By Faeza Abdurazak
Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, a renowned commentator on Arab affairs and a prominent voice during the events of the ongoing Arab Spring, gave an interesting lecture at MEI last month on The Rise of the Gulf States in Regional Policy. He was in Singapore for the official opening of Terms and Conditions, an exhibition of artworks by Arab artists across the Middle East at the Singapore Art Museum. Barjeel Art Foundation, of which Al-Qassemi is a founder, is a co-organizer and significant contributor to the exhibition. He focused his talk into two parts: the regional influence of each state in the Gulf and the role of the Gulf in the current issue plaguing certain parts of the Middle East—sectarianism. The increasing influence of the Gulf in regional policymaking can be viewed both positively and negatively, says Al-Qassemi. For much of the 20th century, Arab regional foreign policy was under the influence of Egypt, Syria and Iraq. However, as each of these states are now embroiled in internal problems, foreign policy projection has been somewhat hampered. Beginning with Iraq, and later on Egypt and Syria, the influence of each of these major Arab states were slowly decreasing. This void in regional influence made the rise of the Gulf states possible, who with the exception of Saudi Arabia, are relatively small and less populated countries. When it comes to soft power, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE each projects it differently. Saudi Arabia’s clout is reinforced by the fact that it is seen as the capital of Islam, as it is the site for the two holiest mosques and is visited by millions of pilgrims every year. Qatar’s soft power comes from its investments, which are valued at over $120 billion, and its media arm, the Al Jazeera news network, which is the most watched channel in the Middle East despite falling ratings. As for the UAE, it is the second largest economy in the Arab world. Jebel Ali alone, a port town outside Dubai, is home to 120 Fortune 500 companies. Al-Qassemi observes that religious elites from both the Sunni and Shi’a sects are equally guilty of fanning the flames of sectarianism. He gives the example of Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a renowned Sunni cleric, who has been known to make anti-Shi’a remarks, even going as far as calling Sunnis to “go to Syria to fight against Bashar Assad and prove their strength” from his home in Doha, Qatar. Since Gulf states own most of the news sites and channels in the Middle East, it is their responsibility to ensure that these media outlets do not contribute to sectarianism in the region. Al-Qassemi notes that the Gulf is in dire need of intra-religious dialogues with its own minority communities.