The Gulf is of great strategic importance due to its energy resources and geographic location. Yet despite this, the history of the region’s international relations was neglected by academics for decades. Traditionally, Middle East studies have centered on the Arab-Israeli conflict or on the role of Islam. But with developments since the 1970s such as Iran’s 1979 revolution, the 1991 Gulf war and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, interest in the Gulf has increased.
This can be seen in the opening of research centers in Gulf countries in recent years. But this interest is mainly in the context of oil and security, preventing academics and experts from comprehensively understanding domestic and socio-political issues in the region. This reductionist view is not limited to Western scholars but also Turkish ones.
Those who claim to be Middle East or Gulf experts have a responsibility not to resort to conspiracy theories to explain developments, and to pay more attention to the region.
Until recent years, in Turkey one could not find a university thesis on the Gulf. The region is only discussed in Turkey when there are crises, high-level visits or major agreements signed. Despite developing relations between Turkey and the Gulf countries in recent years, the focus has been largely on oil and politics rather than the region’s dynamics.
The current Gulf crisis is not related to oil or Qatar’s foreign relations, but to inter-Gulf relations, a historical dispute between the region’s countries and several other issues that do not take their rightful place in mainstream academia.
Knowledge of the region that involves sitting at a desk and relying on secondary sources will never work. One needs to use primary sources, conduct fieldwork and know the language. Sadly, Turkey has a poor record in this regard because it kept a distance from the region for decades and lacked sufficient knowledge of Arabic. As such, “experts” in Turkey do not see the full picture, which has led to a misunderstanding of the causes of the current crisis.
Having lived in the Gulf for 16 years and studied the region for nearly 10, I am familiar with the challenges involved. But lazy scholarship is one of the reasons why scholars did not see the current crisis coming. As a well-known Twitter user wrote: “The Gulf experts who didn’t see this coming are now explaining to you what it means.”
An urgent awakening is needed to solve the region’s problems and to understand it better. Those who claim to be Middle East or Gulf experts have a responsibility not to resort to conspiracy theories to explain developments, and to pay more attention to the region.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz.