The McAlvany Weekly Commentary
with David McAlvany and Kevin Orrick
“In today’s program we look at what does a balance of power strategy look like for the United States in a very complex Middle East, a Middle East that cannot be controlled through normal diplomacy. We are talking about Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia.”
– Kevin Orrick
“The United States at this point in the Middle East is kind of like a juggler who is juggling a number of balls, and the question is, is this sustainable? And if it is not, then how do you shift gears?” One thing is for sure, which is that the region will have more anarchy moving forward, and for a long time, before we have some semblance of stability.”
– Kamran Bokhari
Kevin: Our guest today, Middle East expert Kamran Bokhari, is a senior analyst with the intelligence firm Geopolitical Futures and a senior fellow with the D.C. based think tank The Center for Global Policy. Dave, the lens that we look at the Middle East with seems to be different for every person that I talk to.
David: Today we are taking a trip to the Middle East, through the Middle East, and kind of a grand tour with comments on Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. The question we begin with is, what lens do you see the world through? We know that cultural, economic, social and spiritual issues are factors that impact the way we see things, how we believe the fabric of reality to be woven together.
Of course, opinions differ in every age, race, religion and geography. You start with Aristotle in about the third century B.C., and you move forward, and there is a conversation about how you interpret texts. We call that, today, hermeneutics. I think of the first significant division, part hermeneutics and part politics, within the Christian world, in about 1054 between the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Church. The split was about power, ultimately about authority and where that authority rested.
So we have these divisions within the Christian world, geography and ideas, Rome, Constantinople. And of course, those divisions were even manifest more when Martin Luther protested in Wittenberg 500 years ago this year, and implored the church to change and revise its teachings. Of course, the fractionalization begins further with John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, as I mentioned, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli.
There is a parallel within the Muslim world. There are the two broad differences between Shi’a and Sunni, but it is more complicated than that, and it doesn’t matter what lens you are looking through, the interpretive grid that you use to study a text and come to conclusions can lead you to a radically different conclusion. Why do these things matter? Why do we engage the conversation about hermeneutics and politics as we look at international relations and attempt to understand, let’s say, for instance, the political economy in Saudi Arabia.
With us today is Kamran Bokhari, who has visited with us on numerous occasions relating to Turkey and the Middle East. Kamran, thank you for joining us again. Westerners, who, I think, lead such busy lives, may not appreciate the distinctions within the world of Islam and maybe even don’t even care, asking the question, why does this matter? I ask Kamran Bokhari today, why do these things matter? Why do the distinctions matter as we engage with international relations issues and attempt to understand political economy in the Middle East, why do these distinctions and interpretational differences matter?
Kamran: They matter because in order to understand what is going on in the Arab and Muslim world we need to understand the cultural dynamics, the historical trajectory of this part of the world in order to see where it is going and how it will unfold. We have this default assumption that the world must democratize and it somehow should have some form of a parallel with the European experience, or the Western experience, the trajectory that runs from the Renaissance to the Reformation to enlightenment and beyond, and the flowering of Western democracy. Our Western culture, in many ways, prevents us, becomes a handicap, in terms of trying to understand the rest of the world and how it is unfolding, and here we cannot limit ourselves to the Muslim world. We can talk about Russia, we can talk about China, Africa, other parts of the world that are not necessarily going to democratize along that same line.
In other words, what I am saying is that there is the argument that has been recently made that Islam is exceptional. I would sort of flip that and say, actually, what is exceptional is the European trajectory which is the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment trajectory, and therefore we may want to look for parallels. We may look for Martin Luthers in the Muslim world, and that is a reasonable way of looking at it.
But we really need to understand, ground up, who are the players, who are the characters? There is no, if you will, parallel to, or an equivalent of, Catholicism within Islam. Some people argue that Shi’a Islam is closer to Catholicism than is the majority Sunni sect. Nonetheless, it has its own dynamics, and therefore to look for a clergy and then say, are there reformists within the clergy, I think that has a limiting effect tin terms of trying to understand where is this intra-Muslim religious struggle going?
David: You say that while most Jihadists are Salafists, the reverse is not true. We think of the Islamic world as divided most broadly between Sunni and Shi’ite, two competing groups that have wanted power over the Muslim world. They each had a unique justification for their legitimacy. And you contrast the difference expressions of Wahhabism and suggest that not all are the same. Saudi Arabia may have given us a certain form of radical Islam, but that, in fact, paints with too broad a brush struck. Why don’t you walk us through the history of the Saudi Peninsula and the distinctions within Salafism, and just explain a little bit why that careful analysis is so important on the subject.
Kamran: Yes, indeed. Most people will look at, in a binary fashion, the Shi’a and the Sunni struggle, and not understand that within the Shi’a camp there are multiple subdivisions, and more importantly, within the majority Sunni camp there are lots of divisions. One of the main trends that have essentially arisen and strengthened in the 20th century, and as we move deeper into the 21st century, is Salafism. It is a particular form of Sunni Islam that essentially calls for the return to the age of the prophet and the earliest generations, and emulates their practices, essentially trying to jettison everything else that was accumulated in terms of knowledge and practice and thought since then. The centuries of development of religious thought is seen by Salafists as somehow a deviation from the original understanding of Islam.
But Salafism, itself, is very complicated, and this is something I argue, and I just recently finished my PhD dissertation in which I look at this and I say that geopolitical centrifugal forces are ripping up – if we can call it that – Salafism, and pulling it into three different directions. There is the original Salafism, which is composed of scholars and students and followers that, I wouldn’t say, is apolitical. I would say it is quietist, in the sense that they don’t engage in formal politics. And I draw a distinction between quietist and apolitical behavior. One is not the same as the other. You could still be political, but be quietist, and when I say quietist, I mean, not have political parties, not deal with the government other than what is necessary in terms of registering your religious society, your mosque, your center.
And in the case of Saudi Arabia, for the Salafis that form the majority of that country, and I am not talking specifically about the religious establishment, I am talking about everybody in that country who subscribes to Sunni Islam subscribes to Salafism in one shape or form. It includes the Saudi royal family, it includes the common person, and of course, the clergy, the religious class. And for them, the Saudi kingdom is already an Islamic state and therefore there is no need to indulge in politics. The extent to which you should indulge in politics, from the point of view of those Salafists and the government is to support the government, and to support this Islamic state. And this is the effort that Riyadh is trying to do to counter those who are challenging Saudi Arabia. First it was Al-Qaeda, and now it is ISIS, that is trying to do that. That is your one form of Salafism, which is quietist, which is no formal participation in politics. There is a form of quietist Salafism which is in Saudi Arabia. There is another form of quietist Salafism that is in Egypt which is unique to that country because of its political and social conditions. But then, there are the Jihadist Salafists, those who say that quietism does not offer a solution to the political problems of Muslims, and they reject the idea that Saudi Arabia, or any other state that claims to be Islamic, is actually Islamic, and they say that that Islamic state, some will pursue a caliphate, like Al Qaeda and ISIS. Others will say they are content with an Emirate, a limited state, for now, and we’ll get to the caliphate when we get to it.
But the bottom line is that those people who subscribe to Jihadist Salafism seek to establish a state that does not exist and they think that armed struggle and Jihad, specifically, in the military sense, because Jihad is very broad, but in this case, they are really talking about the military form of Jihad – that is the way to establish that Islamic state.
So those were your two prominent rival, competing forms of Salafism until the Arab Spring, and then we had something which I have coined as electoral Salafism, which is the rise of Salafist political parties. Mind you that they did not rise for the first time after the Arab spring. We have had cases of Salafist groups and Salafist movements trying to form political parties in Algeria and in Persian Gulf countries like Kuwait and Bahrain before the Arab Spring.
But really, the biggest manifestation of electoral Salafism emerged in Egypt when one of the largest Salafi movements based in Alexandria called the Salafi Call decided to form a political party called the Party of the Light, or in Arabic, Hizb al-Nur. Hizb al-Nur came in second place after the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2011/2012 elections and emerged as a major force, and that was new form of Salafism where the idea that democracy is un-Islamic and politics is to be shunned – that was sort of discarded. And there was an embracing of at least electoral politics. So those are your three forms of Salafism – electoral, jihadist and quietist.
David: So the electoral, jihadist and quietist – if those are the three, we have a better appreciation for the roots of modern jihadism. It is interesting that the U.S. and Western interests have had intersection with jihadist movements in the past. I think of, in Afghanistan, the Mujahidin who were fighting the Soviets, and I wonder if there is any helpful background here that relates the U.S. and our sort of intersections with jihadists, not in opposition to them, but actually helping them at certain points in history. Of course, now we have the opposing and conflicting points of geography, but we have actually helped more than hurt, if you are looking at history. Is that partially true?
Kamran: I think it is, and it must be understood within the logic of the Cold War, back in the day when jihadists were not the global threat. It wasn’t too long ago when Communism manifested in the form of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact of countries and its allies and proxies across the world. That was seen as the major threat to global peace. And in containing the Soviet threat, or the Communist threat, the United States and other Western countries allied itself with, at the time, religious elements. The Saudi kingdom was one of them.
And when the Soviets were able to establish a Communist regime in Afghanistan and then sent in forces to support that regime, which was facing an uprising by Islamist insurgents, the United States decided to back those Islamist insurgents. Now, the United States had no idea that that would lead to a situation, or empowering actors that were going to then turn on the West.
And so, at the time, the idea was, we have a threat, it is called Communism, in the Soviet Union. We needed to neutralize it, and it was convenient to play with any and all actors, or align with any and all actors that were ready to fight in this struggle. And hence, we supported the so-called Mujahidin. I don’t like to use that term, it gives them sort of religious legitimacy. I would rather use the word, Islamist insurgents, A, to not do that, and B, to remain objective. And so, those Islamist insurgents were largely Afghan groups, seven groups in total.
But then there was a large contingent of foreign fighters. There was the Arab Legion, and Osama bin Laden would later go on to found Al Qaeda and then attack the United States. He was a prominent figure in the Arab Legion. His mentor, Abdullah Azzam, was another one. But then there were fighters from all across the various Muslim countries. You could go to Southeast Asia and you would see volunteers in Afghanistan fighting alongside the Islamist insurgents. I doubt there were many from central Asia, because Central Asia, at the time, the five “Stans” were part of the Soviet Union so it was impossible for Muslims from that part of the world, or even Chechnya, to participate on the side of the Islamist insurgents who were fighting Soviet forces and their proxy Communist government.
Nonetheless, there was this transnationalization of jihadism, and different forms of Islamic insurgents with varying degrees of objectives and incentives and ideas about what the future ought to look like. They were able to come together, it was almost like an incubator for what would later because the transnational jihadist threat.
David: That is interesting. We have a new incubation process and it is online. We know that there is a broad push to gather people in, and draw people in to the struggle, if you will. And a lot of the recruitment and radicalization has taken place online. We have asked the question before in our program – who controls the Internet? Under what circumstances would freedoms be eliminated, or ideas and opinions censored? Who adjudicates what is legitimate religious expression versus what is radical? And you argue that it is an imperative to craft a counter-message to the message which is found compelling in that radicalization process. I’m curious what your opinion is? What is the appeal in the radicalization message?
Kamran: The appeal in the radicalization message stems from a variety of factors. One is the lack of a coherent identity on the part of the potential recruits, socioeconomic underdevelopment or downright poverty. The idea that the status quo is somehow inauthentic and that religion, Islam, and the Muslim identity will provide for a solution to the problems of the here and now. And the lack of a centralized, or at least, one center. There would be multiple centers as was the case in the past in the pre-modern age, that speak for Islam.
Now, one of the things that has happened with the globalization effect, especially with the spread of online technology and the emergence of many platforms, particularly social media, there can be multiple centers of who speaks for Islam. The local mosque is still where you go and pray, but that is performing a ritual. You may not necessarily agree with the Imam, or his sect, or his views, and everybody has sort of what I would call a microwavable Islam because you don’t need to go to a restaurant to eat. You can bring home food and microwave it in your microwave oven and be done with it.
I think there is a parallel here with ideas. There is a term they use in Britain. It is called Do It Yourself. The acronym is DIY. There is a do-it-yourself Islam and it depends on who is doing it. And then there are many people, which is why you have all these chat rooms and these various factions. And one of the things that is laid bare here when you study this is how deeply fragmented Muslim religious thought is. We just talked about the three main types of Salafism. It goes much deeper than that. I can tell you that there are rival Salafists within the quietist tradition in Egypt who compete with each other, based on geography, based on personality, based on a difference of ideas.
And this hyperfragmentation is made possible, and is continuing, because of the ability to communicate now. In the old world when we were dealing with the Soviets in Afghanistan, we didn’t have an Internet, we didn’t have cell phone technology, and at that point in time things seemed more packaged, more coherent, more digestible. But now, what does it take to form a group? It could be a Facebook page. They may not even exist in real space.
And then you go from there and people move on and graduate and become actual groups in physical space. And so, I think that this is something that is not only preventing the emergence of a counter-narrative, but also what is, in other words, promoting the problem, or exacerbating the original problem, which is a radicalization and spread of extremism, and a particularly violent extremism.
David: Yes, it is interesting, the challenge of creating a counter-message. What does the counter-message include if it is crafted in the West? Is it dead on delivery if it is crafted from within Muslim circles? Is it immediately suspect because it has a more moderate tone? It sounds, to some degree, like an old-fashioned propaganda war.
Kamran: Some will call it that. Certainly, Islamists and jihadists will look at a counter-narrative and say, “This is made in the USA, and therefore illegitimate to begin with.” And I think that it is very difficult to talk in great detail as to what are the ingredients for a counter-narrative? This is something that we are currently dealing with. This is not something that has happened in the past. And we are studying it as a work of history, and we’re just trying to understand what happened in the past. It is almost like we’re trying to run with the bullet that we fired from a gun, and we are trying to understand where it is going to go. What is necessary, though, is that any counter-message must be seen as legitimate and authentic by the target audience, or at least a good number within. Not everybody will subscribe to it. There will be lots of doubts raised and our enemies, the jihadists, have their own psychological operations shop running, and they are working feverishly to try to discredit any moderate prescription, or any alternative. Even the word moderate has become a bad word in Muslim societies because it is somehow seen as less authentic. We used to have the problem of the word secular, which meant irreligiosity to many Muslims, and not religious neutrality, which is how most people look at secular or secularism. But now even the words moderate and moderation is somehow seen as diluting your identity and your beliefs, and that is a big challenge. How do you come up with a message that will gain some traction? And that traction requires legitimacy and authenticity, not just in terms of the message, but also, the one who is providing that message. So not everybody can craft that message. You must be seen as an authentic, legitimate player to begin with.
And then you run into the problem of, okay, so who is an authentic and legitimate messenger or actor within this space? That is where you get into sectarianism. I often see simplistic arguments being made in the open sources that we need to promote Sufi Islam, which is not hardline, it is very liberal, in order to counter Salafi Islam. These are very superficial and simplistic arguments, but more so, they are very dangerous because no one realizes that there is a Salafi Islam because it arose out of a rejection of Sufism to begin with. And to get Sufis to counter Salafis is like adding more fuel to the fire.
Let’s not even get into what would happen if we were to say, let’s get Shi’ites to go and counter Salafis or Sunnis, or seeing the geo-sectarian war raging in Iraq and Syria. That would just exponentially grow, not that it isn’t already, but that is my point, that you have to sort of navigate through this mine field of sectarianism and you can’t align yourself with the sectarian other in order to undermine the radicals and the extremists. I firmly believe that the solution lies within Salafism itself. We need to have actors within Salafism who realize that quietism and jihadism is undermining their own faith, and they have to evolve. And yes, in many ways I say that electoral Salafism must be encouraged.
Now, if you encourage, you get too close and then you have the proximity factor and you run the risk of de-legitimizing those actors that you prefer. So in many ways it is almost like we need to stay out of history’s way on one end, but at the same time we can’t just be mere spectators. So the challenge before us is a very, very difficult one.
David: So the house of Saud, speaking of adding fuel to the fire, the oil price declines have hit their revenues, have impaired their ability to pay for all the social obligations promised in the past, and it really has been the power of the purse more than anything else since 1938 that has kept them in leadership. Talk to me about what is at stake and fill in the details on, just here in recent weeks, the reinstatement of public sector and military salaries and bonuses which had been cut, back in September of 2016, because they had such significant budget deficits.
Kamran: To begin with, the cuts, the restoration of those allowances that, not just military officers, but also civil servants, were getting in Saudi Arabia, shows one thing very clearly. There are serious limits to how much change and reform the Saudi government can bring upon because it is very hard-wired in the political, economic, social fabric of the kingdom. The kingdom is used to these handouts. The kingdom’s legitimacy partly comes from Islam, from being perceived as an Islamic entity promoting the “right faith,” Salafism.
But on the other hand, it was, as you rightly pointed out, since 1938 it was the ability to provide for a very comfortable life for the citizenry. And that is sort of, if you will, a drip on which the population of Saudi Arabia has been kept and now it is very, very hard to withdraw those incentives and those financial perks and benefits and hope to maintain stability. This is the social contract of Saudi Arabia that it cannot walk away from, at least not in the short term, and not without some upheaval. And it is upheaval that they are trying to avoid.
And so, because there was a little bit more revenue over the past year because the price went from the mid 30s to the mid 50s, so they got a little bit more money out of the oil proceeds, and of course they cut off a lot of the projects that they hoped to do when oil prices were high, so that provided for a little bit more cash, but look what they did with it. They immediately, as fast as they could, reinstated the allowances.
What does that tell you? It tells you that the regime is very fearful of instability, social unrest, and I would add, insubordination within the military, and worse, factions within the state and the royal family, thinking that the current rulers are unable to lead and therefore that opens up doors for potential coups down the road.
I am not saying that is necessarily going to happen, but I am just trying to explain what is on the mind of the Saudis when they go ahead and say, “Okay, six months ago we cut your allowances, but now they are back. It is not that the economy is doing well. They are still in deficit spending and they are burning through their reserves, but you see how important this is so that they don’t rock the boat. And they want to maintain order at home so as to be able to deal with everything else that they are dealing with, a transition within the political system itself, from the second generation princes to the third, the multiple geopolitical crises that surround Saudi Arabia on all sides, the struggle with Iran, a changing relationship with its benefactor, the United States, and the rise of anarchy in the Arab world.
David: So it is fascinating. The balance of power in the Middle East, in some respects, is tied to commodity price cyclicality. Let’s imagine a world where the combustion engine is 80% phased out with electric vehicles becoming dominant. What does the Middle East landscape look like? How do we navigate relations with Russia who is equally oil-dependent as Saudi Arabia, in that kind of environment?
Kamran: That is one of the problems of Saudi Arabia, and the same thing for Russia. These economies are so heavily dependent on the export of crude. And when the demand for crude goes down, these countries are not able to pay their bills and whatever they have in savings, they begin to burn through them. And so, if there are no arrestors in this trend, then it is not very, if you will, difficult to see that there is going to be a destabilization of Saudi Arabia. And in many ways we are already seeing that.
It is the same for Russia. We have protests breaking out in Russia. People have not been paid several months of arrears in different parts of the country. There are cuts to the military. And the intervention in Syria is Putin’s way of demonstrating that the Russian regime is very strong to his own people and then again to the outside world those are two separate imperatives that the Kremlin has. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there are many who are associates of Putin who think that his best days and his best years are behind him. Ukraine was lost under his watch. The economic conditions have deteriorated. And so he is faced with the imperative to remain in power as well.
Ultimately, the landscape in the Middle East, if Saudi Arabia were to somehow weaken – and I don’t like these ideas of, okay, regime falls. Regimes don’t fall overnight, and even when they do fall, it is a lengthy process. So let’s just talk about a weakening of the Saudi state which is a more reasonable thing that could happen in the short term. Its ability to maintain domestic stability of the state is already being challenged by ISIS and Al Qaeda, ISIS from the north and Al Qaeda from the south, and Yemen. The war in Yemen is a huge drain.
And so, it is not really beyond the pale to start imagining a Saudi Arabia that has an insurgency in its country, an active one, and protests and disgruntled people and the chaos that is associated with the government that has been weakened financially.
David: When we say active insurgency, when we are describing the three strands of Salafism, we are describing one of them, the jihadists, which is unhappy with the status quo, and can’t perhaps get enough traction to get rid of the house of Saud because there are too many people who are happy with the funds that they are receiving directly from the state. What does the Saudi peninsula look like without the house of Saud?
Kamran: When we say without the house of Saud, I still think that they will be around. They won’t vanish. But their ability to project power, their ability to establish and maintain their writ within their own territory is going to be weakened. Keep in mind that Saudi Arabia is one of the four major powers in the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and Israel being the others. And it is very apparent that the only Arab one is Saudi Arabia, and it, too, is weakening.
So if it weakens, its ability to support Jordan, its ability to support Morocco, Egypt, its ability to support the internationally recognized government’s effort to regain power in Yemen, Lebanon where it has interests, its efforts to support the rebellion against Assad, which is already floundering – that ability decreases sharply. And so, there is more chaos in the region, and then there is more chaos in the kingdom. There is more space for non-state actors, ISIS and Al Qaeda, and even if Al Qaeda and ISIS are – the jihadist Salafists – there is a built-in sort of contradiction within the kingdom where the more that the kingdom tries to fight Iran and to struggle against Iran and counter its rise in the region, the more it empowers the Salafists.
If you look at the way that ISIS became the biggest militia in Syria, it is because it benefitted from that sectarian warfare, or the sectarian struggle that the Saudis were promoting in order to topple Assad and hope to be able to punch a hole in the Iranian sphere of influence. At the same time, Salafism, has to reform. And the quietists have their own problems. There is a big demand from a large segment of Saudi citizens, many of whom are young people, the vast majority of whom are young people, for women to be able to drive.
Now, that is not acceptable to the quietist Salafists, and more conservative elements within society, and especially amongst the tribal leaders who form sort of the bedrock of support for the monarchy. How do you move toward reform and not upset the quietist Salafists? And then if you upset the quietist Salafists, the question is, how many of them will go and join the jihadists? Or at the very least, it opens up opportunities within this space for the jihadists to exploit. And so, the Saudis have a major, major challenge. How do you remain who you are, protect against the rise of Iran and Shi’a-ism in the region, and I don’t mean religiously, I mean geopolitically. And at the same time, change who you are and retain that legitimacy?
One of the things that Al Qaeda started and ISIS has now really picked that ball up and has run with it, is challenging Saudi leadership over the intellectual leadership of Salafism. The fact that there is a jihadist Salafism is because the jihadists have challenged the quietist form of Salafism as being inadequate. And challenging the quietist Salafism is a challenge to the Saudi state.
David: You say regimes don’t fall overnight, and yet with the Arab spring there was only one country that was not massively impacted. And I am not exactly sure how Saudi Arabia side-stepped that mess. Can they continue to side-step that mess? And again, in the past they have maintained power. Will they continue to maintain power into the future? We had assumed such with the Mubarak regime. We had assumed such as you move through various countries in North Africa. And yet today, it is a very different place.
Kamran: Absolutely. And one of the problems why the Arab Spring was such a surprise for most people – I didn’t see any prediction prior to the Arab Spring that there would be an Arab Spring other than general statements like “tyranny cannot last forever.” But that is not a prediction, it is more of a political rhetoric. But does that mean that nothing was happening? Those precursors were not in motion? I think nobody paid attention to it.
One of the things that prevented us from looking at the precursors of the Arab Spring and not being able to identify them is that this happened in the first ten years after 9/11. After 9/11 the sole focus was that Al Qaeda is a threat, jihadists are a threat, and we need to focus on defeating them, which was perfectly legitimate. But the law of unintended consequences was also at work, and one of the unintended consequences was that we were not able to get ahead of the curve and say, “You know what? These regimes are weakening. There is more frustration. Unemployment is rising. What will happen when these people get a hold of social media?”
We just had regime change in Iraq and we showed the Arab world that you could actually have elections, and people who were nobody yesterday could come to power today. I’m talking about the Shi’ites and the Kurds. And then we had elections in Bahrain in 2006 and then we had the Palestinian elections in which Hamas won a majority in 2006. We didn’t stop to think and say, “What is the impact of all of this on the bigger Arab states – Egypt, Syria?” Are these people just going to say, “Oh well, you know what? This is what happens over there in the Palestinian territories or in Iraq. This is not how we do.”
We under-estimated their need or the desire of those people to come out onto the streets, regardless of who they were ideologically. And so, I think that it is the boat that most of us missed, and after the Arab Spring we once again locked ourselves into our ideological lenses and we were looking for democrats. We were looking for democrats who thought like us in the West and we didn’t realize that, yes, the Arab Spring was spear-headed by people who want democracy, but not our form of democracy.
And certainly this place is not about to turn into Wisconsin anytime soon. There is going to be upheaval and massive upheaval. We called it the Arab Spring, then we said, no, it’s not the spring, it’s the winter. But ultimately, the most organized form of groups were Islamists of different stripes – the Muslim Brotherhood, jihadists, and others, who took advantage of that opening. And it reinforced the ideological divide between those who were Islamists and those who were called secularists, but that term is problematic in terms of applying it to the Arab Muslim world, so I will just say non-Islamists.
And we didn’t understand that that would be a struggle, and that would be manipulated by the regimes, definitely in Egypt where the regime actually never fell and it was able to just sort of ease Mubarak out and maintain control. And so we have these problems of not being able to understand things ahead of time because we are sort of living in the moment. We confuse what we want to see happen with what is actually happening.
