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With isolationism on the rise, Gulf reinforces its global outlook

With a more conciliatory tone than in all of his previous speeches, President Donald Trump’s address to Congress on Tuesday still emphasized what seems to be an inescapable direction of his presidency: An economic nationalist agenda. His executive order, issued just days after taking office, to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-country trade pact that took years to negotiate, was a clear message that he would follow through on his campaign promises on this front.

Sen. John McCain, probably the most vocal Republican critic of the new administration, has warned that the decision to withdraw from the TPP was “a serious mistake,” with “lasting consequences for America’s economy and our strategic position in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Across the Atlantic, the nationalistic drive to burn bridges and find elusive solace in isolationism is also at its strongest in recent decades, influenced by the unrealistic prospect that meaningful links are easily built when required or that seclusion can lead to prosperity.

From Marine Le Pen, presidential candidate and leader of the National Front in France, to Beppe Grillo, founder of the Five-Star Movement in Italy, this trend is widespread. Both Le Pen and Grillo share with the British government — which is expected to trigger Article 50 this month after the public “Brexit” vote — a goal to withdraw their countries from the EU, the world’s largest trading block.

While in key Western countries proponents of nationalism and protectionism are on the rise, Gulf countries — long criticized in the West for conservatism and anti-modernistic outlooks — have been doubling down on the benefits of globalization. Events over the last few days are illustrative of how leaders in the Gulf have been cognizant of the fact that, in today’s hyper-connected and fast-changing world, isolationism is self-defeating and no major challenge can be tackled single-handedly.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia is currently on a tour of Asia to cement bilateral ties with a number of nations. Among the various goals of the visit of the king and the delegation of 1,500 people accompanying him to Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Japan, China, and the Maldives, there are two key ones: To open-up investment opportunities for Saudi Arabia and to attract foreign investment to the Kingdom and boost its economic-diversification agenda.

Regional countries, often criticized for conservatism and anti-modernistic outlooks, have been doubling down on the benefits of globalization.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

Both goals are essential for the implementation of Vision 2030, the ambitious program of socio-economic reform and modernization officially launched last year. It aims to capitalize on the country’s strategic location to, as outlined in the document, transform Saudi Arabia “into a global hub connecting three continents, Asia, Europe and Africa” and “to become a global investment powerhouse.”

The UAE also continues to reinforce its status of leading global hub connecting the East and West. Last week came the announcement that it would collaborate with Russia’s state-owned defense firm Rostec in the development of a fifth-generation light combat fighter. Earlier this week it was revealed that the UAE will take on an active advisory role in supporting NATO (Putin’s historical nemesis) dealing with the diversity of security challenges in the Middle East.

Even in Iran, where foreign and regional policy continues to be dominated mostly by hard-liners and radicals suspicious of any external influences, President Hassan Rouhani is preparing the ground for his re-election by emphasizing the value of constructive engagement with the outside world. “We are steadfast in our principles and we don’t compromise on them, but we should talk to the world, engage and cooperate with it,” Rouhani affirmed in a televised speech on Sunday.

The example of Iran and the lifting of international sanctions following the nuclear deal should in fact work as a warning for Western leaders, especially those who seem to believe the West remains attractive and influential enough to afford to pick and choose when and how it engages with the world. The US-led international sanctions regime that formally came down with the nuclear deal of July 2015 started to crumble before the deal was reached. The main “culprit”? Iran’s trade ties with Asia.

• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a leading political analyst, providing research and consultancy services focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached on Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida.