Blogging a Trip to the Arab Gulf

What can we learn from the Emirates?

I’m in the United Arab Emirates as part of a delegation organized by the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), directed by Jon Alterman (check out the program’s excellent reports and note here. The U.S. delegation is in the U.A.E. and Kuwait this week to see how people here are thinking about the global economic meltdown, Iran’s evolving role in the region, and the increasing emphasis in U.S. policy on Pakistan and Afghanistan (discussed in that order out here).We’re also hearing a good bit on the usual mix of Middle East issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iraq.

Relative to Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict and other things Marc usually writes about on this blog, the U.A.E. is somewhat of a humdrum place to visit from a U.S. foreign policy standpoint. Headlines in local newspapers talk more about other countries in the neighborhood, rather than events at home. The day of our arrival, the front page of Khaleej Times, which claims to be the number 1 English language daily here, had the following headlines – "Zardari Pondering Way Out of Crisis" (Pakistan), "Sanctions Childish: Iran" (Iran), "Mega-rich Indians Feel the Pain" (India), and "Under Pressure, Switzerland Opens up on Bank Secrecy" (essentially a global finance story), all right above a large color McDonald’s print ad for a 14 dirham value meals (Prompting one to wonder: What exactly is the cost-benefit equation of front-page color ads for fast food restaurants?) The big story seems to be the economy and all of the talk of the "Dubai" model for progress.

Read more here.

A small Arab Gulf country arms up

In less than three years, the United Arab Emirates has achieved a remarkable turnaround in its image in the United States. After seeing a proposed 2006 deal that would have given operational control of several U.S. ports to a Dubai-based firm get killed in the face of strong public opposition, the Emirates embarked on a full court press inside the Beltway to change its image. As a result, when Emirati investors bought a stake in the NASDAQ stock exchange and invested $7.5 billion in the troubled Citigroup in 2007, hardly anyone took notice.

In our discussions on this trip, a common talking point we’ve heard is that the UAE is now the single largest export market for U.S. goods in the Arab world. One lesser known fact is that good bit of this U.S. export growth to the Emirates comes from rapidly expanding military sales.

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Where is the Muslim world on Afghanistan?

“Af-Pak” (or “Pak-Af,” depending on your perspective) has topped the two-month old Obama administration’s national security agenda. This part of the world is bound to get more media attention in the coming weeks with the conclusion of the administration’s policy review and the NATO summit early next month.

In the big debates about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, one set of questions that shouldn’t be ignored is how to get others around the world to support efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. The effort to stabilize Afghanistan, after all, is not just about U.S. security – it is about global security. And as I argued in this article for the Middle East Bulletin last week, the countries of the Arab Gulf play a pivotal role in many of the economic, political, and security linkages between the Middle East and South Asia.

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The Middle East goes nuclear

One story in the Middle East that hasn’t gotten much attention is the move by many countries in the region to develop their nuclear energy production capacities – an important shift that should impact any analyses that examine broader regional dynamics. Our delegation to the Gulf heard a good bit about this civilian nuclear energy push in the Emirates, and it seems inevitable that the Obama administration will preside over a new expansion of nuclear energy in the Middle East — even in the oil-rich parts.

Everyone knows about the Iranian nuclear program and the widespread concerns about it – Sandy Spector, a nonproliferation expert who was on the Gulf trip and currently is deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, wrote this excellent piece on Obama’s emerging strategy towards Iran and its nuclear program. Clearly, the Iranian nuclear program is one of the leading challenges facing the new administration.

Read more here.