Iran is a common foe for Israelis, Gulf monarchs; hence normalisation of ties: Prof. Bernard Haykel

Prof. Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, is a historian and political analyst.

Prof. Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, is a historian and political analyst. He has extensively studied the social and political history of West Asia, both countries and movements, particularly Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the ISIS. He co-edited Saudi Arabia in Transition: Insights of Social, Political and Religious Change in 2015. He also serves as director of the Institute for Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East. Muhammed Noushad spoke to Prof. Bernard Haykel on pressing questions of the contemporary West Asian politics while the latter was touring India recently.

Edited excerpts from Noushad and Haykel’s discussion have been published below.

Muhammed Noushad: What’s your take on the Vision 2030 of the Saudi crown prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS)? How do you look at the internal conflicts between the Wahhabi values and the reform agendas?

Bernard Haykel: Prince Muhammad Bin Salman believes that Saudi Arabia is too dependent on a single source of revenue – oil – which is not good and healthy for the country’s economy in the long term. Because, if oil becomes less valuable or the demand stops, then there’s no other source of revenue. So the country has to diversify its economy into other fields like service sector, industrial manufacturing sector etc. So, vision 2030 is about economically transforming the country away from oil. 

In addition, he says that, to transform the country economically, you also need to transform it socially and to some extent culturally because you need more women in the workforce, as they are better educated and more disciplined in Saudi Arabia. For that, you need a situation where women are allowed to work, drive and move without constraints of the religious police that works on a very traditional Wahabi understanding of Islamic law. He has pushed for social reform, bringing movie theatres, allowing women to drive, opening up the society. Now you have women in the streets; some are veiled, some are not veiled. You have women in the workforce and that is important for the economic transformation of the country. The Wahabi clerics and the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia are not happy with this change but he is imposing this change in an authoritarian manner. He tries to convince them, he tries to argue with them but if they don’t agree, they have no choice in the matter. 

So, if you visit Saudi Arabia today, it’s a completely different country. It doesn’t look or feel like what it used to look or feel like eight or ten years ago. It’s a transformed country. It feels a lot like Oman and Jordan. It feels like a more open and more socially relaxed place. I think this transformation is not going to be reversed. This is a permanent transformation and it’s being led from above. But there is a lot of receptivity, acceptance of this from below, because you have to remember that around 70 of the Saudi population is young, under the age of 35 and those young people want the country look more normal, to be more open, to be more tolerant of men and women mixing, of Muslims and non-Muslims mixing. They want a much more moderate, less strict interpretation of Islam to be applied in the country and this is what we see.

Noushad: What would the Vision 2030 mean for Saudi Arabia’s neighbours and the region? 

Haykel: Well, if Vision 2030 succeeds, or even if it succeeds 50, Saudi Arabian economy will be transformed completely. It will become the most – it already is, but will become more – important economic force in the region. You have to remember that in the Gulf, it’s the largest country with the largest population. So, a transformation in Saudi Arabia like this will have an effect all over the Middle East and the Gulf. By the way, similar transformations are taking place in other countries as well. The UAE went through a similar transformation 20/30 years ago. If successful, the kingdom will become a truly powerful, cultural, social and economic and political force in the region.

Noushad: In the wake of the Biden-Muhammad Bin Salman Summit that was going to take place in last July, you wrote, among other things, that the US should stop looking at Saudi Arabia as a gas station. Would you elaborate on it? 

Haykel: I think the American elites and American government have often looked at Saudi Arabia as a place that can produce oil almost at will. You know it can produce a lot more oil than any other country. So, it’s always there as a place that can, if the prices were too high, the president calls the king, the king produces more oil, the price goes down. That can help the American economy. That way of dealing with Saudi Arabia, of thinking of it as a cash cow, as a country that buys weapons from America and produces more oil to address America’s concerns, is something that Saudis and Saudi leadership find deeply humiliating and disrespectful of the sovereignty of the Kingdom. And this is something you see in America with both Republican and Democrat presidents. Not just Democrats, not just Biden; Trump was also extremely disrespectful in the way he spoke about Saudi Arabia. And Saudi Arabia obviously doesn’t want to be treated like this; they want to be seen as a country that has much more to offer as it has common political and strategic interests with the US.

Mohammed bin Salman

What I was proposing was that the US should look at Saudi Arabia in a more holistic way, rather than being so narrow, as just an energy super power or a place that buys our weapons. Because if America doesn’t change the way it deals with Saudi Arabia, sooner or later Saudi Arabia will become closer and closer to China as China is the principal trade partner of Saudi Arabia both in terms of exports and imports and you can see that the Saudis are slowly moving in the direction of China and this is not a good thing for the US. 

Noushad: And how did the Biden-MBS meeting go for both parties?

Haykel: I was very surprised by the lack of preparation of the American team. Biden came back with so little. This was a thorough win for the Saudis, in terms of the PR and in terms of reaffirming its centrality in the Middle East. Basically, the meeting reset the relationship and there were several agreements that were positive. However, on the most substantive issues, namely the US demand for increased oil production from Saudi Arabia, there was no satisfaction. The relationship with Biden and the Democratic Party remains tense and I suspect the Saudis are waiting to see the outcome of the mid-term elections in the US before proceeding with further moves. On the whole, however, MBS has now been rehabilitated in the West and you can see this from his recent visits to Greece and France. 

Noushad: Israel is playing a very decisive role in the Gulf region, particularly with the recent normalisation of relations with the UAE and Bahrain.

Haykel: With the UAE and Bahrain, it has ties. With Saudi Arabia, it doesn’t have official relationship. I think the way to understand the coming together of Israel with these countries, you have to understand that they have a common enemy – Iran. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel see Iran as the most threatening and challenging country to the stability and order of the region and even to the existence of both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iranians often, openly, say that they want to destroy Israel and they want to destroy the dynasty of Saudi Arabia. So, this common enmity with Iran is bringing these countries together. But I don’t think Saudi Arabia will normalise relations with Israel; it will not open diplomatic relations openly and make peace with Israel until the Palestinian issue is addressed because many Saudis, both the leadership and the common population, care about the Palestinian issue. So, Israel will have to do something for the Palestinians before Saudi Arabia normalizes ties with Israel. 

Having said that, of course, Bahrain has made peace with Israel and normalized relations like the UAE. In Africa, Sudan and Morocco have done the same. So, you know, in addition to those countries there are peace agreements between Egypt and Israel and Jordan and Israel as well. So, right now there are quite a few countries that have improved their relations with Israel and that seems to be a trajectory, a path that’s likely to continue especially, as long as Iran maintains its hostility.

Noushad: Qatar plays a significant diplomatic role in the conflicts of West Asia and even South Asia. How do you look at this?

Haykel: Qatar is a very interesting country. It’s a very small country, the native population of Qatar is only 200,000. It has more people but the majority are guest workers from South Asia and elsewhere. It’s a tiny place, a small neighbourhood of a city like New Delhi. But Qatar is strategically very important because it is located in a region of wars, that has most of the conventional reserves of oil. Qatar itself is one of the biggest producers of natural gas in the world: a natural gas-super power. Qatar is extremely rich, the richest in the world on a per capita GDP basis. It’s very small and lives next to Saudi Arabia which is very big both in terms of geographical size and population. So, Qatar has always been afraid of Saudi Arabia. Its afraid of Iran also, another big country to the north east. 

Naturally, Qatar has always wanted to have many friends; it has wanted to be friends with people who are enemies or groups that are enemies with each other. So, it’s friends with the Taliban and it’s friends with the Americans. It’s friends with the Hamas and it’s friends with the Americans. It’s friends with Turkey and with Iran. You know, it tries to be good friends with everybody and it has the largest US air force base in the region. So, Qatar is taking multiple insurance policies; you can think of its friendships with different countries and different movements as an insurance policy to make itself more important, more relevant. So, if the Americans have to speak to the Taliban, they have to go to Doha. 

So far Qatar has been very successful in its strategy. It has survived because its strategy is based on wanting to maintain its sovereignty and survival. Not to be absorbed into Saudi Arabia or some other country. It punches well above its weight, has much greater influence than its size. That’s because it has money and these special relationships. It has changed its policies recently, though. Qatar’s good relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to project its own influence and power through the organisation around the world, has now become a liability, as the Muslim Brotherhood has increasingly been designated and seen by other countries as a terrorist organization, including the Saudis. So, it has recently pulled back a bit from its support and its relationship with the Brotherhood. 

Noushad: Turkey also plays an ambitious role in the region and at times even pose to be the leader of the entire Muslim world. How do you see that? 

Haykel: Under President Erdogan, Turkey has been economically very successful, until recently. It has shown itself as a modern Muslim country; modern and Muslim at the same time and to be dynamic and economically powerful. This gave President Erdogan a lot of ideas about Turkey being a model for the rest of the Muslim world and as a leader of the Muslim world. This has been basically the trajectory of Turkey for as long as President Erdogan has been in power which is now nearly 20 years. That’s the ambition. However, Turkey has faced very serious economic problems in the last few years: there’s a huge inflation and the devaluation of the currency. Because of economic issues and internal political problems, Turkey is no longer as confident as it once was. For example, in 2018, when the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul, at the Saudi Consulate, Turkey was very aggressive. President Erdogan targeted the Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman personally and directly. Now, though President Erdogan has visited Saudi Arabia, he has received Muhammed Bin Salman and you can see that the Turks are desperate for Saudi investments and money. Turkey’s policies and ambitions have received a serious knock because of the economic problems.

Noushad: You have extensively studied about the Yemeni society and have published articles on the civil war, including the monograph on The Houthis a few months back. Could you say what the international community do about the war? 

Haykel: Yemen is a very, very complicated situation. It’s the poorest of Arab countries and the biggest in terms of population; economically the most backward and internally very divided into different tribes, religious sects and regional groups. And it has been very badly ruled by terrible dictator President Ali Abdullah Saleh who was assassinated in 2017. It has suffered from very high illiteracy, very bad governance, pathetic economic development and as a result, there’s a civil war in the country. The civil war has drawn in outside powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran. I think the external intervention in Yemen has made the situation worse for Yemenis. It’s very important now for the international community, in particular the United States, to try to see if there is a way of stopping both Saudi Arabia and Iran from interfering inside Yemen and to focus on helping Yemenis. First of all, to reconcile; there’s a peace process internal to Yemen and to rebuild the country. Yemen needs to be rebuilt from scratch and the only countries that have money to do it are Saudi Arabia, the GCC countries and of course western countries. So, I think the focus should be on domestic reconciliation, stopping external intervention and reconstructing the country economically and developmentally.

Noushad: You have been called the foremost expert on ISIS. How is ISIS doing these years? 

Haykel: I think ISIS or the so-called Islamic State is doing very badly. It created a country for a while, it was running a state, and the state failed, it failed in producing peace and stability for its own people. It also created chaos in the region and it was ultimately defeated and destroyed. I think that the most people looking at ISIS, most Muslims around the world will see a failed model, a model that doesn’t really work, an ideology that’s much extreme. It does exist still, in small cadres and of course on the internet in the form of ideological books and texts and fatwas and videos. But I don’t see it coming back, I don’t see it having a future at all because it has effectively been defeated both militarily and ideologically.

Noushad: You have also written about the need to see the difference between Al Qaeda and ISIS, though often the western media and many states fail to see it. 

Haykel: There are many significant differences between Al-Qaida and ISIS. ISIS wanted to build a state, wanted to build a caliphate in the Middle East. Al-Qaida was not interested in building a state. It was interested in attacking especially the west and America in the hope that ultimately America would be exhausted by the wars in the Middle East and would abandon and leave the region. And then Al- Qaida would turn to face the existing states in the Arab world and challenge them. So, the Al-Qaida project and the ISIS project in terms of their goals are very different. In terms of tactics and strategy are also very different. They are quite different as ideological movements. Al-Qaida is much more rooted in the radical ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood whereas ISIS is much more rooted in the radical ideology of something we call Salafi Jihadists.

Muhammed Noushad is a writer, editor, translator and documentary filmmaker based in Calicut.