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.