The foreign ministers of the six Gulf states have their work cut out for them. They, along with a team of assistants and deputies, have been pushed into the limelight over the past few months due to the seismic political shift that the region is witnessing. Before the Arab Spring of 2011 many of the regional initiatives undertaken by these foreign ministers, such as the Taif Accord and the Lebanese and Sudanese reconciliations, were largely based on a single-country effort rather than a regional undertaking. Today, however, closer regional cooperation, led by these very foreign ministers under the umbrella of the Gulf Cooperation Council, is marking a new era for the peninsula states. A joint GCC mediation effort to put an end to the crisis in Yemen is currently underway; the six Gulf states’ foreign ministers are also said to have led the diplomatic effort to convince other Arab League states in a meeting in March to back a call for the UN to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. These joint efforts have even culminated in talks on the establishment of a GCC confederation that would in turn include a common foreign minister.
Perhaps it is an opportune time to consider such bold moves. After all, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the GCC and, on March 31, the regional bloc saw the appointment of its fifth Secretary-General, the Bahraini Dr Abdul Latif Al Zayani, an adviser to the island kingdom’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a rank of minister.
2011 is also the year in which the foreign ministers of the geographically smaller Gulf states took centre stage on the global arena. For instance, the UAE and Qatari foreign ministers were heavily involved in the Libya summits in Paris and London whereas the Bahraini foreign minister’s activities were centred around events in the island nation. At no other time was the highly sensitive foreign portfolio more scrutinised or important to the Gulf states than today.
The foreign ministry along with that of the defence, the interior and premiership posts, have generally been the reserve of the ruling families in the Gulf and are referred to as siyadia or sovereign portfolios. The foreign ministry is in fact the very first cabinet post ever to be created in the region when King Abdul Aziz Al Saud appointed his second eldest surviving son Prince Faisal as foreign minister back in 1932 upon the formation of the Saudi kingdom, a position currently held by the latter’s son Prince Saud. The then Prince Faisal, born in 1906, was hardly a teenager when he was sent to attend the 1919 Versailles conference in France. He retained his foreign ministry portfolio even after he became king in 1964. The position was assigned to Prince Saud upon the assassination of King Faisal in 1975. Saud Al Faisal was born in 1940 and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Princeton University in 1964 and has retained the position of foreign minister since 1975.
Despite having lasted for 36 years, Prince Saud isn’t the world’s longest serving foreign minister. That title goes to Shaikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah of Kuwait who served in that post from 1963 to 2003 until he was appointed Prime Minister. Shaikh Sabah rose from prime minister to monarch when he led a rare democratic effort to depose his infirm cousin, the nine-day ruler of Kuwait, in 2006, not through a foreign backed war or a revolution but via the Kuwaiti parliament. This makes the 81-year-old Shaikh Sabah the only world leader to enter a parliamentary hall as prime minister and exit as monarch. Shaikh Sabah’s diplomatic prowess was evident when he led a reconciliation effort between the UAE and its eastern neighbour Oman in March, taking up to eight flights between both nations’ capitals and insisting that he would not return home without resolving the issue.
Today, the foreign minister is the articulate 56-year-old Shaikh Mohammad Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah, who holds a PhD in Economics from Harvard University. Dr Mohammad served as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs from 2001 until he was appointed as Foreign Minister. The Minister of State for foreign affairs is a commonly held position in the Arab Gulf states, allowing senior officials to share duties. One of the most prominent ministers of state for foreign affairs in the Gulf was the UAE’s late Saif Saeed Bin Gobash, who was assassinated in 1977 at Abu Dhabi airport when he was 45 years old as he escorted the visiting former Syrian foreign minister, who was apparently the assassin’s target.
