The balance of power in the Middle East has been challenged by new dynamics in the Persian Gulf, notably Muhammad bin Salman’s struggle to reshape the region and the resistance of Qatar

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:57:49

Francesco Teruggi interviews Kristian Coates Ulrichsen


Francesco Teruggi - Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has exhibited a massive display of power, from Salman al-‘Awda’s imprisonment and sentence to the case of Jamal Khashoggi. What are the outcomes of these events?


Kristian Coates Ulrichsen - The killing of Jamal Khashoggi is part of a pattern. The past year has been characterized by a systematic repression of many Saudi writers, journalists, religious figures, human rights activists and women’s rights advocates. This has been happening in waves since September 2017, shortly after Mohammad bin Salman became Crown Prince. The murder has to be seen as part of that pattern of repressing or suppressing any dissenting voice in, or even outside, Saudi Arabia. And the fact that the incident happened outside Saudi Arabia has shocked a lot of people. The story the Saudis are trying to tell does not seem to be supported by any evidence. We may never know what really happened to him.



FT - It is not the first time that Middle Eastern regimes get rid of activists and political opponents…


KCU - The Middle East is full of stories of people who vanished. An example in point is the case of Musa al-Sadr, the Shia cleric who disappeared in Libya in 1978 and was never found: his death or disappearance was never explained and remains a mystery 40 years later. This may well be the case with Jamal Khashoggi. Yet, the level of international media interest and the technological advances mean that investigative journalism will probably uncover a lot more of information than the Saudis would like, and perhaps even more than the Turks would like. As we saw with the killing of a Hamas operative in Dubai in 2010 by an Israeli team, even with a seemingly perfect crime, patient investigative journalism can gradually piece together what happened. I would not be surprised if something similar happens to Jamal.



FT - MBS is now trying to assert his hegemony on the Middle East. How solid is his attempt to build a new regional order?


KCU - After the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia realized that it had to be proactive in trying to protect its own interests across the region. Saudis had a feeling for a long time that they could rely on the US for protection, and they still can. But I believe that the Obama administration’s decision to accept the fall of Mubarak in Egypt and then to acknowledge the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power shocked Riyadh. The ruling family came to the conclusion that if the US had withdrawn support for a long-standing partner like Mubarak, they could do the same with them. Accordingly, they identified security as a key Saudi interest, and since 2011 have been using political, financial, and religious leverage across the region to try to shape the transition in North Africa and in the Middle East according to their own agenda. After the fall of the ancient leaders in many countries, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were very concerned about the rise of political Islam and responded to it by acting in an assertive, even interventionist way. Whatever it is today, they have (I think successfully) reasserted authoritarian control in Egypt, the Arab Spring has been stopped, there have been no more uprisings, much of the Middle East is now racked by wars or civil wars and internal conflicts and there is no real appetite to go back to the streets. To that extent, this outcome has been a success for Saudi-Emirati interests. They have successfully rolled back the requests for political participation that had opened up in 2011.


FT - What are the causes of this assertive behavior?


KCU - The shift for the Saudis and the Emiratis began in 2012-2013, when they realized that their neighbors and especially Qatar were helping at least some of the newly empowered ruling elites in North Africa. The very fact that Qatar was helping the transition meant that the Emiratis and Saudis probably had to respond. And they did respond, in Egypt especially, and very quickly after the coup in 2013. In other words, their interventionist attitude really began well before Obama left office. Later on, in 2015 the nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran provided further push to their determination not to delegate to others their national interests. Both events, the Arab Spring aftermath and the negotiation on the Iranian nuclear program, happened well before Trump came along.



FT - Are you implying that the Trump presidency has not played any role in this shift?


KCU - No. In 2016 and early 2017, when Trump came into office, there was, I think, a feeling that there was an alignment of interests between Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and the White House on the two biggest issues in the Middle East: Iran and Islamism. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi played that card very forcefully. They felt that the key people in the White House shared their views. They thought perhaps that the unique circumstances with which the Trump’s administration had come in were playing in their favor. The fact that his administration had come in by stressing its exceptionalism encouraged Saudis and Emiratis to think that something would actually change, and they naturally hoped to influence that change. The Trump’s administration really lacks a name for a doctrine. I think that they do not necessarily have a coherent foreign policy to speak of. But Emiratis and Saudis saw an opportunity and they went for it. They realized that if they managed to secure the White House support for their regional ambitions on Iran and on the Islamists’ rollback, they could reshape the Gulf and the modern Middle East.



