Workshop| OxGAPS Majlis 2014

With the rapid and dynamic changes taking place in the region, the OxGAPS Majlis is a specialized workshop convened to analyse and deliberate trends in the region across various themes. OxGAPS 2014 took place on December 6 in partnership with Oxford Strategic Consulting at St Antony’s College, Oxford. The workshop held three thematic working groups: 1) Labour markets in the GCC, 2) The role of media on cultural and identity (re)formation, and 3) Gulf regional relations.

The workshop was opened by welcoming remarks from Dr. Ahmed Al-Shahi (Research Fellow, St Antony’s College) who spoke about the scale of the changing physical landscape of the Gulf countries. He emphasized the immense impact material wealth and the presence of vast migrant labourers and professionals drawn from various parts of the world in precipitating this transformation.

His opening was followed by keynote remarks from Ambassador Elshad H. Iskandarov (President, Islamic Conference Youth Forumfor Dialogue and Cooperation) who discussed the negative self-views some Muslim youth around the world hold and ways in which to counter such self-defeating beliefs. In his remarks, Amb. Iskandarov also discussed the need to bring about a culture of science and technology among youth in the Muslim world who may feel antagonized in an increasingly Islamophobic world. He stressed the importance of the Islamic concept of “ta’meer,” (building/constructing) as an essential purpose of being for Muslims. This transformation, he argued, will require knowledge sharing and practical tools, hence the establishment of the Islamic Conference Youth Forum for Dialogue and Cooperation to help bring about such change.

The opening session concluded with a lecture by Prof. William Scott-Jackson (Chairman, Oxford Strategic Consulting), who spoke about various ways to maximize GCC human capital. During his talk, Prof. Scott-Jackson revealed that there is not one labour market in the GCC. He stressed the need for a system and cultural values towards lifelong education. Such a system must harness national capabilities, especially for leadership positions given the proportion of Gulf nationals in relation to expats. He also asserted that the private sector must be forced to employ nationals, and that excess immigrants harm the economy and block nationals.

Labour Markets in the GCC Workshop Summary

The “Labour Markets in the GCC Workshop,” convened by Shamma Al-Mazrui (External Relations Officer, OxGAPS), Allison Hartnett (Vice Committee Chairman and Treasurer, OxGAPS) and Adel Hamaizia (Vice Committee Chairman, OxGAPS), saw a discussion on various issues, features, trends and challenges. The workshop started with a discussion on cultural issues that could explain negative national labour trends such as lower valuation of jobs and deference to the West.

The session looked at various levels of labour market segmentation: women vs. men; expatriate vs. citizen; low skill vs high skill; private vs. public sector employment. Empirical evidence showing different wage expectations of national versus non-national employees in some GCC countries were presented. The different ways in which wasta (nepotism) could affect market outcomes were also deliberated. Moreover, the different reasons for the existence of an unrelenting preference among citizens for public sector employment as well as policy options to reverse this trend were also assessed.

Some prospects were discussed including policies encouraging mobility of labour, and private sector exposure for nationals through graduate schemes or mentoring programs. To this end education matching and communication between private businesses and universities was deemed essential. The options of creating stakeholder positions for the private sector within the educational sector—primary through tertiary in particular—were discussed. Centres of excellence to help advance such policies established through public-private partnerships were also noted. The role of women in the labour market and the kinds of policies that could increase female participation in the labour market were also considered.

Role of Media on Cultural and Identity (Re)formation Workshop Summary

In the workshop titled “The Role of Media on Cultural and Identity (Re)formation” convened by Fadi Salem (DPhil Candidate, Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford) and Suliman Al-Atiqi (Committee Chairman, OxGAPS), participants discussed various identity related issues in the Gulf starting with theoretical conceptualizations of identity. Participants presented various ways in which people define themselves based on context, place and time, ethnicity and nationality. In the Gulf the disproportionately high percentage of expats in relation to Gulf citizens was identified as a key topic in identity related issues in the Gulf.

The special role social media is playing in expanding public participation was also a topic of discussion. Certain constraints, especially women’s participation in public discourse, have been reduced in the virtual world, though not necessarily in the physical world, prompting the question on how to better understand the relationship between what happens in the virtual and physical space. Hence a key emerging research question was how media space and physical space are affecting each other. Some benefits the role of media social media is playing were also discussed such as its function as a “safety valve” for freedom of expression. People today are more able to connect with others on issues of common concern.

Another topic discussed was the perception other regions, the West in particular, have of the GCC and how is social media feeding into such perceptions. One question that raised question was which social media content from the GCC is finding its way to people abroad. Is only sensationalist content finding its way outside the region, fuelling further stereotypes, or is other material of intellectual and artistic nature also making its way to other regions increasing cultural awareness. The workshop concluded with a few questions and considerations such as how social media is altering representations of public opinion, and how social media challenges or complements traditional, state-owned, media outlets.

GCC Regional Relations Workshop Summary

The GCC Regional Relations workshop, convened by Matteo Legrenzi (Chair of International Relations and Gulf Studies, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice) and Sarah Smierciak (Director of Studies, OxGAPS), discussed a range of issues concerning the various connections between GCC countries and the broader Middle East. The topic of possible inclusion of additional GCC members, especially (Jordan and Morocco) was discussed given the post-Arab spring gestures toward broader inclusion. The possibility of a larger GCC could follow an “ASEAN+3 Model,” with greater, non-binding, affiliation.

Funding trends were also discussed in light of the Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia and others embarked on massive financing programs in Oman, Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen. It was noted that massive subsides were not carried out through the GCC as an organization, underscoring the divergence of policies. It was posited that such direct flows of GCC capital has reduced the need of Egyptians to depend solely on US support; Saudi Arabia offered more aid than the US, IMF, World Bank, etc. Just a month after the Muslim Brotherhood were ousted out of power in Egypt, Saudi Arabia offered to deposit 2 billion USD in Egypt’s Central Bank. The UAE and Kuwait followed quickly with multi-billion aid packages.

Other challenges about the state of the GCC were highlighted such as its difficulty in enforcing measures to be implemented by all member states, especially due to bureaucratic hurdles. It was also noted that the GCC Secretariat will likely not achieve the supranational role. Another challenge discussed revolved around the differences of foreign policies towards ongoing conflicts in the region, especially in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood and Libya. However despite the divisions and that take place, including boycotts of meetings, the GCC is likely to remain a solid system due to the essentialness of cooperation and maintaining the status quo.