Interview with Abdullah Baabood

24 October 2014, Istanbul

Abdullah Baabood is an Assistant Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at Qatar University. He was the Director of Gulf Research Centre at Cambridge University. He has a number of publications in the political, economic, security and social developments of the Gulf States.

He holds membership in many academic and research institutions, business organizations and professional bodies as well. He is currently Director of Gulf Studies Program at Qatar University.

Elif Gizem Demirag: What is the impact of the Arab Spring on the domestic structures of the countries in the Arab Gulf region? Is there any chance for reform in these countries?

Abdullah Baabood: When the Arab Spring started in Tunisia, the echo of the Arab Spring came across to the Gulf. We can see that the Gulf was not far away from the Arab Spring uprisings started in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. You saw either actual uprising in the Gulf like Bahrain and Oman or virtual by using the cyber space where in the rest of the Gulf States. It echoed the way hit the Gulf. There was a lot of support for the Arab Spring especially among the youth in the region. Unfortunately, the reform and the Gulf States that was taking place before the Arab Spring has stopped. We have now gone before the Arab Spring because the regimes and rulers in the Gulf were very apprehensive about the changes that were taking place and this wave that it will sweep everything away. State authorities and security apparatus became more powerful and state became securitized. When the state and the regime are under threat, it opens the public space less especially popular participation; it becomes much more exclusive than inclusive. It tries to break the reforms because the reform means there will be more public participation that can create more accountability and transparency and so the states do not want that.

Elif Gizem Demirag: Did the Arab Spring play a role in intra-GCC tension? How do you explain the ongoing rivalries in the GCC?

Abdullah Baabood: When the Arab Spring started, six different GCC states have different views on the Arab Spring. Qatar saw that this is a historical movement; democracy and change has to finally come to the region. They had to be seen in the right side of the history and they wanted to support the aspirations of the youth. And, they sided with the Arab Spring against the authoritarian regimes in the Arab countries. Other GCC states saw it differently and some were themselves affected by the Arab Spring itself but others did not like the changes because at least two major allies, Husnu Mubarak and Abidine in Tunisia, they have lost these allies, they had established a long term relationship with them. There were also other Gulf States saw that these change is going to threaten them, they afraid of the domino effect of the spring will hit the Gulf especially in Bahrain and Oman; they have been status quo in anti-revolutionary.Therefore, you saw Qatar was supporting, some of them were keeping quite. This conflict became larger to let to withdrawal of ambassadors from three member states of the GCC, they have drawn their ambassadors from Qatar. The conflict is still ongoing and the relationship within the regional organization is not very healthy. Next summit supreme council meeting is scheduled to be held in Doha. However, it is not going to be held there because of the conflict even if it is going to be low level representation. They organized a consultative meeting which is not formal one yearly summit even that did not take place. Conflict is not small; it is quite deep. And it is effecting the organization of GCC, whole regional integration and future plans about how GCC is going to develop.

Elif Gizem Demirag: Do you see a Gulf momentum? What does it mean in practical terms in the rest of the Arab world?

Abdullah Baabood: Gulf States have become very important players in the Arab world and Middle East even before the Arab Spring, because of the increase in oil price, accumulation of wealth, economic development that was taking place. And, their GDP has grown very fast, their budget surplus has become bigger, they have some of the highest sovereign wealth funds, economic development, financial surplus and energy reserves gave them political power and lever. Economic power is translated into political power and influence. GCC GDP constitutes more than half the of Arab World GDP and many Arab countries are dependent on GCC states' economic and psychological political aid. This is the Gulf moment in history where the center of gravity in Arab politics has shifted to the Gulf region.The Gulf States could have used this wealth and power to transform the Arab and the Middle East region especially those countries' transition following the Arab spring. However, that was not the case because of the inter-state conflicts and attitudes toward Arab Spring. Instead, we see that they are working against each other. While they could have played a constructive role affecting positive development, we see they in some cases that they transferred their power into a negative development. Many have commented that the Gulf States are conducting their Cold War in other Arab countries using their power to support one group against the other instead of trying to develop those countries and helping them to stabilize throughout the difficult transition. It is very unfortunate because the whole region needs development, stabilisation and security, not on-going conflicts. The conflicts between the Gulf states themselves translated into creating more problems in the region rather than solutions.

Elif Gizem Demirag: Why do a number of GCC countries participate in the fight against ISIL? What is the nature of the threat of ISIL to the Gulf region?

Abdullah Baabood: ISIL is a threat to the whole region. They are non-state actor and they are challenging the nature of states in everywhere. Their brutal activities and their misuse of Islam in the wrong way have brought them a lot of condemnation. They also challenge the prevailing state system and they are calling it Islamic Khalifa. This constitutes a challenge not only the GCC states but also all the states in the region. It is not underanable that the Gulf States will start acting against them especially as there is international coalition that is building and the Gulf States would not like to be seen as excluded. Indeed some GCC states or actors within these sates are accused of supporting ISIL by sending funds or empowering ISIL factions and some GCCSG nationals are reported to have joined ISIL. So participating in the international coalition, although some believe it won't succeed, help alleviate some of the blame and show their willingness to defend their own security and demonstrate their worthiness especially to the US that they can play a positive role.

Elif Gizem Demirag: How do you explain UAE and Qatar activism in foreign policy? What are the main motives?

Abdullah Baabood: Both are the members of GCC and both are small states. Foreign policy analysis teaches us that small state tend to have an active foreign policy especially when blessed with a lot of wealth like these two countries. For such small Gulf, they are almost compelled to pursue an active foreign policy to balance out against their more larger and powerful neighbors. Qatar has been active even before the Arab Spring, both countries were very much engaged in foreign aid, reconciliation and mediation, and they have done lots of fantastic work all the way from Philippines to Africa. They used their foreign aid and donation to help their mediation efforts and achieved good results. What has changed though,after the Arab Spring, is that they became much more active in an interventionist foreign policy. This has become obvious especially in Libya which is an interesting example where the Gulf States took an active role bringing down Gaddafi and his regime and also in Syria against the Assad regime. However, in some cases and explained earlier they pursue different objectives. While Qatar see the Arab Spring as a positive change and took side with the youth revolts, supporting the transition from authoritarian to more democratic systems, the United Arab Emirates is very much a status quo power along with Saudi Arabia and thus trying to act as a counter balance to such revolutionary change and transition and thus act as counter-revolution. Qatar and UAE therefore follow divergent and competing policies in this regard trying to outplay each other. This is unfortunate for the Gulf States themselves as it has raised tension within the GCC and led to inter-GCCSG conflicts but also this was not helpful to the post Arab spring countries in the transition.

Elif Gizem Demirag: What are the sources of Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry in the current era? What future holds according to your assessment?

Abdullah Baabood: Saudi Arabia and Iran rivalry is not new it has always been there. There were two pillars that the US has to used in the past to ensure security in the region. However, given their size and status they have always been competing with each other. They differ ethnically, one is Persian state and another one is Arab state. And, although they are both Islamic states they differ ideologically , one is Sunni-Salafi and another one is the Shi'a state. Both states try to play a hegemonic role in the region. The Iranian Reveolution that took place in the late 1970s added a new dimension by introducing Shi'a regime and ushered the sectarian conflict. The Islamic Republic of Iran declared that the traditional monarchical Gulf regimes are illegitimate and called for the export of the revolution to the Gulf States. Even before the Arab spring, the US invasion of Iraq, fundamentally altered the prevailing political system where the Shi' a majority started to become more powerful working closely with Iran which increased Iran's influence in the region and threaten the Saudi Sunni influence. During the Arab spring, Iran sided with uprising in Bahrain which has a Shi' a majority which led Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States to send their forces under 'Peninsula Sheild' to protect Bahrain from what they perceived as Iranian intervention or invasion. Therefore, it is an ideological and hegemonic competition, sectarian conflict, accentuated by regional rivalry and competion. This not helpful to the whole region and leaderships in both Iran and Saudi Arabia need to find a better way to find out of this as they are wasting much energy and resources unnecessarily. For the future, they need to start thinking beyond the immediate benefit and consider the larger long term benefits. The two leaderships in Iran and Saudi Arabia need to understand that these conflict are not going to help anybody; there are other more useful ways of conducting international relations. The region is in desperate need for more collaboration, reconciliation, mediation, social, political and economic development rather than rivalry an conflicts. Therefore, rather than zero sum game, they have to look at win-win mutually beneficial relationship.

Elif Gizem Demirag: I guess this is what is hoped, but do you think that it is really possible?

Abdullah Baabood: I hope it is going to be possible. I believe there are reasons that prompts them to work together. The threat of ISIL is only one of them but there other social, economic and political challenges that requires regional cooperation and regional solutions. There is a need for more confidence building measures so that they cooperate and see the benefit of working together. In the past and during president Khatami, there was some sort of a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Therefore, I do not see why can't this happen under the moderate Rouhani government .

Elif Gizem Demirag: What are the foreign policy objectives of Saudi Arabia? Do you see a counter-revolutionary trend in Saudi policy vis-a-vis the Arab Spring?

Abdullah Baabood: The declared foreign policy objectives of Saudi Arabia are to protect the kingdom and ensuring stability and security of the region, collaborating with IGOs and other organizations. Saudi Arabia is a status-quo power and status-quo powers always like stability. They see their security comes through stability. Political change coming through uprising and revolution is seen as a something that threatens the status-quo power. The Arab Spring does actually challenge the status-quo and stability in the region because revolutions by their very own nature are unstable. There are many people who would say Saudi Arabia act as a counter revolutionary to the Arab Spring supporting the military coup in Egypt, trying to put down and support the incumbent regimes against uprising in many Arab countries. In that sense, yes, it is a revisionist power because of its nature of being a status-quo power which stability over change.