There is no doubt that we Khalijis – people from Gulf Arab states – fully feel the impact of the economic challenges that crop up with every drop in oil prices. The oil era, which tremendously changed the lives of the Gulf people decades ago, is coming to an end.
As another major transformation is on the horizon, being aware of it is not enough – we have to be proactive about it. Naturally, we hope our countries will navigate the changing international and regional dynamics to circumvent any negative fallout. But we would be deceiving ourselves to think that this would be an easy task and that there is no role for us to play.
Oil brought a disease to our region – oil dependency – and we have to cure ourselves before we can move forward. Weaning ourselves from oil goes beyond diversifying economies and restructuring state expenditure. It has to involve societal change.
Gulf states must either confront their rentier addiction and rid themselves of this disease, or face a painful awakening when it is too late. Over the past 50 years, we have gotten used to a lifestyle that is unsustainable and even harmful. As Ibn Khaldun tells us in The Muqaddimah, living in luxury hinders clear vision and weakens the will to change. If we are to enter the post-oil era strong and prepared for new challenges, we need to change how we live, learn and prosper.
The style of luxury that some Khalijis have adopted is pretentious and contrived. It often means living beyond one’s means and putting on false appearances. It is luxury in the extreme, or perhaps extremism in luxury. This type of spending behaviour drags people into debt, preventing them from essential investment in their children’s education and burdening them with familial problems and instability.
The faulty education system in the region undermines the development of the social and economic potential of the Khaliji population. Education that relies on spoon-feeding and rote memorisation does not foster critical thinking. There are, of course, numerous promising signs of educational success in the Gulf, but in most Gulf countries, government education is still behind in its philosophy and methods of instruction.
The only way forward is for us is to cure ourselves from our society’s oil addiction. There will be painful changes along the way and we must endure through the many challenges our countries will face in an increasingly restive region and with the impact of climate change.
Indeed, we are not immune to the effects of global warming. A 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that by the end of this century the Gulf region will become uninhabitable due to rising temperatures and the unavailability of water. Like the rest of the world, Gulf countries need to take urgent action on climate change to stop this process from getting to a point of no return.
Divesting from fossil fuels, given our overdependence on them, will be difficult, but it is not impossible. Our countries already possess the natural resources that can facilitate switching to renewable energy, especially solar. Such a pivot away from hydrocarbons requires not just economic, but also societal change.
In this sense, the new reality brought on by the coronavirus pandemic presents us with a unique opportunity to take stock and reconsider our priorities. It has shown us how interconnected the world is in its suffering when disaster strikes and how important it is to take action together, in solidarity. It has also helped us realise that a life of constraints and small self-sacrifices for the greater good is not that difficult.
Like the rest of the world, Khalijis are increasingly realising that “business as usual” cannot continue and change is inevitable, if we are to survive, as nations and as a human civilisation. What Gulf states need is an unconventional vision for social change and solid leadership.
We need to start investing heavily in the new generation, starting with parents changing their approach to raising their children. They have to lead by example and instil in their children the importance of independent thought and self-reliance.
We also need an education revolution, which scraps the old-fashioned ways of teaching and establishes instruction that promotes critical thought, skills and moral values. As a Muslim society, we need to close the gap between performing Islamic rituals of worship and abiding by its moral values in daily life and as a nation, we need to prepare a new generation that can help chart a sustainable, prosperous, oil-free future for our nations.
The work of young people in all fields must be driven by values of nation-building and it is essential for them to contribute internationally as well because we cannot hold ourselves separate from the wars and catastrophes happening around us.
We also need a new development model. The current one is designed to provide citizens with the means for a dignified life, defined in quantitative rather than qualitative terms and it is proving increasingly dysfunctional. That is why we have to prioritise quality over quantity in every aspect of social life in the Gulf, including education, health and, most importantly, management.
Changing the development model would also mean changing the social contract in our countries. The time has now come to revise it, which will naturally lead, not only to economic and social transformation, but also to political change. This may come in different forms, depending on the circumstances of each Gulf country.
Real change takes time, but it is now a matter of urgency, as we have started to see developments we never anticipated. Unless we take urgent action, a growing number of young people unable to find work will grow resentful and their reaction will be severe; after all, they feel entitled to their share of the oil wealth, which is now dwindling. Moral decline in the new generation will be the bitter consequence of our refusal to even broach neglecting religious values.
Nations that make the tough decisions today will come out on top. They will be able to properly prepare for the future by embracing economic development driven by green technology and alternative energy. Those who avoid making these decisions will be woefully unprepared for the many crises that are to come.
My grandmother, God rest her soul, used to say, “The worse the taste, the better the cure.” We have to be brave and honest with ourselves. We have to have the courage to drink the bitter medicine now. We have to heal.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.