Special report: How the GCC has evolved over the last 20 years - Gulf Business
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Special report: How the GCC has evolved over the last 20 years

Special report: How the GCC has evolved over the last 20 years

On Gulf Business’s 20th anniversary, we look through our back catalogue and examine how the Gulf has changed throughout the years

In May 1996, the Gulf Cooperation Council got its first look at a new monthly magazine focused on the region’s plethora of fast-developing industries.

Gulf Business, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, quickly found its place as one of the Middle East’s most respected and trusted business publications, bringing readers the most important news, interviews, analysis and inside stories from across the region.

And broadly speaking, things haven’t changed. Today, almost 250 issues later, the magazine continues to be at the forefront of business in the Gulf with legions of people reading in print and now online too.

But while the popularity and quality of the magazine – published by Motivate – has not changed, the environment surrounding it and content within it, has evolved dramatically.

In many ways, the region is unrecognisable from 20 years ago. The landscape alone has been completely redefined with colossal towers, vast shopping malls, and sprawling communities shaping the region. But there have also been more nuanced changes. Maturity on the world stage, for example, has increased as have attitudes towards women in business and the reliance on traditional industries such as oil and gas.

Leafing through the past two decades’ worth of magazines has been a timely reminder of the shifting sands we’re all part of; 2016 is a completely different place to 1996. Just think of the impact of the September 11 attacks on the United States, the shockwaves of the global financial crisis, the legacy of world leaders who have come and gone. The effects on the business world as well as on society itself have been enormous and are still being felt today as governments, captains of industry and residents around the GCC plot their courses in a new era.

The pages of Gulf Business have highlighted many things. Gulf nations have, by and large, been on an upwards trajectory over the past 20 years, while the rest of the Middle East has largely suffered a decline, embroiled in war, enduring economic difficulties and dealing with civil discord.

Cities such as Dubai have emerged as world pacesetters, not only drawing the brightest and best people and companies from across the globe but also harnessing their abilities to develop its own identity; one that continually has a foot in the future. This journey has been well documented over the years by Gulf Business, through good times and bad, boom and bust.

Watching the region’s changing relationship with the world has been fascinating. GCC governments and businesses once strove to attract the interest of foreign counterparts and while this remains the case in part, it is telling that the world is now clamouring to get in.

The United Arab Emirates is a magnet for corporations and entrepreneurs, Saudi Arabia has opened up to businesses and investors from across the globe and Qatar has emerged as a focal point for fresh opportunities on the back of its winning bid to host the FIFA World Cup.

But that’s not to say challenges do not remain. Indeed, the challenges from 20 years ago ring true today. Economic diversification plans, oil reserves, gender equality in the workplace and political relationships have been continual discussion points, with controversy and difficulty never too far away. But it is key to note that where challenges exist, so do ambitions to improve the situation.

And that is perhaps the most telling lesson from looking back over the past 20 years of the magazine. Challenges have always and will always be there, in different forms and to varying degrees. But the desire to overcome them and build something better than what went before has created an atmosphere of positivity and hope.

The GCC has come a long way in two decades on the back of this attitude and it more than hints at a promise of more to come.

Building work continues, smart technology is being implemented widely. Regulation, diversification and sustainability are all being taken extremely seriously and security continues to be high on the agenda.

Of course, some countries lag behind others in their plans and their progress. And nations such as Oman must do more to instil confidence among residents, companies and investors on the back of economic strife and unclear leadership succession plans. But overall there is a positive attitude that prevails despite low oil prices, geopolitical concerns and the global economic slowdown.

These issues are increasingly being met head-on. The experience of the past 20 years is being put to good use and the region’s wealth is being spent more wisely to safeguard against future shocks and scares.

In short, the GCC has come a long way. It’s an obvious thing to state and a clear thing to see, but the speed with which it has evolved and the maturity with which it has dealt with unique situations is testament to those who have dedicated themselves to building a region for the future.

Challenges remain, problems will arise. The ebb and flow of economies, society and international politics will play their part. But it’s hard to deny the excitement the next 20 years promises to bring, and we look forward to covering it all in Gulf Business.

The story behind the covers

We pick out some of the most important, relevant and revealing front pages from Gulf Business’s 20-year history

May 1996: A new dawn

1. May 96

The first ever edition of Gulf Business featured a man who graced the front cover several more times over the years. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud – founder of Kingdom Holding Company – is today worth an estimated $25bn, having invested wisely across the globe and launched numerous business and philanthropic initiatives. As a face of business in the Gulf, it seems fitting that he was the debut issue’s cover star – and he continues to be at the forefront of the region’s business world.

June 1996: Women in business

2. June 96

As much of an issue today as it was then, women in business was the key focus for the June 1996 magazine. Honing in on the differences between men and women in the workplace, highlighting limiting social factors and explaining the blocks women faced in their careers, you might be forgiven for thinking little progress has been made in 20 years. But what is made evident by the interviewee testimonies is that the conversation has moved on somewhat, just not as far as most people would either like or expect.

May 1997: Building upwards

3. May 97

A major feature of the Gulf’s development has been its changing landscape. This issue looked at the growth of skyscrapers, architectural ambition and the boost it all gave to the modernisation of cities such as Dubai and Riyadh. Images of the construction of Burj Al Arab – then known as Tower Hotel at Chicago Beach – demonstrated not only a region in transit but also a tidal wave of excitement. “Perhaps the Gulf will draw world attention to its economic renaissance, and conversion to market economics, by creating its own stunning skyscapers,” stated the report. It has done that and much more besides.

