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Conference Report
UNDP’s Sustainable Development Goals to Guide Bahrain into the Future
Antonino Occhiuto

Reducing dependence on oil is the main focus of the new economic strategies developed by countries across the Arab Gulf. Such strategies are embodied by the Vision 2030 programmes already under way in most countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In the case of Bahrain, a sustainable development and economic growth model, as promoted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), is complementary to the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 strategy and can positively impact future plans aimed at improving the lives of ordinary citizens. To explore the extent in which UNPD guidelines inform Bahrain’s government action, the Euro-Gulf Information Centre invited Dr. Omar Al-Ubaydli, the Program Director for International and Geo-Political Studies at Bahrain Center for Strategic, International and Energy Studies (DERASAT), Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University and, previously, a Visiting Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago.

UNPD reports look beyond traditional purely economic data such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and industrial output indicators. Local UNDP offices are well known for looking carefully into the countries’ specific features, considering all variables, including the environmental and societal dimensions, and all other aspects bearing a considerable an impact on the quality of life.

Bahrain’s economy is in itself quite unique. Bahrain is an island state of which large portions are covered by the desert. As such avoiding to overexploit land resources is crucial. Another important characteristic is the socio-economic impact of expatriate workers, a feature Bahrain’s shares with other GCC economies. Out of a population of 1.6 million, around 75% of the workforce is made up by foreigners on short term visas. This allows Bahraini businesses to hire workforce only when needed for specific projects, thus reducing the pressure to find new strategies and invest on innovation. Bahrain’s exports are still largely reliant on oil, constituting some 80% of government revenues. This became increasingly problematic as after 2014 the oil price experienced a sharp decrease, ending Bahrain’s trade surplus and adding pressure on the currency. In Bahrain, energy overconsumption, a common problem in energy producing countries with highly subsidised energy prices, constitutes a serious economic and environmental concern. In addition, land reclaiming projects, often needed to sustain Bahrain’s growing population, have damaged the environment in the past.

On the other hand, Bahrain presents unique opportunities. Manama launched its Vision 2030 programme as early as 2008 in an attempt to attract foreign investments, develop the private sector and reduce dependency on oil. It was the first Gulf country understanding the need for a comprehensive economic diversification plan and the only GCC economy to commence diversification before the oil prices started to fluctuate in an unpredictable manner. Similarly to most small states, Bahrain is responsive to cooperation with UN agencies such as the UNDP and is keen to further develop regional cooperation. The result of such cooperation is well represented by the common GCC power grid which increases efficiency while reducing waste and consumption. Notably, as a result of the diversification efforts, Bahrain is performing increasingly well in the Information and Communication Technology and the Islamic Finance sectors. The Kingdom is also remarkably ahead of its GCC partners in terms of gender equality, an indicator of the UNDP’s Sustainable Development Goals which is regarded as key by Bahrain’s authorities to minimise the loss of economic opportunity.

Despite Manama’s increasing commitment to UNDP guidelines for economic development, there are still areas to improve to ensure Bahrain can overcome current and future financial turbulences without overexploiting its resources and damaging the environment. Following the 2011 unrest, which was initially triggered by economically-related grievances, government efforts should aim at providing  opportunities for the youth. The expansion of the already existing youth programmes is therefore recommended. Al-Ubaydli argued that this should go hand in hand with the development of new sectors of the economy linking the traditional export of natural resources to the needs of technological advancements, infrastructure development and oil derivatives for example, to secure an higher employment rate. Bahrain would also benefit from further GCC economic integration and the expansion of accessible markets. A comprehensive European Union-GCC trade deal and the resolution of the Qatar crisis are therefore two potentially beneficial outcomes. Education is likely to play a pivotal role to ensure the sustainable advancement of Bahrain’s economy: by investing on education on the basis of a skill-gap analysis to inform future generations on the skills and expertise that are needed by the local business community, the government could provide stimulus to economic growth. However, it is important that such growth is coupled with economic policies that are conceived with an environment sensitive approach, to safeguard the quality of life of ordinary Bahrainis and highly reduce the risks related to environmental  emergencies.

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