Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Ambassador Gnehm talks Persian Gulf monarchies at GWU
Ambassador Edward W. "Skip" Gnehm, Jr., Kuwait Professor of Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Affairs at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, delivered the annual Kuwait Chair Lecture last week/Patricia Leslie
One of my very favorite places to go in this town is the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University where informative lectures about world events and issues are regularly delivered by global experts like Ambassador Edward W. "Skip" Gnehm, Jr., who last week presented the annual Kuwait Chair Lecture, "Gulf Monarchies: Facing Change."
Speaking with his arm in a sling (recent surgery), Ambassador Gnehm talked about six Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain (frequently cited as an outlier for reasons mentioned below).
Throughout his talk, attended by the Elliotts for whom the school is named, two refrains were frequently heard: the Persian Gulf nations suffer high unemployment among their educated youth, and the monarchies "must adapt to events unfolding around them" or face more peril.
Having having served as ambassador to Australia, Kuwait, and the Kingdom of Jordan in addition to foreign service in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and as U.S. representative to the U.N., Mr. Gnehm is well qualified to make assessment. He is Kuwait Professor of Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Affairs at GWU.
The six nations have indeed been "impacted by the awakening in the region."
It was not an anti-Israeli mood, hatred toward the U.S., or religious fervor which drove the Arab Spring last year, but "deep frustration with their plight in life" for the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and now Syria, who blamed and blame their governments. They were "outraged" by brutality, repressive governments and demanded change.
Demonstrations in Kuwait have been stimulated by those in other nations, but it is Bahrain "by far" which is "the most troublesome (country) in the Gulf." Large-scale protracted protests, much like the ones in Egypt, are happening in Bahrain.
The ambassador predicted that "it is only a matter of time before unrest reaches the shores of the Persian Gulf." There is "nothing consistent about what's happening in the region."
The citizenry of the six monarchies is not angry with their ruling families as much as they are unhappy with corruption and housing shortages, "huge" issues. Generally, the monarchies "command respect and authority" (Bahrain, exception) and "remain stable and in control" (Bahrain, exception). Protests are aimed at positions, not regimes. To placate the people, the Gulf monarchies have used their wealth to temper residents temporarily. For example, last year the Kuwaiti government gave each citizen $3,000.
Ambassador Gnehm said he was risking stepping on toes with the statement that foreigners, or "ex-patriates" from other nations come to the Gulf countries to do the work the residents do not want to do (much like in the U.S.). The "ex-pats" have no work assurances, generally receive lower salaries and can be fired quickly. On the other hand, residents want government jobs in Saudi Arabia since it means higher wages and a lackadaisical attitude towards daily attendance at work. (In the U.A.E., only 10 percent of residents are citizens.)
Most of the Persian Gulf nations see Iran as a threat and "meddlesome." Iranians are "opportunists," said the ambassador. The Sunni and Shia clashes in the region are factors since the Shia "always feel put down," and the Sunnis dominate leadership in the Persian Gulf nations. However, the Shia are emboldened by observations of events elsewhere, and where the Iranians can capitalize on unrest and dissatisfaction, they seek to stir up trouble to their advantage. (Iran and Syria are majority Shia.)
The competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a real issue.
Saudi Arabia is a good U.S. ally but a "fragile state" and "many predict the demise of the ruling family." Generally, the people of Saudi Arabia feel "quite content" about themselves, and King Abdullah is well respected.
When it comes to women, Saudi Arabia is a repressive nation and the only one in the world which prohibits women drivers. Kuwait has given women the right to vote, and in Oman, the Sultan is "a champion of women's rights."
The U.S. views Saudi Arabia through its own narrow lens which restricts vision and limits empathy: "The failure to understand Saudi culture leads to inaccurate analysis and wrong conclusions."
Although Saudi Arabians have not expressed the rage found in other nations (Bahrain), there is "simmering discontent" under the surface. The Saudi security force is loyal, well-trained, and influential in silencing opposition.
The U.S. buys little in this region where the people are often at odds with U.S. policies.
Answering a question at the end of his lecture, Mr. Gnehm said it was difficult to describe all six nations in one presentation because the countries are so different. He believes world forces will eventually arm Syrian rebels.
The event was sponsored by the Middle East Policy Forum which is supported by ExxonMobil. About 200 attended.