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The Strange History of the Arctic and the Arab Gulf

By Marwa Maziad

Three years ago, while walking the halls of the University of Washington, where I worked, I was drawn to a poster promoting a new course titled “The Arctic as an Emerging Global Region.” As a scholar focused on the Arab Gulf, and particularly the state of Qatar, I was compelled by the image of a single Arctic igloo on a white landscape, which reminded me of the tents that appeared on the Arabian Desert. This unexpected aesthetic resonance was what initially led me to explore the polar region, and to consider it in the context of global affairs.

After writing a series of columns about the global significance of the region and receiving a fellowship to study Arctic peoples, I have discovered that the affinity between the regions goes even deeper than I expected.

Egypt and the Arctic

1973 was a transformative time in the Middle East, and its effects would ultimately reverberate in the Arctic. That year, Egypt launched a surprise attack on Israel as a response to that country’s pre-emptive strike on Egypt in 1967, and its subsequent occupation of the Egyptian Sinai peninsula. The Oct. 6/Yom Kippur attack would be a world-changing event. What followed was the Arab oil embargo, in which Arab states stopped exporting oil to countries they perceived to be backing Israel.

Those events had dramatic and far-reaching effects. In the wake of the Arab oil embargo, Northern European states started to seriously consider drilling for oil in the Arctic in order to compensate for the shortage. By November 1973, Norway had announced its intention to start drilling. At that point, the Inuit in the region decided to speak up and demand a say in how their resources were to be used. Several Greenlandic organizations hosted the first Arctic Peoples Conference, and not long after the Inuit established a legal claim on oil as an indigenous resource. The Northern states ultimately decided to cooperate with them—even if only to project a global image of peace and harmony. By using international forums to push for indigenous rights, the moment marked the first practical application of “indigenous internationalism.”

This mobilization took place among the Inuit from Canada, Greenland, and Alaska. After several meetings between 1973 and 1975, in June 1977, Alaskan activist and politician Eben Hopson hosted the first Inuit Circumpolar Conference in Barrow, Alaska. In his opening remarks he noted, “We Eskimo are an international community sharing common language, culture, and a common land along the Arctic coast of Siberia, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Although not a nation-state, as a people, we do constitute a nation.” Hopson went on to elaborate the need of such a conference, stating, “Arctic resource development has placed special pressures upon us to organize now to meet our responsibilities to the land.” That year, the Inuit Circumpolar Council  (ICC) was founded, becoming the first Arctic indigenous peoples’ organization.

The ICC preceded the Arctic Council, which was established in 1997 as a network of eight nations with Arctic territories (United States, Russia, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland), as well as six permanent participant organizations representing different indigenous communities. The ICC is among these participants. The Arctic Council is a unique forum in international relations, as indigenous peoples have almost equal footing to member states, and the institution is able to craft policy. Moreover, it grants indigenous people ownership of their resources. In fact, in places such as Alaska, tribes manage their resources under a corporation that distributes dividends to members.

The significance of these organizations has been particularly apparent at two key moments: 1973 as illustrated above, as well as 2008, when an American geological survey revealed that the Arctic contained 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Just as the 1973 embargo generated outside interest in Arctic oil, the 2008 finding led developers to flock to the Arctic. Subsequent global interest in Arctic oil and gas reserves led to further instances of indigenous internationalism. That same year, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States convened an Arctic Ocean Conference, where they drafted a declaration that set out the legal parameters for environmental regulation, maritime security, mineral extraction, transportation, and drilling in the Arctic Ocean. In response, feeling that they had been marginalized, the Inuit released their own Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic in 2009 and another on resource development in 2011.

Arctic ICC to Arab GCC

As the indigenous people of the Arctic organized, the Arab Gulf states also created their own international forums. Four years after the ICC was established in 1977, a number of Arab Gulf states came together in 1981 to form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional intergovernmental political and economic union. Its member states are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. While the ICC is a council that represents the indigenous people of the Inuit nation within nation-states, the GCC represents the interests of actual Arab Gulf nation-states, where the indigenous people are already self-governing. This is a significant difference, and it means that the power dynamics in the Gulf versus the Arctic are basically inverted in these two parts of the world. However, both coalitions face the challenges of dealing with natural resources while protecting cultural practices, promoting social cohesion, and ensuring political stability amid rapid development.

In 2014, the Arctic and the Arab Gulf saw their paths cross once again. As oil prices fell around the world, both regions were forced to deal with budgetary cuts. They have been attempting to reconfigure state-society relations and to diversify their economies ever since. Arab Gulf states have typically used rentier practices to manage their oil and gas profits, running the government as a corporation with dividends that are distributed to the people. This is similar to the way oil revenue is handled within the indigenous community in Alaska. In the case of the Arab Gulf states, politics have been run through a social contract, wherein ruling tribal leaders govern on behalf of the people. The ruling tribes, in turn, distribute oil wealth to the people and guarantee their welfare and security. While the declining value of oil and gas are forcing major changes in this social contract, the Gulf states still possess some of the world’s strongest and wealthiest sovereign state funds. As the fortunes of both the Arab and Arctic indigenous communities continue to play out in tandem with their natural resources, comparative research could continue to bring these two seemingly disparate groups together in unprecedented ways.

*****

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Marwa Maziad is the International Policy Institute Fellow of Arctic Studies at the University of Washington. She is a Middle East media and politics expert. Her research focuses on comparative civil-military relations in Turkey, Egypt, and Israel. Maziad is a columnist for the independent Egyptian newspaper Almasry Alyoum, and she is regularly featured on BBC Arabic, Al Jazeera English, and CNN International.

[Photo courtesy of Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement]

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