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Interview with Christopher Davidson on the current and future state of Middle East politics
With a new US presidency, an increasingly assertive Saudi crown prince, unprecedented Arab-Israeli peace agreements, and a particularly complex Saudi-Iran dynamic, British author Christopher Davidson shares his views on the current and future state of Middle East politics in the interview offered to Geostrategic Pulse magazine.

Geostrategic Pulse: In the political geography of the Middle East, the regional and global evolutions following the Arab Spring have turned the "oil monarchies" from the Arabic-Persian Gulf into very dynamic and polymorphic strategic actors on the political, military and security stage of this region. From this point of view, to what extent can we ascertain the theory that in this part of the Middle East we are currently witnessing a shift in its identity paradigm and the establishment of a new and genuine pole of power and influence, equally important and challenging to the regional system and to its relationship to the outside world?

Christopher Davidson: To some extent, it’s certainly true that the Gulf oil monarchies have become increasingly assertive international actors, willing to intervene in a range of conflicts, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings.  They were concerned with the prospect of new regimes or even democracies forming in once friendly states; or in some cases saw the prospect of removing old enemies once and for all (Gaddafi in Libya, Assad in Syria).  That said, for the most part their actions and interventions seem to have been undertaken with Western permission and assistance, most notably in Libya and Syria (and more recently in Yemen).

In "From Sheikhs to Sultanism" you approach "the reformist revival" which, notably in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates brings forth two new important icons - crown prince Muhammad Bin Salman (Saudi Arabia) in Riyadh and crown prince Muhammad Bin Zayed (the United Arab Emirates) in Abu Dhabi. Many commentators see in them archetypes of a reconfiguration – as far as the autocracy, individualism and despotism of the governing system. However, are the Saudi and Emirati societies ready and willing to agree to the dictatorial return to the former imamates, sheikhdoms and sultanates, even under the pretext of social, economic and moral modernization?

It definitely seems the case that the vast majority of Saudi and Emirati citizens (and in particular almost all young citizens) are fully supportive of the new autocracies.  They see these regimes as the best bet of properly reforming oil dependent economic systems, and (in Saudi Arabia’s case) challenging religious and traditional institutions that have historically restricted their social freedoms.

With specific reference to Saudi Arabia, it is well known that the birth and remanence of the Saudi state is based on the sacred pact signed two centuries ago between the Muslim Salafi Wahhabism and the leader of the Al-Sa'ud tribe. Since the Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman did not hesitate to take actions, to what extent do you believe that the price of “modernization” could actually mean the undermining of the very core fundaments of the monarchy and the Wahhabi state?

Time will tell, but there is no doubt that the Saudi crown prince has gone much further than any previous Saudi rulers in this respect.  In the space of just a few years he has essentially stripped Saudi Arabia’s most powerful clerics of their remaining powers, either by co-opting them or removing them.  In turn, this has effectively brought to an end the centuries-old ruling pact between the Al-Saud and the descendants and followers of Al-Wahhab.  Undoubtedly there will at some point be resistance, but it seems unlikely that at this stage many Saudi citizens would join forces with ultra-conservative traditionalists.

The 41st summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council that took place in January 2021, in the Saudi city of Al-Ula, ended the three-and-a-half-year long expulsion of Qatar. It was accepted back into the organization, with the pledge that all countries "remain united to face any threats aimed at one or all of the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council".

To what extent may we venture to believe in a real reconciliation between the ruling families and in the willingness of the six member countries to jointly achieve something they have not been able in the 40 years of existence of the origination?

It’s possible that there will be genuine progress in rebuilding and making the GCC even stronger, especially under Biden’s presidency.  However, Biden may only be in power for four years, and there is no guarantee that his successor would similarly promote reconciliation.  In this scenario, future US presidents (perhaps Trump again, or someone similar such as Pence or Pompeo) might prefer to ‘take sides’ with individual GCC members such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  More generally, it’s also unclear to what extent Saudi Arabia and the UAE have fully ‘forgiven’ Qatar for its long-running support of Islamist organizations and—as they claim—more extremist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

The new American administration, led by the Democrat Joe Biden, was perceived in the Middle East in general and in the Gulf in particular with feelings ranging from hope to concern. With regard to this, and looking at the Middle-Eastern policies evolutions and expected changes, do you tend to see the glass half full or half empty, progress or disillusionment?

It’s perhaps too early to predict, but so far the signs seem good.  Biden has given strong signals that the destructive and long-running war in Yemen needs to come to an end, and he also seems keen to get Iran to return to the negotiating table. On the other hand, however, many of Biden’s advisors and colleagues are the same as those who worked with Obama, and many regional governments will be distrustful of US officials who ostensibly backed the Muslim Brotherhood’s government in Egypt and—so it seems— sponsored and facilitated a range of CIA ‘shadow wars’ stretching from North Africa to the Levant.

Two of the six Arab monarchies in the Gulf - The EAU and Bahrain - have joined the "Abraham Peace Process" to normalize bilateral relations with Israel, and the odds seem to be that this could go on, with the Saudi Kingdom joining in. Do you believe this could happen?

If Trump had been re-elected, I think it would have been almost certain that Saudi Arabia would have eventually joined in.  With Biden in power, however, the crown prince is more likely to drag his heels, as there will probably be less pressure from the White House (this particular, economy-driven peace process was, after all, a Trump era initiative).  Moreover, the crown prince will prefer not to risk antagonizing certain sections of his population at a time when he needs to initiate enormous and sweeping domestic economic and social reforms.

The Arab-Israeli relationship normalization is, in its legal basis, an issue of national sovereignty. At the same time, an equally old and influential concept continues to be used in the inventory of slogans and in the traditional rhetoric of the Arab regimes, even if only at the level of declarations of "good-will" - "Joint Arab Action". Saudi Arabia has been, ever since 2002, the patron of an "Arab Peace Initiative" that stipulates Arab recognition of the State of Israel and establishment of relations with the country, in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state within the borders in 1967 with Eastern Jerusalem as capital and the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories. How feasible and realistic do you see a form of coordination among all six countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, and with the other six Arab nations that have direct relations with Israel (the EAU, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt and Jordan) or those maintaining low profile contacts with the Israelis, with a view to unlock the Palestinian file and reach a positive solution to it? Even more so, since the Biden administration seems to be open to, and support the "two state solution".

I think it’s certainly feasible, and under a Biden administration I think it’s more likely that such a solution will be driven by diplomatic compromises rather than Trump-like economic incentives.  Undoubtedly now, compared to 2002, there are a substantial number of Arab states that already have de facto diplomatic and economic relations with Israel, and on this basis there is much less reputational risk for Arab governments in formally recognizing Israel and moving forward with a two state solution.

Joe Biden has also inherited from the previous administration the Iranian "nuclear file" (JCPOA), which is subject of a media frenzy with all sorts of pros and cons. On the 6th of January, the USA has decided to revoke the (Trump administration’s) decision to include the Houthi rebels in Yemen on the list of foreign terrorist organizations. The decision was confirmed by the State Department only one day after President Trump stated that, out of humanitarian reasons, he no longer supported the campaign led by Saudi Arabia in its proxy wars against Iran and Yemen. How do you interpret these signals? Good-will gestures to soften the position of the Iranians considering the upcoming presidential elections? As a shift in the American approach of the cooperation policy with the Saudi monarchy, or just an act in a multiple act regional play?

Biden’s Iran policy is undoubtedly complex, as on the one hand he needs to keep on board key US partners in the region (most notably Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE), but on the other hand he is keen to rescue the Obama administration’s key foreign policy achievement. In this context it is most likely that Biden will try to play at both ends, guaranteeing Saudi and UAE security (ie. safeguarding their territories from Houthi or Iranian missile attacks), while at the same time reviving the US’ role in the JCPOA and ensuring that Saudi Arabia and the UAE withdraw and effectively concede Yemen to Iran-linked proxies.  It’s possible too, that Biden will try to find some sort of compromise agreement in Lebanon, where Iran-linked groups (most notably Hezbollah) currently hold the upper hand, while Saudi and Western-linked allies (most notably the Hariri family) are presently embattled.

On the 6th of February, during a media appearance, the secretary of state Antony Blinken stated that depending on regional evolutions, the USA might reconsider its (Donald Trump's) recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights -  "over time if the situation were to change in Syria, that’s something we look at, but we are nowhere near that”.  To this, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promptly and clearly responded that “Golan Heights will remain forever a part of the State of Israel.”

Can this foretell clouds in the US-Israel relations, as during Obama's mandate?

It’s certainly possible that the Biden administration might try to pressure Israel into conceding the Golan Heights, especially if they feel they can offer Tel Aviv an extremely comprehensive and potentially lasting agreement with the majority of Arab states, thus cutting off the support base for groups such as Hamas.  On the other hand, however, it’s also possible that this was an ill-judged media response and as such should not be interpreted as being a future Biden administration bargaining chip.