The recent geopolitical changes that have swept the Gulf region have also contributed to political and economic shifts within the GCC states and have affected their relations with the United States. Part of this change has impacted energy politics; since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Gulf states have all taken a far more independent position on global oil prices than Washington would have preferred.
The aforementioned geopolitical changes started last year and came about at least in part due to the resolution of long-lasting rivalries within the Gulf. With existing feuds such as the 2017-2021 Gulf diplomatic crisis resolved, the Gulf states focused on bolstering their images abroad through the use of diplomacy and international engagement. Consequently, since the Russian invasion, the Gulf states have played an outsized role in Russia-Ukraine diplomacy, as well as other global conflicts such as the conflict in Yemen, the burgeoning civil war in Sudan, and the crisis in Afghanistan.
These trends are not unique to the GCC states. Earlier this year, with Chinese assistance, Saudi Arabia and Iran reached an agreement to normalize their relations after seven years of little progress. The normalization agreement, signed in Beijing in March 2023, has already led to a flurry of official visits and diplomatic activity. In recent weeks, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian visited Riyadh and Saudi foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud visited Tehran. Soon after the inking of the agreement, Iran reopened its embassy in Riyadh, and the Saudis are in the process of following suit in Tehran.
The recent rapprochement has also had reverberating positive consequences in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, with de-escalation and the revival of diplomatic efforts in each of these nations. Although not party to the Saudi-Iranian pact, Oman and Qatar took advantage of its success by arranging a prisoner exchange between Tehran and Washington, as well as a resolution of other matters related to Iran’s nuclear program and U.S. sanctions activity.
The regional de-escalation has given the GCC states an opportunity to focus and invest in their soft power ventures and economic transformation plans. While a regional de-escalation has immediate political effects—it reduces the costs to all parties of conflicts, tames unrest, and helps to prevent further violence across the Middle East—its knock-on effects are also crucial, as a general peace paves the way for investments and economic growth. The GCC states are going out of their way to discover new investment opportunities to increase economic revenues.
Investments Mirror Social Change
The Gulf states’ most high-profile foreign investments have been, without a doubt, their purchases of foreign sports programs. Over the past decade, the Saudi, Qatari, and Emirati sovereign wealth funds have poured billions of dollars into European sports leagues, while also developing their own local sports teams and attempting to recruit and train to compete with European ones. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior have all joined Saudi football clubs, elevating the international profile of Saudi clubs in particular and Gulf clubs overall.
Saudi Arabia’s football transformation is emblematic in many ways of its broader societal transformation. In the span of two decades, the kingdom has transformed from a quiet, austere society into one of the most energetic and dynamic places in the world. Much of this change can be attributed to the actions of the Saudi state, which has sought to maximize its economic and regional influence and power by instituting top-to-bottom reforms, emphasizing ambitious ideas, and working to meet the people’s expectations. These reforms have necessarily blurred the lines between political, economic, social, and technological issues; in every area, the society of Saudi Arabia today would be utterly unrecognizable to an observer twenty years ago.
It remains to be seen if the particular sports investments that Riyadh has undertaken will pay off. The recruiting of European and Brazilian soccer stars has had enormous costs on Gulf soccer clubs’ budgets, and while attention to the Saudi leagues has grown by leaps and bounds, they have far to go before they reach the global audience that watches European teams like Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain. Here there is tremendous room for growth, a fact that Gulf investors are keenly aware of; football is the most-watched and most-loved sport in the world by far.
However, it is important for Gulf policymakers to ensure that their sports plans are linked to a comprehensive state vision that combines economy, education, sports, culture and technology to maximize its impact on their youth population and across different government sectors. At least in part to improve their public images, the Gulf states have cannily invested in economic, social values, and sports, which touch people’s lives and opinions much faster and more reliably than politics does. Saudi Arabia’s leadership in this regard will probably inspire other GCC states to follow suit.
In the political realm, the Gulf has seen an increasing range of international engagement. This year, Dubai is playing host to the COP28 climate conference, helping to bolster the UAE’s green credentials even as many Western experts dismiss the idea that one of the largest oil exporters in the world can also be one of the most progressive with regard to the environment. Jeddah recently hosted a peace summit for Ukraine, to which more than 40 countries (every major player in the conflict besides Russia) sent a delegation. Months earlier, Saudi Arabia also hosted discussions intended to resolve the Sudan crisis, and played a major role in evacuating Western diplomats from Khartoum. Other Gulf states have engaged with the region on issues in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
As the Gulf states are growing their own political clout—helped in large part by a decrease in the resources devoted to hurting one another—they have grown steadily more independent from their traditional patrons, and are willing to act on their own behalf rather than waiting for signals from abroad. This development is an unabashedly positive one. The Gulf states today are uniquely equipped to promote peace and stability and effect change in ways that the “great powers” are not. How they choose to utilize their power in that regard will be one of the defining geopolitical questions of the twenty-first century.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.