London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Beyond its terrible human and material cost, the Syrian conflict has exposed and exacerbated some of the Middle East’s deepest political fault lines. Outside of Syria itself, the crisis has been defined by stark differences among regional and international powers—not only between backers and opponents of the Bashar Al-Assad regime, but also within the anti-Assad camp—over how to approach the crisis.
Meanwhile, the United States seems close to an agreement with Iran——Bashar Al-Assad’s chief regional ally—over the Islamic Republic’s controversial nuclear program. This deeply worries many Arab states, especially those in the Gulf, who struggle to understand Washington’s willingness to deal with the two issues separately. This has been a main source of tension between the US and Saudi Arabia, one of the US’s oldest allies in the region.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with one of the leading American experts in the politics and international relations of the Middle East, Professor Gregory Gause, about these and other important developments. Currently a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, he will soon be joining the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Gause is the author of numerous articles on regional matters, as well as three books: The International Relations of the Persian Gulf (2010), Oil Monarchies: Domestic and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States (1994); Saudi–Yemeni Relations: Domestic Structures and Foreign Influence (1990).
Asharq Al-Awsat: In what ways has the Syrian conflict impacted the relations between Gulf countries, in particular the GCC states?
I don’t think the Gulf states have any differences in terms of their goals. All of the Gulf states want to see Bashar Al-Assad out, and they have all been working to that end in one way or another. The differences are in the tactics and in whom they support within the Syrian opposition. I think the main difference is between Qatar’s proclivity to support the Muslim Brotherhood and the proclivity of Saudi Arabia and some of the other states, most notably the UAE, to support non-Brotherhood groups. I think it’s interesting that the Saudis were both one of the main supporters of the more secular elements in the Free Syrian Army and also of some of the more Salafi but non–Al-Qaeda groups. I think the Saudis are playing a number of angles with the Syrian opposition to try and achieve the goal of getting rid of Assad. The Qataris seem to be much more concentrated on backing the Muslim Brotherhood and Muslim Brotherhood-type organizations and to be cooperating with Turkey in that. So the difference between the Gulf states is not on the goal; I think it’s on the method and who within the opposition to support.
Q: So you don’t believe that the Syrian crisis will in the end push Saudi Arabia and Qatar further apart.
The Saudis and the Qataris have different perspectives on the region as a whole. I think that was more obvious under Sheikh Hamad than under Sheikh Tamim. But I do think the Saudis—and not just the Saudis, but the Emiratis, the Bahrainis and, to some extent, the Kuwaitis—they all have a different view of the region than the Qataris. But there have always been different views within the GCC states, and I think that the most recent crisis between Qatar and the three states that withdrew their ambassadors—and then the even more recent resolution of that crisis—is an indication that these different points of view are not unusual and we are going to see them for a while and that in the end, these six states have more in common than they have differences and that when things get serious they tend to come together.
Q: What would you say is the main driver behind Qatar’s Syria strategy? Is it mostly about influence and this eagerness to be relevant, or do you think there is also a moral element in the defense of the Sunni populations against the atrocities committed by Bashar Al-Assad’s army?
I think there has been a huge public opinion mobilization among the Sunni populations in the Arab world in support of the rebels in Syria, because of the brutality of Assad’s reaction beginning in 2011 and the brutality of the Syrian government’s reaction to what were at the outset peaceful protests. I don’t think that is something unique to Qatar.
Qatari foreign policy since the 1990s, and particularly under Sheikh Hamad and Hamad Bin Jassim when he was Foreign Minister and Prime Minister, has been about placing Qatar at the forefront of diplomatic activity. I don’t think that was driven by a specific notion of national interest. I think it was driven by ambition. The Qatari leadership was very ambitious to play a larger role in the region, and that role had a number of elements: the world branding element, with the big sports events and the big conferences in Doha, culminating in getting the World Cup; it had a mediation element, with Qatar offering to mediate all over the place, from Darfur to Lebanon to Yemen; another element was, of course, the information element with Al-Jazeera. Then the fourth element of it was much more political: it was support for Islamist, specially Muslim Brotherhood, groups, because I think the Qataris saw them as the wave of the future. The fifth element—which is the core element which almost everybody neglects to some extent because it is so obvious—is a very strong security relationship with the United States. Hosting the Al-Udayd air base, in essence being the local command center for Central Command—I think that’s the underlining security core that provides Qatar the confidence to do these other things.
Q: According to US officials, the leading sources of funding for extremist rebels in Syria are in Kuwait. How would you explain that: lack of public scrutiny or the fact that Kuwait attracts less attention than, for example, Saudi Arabia or Qatar?
To a great extent I think it’s a result of the fact that money, like water, flows to the easiest route and, in that sense, since the attacks of 2001 the United States has put enormous pressure on Saudi Arabia to get a hold on the issue of private donations and money leaving Saudi Arabia to groups that the United States considers terrorists. And there is also serious American pressure on Qatar. I think Kuwait escaped that American pressure because it wasn’t seen as a major source of funding for Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda–type groups. But, because there’s been this pressure and this more restrictive environment in the UAE, in Qatar and in Saudi, now the money goes to Kuwait because Kuwait is in many ways the most open of the Gulf states. It’s a country with a real parliament, and thus it’s more difficult to adopt the kind of very stern money-laundering legislation that the US has been able to push on the other Gulf states. So I think it’s just a matter of opportunity, and now the United States is doing to Kuwait what it earlier had done to other Gulf states, which is to try to put the pressure on to tighten up on that.
Q: There’s a lot of talk about a rapprochement between Iran and the US. What are the chances of a full normalization of relations between the two?
If you define ‘full normalization’ as a return of ambassadors, I think there’s a very good chance of that. There’s more of a block on the Iranian side than the American side to that, because anti-Americanism has been such a core element of the Iranian revolutionary ideology since 1979. But if we define normal relations as actual geopolitical cooperation, I think that is much less likely. The chances of a nuclear deal are pretty good—not one hundred percent; President Obama said they are fifty–fifty.
But this kind of larger geopolitical agreement that many people in the Gulf fear, where the United States and Iran in essence have a big agreement on what the region should look like, that gives Iran a major geopolitical role—I don’t think that is going to happen. And the core reason that that is not going to happen is that, for 70 years, the United States’ policy in the Middle East has been to prevent any other power from assuming a dominant position. And when you think that the United States might actually cooperate with Iran to guarantee Iran regional dominance, this runs into two real problems. One is the very close American relationship with Israel—and the Israelis don’t want Iran to be the dominant regional power—and the very close relationship the United States has had with Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis don’t want Iran to be the dominant regional power. So I doubt we are going to see this kind of big geopolitical deal.
Q: So you don’t think that the US’s lighter footprint in the Middle East under Obama signifies that the US has less of a concern about Iran’s influence in the region?
I certainly think that the US is less concerned about Iran’s regional influence in the region than Saudi Arabia is. The Saudis place that at the top of their priorities. It is just not as important for the United States, but that does not mean it is not important. The US policy, certainly in Syria, is not as committed as the Saudis’ to a regime change, but it is also not supporting Bashar Al-Assad either. I think the declaratory policy in Lebanon and Iraq is also opposed to Iranian dominance. It is just a question of how much of a commitment there is, and the Saudis are more committed to this goal than the United States is. But here it is much like the situation within the GCC that we talked about earlier. It is not a difference in goals; it is kind of a difference in tactics and priorities. But that is not the same as saying that the United States has in essence accepted that Iran is going to be the dominant regional power. And I think when we talk about a reduced military footprint in the region, we have to avoid exaggerations. Certainly the United States’ military presence in the region is much lower than it was when we had 100,000 troops in Iraq.
Q: Which is not necessarily negative . . .
Exactly. But there are still American military bases throughout the Gulf: in Kuwait, in Bahrain, in Qatar, facilities and arrangements with the UAE and Oman. I don’t see those bases closing. I think what we’re seeing is a return to the kind of American military presence in the region we saw during the 1990s, after the liberation of Kuwait. We’re seeing a return to that level of commitment, not a reduction to zero.
Q: What did you make of Saudi Arabia’s rejection of a UN Security Council seat last year?
I thought it was very puzzling, frankly. This was a goal that Saudi diplomacy had pursued for a number of years; it had achieved the goal. It was a puzzle to me as to why the Saudis turned down this seat.
Q: What do you believe the main message was?
I think the main message was that the Saudi leadership was quite frustrated with the unwillingness of the Security Council to take a stronger stand on Syria. But that is not something unexpected; we know how the Russians were dealing with this question and the Saudis knew how the Russians were dealing with this question for some time. So it remained very surprising to me that they turned down this seat.
Q: Would you say that Saudi–US relations are currently at their worst since 1948?
I don’t agree with that at all. We just have to go back to the oil embargo of 1973 to see when relations were at their worst. We can go back to the immediate post-9/11 period, where, for the first time since the oil embargo, United States’ public opinion was both very focused on Saudi Arabia and very negative about Saudi Arabia. That, to me, was a much more serious period in the relationship than the current crisis period, if you want to call it a crisis. I don’t even call it crisis: I call it a difference of opinion. Those differences of opinion are real; I don’t want to minimize that. Riyadh and Washington have different views on the priority they want to put on the issue of curbing Iranian regional influence, on the best tactic for dealing with Iran, on the priority of and the tactics regarding the Syrian crisis, on the larger question of democracy in the Arab world in the post-Arab Spring period, and that includes differences of opinion on how to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood as a political organization. These are real differences. But the US and the Saudis have always had differences. They always had differences on Arab–Israeli questions. The core interests that continue to unite the two countries are oil and the security of oil flows; they both have a common interest in counterterrorism cooperation, which continues—there’s no indication that the deep Saudi–American counterterrorism cooperation has changed at all. They both share a desire to prevent any other regional power from dominating the Gulf region or the Middle East—again, [they have] tactical differences on how to achieve that, but the strategic goal is still shared. I see this as a period of serious disagreements over a number of issues, but not a crisis in the relationship.
Q: You have a good book on relations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, along with other GCC states, has played an important role in supporting Yemen during its transition period, both financially and politically. What else could GCC states do to support Yemen? Do you think that the idea of Yemeni membership of the GCC is dead, or is it still a reality in the foreseeable future?
I don’t see it as a reality in the foreseeable future. I think the GCC has always been an organization of states with similar forms of government. I think that’s the thing that gives it the unity that it has. Again, the GCC does not always act in concert, but in a crisis it does. And I think the thing that draws these states together in responding to crisis is the fact that they have similar systems of government. Yemen has a very different system of government, and I just don’t see the other states in the GCC allowing Yemen into the organization. I think it’s more likely to see Jordan in the organization than Yemen. On top of that, there is the whole issue of the rights that GCC citizens have in crossing borders and working in other GCC states. I’m not sure that these states would like to open their borders to Yemenis, which isn’t to say that Yemenis don’t work in these places.
Q: But many of these states do have a high number of foreign workers, so couldn’t Yemenis fill that space?
Sure. But I think that these states like to control the access of foreign workers in a very direct way. Before 1990, there were hundreds of thousands, maybe even a million Yemenis, working in Saudi Arabia. Probably add another 500,000 or more in the other Gulf states. Because of the political stance taken by Yemen during the Gulf War in 1990–91, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis had to leave and go back home. To a great extent, many of the spots that Yemenis had occupied in the labor force in Saudi Arabia have been taken up by migrant labor from outside the Arab world, and in many ways that’s a labor force that is easier for the Saudis to monitor and control. Although, as you said, there are millions of foreign workers in these countries and in many ways it would make sense for Yemenis to hold those spots—same language, same culture—but that common language and that common culture also makes it more difficult to control those workers. I think that the governments of the GCC states would be reluctant to give Yemen full membership in the GCC if that means in essence full rights for Yemenis to work in GCC states.
Q: At the risk of offending some of your colleagues, what would you say is the best book so far on the Arab uprisings?
That’s a really interesting question. The book that I’ve used in my class is Marc Lynch’s book [The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East], but of course that only covers 2011. There were the quick books that came out in, basically, 2012: people who sat down and did the first quick analysis of what was happening in the Arab world. What we’re waiting for now is the next wave of books that will look at a three- or four-year time period, perhaps with more perspective, so I’m waiting for those books.