August 1999: Saudi oil

4. Aug 99

‘The 260 billion barrel bonanza’ shouted the front cover. Oil has never been far from the pages of Gulf Business and this 1999 special report explored the ramifications of cuts in OPEC oil quotas, rising international prices and the prospects for gas. It points to “urgency” over discussions and a “sombre mood behind the smiles” on the back of falling oil prices. Budget deficits, excess supply and calls for talks between oil producing nations serve as a reminder that today’s challenges in the industry are nothing new. The real question is whether governments and industry players have learnt the lessons from years gone by.

December 1999: Tech revolution

5. Dec 99

Dubai Internet City might be part and parcel of the emirate’s successful business landscape today, but in 1999 it was little more than a bold plan. The ambitious project was announced in this issue of the magazine but the world’s first free trade zone for e-businesses was far from being a done deal and some digital players suggested that they were betting their entire futures on the success of the plans. But Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum – then Dubai’s crown prince – got it right with his large-scale project, setting the tone for Dubai’s subsequent growth.

July 2000: Concerns for Syria

6. July 00

When the world’s press reported on Bashar Al Assad’s assumption of the Syrian presidency following the death of his father, there was a sense of hope that he could modernise the country and bring it out of economic strife. Today we know things didn’t turn out that way. Our report did well to highlight issues that can help us understand Syria in 2016. A bleak economic outlook, uncertain international relationships, disjointed industries and an increasingly concerned population were all there. But whereas Assad was then feted as the “tonic” the country needed, history tells us a very different story.

February 2001: George Walker Bush

7. Feb 01

Another controversial figure graced the cover of the February 2001 magazine, a fortnight after becoming president of the United States. Assessing Bush’s likely approach to the Middle East, few could have imagined the impact he and his staff would have on the region. One thing the magazine correctly assumed was a strong relationship with the GCC, based on oil and a “steady, gentle encouragement” for economic reform. The generally positive review of the Bush administration’s plans hinted at a ‘softly-softly’ approach to the wider region. Something that would change dramatically months later.

October 2001: When the world changed

8. Oct 01

It is a date etched into the memory of virtually everybody around the world. September 11, 2001: The day of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington DC. With Saudi Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda claiming responsibility for the attacks, the world’s eyes turned to the Gulf region and we asked ‘what does it mean for the Middle East?’ The editorial team gave a sombre appraisal of how relationships, trade and treatment of Arabs and Muslims were likely to change, without being able to guess of the military interventions that would come, and are still coming.

November 2002: Investing in the future

9. Nov 02

Dubai’s $28bn investments bonanza in 2002 set the tone for large-scale spending in the following years, turning the emirate into the metropolis we know today. Plans for the Dubai International Financial Centre, Dubai Metals and Commodities Centre and other grand projects were given glowing critiques by business leaders, while reporters asked “will the emirate’s gravity-defying property market ever come down to earth?” It is testament to the leadership’s vision that, despite economic pressures in the years to come, the majority of 51 projects the issue mentioned have come to fruition.

July 2003: Sky high ambitions

10. July 03

Our cover star in May 2016, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al Maktoum, was also on the front page in 2003 discussing his plans for the growth of Emirates. His words, spoken on the back of a $19bn order for aircraft and against the backdrop of the war on terrorism and the SARS outbreak, have been borne out: “Swimming against the tide is risky only if you act impulsively, but our actions and decisions are based on long-term solid strategic initiatives an business plans,” he said. Some 13 years later his plans for the airline have proved to be successful, and then some.

December 2004: Farewell to a leader

11. Dec 04

We paid tribute to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who died in November 2004. The principal architect of the UAE and ‘father of the nation’ remains an iconic figure in the region, and the former president’s rule was described by the magazine as having “left deep impressions on the UAE economically, socially and politically – impressions that will continue to guide the country, long after his departure”. The issue not only remembered the legacy of Sheikh Zayed, but also looked ahead to his successor, Sheikh Khalifa’s presidency. One that has navigated many challenges in the past decade.

July 2007: Growth and more growth

GB Regional cover JULY 07 copy.indd

Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed was back on the cover in 2007 as the magazine examined the emirate’s continuing expansion. Described as “reshaping business as we know it and redefining the global economy”, Dubai and its ruler were given special praise for their attraction of multinationals, multi-billion dollar acquisitions, growing entrepreneurial community and brash architectural plans. Artist impressions of the city’s new centrepiece – the Burj Khalifa – exemplified the bold extravagance of the new vision, but the report also explained that grass-roots business was being improved. The foundations were being made stronger in every sector. They needed to be for what was to come shortly after.

February 2008: Global calamity

GB REGIONAL stock 2.indd

The world came to a crashing halt in 2008 when global markets went into meltdown following the subprime mortgage crisis in the US. ‘Where do we go from here?’ asked Gulf Business after billions of dollars in market capitalisation were wiped out in a matter of days. The GCC was bullish, being in a stronger position than most of the world. “Abundant liquidity on the back of high energy prices, negative real interest rates in light of the currency peg and high inflation rates” were all cited as reasons for the GCC to be positive during one of this millennium’s most testing times.

December 2013: Emerging strong

!$GB Cover Oct 2013.inddFive years after the global financial crisis, Dubai won the bid to host the World Expo 2020. Before the win, we spoke with Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimy, the UAE minister of state and managing director of the bid committee. The interview and subsequent victory exhibited a renewed confidence and positivity that has shaped much of what we see in the UAE today. “Dubai Expo 2020 will leave a lasting legacy not only in the UAE but also beyond its borders,” she said about the post-expo environment. You could argue that winning the bid in itself has left a legacy, putting Dubai and the UAE well and truly on the world stage.


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