Marshal the Lord Inge KG GCB DL
Life Peer, Crossbench (1997-);  Council Member, International Institute for Strategic Studies.  Formerly:  Member, Butler Review Committee (2004);  Chief of the Defence Staff (1994-97). 
Dr John Jenkins CMG LVO
Director, Middle East and North Africa, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2007-).
Mr Adam Leach
Chief Executive, HRH The Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum.  Formerly:  Regional Director, Middle East, Eastern Europe, Commonwealth of Independent States, Oxfam.
Ms Heidi Minshall
HM Diplomatic Service (1990-);  Senior Research Analyst, Arabian Peninsula and Gulf Security, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London (2007-).
Mr Richard Muir CMG
Chairman, Sir William Luce Memorial Fund;  Director, Altajir Trust;  Chairman, Anglo-Omani Society;  Member, Kuwait-British Friendship Association.  Formerly:  Ambassador to Kuwait (1999-2002);  to Oman (1994-99).
The Rt Hon Sir Malcolm Rifkind KCMG QC MP
Member of Parliament, Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea (2005-).  Formerly:  Member of Parliament, Conservative, Edinburgh Pentlands (1974-97);  Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (1995-97).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Dr Claire Spencer
Head, Middle East Programme, Chatham House.  Formerly:  Deputy Director and Head, Mediterranean Security Programme, Centre for Defence Studies, King’s College, University of London.
Sir Harold Walker KCMG
President, British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (2006-).  Formerly:  Chairman, Royal Society for Asian Affairs (2002-08);  HM Diplomatic Service (1956-92);  Ambassador to Iraq (1990-91),  to Ethiopia (1986-89), to the United Arab Emirates (1981-86),  to Bahrain (1979-81).

Professor Ali Ansari

Professor of Iranian History and Director of the Institute for Iranian Studies, School of History, University of St Andrews.

Lady Judge

(Formerly The Hon Barbara Thomas).  Chairman, United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority
(2004-);  Chairman, School of Oriental and African Studies;  Deputy Chairman, Friend’s Provident Plc (2001-);  Director, NV Bekaert SA, Brussels;  Director, Massey Energy (US), among others.  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.

Ambassador David Aaron

Director, RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy.
Ambassador Robert Blackwill
Senior Fellow and Special Assistant to the President, RAND Corporation (2008-);  Faculty Member, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University (1995-).  Formerly:  President, Barbour Griffith and Rogers International (2004-08);  Presidential Envoy to Iraq under President George W Bush.
Professor Nathan Brown
Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and Director, Institute for Middle East Studies, George Washington University;  Non-Resident Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The Hon Daniel Levy
Director, Prospects for Peace Initiative;  Senior Fellow, The Century Foundation;  Senior Fellow, New America Foundation.  Formerly:  Adviser, Office of the Prime Minister of Israel.
Dr Gary Sick
Senior Research Scholar, Middle East Institute and Adjunct Professor of International Affairs, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University;  Board Member, Human Rights Watch, New York;  Chairman, Advisory Committee, Human Rights Watch/Middle East.  A Member, The Advisory Council, The American Ditchley Foundation.