The UAE Foreign Minister today is Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed, a brother of the President of the federation. Known for being highly active, the 39-year-old travelled to dozens of countries in 2009 to lobby for the UAE to win the right to host Irena, which was assigned to Abu Dhabi that summer. Shaikh Abdullah, a graduate in Political Science from the UAE University is also credited with expanding the UAE’s soft-power foreign diplomacy. Just prior to UAE assuming the GCC’s rotating presidency for this year, Shaikh Abdullah stressed at the 2010 Manama Dialogue what he called the pivotal role of the GCC in aligning the Gulf states’ strategic views and priorities.
In the Gulf, one often hears that Qatar is the only country in the region with an ‘independent’ foreign policy although it has fallen in line with other Gulf states recently. Qatar’s balancing of simultaneous relations with the West and Iran as well as with Hamas and Israel is only one facet of this dynamic policy that is led by its Foreign Minister Shaikh Hamad Bin Jasem Bin Jabr Al Thani. Known for his frank statements, Qatar’s second most powerful figure, Shaikh Hamad, was appointed Foreign Minister in 1992 at the age of 33 and retained the position when he was promoted to Prime Minister in 2007. From the outset Qatar made it clear that it was willing to play in the ‘big league’ with relations between it and Egypt remaining tense since Qatar flatly blamed Mubarak’s regime for backing a failed coup attempt against the country’s Emir in 1996.
Bilateral relations were only smoothened in November 2010 when Mubarak, Egypt’s deposed president, paid a visit to Doha. Even though Shaikh Hamad does not sit on the board of Al Jazeera, some observers continue to draw parallels between the groundbreaking channel’s coverage and the host state’s maverick foreign policy, citing its coverage of the recent Arab revolutions. Qatar has nominated the Gulf’s former highest ranking diplomat, the fourth GCC secretary-general Abdul Rahman Al Attiyah, whose term expired on March 30, for the position of Secretary-General of the Cairo-based Arab League, although Saudi Arabia has indicated that it may back an Egyptian candidate. Should Al Attiyah win the nomination it would be interesting to observe if some of Qatar’s maverick foreign policy is reflected in the moribund body.
Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmad Al Khalifa is perhaps the most tech-savvy of the Gulf states’ foreign ministers. In addition to his official government day job, Shaikh Khalid also maintains an active personal Twitter account through which he presents the official Bahraini point of view regarding the recent protests in the kingdom to his thousands of followers. Born in 1960 and educated at St Edward’s University in Texas, graduating with a BSc in History and Political Science, Shaikh Khalid, while in the US, volunteered in Jimmy Carter’s 1980 presidential campaign.
Today Bahrain’s foreign policy is witnessing a major repositioning, closing ranks with its fellow GCC states that sent in troops upon the request of the Bahraini government, and distancing itself from Iran which it has publicly accused of backing anti-government protesters.
In Oman, Sultan Qaboos officially holds the title of Foreign Minister, however functionally Oman’s Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs is the Salalah-born and Kuwait-educated Yousuf Bin Alawi Bin Abdullah. The highly skilled 66-year-old Omani politician worked in both the private and public sectors prior to being promoted in 1997 from Minister of State for Foreign Affairs to his current role.
During the recent major cabinet reshuffle Alawi was among the few ministers to retain their posts. Some say the golden era of Gulf diplomacy of the 1970s and 1980s followed most of the states independence and ended with Saddam Hussain’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The following two decades were victims of the general intra-Arab conflict that some refer to as the Arab Cold War, with statesmen boycotting summits in each other’s capitals based on personal grudges and a reaching out to distant third parties instead of deepening the economic and political ties within the regional framework.
Today the Arab Gulf states have an opportunity to regain the initiative with a new GCC secretary general at the helm, perhaps even with the appointment of a Gulf national as Arab League chief, along with a region-wide $20 billion (Dh73.4 billion) economic development package announced recently for Bahrain and Oman.
The Arab Gulf states should progress in this rapidly shifting Arab political landscape to an era of closer coordination in foreign affairs, if not willingly than by necessity and Gulf nationals will look upon their foreign ministers to fulfill this challenge.
This article was originally published in Gulf News on April 23, 2011.