The 7th Annual Gulf Studies Forum launched in Doha on Sunday 29 November 2020. Gathering 30 researchers and experts from the region and beyond, this year’s forum was split into two tracks, “Sovereign Wealth Funds and Investment Policies of the Gulf Cooperation Council States” and “The GCC's Relations with Iran”. Given the ongoing pandemic, the conference was held for the first time online via Zoom, featuring public lectures and individual presentations for each conference track, with the whole forum set to unfold over 10 sessions.  

The conference began with opening remarks from conference chair and Director of the Arab Center’s Political Studies Unit, Marwan Kabalan. Kabalan noted that since 2014 the Arab Center has sustained this forum without interruption – notwithstanding regional and global circumstances – as one of its distinguished research programs, such that it is now an annual tradition held in the first week of December.

Dr Kabalan went on to introduce Giacomo Luciani, who gave a public lecture addressing the forum’s first track titled “Dilemmas of Sovereign Wealth Funds Management.” Luciani noted that both the number and size of SWFs continue to grow despite uncertainty over their administration and long-term evolution, given the multiplicity of priorities and circumstances surrounding the perceived risks SWFs must accommodate and gradual diminishment in the role of national governments in the turbulent contexts of globalization and the politicisation of trade. He also noted that increasingly states, including Gulf region states, tend to reject a purely liberal approach to risk management, and this poses dilemmas for SWFs.  

Session 1 of the “Gulf Cooperation Council – Iran Relations” track was chaired by Ghanim Al-Najjar. Juan Cole presented his paper on “The Geopolitical Struggle between the GCC and Iran (2015-2020)”, which explored four arenas of struggle in which the GCC fared badly and left Iran very much in the ascendant, namely: Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Pakistan. This was followed by Abdullah Mohammed al-Ghailani’s presentation on the “Gulf-Iranian Relationship: The Threat of Confrontations and the Need for Reconciliation,” which assessed the dynamics of Gulf-Iranian relations from the standpoints of the implications for Gulf regional security and the chances for achieving Gulf-Iranian reconciliation and  harmony. Al-Ghailani underlined the diversity of the GCC in terms of levels of rapprochement or antagonism with Iran; each member of the GCC varies in its geostrategic approaches to Iranian power.

Ross Harrison rounded off the first day’s sessions with his paper on “The GCC versus Iran: Low Intensity War, High Intensity Conflict,” unpacking the dynamics of the relationship in all its complexity, given the “complex and ambiguous” nature of an Iranian threat, which the researcher suggested was an outcome of a Middle East state system shredded by civil wars. Asymmetric and ambiguous perceptions of threat are found in the GCC, with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain viewing Iran as an existential threat, while other GCC members do not view Iran as such. For its part, Iran views the USA, and not the Arab states, as the existential threat. 

Second day:

The Gulf Studies Forum’s work on the second day Monday, November 30, 2020 began with Hind Al-Miftah chairing the session on the topic of sovereign wealth funds and GCC investment policies, and considering three research papers. Khalid Shams Muhammad Al-Abdulqader presented his paper “GCC Sovereign Wealth Funds: Experience and Wealth-Maximizing Strategies,” examining the importance of sovereign wealth funds and the role they can play in improving key economic indicators in the economies of the GCC countries that own them. Nayef N. Alshammari then presented his paper “Sustainability and Challenges of Investment Policies for the GCC Sovereign Wealth Funds,” discussing the role of sovereign wealth funds in Arab Gulf states as a non-oil investment resource that can strengthen national economies and contribute to achieving stability and economic development. With sufficient government will, he suggested, political and economic reforms in the Gulf countries can promote financial and investment programs beneficial to economies, consistent with sovereign wealth fund goals of diversifying sources of income. Completing work in this session, Sara Bazoobandi presented her research on “Sovereign Wealth Funds and National Visions of the Arab Gulf States: Consolidation of Institutions and Accumulation of Assets,” examining the history of sovereign wealth funds over the past two decades, and underscoring their impact on the transfer of knowledge and technology.