FT - How did the shift materialize?


KCU - Well, when the Trump’s administration came in, it did initially make a lot of noise about not expecting conventional policies. For example, the travel ban on six major Muslim countries indicated that it did not feel constrained by political or even legal safeguards. And also, do not forget that in the first few months of the administration, Steve Bannon was very influential as one of Trump’s key advisors. One of his main themes was the de-construction of the administrative state and institutions. In my opinion, there was a feeling in certain Gulf capitals that this situation was unique and unprecedented, where policy was personalized and institutions almost bypassed. That is why they made such an effort to establish close relationships with key people in the inner circle of the President, to make sure that they had access to him. Probably all this came to its peak when Trump went to the Riyadh Summit in May 2017. And I think ever since we have been facing its consequences, both in terms of the regional politics in the Gulf but also concerning the investigation into foreign interference in US politics.



FT - Another common enemy for both the US and Saudi Arabia is Iran. Ali Khamenei has been in power since 1989, he is 79, and is likely to be replaced in a few years. The choice of a new Supreme Leader will probably reflect the balance of power within the Islamic Republic. As some commentators have noticed, the Saudi-sponsored narrative of the external enemy will probably be a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, as it may provoke the ascension of a more conservative leader in Tehran. Is a different outcome possible?


KCU - A lot might depend on what sort of US government is in office when the transition occurs in Iran. If it happens with the current administration in place, you could definitely see a much more hawkish, even assertive approach, whilst if you have a more Obama-like administration, there would be more pragmatism, at least in trying to understand, and maybe to engage with whoever comes out in the new power structure. When looking at Iran, people talk of moderates and extremists, but we should never forget that there are moderates and not-so-much-moderates in the US as well. Moreover, coalitions in Iran shift over time. One might be seen as a moderate today, but not necessarily ten years down the line, when domestic and external conditions change. A coherent bilateral relationship between Iran and the US is really difficult to envisage, at least for the foreseeable future, as long as the generation of senior officials in both countries is still in office. The choice of the new Supreme Leader will only be half of the equation. A lot will depend on what is happening in the US as well.



FT - Do you expect the partnership between Russia and Iran to continue?


KCU - Russia and Iran do not really have an alliance or a formal treaty, but they have shared interests in certain fields, like Syria. At the same time, Russians in the next years may need Gulf investments and support more than Iran. The Saudis and the Emiratis have already tried to make that clear to the Russians: “If you side with us, we can give you more tangible benefits than the Iranians can, in terms of investments and joint ventures”. In the long term, the Saudis and the Emiratis will try to detach Russia from Iran. But the Russians will not take that decision based on what is best for Iran or for Saudi Arabia. They will act according to what they think is best for Russia. The same applies to China or India, which also are trying to balance their relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. At any rate, if these countries are forced to choose between the Saudis and the Emiratis and Iran, they would select the partner that guarantees greater financial investments.



FT - You have mentioned China and Qatar has recently strengthened its relations with it. Do you believe that the policy of non-intervention, the “Beijing Consensus”, could be attractive for smaller countries in the GCC?


KCU - The so-called Beijing Consensus has always been attractive because of its pragmatic nature and its focus on economic relations, to the exclusion of political issues. A lot of the frustration that the Gulf states have experienced for example with the US, the EU or some European partners is that often a trade agreement is made conditional upon having political or human rights insurances, especially with the EU. That is partly why twenty years of negotiations on a EU-GCC trade deal eventually failed, whereas with China there is just a commercial, transactional relationship. I agree: from a smaller state’s point of view, the Beijing Consensus is attractive, but it is so also from the Saudis’ point of view, because it does away with the emphasis on governance and human rights that they see as totally unrelated to business. On the other hand, nothing can yet replace the US as a security guarantee for small countries like Kuwait or Qatar; not just because of the physical presence of military bases, but also due to the arms deals and the thousands of jobs which are dependent from a continuative relationship with the Gulf partners. It makes sense to diversify economic relationships so as to have other options, but all the Gulf countries know very well that nothing has really emerged that could yet challenge the US role as a security provider.



FT - Kuwait and Oman have traditionally adopted a policy of mediation under the umbrella of the US. Will the Qatar crisis push them to change their foreign policy?


KCU - Kuwait and Oman would both resist an attempt by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to force them into a ‘regional approach’ that does not reflect their interests. This is partly so because they have been touched themselves by wars. Kuwait obviously with the Iraqi invasion in 1990; and Oman because of the Dhofar uprising in the ’60s and the ’70s, supported by South Yemen. In recent times, they have always tried to avoid being sucked into conflict and being forced to take sides.



FT - Is there a future for Yemen?


KCU - At some point, inevitably, the military conflict will have to come to an end. It could take years, but even the Lebanese civil war eventually ended, after 15 years of bloodshed. Oman and Kuwait could facilitate a political settlement because they are far more credible as impartial third parties. In order for that to happen, however, they must support all parties and until now that has not been the case. Kuwait hosted negotiations in 2016 which broke down and Oman is trying to have a back-channel negotiation between the Houthis and various parties, which again have been moderately successful but have remained limited in scope.



FT - How would you describe the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen?


KCU - The difficult in Yemen is that the country has effectively been subdivided into regional spheres of influence. The UAE in southern Yemen has created a power base that to some extent corresponds to the Southern Movement, while the Saudis continue their long-standing policy of maintaining very close relationships with key figures in northern Yemen. That could become institutionalized producing a split between Northern and Southern parts of Yemen. In any long-term political settlement, Yemen will have to accept a very loose federal infrastructure, with a strong influence of regional or sub-regional entities. It is difficult at this stage of the conflict to think of any centralized state having the degree of legitimacy needed from all sides.



FT - Are you thinking of a federal unified state or a pre—1990 situation, with a southern Republic and a northern Arab Republic?


KCU - Well, they were formally different states. I would rather expect a de facto separation of different provinces into more or less autonomous groups but within a federal super-structure. And to some extent, that was what the National Dialogue was trying to achieve, although it was never allowed to take root, partly because the Houthis felt relegated in the North and partly because ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Saleh was still trying to manoeuvre someway back either for himself or his interests or his family. Now he is no longer around. So, if there will be in the future a political settlement, it will be some sort of revival of an elusive federal structure, where you have at least a de facto recognition of the competing interests, but allowing some degree of cooperation or coexistence.



FT - How can a comprehensive agreement take place while the Qatari crisis is still ongoing?


KCU - The Qatar issue is complicated by the fact that the Emiratis and Saudis took action in 2017, anticipating, in my estimation, that Qatar would capitulate, whether accepting a regime change or complying to what it was told to do. Although the US briefly supported the Saudis and the Emiratis, nothing of what Saudi Arabia and the Emirates expected came true. The Qataris managed to gain back the upper hand by working very closely with the US administration. By contrast, there are growing evidences that the Emiratis and Saudis do not really seem to be interested in diplomatic or negotiated solutions. The demands they placed on Qatar were so extreme that they were almost an ultimatum for surrender. They have been rightly compared to the note Austro-Hungary sent to Serbia in July 1914. It was not a serious talking that could have been the beginning for negotiations. There was no point of compromise. And I think that this stance did a lot of damage to the Saudi-Emirati’s position, especially in the US, since Washington realized that the Saudis and Emiratis simply did not want to talk to the Qataris, directly or politically. In the spring 2018, Washington hoped to host a sequence of events where Mohammad bin Salman, Emir Tamim and Mohammed bin Zayed would come separately to the White House to agree upon the outlines of a settlement, which would then be negotiated in a GCC meeting and sealed in Camp David. Well, that is not going to happen, partly because the Saudis told the US that they rejected any external mediation and partly because the Emiratis refused to turn up. The US government slowly realized that there is no appetite for a negotiated solution on the parts of the Saudis and Emiratis.



FT - Do you consider an appeasement between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the UAE as possible?


KCU - This crisis is going to continue and the actors involved have been adapting to it by developing pragmatic workarounds, where you just continue to operate as a group of six Gulf states, with others in the room, on specific issues. We can imagine the Gulf states, plus Egypt, Jordan and the US, converging on specific issues, for example on security cooperation, defence, intelligence or countering Iran, but almost ignoring the elephant in the room, i.e. agreeing not to discuss the Gulf crisis. Discussion would remain at a technocratic level, without involving the heads of states and political questions. I think that it is going to be for some time the way around. The GCC, the group of six heads of state which meets every year, is probably going to take a backseat for a while, while these issue-specific meetings take its place.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation