Middle East Realities: Political, Economic, and Strategic
Vital Interests: There are many foreign policy challenges and issues that we can discuss, but as you do a lot of work on the Middle East, can you give us an overview of the situation in that region? If you just follow the daily media programs and newspapers, it's a pretty confusing scene about what's going on, who's in charge, and what's next given all the players - the United States, Russia, Iran, Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, and Yemen.. Can you help clarify the situation?
Bernard Haykel: There are no magic bullet solutions to any of the problems of the Middle East. It's really a question of how US policy and the American government can best manage the problems, mitigate their worst effects, while trying to maintain stability. We can begin with Syria, which is a country that has been devastated and is unlikely to be rebuilt anytime soon.
Or Yemen which is also devastated. That is an ongoing conflict that involves two regional rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia, who seem to be willing to compete endlessly at the expense of Yemeni lives. The list of tragedies just goes on and on. A principal issue that will need to be reassessed is: Is there a way Iran can be accommodated or is confrontation necessary in the form that the Trump administration has pursued?
Broadly across the region, however, the instability we see is being caused by the retrenchment and slow withdrawal of US power from the region—a consequence of the fruitless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the understandable exhaustion Americans feel. This is causing regional actors, as well as other powers like Russia, to try to fill the vacuum being created. Regionally, the Saudis, the Turks and the Iranians are vying with each other, and then the Russians are also muscling their way back into the Middle East. An older hegemonic order—let’s call it Pax Americana--is being replaced by the instability that comes from the jockeying and rivalry of smaller powers, none of whom can fully dominate the space and impose order. The recent Iranian attacks on Saudi oil facilities are part of this unfolding dynamic and should not be simply seen as a result of the economic sanctions that the Trump administration has imposed on Tehran.
Then, there are macro-structural issues that I think everyone has to think deeply about and to try to resolve. By this I mean the very large demographic youth bulge in the Middle East, the large numbers of unemployed young people who are now very well connected to the world through social media and the internet. These people can see that they are in economic terms relatively deprived as compared to, say, Indians, or Chinese and certainly to Europeans and Americans, and they feel their expectations being thwarted. They are living under authoritarian regimes that don't provide sufficient economic opportunities or basic civil freedoms and are often brutal in their repressive practices. These dynamics are creating more and more migrants and refugees, people on the move, particularly toward Europe.
Ultimately, however, these young people are going to need jobs, and not just be entertained. They're going to need to be employed and they have huge expectations for the relatively young leadership in both Saudi Arabia, and the UAE and even in Qatar and Kuwait.
Finally, there's the climate change problem, the water shortages that are associated with this, and the very heavy dependence of the economies of the Middle East on oil and gas sales for their revenues. These are some of the very serious, big structural issues that I don't see any US administration actually seriously thinking about.
VI: These are challenges not only for American administrations. Dealing with Middle East realities are global problems. Are there any players on the world stage, any international institutions, any countries that are making progress on the serious structural problems you described?
Bernard Haykel: Not really. Most of the policies that I see are reactive and take the form of a band-aid on a big gaping wound. Europeans, especially when it comes to refugees and migrants, are most concerned and seem to occasionally throw money at the problem (for example at Turkey), but I don’t see real solutions on offer.
The one good thing that I see coming out of the Middle East at the moment is the decline and slow disappearance of radical Islamism as a political ideology and movement. Not only because of the defeat of ISIS and Al Qaeda, but also because of policies adopted by local governments, most notably Saudi Arabia, and also the United Arab Emirates. These have stopped funding Islamists and promoting Islamism period. They are no longer in the business of the building of mosques, or the funding of Madrasas, or the paying for Imams’ salaries or the subsidizing of Islamist books, magazines and TV programs. Unfortunately Qatar is still in this business, but the other Gulf states have stopped promoting a politicized form of the religion, and that’s a good thing. This will result in a serious decline in the prevalence of these ideologies and people will start looking elsewhere for sources of ideological and material sustenance and inspiration.
VI: When you talk about the youth bubble that is a reality in the Middle East, it was the youth that were attracted to these radical ideologies and joined religious jihads. Are there progressive economic programs in Saudi or UAE that are trying to create realities for their youth that will give them some kind of alternative and positive outlook?
Bernard Haykel: In both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, there’s a strong government push towards social liberalization, not political or economic liberalization, however. By which I mean that young people are now allowed to interact more freely across gender divides, they are allowed to dress in much less restrictive fashion. No one's going to enforce the veil, and there is no religious police monitoring people or being given government sanction to harass people about the way they're behaving or dressing. Increasingly, you have concerts and various forms of western-style entertainment coming in, movie theaters, activities in public parks. That's all pretty good and I think a lot of young people feel that it's a huge relief to be living in a more relaxed social atmosphere.
That's a very difficult thing to pull off economically in rentier economies where the government has provided for cradle to grave services that have come to be considered as entitlements.
Ultimately, however, these young people are going to need jobs, and not just be entertained. They're going to need to be employed and they have huge expectations for the relatively young leadership in both Saudi Arabia, and the UAE and even in Qatar and Kuwait. These young people are going to want well-paid jobs and the government is expected to produce them but the government is saying, “We can no longer generate jobs in the public sector. It’s the private sector that really has to now create these jobs.” That's a very difficult thing to pull off economically in rentier economies where the government has provided for cradle to grave services that have come to be considered as entitlements.
The private sector in all of these countries is heavily dependent on government spending and government largess. I think the management of expectations of these young people is going to be one of the principal challenges in the next 10-15 years in countries like Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. Of course, the economic problems in the poorer countries like Egypt, the Sudan, and Morocco are more serious and there are even more dire predictions for those countries than for the petro-states of the Gulf.
VI: Are these countries trying to build up their private sector through the education of youth - to give them managerial skills, to give them high tech skills, to school them in entrepreneurship so that they can go out and create enterprises?
Bernard Haykel: These governments pay huge amounts of money to send students overseas, especially to countries like the United States. The serious reform of the national educational system - K through 12 - is still not happening. The attempts at building entrepreneurship and an autonomous private sector is very difficult to pull off. This requires a cultural shift in all these countries because, in all the Gulf states, people have essentially relied on a system of entitlements that the government provides. Now, people have to switch gears and become less reliant on the government, and that’s very difficult to do.
VI: The elites there have customarily been sent overseas and educated and have these opportunities. Are there middle classes in these societies now that will also be some kind of engine for change?
The government employs something like two-thirds of the working population. There is a middle class but the middle class is tethered to government employment.
Bernard Haykel: It's not just the elites. The middle class is also being sent abroad for education and training. Again, whatever middle class there is, is generally there not because of private-sector employment but largely because they're employed by the government. The government employs something like two-thirds of the working population. There is a middle class but the middle class is tethered to government employment. That's also one reason why I think you don't see political and social mobilization among the middle classes in these Gulf countries--most of them are just heavily dependent on government employment. They don't want to bite the hand that feeds them.
VI: So much of the government spending nowadays, especially in Saudi and UAE, is reportedly on military hardware and planes and rockets and whatever. Is this accurate?
Bernard Haykel: Actually, they've always spent a lot of money on war materiel and military hardware. Saudi Arabia, for example, has the third largest budget in the world when it comes to military expenditure. However, most of the budgetary spending of these governments goes toward public sector salaries. Something like 50% of the Saudi budget goes to cover public sector salaries, and up to two-thirds of the population works for the government. That's the largest drain on the budget.
VI: It seems like it’s going to be a number of years before they can turn this around. This is probably not a simple fix where you move from this public sector dependence to some private enterprise or the diversification of industries. Is this so?
Bernard Haykel: Yes. I think countries like the UAE but also Kuwait and Qatar as well as Saudi Arabia, are looking to economic development models in the east, countries like South Korea, Japan, but also to China in which the government played a central role in creating a private sector. The initial investment and the initiative can come from the government but eventually, the public-funded companies became privatized. I think that's the model they have in mind.
Politically, though, they don't have a model for democratizing or liberalizing the system because I think the leaders in countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and also the UAE feel that if they liberalize politically (meaning bringing in democracy) while engaging in all these changes on the social and economic side, they’ll have very serious political disorder and potentially even uprisings. They want to keep the lid on political dissent while they make all these other changes. It is, of course, a self-serving argument that all autocrats make.
VI: Is part of the mentality of these governments to be constantly in conflict in the region, first with Israel and now Iran? Is the strategy to create and focus on external threats so they control any dissent about governing tactics at home?
Bernard Haykel: I think there is certainly a geopolitical conflict between countries like Saudi Arabia with Iran. It is framed in ideological terms but there's a geopolitical rivalry between two relatively big countries that want to dominate the region, especially as the United States has signaled under both the Obama and Trump administrations that it wishes to scale back its presence in this region. And certainly the ideological rivalry we see allows both the Iranian and Saudi governments to rally their base to support their respective leaders and against the other country.
That's also one reason why I think you don't see political and social mobilization among the middle classes in these Gulf countries--most of them are just heavily dependent on government employment. They don't want to bite the hand that feeds them.
Iran’s leadership plays on twin chords of Persian nationalism and Shiite revolutionary Islamism to mobilize support for the regime’s policies—here hatred for the US and Israel play a very critical role.
In Saudi Arabia right now, we are witnessing a process whereby the country is replacing a strict and intolerant form of Islam as the central element of Saudi identity with a form of Saudi nationalism. Service and loyalty to the nation is expected to replace Wahhabi Islam as the core element of the citizens' identity. Iran is very useful in this respect. Having an enemy that is Persian and that has a historic rivalry with Arabs, is very helpful in fostering this sense of nationalism.
VI: It's a better enemy than Israel was, in other words?
Bernard Haykel: Yes, in many ways, it is because it's a much older historical enemy for one. Second, Israel and Saudi Arabia now share a common enemy in Iran. The enemy of my enemy is my friend kind of thing.
VI: Given all that, what is the purpose for the Saudis and others to have taken sides in the Syrian war? Is it just a proxy war there or was Syria another reality that somehow people could really come to grips with?
Bernard Haykel: I think that the civil war in Syria really started because there were domestic reasons for it. Namely, you have an extremely authoritarian government in the form of the Assad regime that brutalizes its people. You had a revolt inside Syria against this regime. Initially the opposition was peaceful, but the regime retaliated with brute force and violence. This caused the tensions to spiral into a militarized Civil War, which then dragged regional rivals and outside powers into the conflict. There was a real domestic basis for the war, which then attracted all these other countries, who would fight each other using proxies, and become allied with various Syrian factions.
VI: Was it different than what happened in Egypt? When Egypt had their Arab Spring that overthrew an oppressive regime, in that case, the Saudis felt threatened and wanted to bring an authoritarian regime back to power in Egypt?
Bernard Haykel: That's right. In the case of Syria, countries of the GCC, whether it's Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, or Kuwait, for that matter, were very much against the Assad regime because the Assad regime was an ally of Iran and remains so. It was also a country that had historically always been – i.e. during the Cold War – allied with the Soviet Bloc countries. It was not a Western-oriented country. In other words, there were old rivalries with Syria, which then meant that the Gulf countries gave their support to the anti-Assad opposition forces.
In Saudi Arabia right now, we are witnessing a process whereby the country is replacing a strict and intolerant form of Islam as the central element of Saudi identity with a form of Saudi nationalism. Service and loyalty to the nation is expected to replace Wahhabi Islam as the core element of the citizens' identity.
