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The view from Brookings Doha - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Salman Shaikh, director of Brookings Doha Center (AAA)

Salman Shaikh, director of Brookings Doha Center (AAA)

Doha, Asharq Al-Awsat—Washington DC’s Brookings Institution has gained a reputation as one of the United States’ premier think-tanks, an incubator of many ideas and policies that have subsequently made their way into government, as well as a premier destination for former and future policymakers to conduct research and contribute to policy debates.

Like many other prominent institutions in recent years, it has opened a satellite facility in the Qatari capital of Doha in order to foster East–West links and develop a presence ‘on the ground’ in an important new regional hub. Just last week, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a forum which assessed the momentous events in the Arab world over the previous two years, and the attempts of states like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya to reform their institutions and build new democratic systems after decades of dictatorship.

In the wake of the forum, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to the head of Brookings Doha Center, Salman Shaikh, about the role of the think-tank and his thoughts on the current situation in Egypt, Syria and the Gulf.

The following interview has been edited for length:

Asharq Al-Awsat: Tell us a little about your institute.

Salman Shaikh: The institute is now about five years old. It is a unique partnership between his highness the Emir, his Excellency the prime minister, and Brookings Washington. In fact, the institute came after the partnership was first established in 2002, after 9/11. It was decided between the Qatari leaders and the Brookings leaders that it was good to establish an annual forum with United States officials and experts and others, and people from the Muslim and Arab world. That forum has now been going on for many years. It was on the back of this that they decided to establish the center.

Q: What is the focus of its research?

Well let me say the centre is focused on three main areas. Overall, it is focused on regional and foreign policy. Brookings in Washington, the headquarters, is focused on many things: domestic policy, on urban studies, metropolitan studies, development, as well as foreign policy, science, and many things.

We are focused on three things in particular. First, we are focused on the changes taking place in the Arab world. The great transformations, the transition states in particular, and we try to do this in a serious way. The research is not just focusing on advocacy for democracy, or advocacy for this or that. It is trying to look much more seriously at the transitions taking place, and trying to bring experts to research on these areas and suggest certain ways forward. And we obviously try to focus on brining those who understand the region, and that includes Arab scholars as well as those from the United States; it is a mixture. That’s one area.

The second area is, of course, the conflicts and peace processes of the region. Number one is, of course, the Arab–Israeli conflict, but it is also in relation to Syria or other such conflict and peace processes which are taking place.

The third area, which I am very keen on, is more research in an area that is under-researched, which is the relationship between Middle East and Asia. Doha is the perfect place to have a window on the East, as well as to discuss with the people in the West. Even though we are an American think tank in the heart of the Gulf, we think that it is rightly important to research this area of the Middle East and Asia.

In this respect, we now have an annual conference in the Brookings Doha centre, which is our signature conference, which is on geopolitics and the changing energy landscape, which is a three-way conversation between Middle Eastern officials and experts, Asian ones from India and China and these places, as well as from the West.

Energy is now playing a big role in the geopolitics of the region, and 85–90% of the energy of this region now goes to Asia, so this is a very important development that is taking place, but we cannot ignore also the European and American dimension when it comes to energy. So we have now had two conferences in that respect, while we continue to develop much smaller meetings. We have something called an Arab Transitions Dialogue, which is bringing together Egyptians, Libyans, Tunisians and Yemenis to discuss various aspects of their transitions. We also have separate workshops that we have been running. These are very specific that bring together people from the political spectrum of each of these countries; from liberal leftists all the way to Salafists, and Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan). What’s unique about this conversation is that it involves US government figures. After every dialogue session, we publish a paper on the nature of the discussion.

We have been running now for one and a half years many different workshops and dialogue sessions with Syrians—Syrian tribal figures, Kurdish opposition people, non-opposition, minority figures and others. We have learnt a lot by just brining these people into this type of dialogue.

Q: How many experts are based here in Doha?

Full time, we have three fellows who also have a management function. We have two or three visiting fellows every year. They come from around the Arab region, the US and Europe. They spend at least nine months here. We also have a joint fellowship program with Qatar University. There is a joint Qatar University–Brookings institute fellow who comes for one semester, and we have those two or three times a year.

Then we have non-resident fellows. Right now, we have a senior non-resident fellow who is very well known in his field in Gulf Studies. His name is Gregory Gause. He is about to publish a very good paper on the Gulf monarchies.

Q: In today’s opening ceremony, they said that in Syria more than one and a half million people have died, with more injured. Why has the regime not fallen yet?

In my view, we’ve never applied the right pressure or succeeded in isolating it enough as an international community. And it’s a real shame, because the failure of the international community to protect civilians—to protect Syrians—has now created a big mess, not just inside Syria, but inside the entire region.

And secondly, when the international community could not unite to pressure and isolate Assad and his regime and to protect civilians, we then didn’t provide the kind of support that is needed for Syrians themselves to change the balance with regards to this regime.

The final factor is, of course, that the regime has its own supporters. The Iranian, Hezbollah, and Russian support has been crucial, and it has been much more purposeful that anything that the west or the regional players have offered to the Syrians themselves who are fighting against Bashar.

Q: In Egypt, everyone was happy with the election of a new government, yet now months into Mursi’s leadership, very little has changed. Do you think that the Muslim Brotherhood were too inexperienced to run the country on taking office?

Yes. They don’t have enough experience, and they don’t have all of the capability, and I think they have to be more humble in recognising that. But what has not made life easy for them was that the onus was on them to build trust with other constituencies. Research tells us that you cannot proceed unless you have a stable political transition. If you cannot succeed on the economic side, you cannot succeed on the governance side, which are the things that really matter to Egyptians if you’re able to build a more politically inclusive process. We know that they have faced very big difficulties with the remnants of the old regime, and even some members of the opposition want them to fail.

Nevertheless, I think that the Ikhwan did not really learn the lesson of other transitions when it comes to a more stable, politically inclusive transition. This is very important.

I used to live in Gaza, and I remember when Hamas took over Gaza. They thought that there was a political and economic dividend by doing things in a more straight forward way and a less corrupt way, but what they realized was that they didn’t have the capability. They didn’t have the experience. In many ways, we are seeing this played out in the much more polarized environment of the Egyptian case.

The other thing is that the Muslim Brotherhood has been in too much of a hurry.

Q: In Egypt, many of the Brotherhood’s opponents, like Ahmed Shafiq, are accusing Qatar of helping the Ikhwan rather than helping Egypt.

First, Qatar would say that what we have been trying to do is support the people of those countries, and we are supporting governments that won through the ballot box. That is the Qatari line. Although I think that what Qatar has to be careful about—and there is a process of reassessment going on—is that it has to be very careful about picking sides. Qatar has to publicly address this issue, this perception that is has been picking sides when it comes to these transitions. Again, this is not the narrative that the Qataris believe in, but it is the perception inside Egypt, as well as the broader Arab world. This is something that the Qataris have to address.

What would have been preferable—and here I am not talking just about Qatar, is a region-wide effort—is a multilateral effort to help support the economies of these countries, otherwise they will face big difficulties. And what hasn’t happened—unlike what happened in Europe—was that the region [did not] combine to present a viable vision and a plan to support those economies. Instead, we’ve got into a situation where different groups have been picking sides, and that’s regrettable and it affects the transitions of all of these countries.

Q: Were you optimistic about the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya?

Let me first say that of course we are optimistic. We are optimistic because many Arabs are now throwing off the heavy burden of dictatorship. In the West we have not paid attention to this. In the West, it is so much about fear of what comes next, the fear of extremism.

I think we also have to look at the experience of other transitions; these things take time, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t learn from those lessons. Egyptians, Tunisians and other Arabs will do well to learn from that, and to have viable transition processes that bring in as many people as possible and provide political stability for the economic growth that is now required to meet the expectations of people who have lived under very bad conditions for too long.

Q: Has your experience of working in Qatar been positive?

We are an independent think tank. We have to give credit to Qatar because they have allowed us to do our work in an independent fashion, which you could not necessarily say about all of the countries in the region. They said that they wanted to build the intellectual capacity of this country, and I can tell you, as somebody who heads a think tank in Qatar, we have been allowed to do our work and we have been supported in our work, even when they don’t necessarily agree with our views. But that has also meant that we have had limited access.

This is a habit which is changing slowly, so the fact that Brookings in now holding a session in this forum, it tells us that they are now using us as a public good, which is very important. They are investing in us, but we are also being utilized. I am less involved in the decision making and leadership here than I am in the United States or in Europe. On Syria, I am giving much more advice to others than I would otherwise, but that is the nature of developing an infrastructure for think tanks, and this is a cultural habit which develops over time.

With regards to Qatar, for some time we have had a leadership that is very progressive when it come to their own development, and some would say that it is further ahead than the majority of its own people. Whether in developing the human development structure or education, or the cultural side with the museums, or the sports side, or of course the foreign policy side, it has been more progressive than perhaps even its own people want. When it comes to political change, I think the majority of Qataris want stability and continued prosperity. They are not necessarily looking for a fully elected parliament at this stage, but I think from what you heard from the Emir, from his side at least, there is a commitment to this, but at a gradual pace.

Q: When you give lectures about Syria, what aspects do you focus on? What do you want people to learn?

The lesson that you learn is that Syria is a safety valve for the whole region. If you don’t resolve it, it will blow, and right now it is blowing, and the consequences of that are being felt throughout the entire Middle East region. That’s the first lesson. Syria is a situation that you have to resolve; you cannot contain it.

The second lesson, which I have learned and I try to teach, is that the Assad regime is something that in the end has to be marginalized and pressured into making the change, because the majority of Syrian people no longer accept that you have this regime ruling over the majority of Syrians. But the third point is that in order to get there, the political solution relies on getting as many Syrian people as possible coming together and negotiating the future of their country—and that includes Christians, Sunnis, Kurds and Shi’ites. This is where the diplomatic efforts have failed. Even the UN efforts have failed. They have not been able to create a credible process of dialogue among the Syrians to arrive at a political solution.

The fourth lesson is that because his regime will not negotiate in good faith, you have to change the military balance on the ground in order for the right political solution to emerge.

I wish this regime as willing to negotiate a transition, but I’ve never believed it since 2001 since they shot down the first “Damascus spring.” Bashar Al-Assad has given us the impression that he is ready for reforms and change, whereas in fact he is not, and he is using more and more force to prove that. He has always warned us that ‘If you push me too hard, there will be chaos in the region.’ This is why I believe that the regional and Western players have not done enough to help the Syrians produce a more credible fighting force, which means not the fragmentation of the forces on the ground, but supporting them in terms of training and logistics, and helping them build a command and control center which they need in order to really put pressure on this regime. That is as important as arming the opposition.

Q: Of the Gulf Cooperation Council states, why is Qatar playing such a prominent international role?

The so–called traditional leaders of the Arab world are all in transition. Egypt is in transition. Saudi Arabia is in transition, though it’s still a key player and will probably remain the leader in the GCC, but there are others that have joined it. And Iraq is still struggling to become a viable, strong nation. So, of course, we have seen other actors taking on leadership roles in many areas. Qatar is one; the UAE is another. The GCC combined has great potential to play not only a security role, but a political diplomatic role as well, a human development role, as well as a cultural role, and to a certain degree it is.

This is why I talk about the public good. We don’t do things by contract. We don’t do things by ‘you give us this project, you give us this money.’ Our core funding comes from the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We have other sources of funding, much smaller, but the core funding comes from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It’s not huge, but it is good, and it has enabled us to work in the fashion that we would like.

I can say to you on the record that in the three years that I have been here, I have not had one conversation with a senior Qatari official that has ever said ‘we would like you to do it this way,’ and that is a sign of the independence that they do allow. And that is why we are trying to be as analytic and as forward thinking as we can be on these issues, and that is why on Syria I have maintained that the region alone cannot do this—not Qatar alone, not Saudi Arabia alone, not anybody—this has to be a combined regional and international effort when it comes to Syria in particular.

But more broadly even, because what we see is that despite the best efforts of regional players in Syria, this has contributed to the fragmentation of the situation inside Syria.

There is a great need for them to work together on this, but they also need to work together with the key European states and of course the United States.

Q: What is your view on the Muslim Brotherhood?

As individuals, they are very pleasant.

With our Muslim brotherhood cousins and friends, I was first asked by somebody very senior—I wont tell you who—in the Ikhwan in Egypt, two years ago, they said, what advice would you give us? I said to her, first, turn yourself into a truly national party. You can no longer represent a narrow constituency, and in doing so you need to build trust with the people, and you need to build trust in the political process. That was number one.

Two: don’t start to fight the ideological and cultural wars, because this will take you strength away from what you really need to fight, which is the crisis of expectations which is going to meet you, which means that you will have to focus on the economic projects.

Three was build capability. You may think you can do A, B and C, but being in government is a different game. Four: when you have to, fight extremism. I will give you an example: In Tunisia, they have realized that they have to fight some of the extremists in their own country who are challenging the authority of the state and its monopoly on the use of force. This is very very important, because if you go and kill Chokri Belaid, you put the whole political process into turmoil; but these people have to be counted if this is the case. And of course, fifth, work with the international community, because you will have to in a multilateral fashion.

The Ikhwan in Egypt has not taken much of that advice. They have not managed the pressures on them. And yes, there are all of these other factors—the ex-regime trying to derail them, or the opposition not playing ball . . . but that’s not good enough. The responsibility for the democratic transition lay in their hands, and in that respect, they could have done a much better job, to the point that Egypt now is on the verge of becoming a failing state, and this should not be the case when it comes to Egypt.