Research on the political and economic development of the contemporary Arabian Peninsula is often relegated to the fringes of general comparative and Middle Eastern scholarship, isolated from larger theoretical debates and narrowly defined in terms of threat typologies, regional security alliances and the stability of major oil-exporting states. The intellectual marginalization of the Peninsula is the result of a monopoly on access.

Mediated Access

Although all scholars of the Middle East confront a scarcity of research money, researchers working on the Peninsula face the additional barrier of limited access to information that is exceptional among America’s military allies and clients. The system of sponsorship and oversight for foreign researchers is fraught with peril for the unprotected. [1] In the competition for access to information, critical scholarship often loses out. For specialists on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, key points of access are managed by organizations based in Washington, DC that control the lucrative trade in business linkages, cultural exchanges and educational missions. Corporate decision makers, policy consultants, media representatives, Congressional aides, non-specialists and secondary school teachers are all serviced by organizations that cater to their needs. [2]

Bonafide academic specialists on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf lack such regularized support networks, except through the gatekeeper organizations, including the quite limited number of think tanks, consultants and non-profit foundations that serve as the intermediaries between scholar and the field. These are managed by a relatively small, tightly linked network of men who perpetuate the dominant paradigm. [3] This combination — a Washington orientation, non-academic monopoly on access, male domination and a bias towards elite contacts — has molded scholarship on the Peninsula.

The unfortunate consequence is a devaluation of legitimate research amidst the plethora of instant “experts” created by the exchange trips. I fully support outreach efforts (indeed they are critical to Middle East studies), but not the imbalance that exists in the Peninsula which has far more outreach than it does scholarship. Since outreach poses as scholarship, anecdote becomes evidence as these sporadic forays are mistaken for research. [4] The trip agendas are designed to perpetuate the status quo rather than to promote critiques of it. The states and societies are packaged and marketed to chaperoned audiences traveling under the auspices of education. Is it coincidental that the part of the Middle East with the most systematic outreach effort also offers the least access to do systematic research?

Many scholars adjust their intellectual inquiry to fit the elite realm to which they are granted access [5] by addressing policy rather than disciplinary debates; the state rather than society or culture; structure over process; aggregate economic development instead of distributive issues; foreign relations instead of domestic coalitions; geostrategic rivalry and military security rather than domestic opposition. Overwhelmingly, publications, conferences and Middle East Studies Association (MESA) panels on the Arabian Peninsula have been concerned with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), trade and corporate relations, security imperatives, US foreign policy and arms control.

Analyses of internal dynamics tend to explain the stability and the persistence of regimes rather than explore possibilities for change. Likewise, there is very little systematic comparative analysis, either with in the Peninsula or beyond. Finally, women are scarce, either as serious researchers or as serious subjects.

Interestingly, many of these issues are played out in the Society for Gulf Arab Studies (SGAS), an multidisciplinary affiliate organization of MESA. [6] From its inception in 1987-1988, this organization has been troubled by continual tension between dual desires: critical scholarship versus access and ties to regional elites. Indeed, one member stated that it is uncertain “what the conception of SGAS is about or who it serves.” The membership list includes many non-academics. Three successive SGAS presidents have met roadblocks in efforts to establish a research center in the Arabian Peninsula. Years of efforts in Kuwait and the UAE have proven futile; it was hardly attempted in Saudi Arabia. Lacking institutional access, SGAS members are left to protect informal, personal ties to elites, a situation that inhibits new and critical scholarship. [7]

Maintaining the Status Quo

The absence of research opportunities and the plethora of non-research outreach activities, especially in Saudi Arabia, perpetuate a network of mutual dependencies from which all participants benefit. Students, scholars or businesspeople do not criticize the system they depend upon for the limited access they can attain. US-based foundations and organizations make their livelihood off the trade. Regimes prefer to deal with a limited number of carefully cultivated contacts they can trust to help mask the paucity of scholarship, enabling them to proclaim their openness to “scholarly” exchange [8] and perpetuate a highly-developed, rent-seeking patron-client relationship.

Gatekeepers exist on both sides of the ocean. Communication with local scholars is tightly regulated. The same faces are trotted out continually and they too are loathe to endanger their only contact with other scholars. Some excursions are now sponsored, not only by local universities, but by the Chambers of Commerce and Industry. This is not scholarly exchange, for often there is neither scholarship nor reciprocity.

There is funding available for US scholars under the auspices of the Fulbright program but a survey of the 39 recipients from 1990 to 1997 (28 men, 8 women, 2 not evident by name) reveals interesting patterns regarding purpose, disciplinary bias, gender and cases. Overwhelmingly, these positions are intended for the purpose of lecturing rather than research. Fields represented include math, library science, physics, astronomy, computer science, biology, teaching English as a foreign language, language, geology, environmental sciences and business administration. Awards granted appear significantly biased against the humanities and social sciences. This is not surprising given the potential sensitivity of the subjects. Indeed, as of 1993, Saudi Arabia explicitly “discourages political scientists from applying.” For the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, the sole American Fulbright Scholar who studied local concerns was a political scientist researching information flows and regional security in Kuwait. Yemen, however, requested economists and political scientists and got Fulbright scholars investigating liberalization, local texts and gender. On the other side, all 57 Fulbright Scholars coming to the US from the Arabian Peninsula (51 men, 6 women) were given awards to conduct research rather than to lecture. Only five pursued projects on social, political or economic development; all focused on the home country. The lone political scientist was Yemeni. Saudi Arabia sent by far the most scholars (24); it also received the fewest American scholars (2).

Breaking the Chains of Dependency

At the 1996 MESA meetings in Providence, Rhode Island, the panel on the political economy of the Arabian Peninsula, featuring two men oriented toward security and three women presenting papers on social forces, was indicative of four significant, probably interrelated, changes. First, it affirmed the insertion and assertion of female scholars into the dialogue on Peninsular studies. Second, it marked a transition in frameworks of analysis from state security to questions of meaningful development and domestic political forces. Third, the MESA panel represented the long overdue broadening of Gulf studies from the GCC states to include Yemen, so that we understand the Arabian Peninsula in its entirety. Members of both SGAS and the American Institute for Yemeni Studies (AIYS) participated on the panel. Fourth, the panel revealed some alternative sources of information beyond the traditional monopolies — the opposition in exile, use of the Internet and facsimile machines.

In one fell swoop, the issues of gender, focus, access and unit of analysis all crossed paths. It was no coincidence. In general, women have enriched the research agenda of Peninsula studies, for there is evidence they may approach the subject differently from men. For whatever reason, more men than women sustain the dominant discourse on security. Of papers on the Arabian Peninsula delivered at MESA between 1986 and 1996, only 19 percent of those authored by women focused on topics clearly related to security, alliances and balances of power. Of papers by men, 40 percent were on such subjects. [9] A newly gendered discourse (rather than a discourse on gender) on the Arabian Peninsula may be an antidote to the prevalence of security studies.

The inclusion of Yemen with the GCC states, and greater cooperation between members of SGAS and AIYS, can infuse Peninsula studies with new rigor and new ideas because Yemen has provided women, political scientists and local scholars more opportunities for extended field research than its neighbors, yet it shares historical, social, linguistic and economic ties with the other countries. The Arabian Peninsula must move from the intellectual ghetto (albeit a rich one) into the ferment of scholarly debate. The traditional focus on oil and arms has grown tiresome; it is well past time to reconstruct the discourse. The countries of the Peninsula must be integrated into larger discussions of political Islam, gender, citizenship, development, historical lineages, popular culture and class. In the 21st century, critical scholarship, collaboration, comparison and reciprocity must lie at the heart of the discourse on the Arabian Peninsula.


[1] In Saudi Arabia. all foreigners must be locally sponsored. The sponsor is legally, socially and financially responsible for the behavior of the foreigner. Sponsorship is not granted easily, except in the case of simple employment. Further, a foreigner cannot travel more than a specified distance from their place of residence without a dated, signed letter from their sponsor granting such permission.
[2] Organizations with a strong Peninsular focus include the Middle East Policy Council, National Council on US-Arab Relations, the US-Arab Chamber of Commerce, the US-GCC Corporate Cooperation Council and the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council. I applaud the efforts of NCUSAR to work increasingly with Middle East specialists. Casting a wider net are the American Educational Trust, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for Strategic Studies and Research, the Middle East Institute and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
[3] Recently, however, a new body of gendered scholarship is beginning to challenge the national security definition of the Arabian Peninsula. Many authors are women: Sheila Carapico, Kiren Aziz Chaudhry, Jill Crystal, Eleanor Doumato, Motoko Katakura, May Seikaly and Mary Ann Tetreault.
[4] Jim Bill notes this in, “The Study of Middle East Politics, 1946-1996: A Stocktaking,” Middle East Journal (Autumn 1996), pp. 501-512. Rashid Khalidi also acknowledges the problems of access to the Middle East and simultaneously calls for increased attention to outreach efforts, “Is There a Future for Middle East Studies?” MESA Bulletin (July 1995). It is unclear whether he appreciates that in the Peninsula, outreach can work against scholarship.
[5] Salim Tamari observed the same thing in Palestine, “Tourists With Agendas;” Middle East Report 196 (September-October 1995), p. 24.
[6] By way of admission or complicity, I am currently vice president.
[7] By contrast, in Sanaa the Yemen Center for Research and Studies more or less routinely grants permission to archaeologists, historians and social scientists affiliated with the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, which has operated a hostel and library for researchers since the late 1970s and offers fellowships to Americans and Yemenis, or through European research institutes including an active and well-funded French center.
[8] Or, in my case, to hold up the exception as the rule. A visiting Congressional delegation complained that access was too restricted in Saudi Arabia. Representatives of Saudi Arabia denied the charge saying, “No, this isn’t true. We are an open society. See, we have Gwenn!” The same individuals had exerted considerable effort to block my flows of information and impede my research in the country.
[9] By women, there were seven security-related papers (with one woman responsible for three of them), 29 on social/developmental/historical/non-state political subjects and five which were ambiguous. By men, 21 were explicitly security-related and 32 all else.

How to cite this article:

Gwenn Okruhlik "Bringing the Peninsula In from the Periphery," Middle East Report 204 (Fall 1997).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This