The Changing Face of Gulf Aid

Gulf leaders meeting for the 34th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Kuwait on December 11, 2013. (Mohammed Saber/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) Gulf leaders meeting for the 34th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Kuwait on December 11, 2013 (Photo by Mohammed Saber/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Gulf leaders meeting for the 34th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Kuwait on December 11, 2013 (Photo by Mohammed Saber/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Together with Saudi Arabia, the three comparatively wealthy Gulf states of Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE have provided an estimated 90 percent of all Arab aid financing since 1970. These figures demonstrate the pivotal role of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in any international plans to help restore stability and growth to Arab states and societies as they rebound from the upheavals of the post-2011 era. As high-income countries, the three smaller Gulf States are able to prioritize quick-impact interventions in states rocked by conflict, especially those in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Saudi Arabia is somewhat different, owing to its much larger population, although this has not prevented significant Saudi assistance to selected target countries, such as Yemen.

In general, while humanitarian and religious impulses have traditionally underpinned the Gulf states’ aid policy, over the past three years it has involved a growing activist, political dimension. In light of this, what should international partners expect from their counterparts in the Gulf, and how can each support their common interests across the region as it moves into an uncertain post-Arab Spring era?

The growing influence of the GCC states across the Middle East and North Africa region means regional and international organizations must take some new considerations into account when they think about how best to engage with each other, as well as with the states that receive their aid. Local and international NGOs and civil society organizations must acknowledge that the changing architecture of world politics means that power and influence will be increasingly dispersed among a greater number of participants, many of whom will be non-Western and also non-democratic.

For states in transition, this opens up new possibilities with regard to the political and economic choices facing new (or re-empowered) policy elites. The scope and scale of Gulf assistance to Egypt provides a clear example of the implications of this process in action. In the future, greater understanding among policy-makers from different states and with different approaches will help officials identify avenues for practical cooperation. These will be more likely to succeed along issue-specific lines, such as participation in international working groups—as in the cases of the Friends of Syria and the Friends of Yemen, for example—that can pool resources from a diverse range of actors in pursuit of a common, manageable objective. Leveraging Gulf support in this manner could be the foundation for multilateral cooperation in the future, building familiarity and trust with stakeholders.

Bearing all of this in mind, the rise of the Gulf states as regional powers with international reach poses new challenges for policy-making in the Middle East, as the region emerges unsteadily from the Arab Spring. Chief among these challenges is the growing evidence that Gulf officials are prepared to ‘go it alone’ and act unilaterally or, at best, as a loose regional bloc to secure their interests in transitional states. Such actions raise questions for the broader international community: questions of how to align Gulf support in the short term with long-term plans for sustainable development and political inclusiveness. The examples of Egypt and Syria suggest that Gulf power-players have become less inclined to listen to what they perceive as increasingly discredited Western-centric policies that have, in their view, worsened instability in the region since 2011. But while the task of finding shared approaches may be more difficult, it is critical if Western organizations are to retain influence and relevance in the Middle East and find new ways to develop deeper partnerships built on common ground.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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