On the theme of Gulf Cooperation Council – Iran relations, the day’s second session chaired by Yacoub Al-Kandari saw three research papers presented. Mohammad Ghnem Al-Rumaihi presented a paper on “GCC - Iran Relations: Foundations and Future Prospects,” featuring an analysis of Iranian foreign policy and the responses of Gulf Cooperation Council states to it. He stressed the need to examine in depth the background to Iranian-Gulf relations as a basis for an objective perspective on the future of these relations, without ritual recourse to slogans. Gawdat Bahgat then presented the second paper “Iranian Foreign Policy from Ahmadinejad to Rouhani” comparing and contrasting the two administrations in terms of drivers of Iranian foreign and defense policy; he noted that Iran's foreign policy, like that of any other country, reflects a mix of ideological orientation and leaders' perceptions of national interests. The third and final paper by Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar “Iran's Foreign Policy after Rouhani” analyzed the dynamics of Iran's Middle East policy during the era of President Hassan Rouhani, also assessing its possible course after the upcoming presidential elections in 2021.

Third day:

The Forum’s third day of sessions got underway on Tuesday, 1 December 2020 with Abdullah Baabood chairing Shireen Hunter’s Public Lecture on “The Impact of Systemic Factors on Iranian-GCC Relations”. In her lecture, Dr. Hunter examined the relative influences of systemic regional and international factors on the dynamics of the relationship between Iran and the Arab Gulf states, considering the inter-Arab context, the impact of Israel, the role of transformations in the international order, and the policies of the great powers. She concluded  that these systemic factors have often had a negative impact on relations between Iran and the Gulf states, especially in the post-Soviet era, with a uniquely hegemonic United States attempting to reshape the Middle East through the use of military force.

In the third day’s session on sovereign wealth funds and investment policies of the GCC, chaired by Ohood Al Bulushi, three research papers were presented. The first by Faisal Hamad Al Monawer, “The Governance of Sovereign Wealth Funds in the GCC Countries: A Proposed Model,” explored a conceptual framework for sovereign wealth funds and their governance. He proposed a practical model for governance of SWFs as something needed urgently to protect Gulf SWFs from corruption and to enhance their performance. Julien Maire, Adnan Mazarei and Edwin M. Truman then presented their view of “Sovereign Wealth Funds of the GCC Countries: Governance and Prospects,” focusing on results emerging from the 2019 scoreboard – the fifth such “scoreboard” of key SWF indicators. They observed that average GCC scores on the scoreboard have improved over time but remain lower than those for 54 other SWFs and lower than those for non-GCC SWFs that derive their financial resources from oil and gas or other sources. Tamara Kamhawi Schulz’s paper “Gulf SWFs: Towards Cultural Governance” closed the third day’s sessions. Her paper highlighted the realization by oil-rich Gulf states, during the price boom in the early 2000s, that SWFs could become powerful tools to mobilize political and social support at the national and international levels. At the same time, she noted past examples of SWFs making media headlines for reputed lack of transparency, political agendas and self-interest, such that today Gulf states are keenly aware of local and international calls to create an internal governance framework for SWFs meeting national cultural expectations while adhering to international standards.

Fourth day:

The fourth day, Wednesday, December 2, 2020 began with a session on relations between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran chaired by Suhaim Al Thani, with four research papers presented. Khaled Al-Jaber's “The Future of Gulf-US Relations in a Post-Trump Era,” detailed the background to this relationship since Donald Trump’s accession to the presidency in January 2017 and explored the possible resumption of negotiations between the United States of America and Iran on the nuclear issue, along with the implications of this for the security of the Gulf region. A second paper, by Nikolay Kozhanov, “Iran-US Tension and Gulf Energy Security” discussed the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (covid-19), the escalation of domestic problems inside Iran and the United States, and the ongoing confrontation between these states. Emad Y. Kaddorah’s third paper, “External Initiatives for Regional Security in the Gulf” explored two external approaches to the security of the Gulf region. The first accepts the reality of a region in which conflict and competition are spreading: alliances, maximization of military power and deterrence are seen to be necessary measures to ensure security and maintain the balance of power. The second considers that a framework promoting comprehensive security can be appropriate and that all parties can gradually agree upon a formula for sustainable security. The day’s fourth and final paper was presented by Mehran Kamrava discussing “Institutions and Policy in Iran's Relations with the GCC” and underlining how Iran's foreign and security policies towards GCC countries are subject to internal and external institutional restrictions. Foreign and security policy are the product of negotiations and settlements between three unequal power centers in Iran: the presidency, the Revolutionary Guard, and the Supreme Leader.

