Why Gulf Arab states move to become key nodes in emerging world order
The article on how the Gulf states create power was originally published with Amwaj Media
Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have defied years of energy market turbulence, wars over narratives and the Covid-19 pandemic to emerge as new hubs of stability—not just in the region but also in the increasingly competitive multipolar world order. Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Riyadh are finding their place on the fault line between east and west as well as Global North and South. Importantly, they are doing so while setting aside their ideological and socio-political ambitions.
Gulf Arab states are also attempting to remake the region in their own image, prioritizing prosperity, stability, and development. More broadly, a steep financial learning curve over the past two decades coupled with an innovative approach to network-centric statecraft have positioned Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE as key players with disproportionate network power in the global web of influence.
Limited human resources have meant that the Gulf Arab states, first and foremost Qatar and the UAE, have curated networks to which they can delegate the burden of statecraft. State-backed commercial networks have in turn been able to forge global interdependencies that place these states at the heart of critical infrastructure. The motive has not been merely a quest for economic rents. Another key objective is strategic depth: providing access to critical resources as well as controlling or shaping global flows of capital, goods and people in an effort to make themselves indispensable hubs.
Many of the networks that allow Gulf Arab states to advance their national interests also reinforce elite control of core assets of statecraft. Nowhere is this more tangible than in Abu Dhabi, where National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan has created a semi-commercial empire estimated to be worth somewhere in the region of 1,5T USD. The web consists of a parallel infrastructure of hundreds of companies that have emerged as important bridges between the Nahyan family and strategic infrastructure overseas.
Network-centrism transcends all domains of statecraft, including means of coercion, influence, and consensus-building. It is particularly visible in Gulf Arab states’ approaches to critical national infrastructure. The latter goes beyond the digital domain to include energy, telecommunications as well as critical resource and logistical infrastructure that provide the backbone for communities to enjoy stable, secure and prosperous lives. The Gulf Arab states are thereby emulating great powers such as China who turn to “infrastructure statecraft” to compete in a multipolar world below the threshold of war.
Energy has been the traditional space for Gulf Arab states to advance their interests through networks and weaponized interdependence. Their hub roles in hydrocarbon markets have created powerful state-owned companies with large assets and even greater market influence.
The Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) has been gradually underwritten by Aramco’s trillion-dollar assets. More so, Aramco has made strategic investments in refineries in China and the US that provide the Kingdom with leverage and bargaining power. For instance, owning the largest refinery in North America, Saudi Arabia is seeking more say in downstream energy flows. And while the associated political influence has never been explicitly used, it is nonetheless implicit.
QatarEnergy has also sought to expand its downstream footprint in the US. The state-backed giant owns a majority stake in one of the largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals in the world—Sabine Pass in Texas, which it develops in partnership with ExxonMobil—making Qatar the key external LNG player on American soil. This has allowed Doha to expand into other global oil and gas operations such as in the eastern Mediterranean or in Latin America, catapulting it into the position of a global strategic energy broker.
In Namibia, QatarEnergy underwrites a joint oil discovery project between Total and local state-owned NAMCOR—making it a critical enabler of the Nambian government’s energy ambitions. This connection could prompt bilateral political engagement down the line.
The network-centric statecraft of Gulf Arab states is particularly visible in the logistics sector. From airlines to ports, Gulf states have pursued the Chinese model of acquiring stakes in critical logistical supply chains. Gulf national carriers have all followed the “Emirates model,” curating new connectivity and building transport hubs that bypass traditional nodes such as London or Paris. Qatar Airways for example, the Emirates greatest rival, has transformed Doha into a global aviation hub.
More powerful than ‘aviation diplomacy’ though has been the focus on maritime chokepoints and development of associated logistical facilities.
Dubai Ports World—one of the world’s largest port management companies—has become the crown jewel of Emirati network-centric statecraft. The company provides the UAE with outsized strategic depth beyond the region. DP World has created strategic bridgeheads around essential maritime chokepoints, often managing the only or the most important gateway for trade in and out of countries—especially in Africa. This provides the UAE with the panopticon effect, offering a key window into the activities and dealings of host states.
Abu Dhabi has tried to emulate Dubai by creating its own vehicle for logistical supply chain investment. Abu Dhabi Ports has invested in strategic chokepoints in DR Congo, Egypt, Guinea, Namibia, and Sudan to further the UAE’s strategic stakes in African supply chains. Qatar’s QTerminals has also expanded from managing Hamad Port locally to acquiring critical stakes in key ports such as Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Olvia in Ukraine and Antalya in Turkey. Moving forward, these overseas hubs will ensure that global supply chains will be intricately linked to the fates of Qatar and the UAE.
Another growing sector for network-centric statecraft is telecommunications. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority invested in Telecom Italia Mobile in 2020, and expanded into Italy’s landline network this year—making the UAE a significant stakeholder in a major European country’s critical infrastructure. The announcement by Saudi Arabia’s STC group that it would buy nearly 10% of Spain’s Telefónica has also generated public attention, raising concerns over the Kingdom having too much potential control over information flows.
To what end?
The networks of interdependence that Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are building have expanded their strategic depth far beyond the region and transformed them into indispensable players on the global stage.
Although countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have become more assertive in pursuing their national interests, often at the expense of traditional western partners, their stakes in critical national infrastructure abroad have not been used coercively or transactionally so far. However, especially when looking at Gulf Arab states’ inroads into the Global South, certain implicit means of influence could be used transactionally—especially where competition between China, Russia and the west is intensifying.
In the new multipolar world order, access to hubs and connectivity between nodes are instrumental to wielding influence. In this context, players such as DP World could use their effective monopolies over access to act as gatekeepers. The brokering capabilities that stem from connecting to two or more nodes in global networks also allow the Gulf states to bridge structural holes in global trade networks.
It remains to be seen how and whether these networks can be integrated into the broader grand strategic approaches to generating power. To deliver on the latter, the financial investments that have been made need to be coupled with more explicit political objectives. Looking ahead, connector states bridging gaps will become ever more indispensable. And as the word order becomes ever more competitive, it should not be surprising if logistical infrastructure investments become pawns to be used in a transactional manner.