In the case of Egypt, the same is not the case. The previous government of Egypt, the Mubarak regime, which was forced to resign because of the demonstrations in Cairo and elsewhere, was very much an ally of the Gulf countries (with the exception of Qatar). These really wanted President Hosni Mubarak to remain in power. In fact, they were very disappointed, in fact deeply shocked, when President Obama abandoned Mubarak and was seen to have made him resign. The Gulf states took the side of the military and clearly wanted Egypt to remain an authoritarian state that would not allow the Muslim Brotherhood to take power. The latter represents a direct threat to the political systems and the regional order that the Gulf states wish to maintain.
VI: Are there other major players in the Middle East?
For example, how do you assess Turkey’s influence in the region?
Bernard Haykel: Turkey under President Erdogan has been a remarkably dynamic country in economic terms, especially during the first decade or so of this century. It is a country that appears to be reconciling itself with its Islamic and imperial Ottoman past. For some time, many Arabs looked to Turkey as a model they could emulate. And this has been helped by the fact that Turkey has moved away from its obsessive orientation toward Europe while trying to reconnect with its historical ties in the Middle East and Arab world.
Historically, it was always important for the US president to have a good working relationship with the rulers of the Middle East...
However, Erdogan began doing several things that have dismayed a number of Arab regimes and even Arab publics. The first is that his policies have led to Turkey’s economic decline and to having serious economic problems. The Turkish model has stopped looking as successful and as attractive as it once did. The second is that Turkey has allied itself entirely with the Muslim Brotherhood, offering patronage and asylum to this movement’s members and adopting its ideology. Arabs now see Turkey as trying to use this group and its ideology as the means by which to spread Turkish influence in the Middle East.
This has meant that anyone who doesn’t like the Muslim Brotherhood has now turned against Turkey. For example, secular Arabs, authoritarian nationalist Arabs, anti-Islamist Arabs, all of these people now feel that Turkey is no longer a viable ally and model and perhaps even an enemy. Finally, Erdogan, himself, has become very authoritarian - he looks more and more like a Middle Eastern dictator, and less and less like an economic and social liberal, and certainly not a liberal democrat.
...but institution to institution relations have also been important, whether it's to the US Treasury, or to the US intelligence services, or to the State Department, as well as military-to-military relations.
I think that Turkey has lost a lot of its allure for both Middle Eastern peoples and governments. The one exception is Qatar which is still a strong ally of the Turks, and both offer countries strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The other thing about the Turks is that in Syria their policies appear erratic and nonsensical. They are against Assad, but also against the Kurds; they turned a blind eye to ISIS and seem to be supporting Al Qaeda. Their policies in Syria have been very confusing.
VI: There were, then, some really strategic mistakes that Erdogan made. If Erdogan’s government was to be replaced with a more progressive, more democratic one, would that make a difference in the Middle East?
Bernard Haykel: I think it would make a difference. Especially if it's a Turkey that was democratic and still oriented towards the Middle East. If it's a Turkey that just wants to be European and secular, then it's not likely to be as attractive to the Middle Eastern street. A Turkey that's reconciled with its past, is, I think, a much more attractive Turkey than a Turkey, that thinks it's European and doesn't want to have anything to do with the Middle East.
VI: The contemporary relations with a lot of Middle Eastern countries and the Trump administration seem to be relationships of personalities. Mohammad bin Salman and Mohammad bin Zayed seem to have close relationships with Trump and an administration that personifies him. Is this a good basis for future prospects?
Bernard Haykel: I don't think it's a good thing for either the United States or for the Middle East. Increasingly, Trump and the way he behaves with Middle East rulers makes him look like a Middle Eastern ruler himself. Historically, it was always important for the US president to have a good working relationship with the rulers of the Middle East, but institution to institution relations have also been important, whether it's to the US Treasury, or to the US intelligence services, or to the State Department, as well as military-to-military relations.
All of these ties are extremely important. Even educational relations as well with the Middle East are significant. To highly personalize the relationship the way President Trump has done is very convenient and suitable for Middle Easterner rulers, because it is much easier to deal with one person than to deal with institutions. However, I don't think it is a healthy development in the bilateral relations between the US and the different countries of the region.
VI: Besides United States influence in the Middle East, how do you assess Russian and Chinese influence in this region?
Bernard Haykel: The Russians are back. They are back in Syria. For a time, people thought that the Russians would get a bloody nose in Syria, it would be very costly and it would be a repeat of their experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In fact, the Russians were very clever. They just committed minimal forces, and only the Air Force really. They've not had many losses. They've really changed the dynamic and the tide of the war, because they could rely on Iranian Shiite militias to fight the ground war, and only deploy their air force.
It's a very smart strategy that Russia deployed in Syria alongside Iran and Syrian government forces. However, Russia is not a wealthy country. It doesn't have the GDP to sustain major foreign military adventures, and it's not likely to offer much to the Middle East by way of aid or development. Russia can't rebuild Syria, for instance.
The big test for China will be to see whether they can play a significant role in the building of Syria, and whether they'll commit resources to that project - serious resources.
Russia can have a presence in a country like Syria, perhaps in one other country, but no one's looking to it as a superpower the way it used to be during the Cold War.
The Chinese are also around. They mainly want to be involved in economic development. If you look at how they behave in Africa, and Latin and South America, I think a lot of Middle Easterners have realized you can quickly get indebted to the Chinese and then they hold some sway over you. A number of Middle Eastern countries either don't want or don't need it because they have their own resources since they are oil countries. The big test for China will be to see whether they can play a significant role in the building of Syria, and whether they'll commit resources to that project - serious resources. I'm not sure that they will.
VI: At this point, do you think that the immediate future for Syria is partition - that the country will be divided up into spheres of influences?
Bernard Haykel: I don't think it'll be formal partition but there will be different spheres of influence in the country. The central government is weak and it won't have the influence and power it used to have nor will the government regain total control over its territory as it once did. It will be a government that's beholden to Iran and to Russia, and that will not be able to rebuild the destroyed cities of Syria unless it gets massive economic help from the West or perhaps the Chinese. Many of its cities now look like Stalingrad after World War II.
VI: Couldn’t the same thing could be said of Iraq? Much of Mosul looks like Stalingrad and little is being done to rebuild.
Bernard Haykel: Yes. Except that in the case of Iraq the corruption could potentially be reined in. Iraq produces enough oil to be able to rebuild the country, but the government is so corrupt, and so badly managed, that I doubt if a city like Mosul will ever be rebuilt.
VI: To kind of wrap this up, if the major flash points of Syria and Yemen are resolved, and the kind of intense rivalries between the Gulf States and Iran moves to another plain, is there another reality that we could see in the Middle East in the next five to ten years that is less pessimistic?
Bernard Haykel: I think that several countries in the Middle East would like to drive the United States into a military conflict in the Middle East, another one, perhaps this time against Iran. The Israelis and perhaps Saudis seem to want this. I think the US has to remain very vigilant about not getting involved in another military conflict in the Middle East, and has to extract concessions from different countries in this region without having to resort to military force. A conflict with Iran could be truly devastating. Not just to Iran but to the entire region.
VI: In other words, you don't see any new kind of horizon coming in the next five or so?
Bernard Haykel: No. Something radically positive or different, no. I just see more and more crises. I see more potentially failed states, more refugees, and more domestic unrest. Perhaps even civil wars in one or more countries.
VI: To sum up, are you saying that, when it comes to the 2020 presidential candidates, they will have a lot to consider when they focus on the Middle East? That there are no easy solutions to the real challenges that will arise in the next couple of years, that, as you warn, could drag the United States into new regional conflicts and wars that could have serious ramifications for an already fractured and fragile region?
Bernard Haykel: Yes. Absolutely.
Bernard Haykel, Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University. He researches religious identity and authority. He received his doctorate in Oriental Studies in 1998 at the University of Oxford. He teaches and researches the “juncture of the intellectual, political, and social history of the Middle East with particular emphasis on the countries of the Arabian Peninsula.”