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On December 15-17, 2020, the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington held its fifth UAE Security Forum, with the theme “Resilient Economies, Resilient Societies.” Convened virtually, the forum brought together a diverse group of practitioners, researchers, and representatives from nongovernmental organizations. Discussions focused on the social and economic disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic in Gulf Arab countries. While traditional approaches to Gulf security emphasize political and military factors, forum speakers highlighted human security issues, reflecting the way in which the pandemic’s tangible implications for public health showed how problems that are not related to the political or military aspects of security can also seriously threaten the foundations of Gulf Arab countries and their rentier economic structures.
Gulf Arab states’ reactions to the coronavirus outbreak were comparatively more efficient than those of many other countries. Their responses demonstrated leadership and a capacity to act quickly and implement appropriate medical protocols. Yet, to improve preparedness for health crises, progress is still required in developing health-care data analytics and increasing capacity in the field of mental health. Another fundamental lesson of the pandemic has been the value of global cooperation and solidarity. For instance, Gulf countries have provided assistance to multiple international initiatives and participated in vaccine trials. Such international engagement will be indispensable in the years to come due to the high probability of new viruses and pathogens emerging as well as the high degree of interdependence in medical supply chains.
The pandemic also created economic challenges in the Gulf. It directly impacted the tourism and hospitality industries, and it prompted a global decline in oil demand and prices, with significant impact on regional economies. In this way, the crisis reinforced the urgency for Gulf economies to become less dependent on oil and gas revenue. As governments are opting for leaner, more streamlined public spending, approaches to economic recovery should be strategic. Gulf states should prioritize high performing entrepreneurs and firms in the allocation of recovery funding. They should pay attention to small and medium-sized enterprises, since they represent an important segment of the overall economy but tend to receive a very small percentage of governmental loans. To encourage the economic recovery of the private sector, governments across the region have tended to favor monetary stimulus measures by boosting liquidity in banks or deferring loan repayments. They should better balance this with fiscal stimulus measures, which would inject more cash into the accounts of firms and consumers. Additionally, they could also promote increased regional economic integration. While a common market and a unified customs regime are already in place, there is still plenty of work to be done, for example, to further harmonize customs processes.
Most Gulf countries are investing in the knowledge economy to advance long-term economic diversification. Education is set to play a key role in this transformation. Over the past 50 years, Gulf countries have built a robust higher education system, with a high percentage of young people, receiving a university education, with women leading the way. Ensuring a diversified higher education system is key in the creation of the complex intellectual and technical ecosystems necessary for the full development of a knowledge economy. Governments should also resist pressures to overly align education with the immediate needs of the labor market. Because job markets are constantly evolving, overly rigid efforts at alignment are likely to stifle innovation and adaptative capacities among students.
One direct effect of the coronavirus pandemic for education was an extremely rapid development of digital teaching technologies. In many other sectors, as well, new technologies can offer promising answers to various human security issues. For instance, they can help with increasing local agricultural production – an important issue considering the Gulf’s reliance on foreign food supplies, the security of which was a concern at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak.
Finally, since climate change-related challenges are becoming more pressing, Gulf Arab countries should take them into account in their economic revival plans. Global decarbonization efforts will inevitably reduce the demand for oil, thereby affecting state budgets in the Gulf. Climate change will also impact the region directly with rising average temperatures and more intense periods of drought that will increase already swelling local energy demands. Coronavirus recovery packages should therefore include measures targeting sustainability and energy efficiency.
Key Findings and Recommendations
- Discussions around Gulf security have traditionally focused on political and military threats, regime stability, and the free flow of oil and gas. The coronavirus pandemic has shown that human concerns, such as health care, access to food and water, and natural disasters amplified by climate change should also be taken into account in discussions about security, as they can threaten the foundations of Gulf Arab countries and their rentier economic structures.
- While Gulf Arab states reacted comparatively efficiently to the coronavirus outbreak, to improve preparedness for health crises, progress could be made in developing health-care data analysis and increasing capacity in the field of mental health.
- Gulf countries have contributed to multiple international initiatives since the beginning of the pandemic, by offering donations and logistical support and participating in vaccine trials. Such international engagement will be valuable in the years to come due to the high probability of new viruses and pathogens emerging as well as the high degree of interdependence in medical supply chains.
- The coronavirus crisis reinforced the urgency for Gulf economies to become less dependent on oil and gas revenue. As governments are opting for leaner, more streamlined public spending, they should prioritize high performing entrepreneurs and firms, pay closer attention to small and medium-sized enterprises, and better balance monetary stimulus measures and fiscal stimulus measures.
- Ensuring a diversified higher education system is key in the creation of the complex intellectual and technical ecosystems necessary for the full development of a knowledge economy. Gulf countries should resist the pressures to align education with the immediate needs of the labor market, because this can significantly limit innovation.
- The coronavirus pandemic also prompted positive developments, such as the acceleration of the digital transformation of schools and universities. This creative response to the crisis can serve as a basis to extend educational outreach to new or remote populations.
- New technologies and research can offer promising avenues for food security. For instance, they can help to increase local agricultural production – a critical issue considering the Gulf’s reliance on foreign food supplies.
- Because climate change will create further economic and environmental challenges, Gulf states need to recalibrate their energy mix. Coronavirus recovery packages represent an opportunity to include measures targeting sustainability and energy efficiency. These measures will benefit the environment, create jobs for youth, and accelerate economic diversification.
For more information on the UAE Security Forum, visit www.uaesf.org.
Session 1: Harnessing Momentum To Build Global Public Health Security
Session 2: Education and Innovation in the Gulf
Session 3: The Way Forward Toward a Green Recovery and Sustainable Future
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