The Gulf Development Forum: Always ahead of the curve

Founded in 1981, the forum stood out for its progressive ideas at a time when populations were largely dependent on oil revenues.

The Gulf Development Forum: Always ahead of the curve

Founded in 1981 by Gulf intellectuals from the region, the Gulf Development Forum was dedicated to tackling various issues that impact development.

For four decades now, this forum has religiously met to highlight the pressing issues of the day, whether in education, human rights, culture, women empowerment, demographic imbalances, the oil boom, legislative councils, etc.

Its most recent meeting was held in Riyadh earlier this month under the theme The Role of Education and Culture in Promoting Development in the Arab Gulf Countries. More than 50 members and participants from Gulf countries attended.

Six papers were presented, addressing the following topics:

1. Education reform as a prerequisite for development

2. The impact of culture and knowledge on development in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries

3. How culture stimulates or hinders economic growth

4. Challenges in the fields of science and education in Kuwait

5. Cognitive impact mechanisms vis-à-vis the management of social transformations in Gulf societies and how to overcome challenges

6. Cultural development in the United Arab Emirates.

While efforts to tackle these issues deserve praise, it remains to be seen just how effective these delegates are in influencing the government to enact necessary reforms once back home. Forum members recognise their limitations in influencing government bodies and societies at large.

However, this doesn't detract from the forum's merit.

Oftentimes, governments have independently adopted progressive policies, showing they can embrace change, even without direct institutional coordination with the forum.

The Gulf Development Forum was founded at a time when Gulf culture had already solidified around welfare policies.

For a better understanding of the challenges, it's important to understand that the forum was founded during a crucial period in the history of Gulf countries. In the 1980s, the region was in the midst the Iran-Iraq war and was experiencing skyrocketing oil prices.

However, by the time the forum was founded, Gulf culture had pretty much already solidified around welfare policies. At the time, societies didn't understand the importance of economic diversification and investment in education.

Ahead of the curve

So, the forum was really ahead of the curve. It stood out for its progressive ideas at a time when populations were largely dependent on oil revenues.

Over the years, members continued to raise the issue and published several books and academic research papers on the importance of development and how to overcome challenges.

These studies impressively predicted evolutions in relationships between Gulf countries and foreign states and how these changes could impact development in the GCC region.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent American intervention to liberate it is a perfect example of how this relationship impacted the development of the country.

The invasion and liberation undoubtedly sparked geopolitical and cultural shifts, which upended long-established beliefs in the minds of Kuwaiti citizens and Gulf nationals on the importance of self-sufficiency.

The Gulf Development Forum was ahead of the curve. It stood out for its progressive ideas at a time when populations were largely dependent on oil revenues.

Residual challenges

However, to this day, the Gulf still relies on the United States and Western countries to protect against potential threats from neighbouring countries.

Another complex issue is related to demographics. After the discovery of oil and the increase in wealth in Gulf countries, people flocked to these countries for work and to seek prosperity.

Gulf countries needed both skilled and unskilled labour to build up different sectors. Although Gulf citizens worked in various professions and mastered many crafts before the oil era, many abandoned these often physically strenuous and menial jobs after the emergence of the welfare state.

Many were handed cushy jobs handed to them by the state in the public sector. This created a massive hole in the private sector, which needed to be filled with able bodies willing to do the work. This desperate need for foreign labour created massive demographic imbalances in many Gulf states.

The forum flagged this issue in a book titled Gulf Residents: Aspects of Imbalance and Confrontation. The book was edited by Dr Omar Al-Shihabi from Bahrain and was released after the 34th meeting hosted by Kuwait in 2013.

There will inevitably come a day when the forum becomes a vital centre that helps formulate government policy, much like the role think tanks play in advanced countries.

There is still a very long way to go before the forum's goals are realised, but emerging trends in Gulf countries point to promising possibilities. 

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