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How one think tank is fostering US-Gulf ties

How one think tank is fostering US-Gulf ties

Non-profit think tank Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington has former diplomats who have served in Gulf states.

By Bernd Debusmann Jr./senior Reporter (Reporting from Washington)

Published: Fri 26 Jun 2015, 12:12 AM

Last updated: Wed 8 Jul 2015, 3:09 PM

Marcelle Wahba (centre), Stephen Seche (second from right) and other members of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. — Supplied photo

Washington - Nestled in a small office just blocks from the White House, a small but experienced team of scholars and former diplomats is working to build bridges between the United States and the nations of the Arabian Gulf.

The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW), which was established in late 2014, is a non-profit think-tank with the stated aim of enhancing the understanding of the social, economic and political landscape of the Arabian Gulf.

The AGSIW’s president, ambassador Marcelle Wahba, has a long diplomatic career which included an assignment as the US’s ambassador to the UAE between 2001 and 2004, when she was awarded the UAE’s Order of Independence by the late Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

In an interview with Khaleej Times, Wahba explained that the institute’s main mission is to promote understanding of the issues facing the countries of the Gulf and their potential regional impact.

“In a nutshell, the mission behind the institute is to provide a really more in-depth and broader understanding of the countries that make up the GCC, and also of all the issues that impact the region and those countries,” she said. “It really is broad, from political issues to social issues, political dynamics, demographic issues, trade, culture, gender issues and civil society.

“Those are the issues we feel are not really being covered in Washington. That’s why we are here, to try fill that gap.”

The ASGIW’s executive vice-president, Stephen Seche — who served as US ambassador to Yemen from 2007 to 2010 — said the institute has the added benefit of helping American policy makers understand the thought processes and motivations of their counterparts in the Gulf.

“The default position (in Washington) is to focus on really high-profile news-related issues. Conflicts, Iran, energy issues — these get the most attention, they are the noisiest issues,” he said. “But the ones below the surface, the trends and demographics, are kind of the foundation policies are formed and built on. So we want to understand what the underlying thinking is in the Gulf countries so that when we look at the policies, we know why they came about.”

The UAE connect

Among the members of the institute’s 10-member board of directors are Fatima Al Jaber, chair of Projects Committee of the Abu Dhabi-based Al Jaber Group, and Dr Fatima Al Shamsi, deputy vice-chancellor for Administration at Paris-Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi.

In an effort to increase understanding of Gulf issues, the ASGIW has published reports and hosted events and forums on issues ranging from the effects of slumping oil prices to the Camp David GCC Summit and the war in Yemen, and is currently working to build partnerships with research institutions, government organisations and private sector companies in the US and the Gulf.

The institute’s event on June 17 dealt with the urban lifestyles of Gulf youth.

“You don’t find too many places doing a Yemen programme one week and something on Gulf youth and urban spaces two weeks later,” Seche said.

Looking to the future, Wahba said she hoped the institute will help influential figures from the Gulf be heard in Washington.

“We can provide a platform for people from the region who are thinkers, journalists, academics and officials when they come to Washington to be heard,” she said. “We will host them and provide them with a good audience and media coverage.

“For many people in the Gulf who are frustrated that they are thought of as a bunch of rich oil Shaikhs who people come to for money and nothing else, this is an institute that is trying to put some substantive issues out there.”

As of an example of an issue that is not often discussed in Washington, Wahba noted that the institute is interested in examining the burgeoning art scene in the UAE and the region. “We want to do art. We want to talk about the young people in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and Riyadh who are doing films today, to see what they are thinking about,” she said. “Very few people here in Washington know the fabric of the region.”

Among the other UAE-related issues the institute plans to cover over time is cyber security, the successful diversification of Dubai’s economy and the UAE’s space ambitions.

Wahba said that in its short history, the institute has exceeded their own expectations, which is reflective of the Gulf’s growing importance to the US.

“We’re kind of surprised at the level of interest and hunger for information,” she said. “Clearly there is an appetite out there in many sectors that want to know more in-depth stuff about the Gulf.”


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