The day’s second session, devoted to Sovereign Wealth Funds and Investment Policies of the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries, chaired by Khaled Rashid Al-Khater, considered two research papers. The first by Yousuf Hamed Al Balushi, “The Role of SWFs in Promoting the Local Private Sector and Attracting Foreign Investment (the Case of Oman),” concluded that the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (covid-19) imposed on policymakers in various critical domains in the Arab Gulf the need for a different pace and approach to development: one necessitating a change in the economic model currently from one dependent on government and oil revenues, to one based on the private sector, domestic and foreign investment, national workers and production. The second paper was by Nizar Jouini and Hela Miniaoui, “Sovereign Wealth Funds and Soft Power: Political Economy of the Small Gulf States.” In presenting the paper Miniaoui noted that the Gulf states have used sovereign wealth funds in their various forms to contribute to economic development and promote social and economic growth. The huge investment of the UAE directed towards political allies such as Egypt and the United States of America, and increased Qatari investments in Turkey provide evidence that the small Arab States of the Gulf Cooperation Council can make ample use of the soft power of sovereign wealth funds to enhance their security and political stability.

Conclusion of the Conference

The fifth and final day of the conference, Thursday, 3 December 2020 began discussing relations between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran in a session chaired headed by Mahjoob Zweiri during which two research papers were presented. The first was by John Calabrese, “The United States and the Gulf: Trapped in Transition.” The paper illustrated how in recent years the United States’ mixed messages and policy fluctuations have provoked deep questions in Gulf states about its role in the region and the world, with discussions often remaining without resolution. The second paper of the session was by Zahid Shahab Ahmed, “Relations of the Cooperation Council States with Iran and the Pakistan Factor,” discussed relations between Pakistan and the Arab States of the Gulf Cooperation Council, from the perspective of the often conflicting relationship of these countries with Iran.

The Seventh Gulf Studies Forum’s closing session, chaired by Marwan Kabalan, returned to the subject of GCC sovereign wealth funds and investment policies, for which three papers were presented. The first, by Fahad Y. Al-Fadala and Mohammed Omar Batwaih was titled “The Sovereign Financial Assets of the State of Kuwait: A New Perspective.” Al-Fadala stated that their review of credit rating agencies’ financial estimates of sovereign wealth funds owned by the State of Kuwait showed that they had limited themselves to reviewing only two sovereign funds, namely the Future Generations Fund (FGF) and the General Reserve Fund, (GRF), and thereby had overlooked a group of sovereign investment funds owned by the State of Kuwait and operating in the local and international investment sector. Lorans Al Hennawi’s second paper “Gulf Sovereign Wealth Funds between Achieving Economic Transformation and Power Consolidation: The Case of Saudi Public Investment Fund,” considered Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s launch of an economic plan in April 2016 known as “Vision 2030,” incorporating creation of a Saudi Public Investment Fund as the largest sovereign fund until the year 2030 to diversify the economy in strategic sectors. Nabil Bouflih presented the third and final paper of the Forum, “The Adherence of the Gulf Sovereign Wealth Funds to the Santiago Principles of Governance: the Case of Abu Dhabi Investment Authority,” in which he examined the extent to which the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, which claims to be the largest Gulf sovereign wealth fund and the third largest sovereign wealth fund in the world in terms of the size of assets, adheres to “Santiago Principles” – the generally accepted voluntary and non-mandatory principles and practices for minimum levels of governance in an investment framework of risk management. He pointed out that the Santiago principles were developed under the supervision of the International Monetary Fund, with the participation of all stakeholders, with the aim of reducing the concerns of countries hosting sovereign wealth fund investment.