David: We are talking about Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, these being sort of the four regional powers. There is this significant swing vote, if you will, from Pakistan as a regional military assistant, and you go back to the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and at various points in time, the Pakistan military has played a very significant role, whether it is in putting down the PLO in Jordan as they rose up against the Hashemite regime, or there are dozens of instances where Pakistan all of a sudden is playing a role.
We now have the Islamic Military Alliance. Saudi Arabia is sort of a sponsor of it, if you will. Pakistan is involved in that. As we have talked today a lot about the sectarianism within Islam, is it realistic, is it possible to see the Islamic Military Alliance, the equivalent of sort of NATO for the Middle East, actually grow, flourish, become a significant force and represent something that facilitates peace in the region?
Kamran: I seriously doubt that will happen, at least not in our lifetimes, and not under the current conditions. And the reasons are simple. One is what I call the geo-sectarianism. So yes, from a Saudi point of view the Islamic Military Alliance is a potential tool to counter Iran because the United States is no longer protecting Saudi Arabia the way it used to. Historically, the Saudis have no military power of their own and so they need to have a coalition of countries to counter Iran in its rise.
It is very ironic from the point of view of the Saudis that at a time when the Arab world is hollowing out and Saudi power is declining, Iran’s fortunes are rising, and they feel an increasing sense of vulnerability. So they reached out to the Pakistanis and the Pakistanis have no shortage of problems of their own and they are not really enthusiastic about this, but they have a certain relationship that they cannot ignore with the Saudis. And so they feel obligated, and if we look at what they have done, so far they have just given a retired general to say, “Okay, he is our best guy, most respected general in recent memory. Why don’t you take him and he becomes a commander? And we can give you a brigade, as well.”
That’s to the extent that reports can be relied upon. We don’t really know what is happening behind the scenes, but if I were to guess, I think that there is huge resistance from Pakistan to play the Saudi game too far because Iran is a neighbor, and Pakistan has already been burnt by the Shia/Sunni violence. 20% of all Pakistanis are Shi’a and that is a significant minority. The last thing the Pakistanis want, given the extremism and the sectarianism in the country is to ruin that situation further or make it worse for themselves.
And so, I think that at the end of the day there are limits to how far the Saudis are going to get others to volunteer. The Egyptians, although they have been taking money from the Saudis, they too are very worried about this. They have no shortage of problems in their own back yard and they don’t want to get involved in what is clearly, from their point of view, from an Egyptian point of view, a Saudi war, or a Saudi national security need or imperative.
Turkey, despite all the talk of being an ally of Saudi Arabia, a fellow Sunni state that sees eye-to-eye against Assad and other regional issues, the Turks want to be the regional hegemon. They don’t want to follow the Saudi diktat. They see themselves on the rise, as well, and at some point they see themselves as being the leader of the Sunni world. Why would they join an Islamic military alliance that would spend their resources, both material and human, and not benefit from it?
From the Turkish point of view, Syria is a bigger threat, and specifically, the Kurds. And so, going to Saudi Arabia and protecting it, their symbolic value, and yes, it’s the holy places, and so on and so forth. But that is symbolism. The geopolitical reality for Turkey is more immediate, on its borders.
So what are you left with? You’re not left with much. Given this situation where nobody is really enthusiastic about the Islamic Military Alliance and is not willing to jump into the Saudi project with full force, what we are going to have is, to borrow from the Bush administration, a coalition of the willing. Those in this coalition are really weak entities who are obligated because they are recipients of Saudi financial assistance, to participate, and that doesn’t add up to a whole lot of players.
And then, there is just the logic of creating a coalition like NATO, and it takes times. There are logistical details that need to be worked out. Who is going to provide how many soldiers? What is the joint command going to look like? What will be their capability? What is the mission? All of these things are exceedingly ambiguous and unless those issues are hammered out, I just don’t see how this so-called Muslim NATO is going to take shape.
David: The sacrifices involved in setting up an organization like that require a significant threat that people can rally around. Otherwise the costs are, frankly, too great to bear on the front end. It is difficult to justify it to the people, so to say.
One question on Iran again. Back-tracking on the Iranian nuclear deal certainly does not hurt U.S. and Saudi relations. Is it too early, at this point, to say what trends from the Obama administration will remain in place under Trump, and what Middle East policy shifts are most likely to occur?
Kamran: One of the things here when it comes to the variants, or the compare and contrast with what was happening under Obama and what is likely to happen under Trump is that people sort of get carried away and they assume that there is a lot of agency on the part of the new president to do a whole lot, and he can radically alter things. Definitely, the American President has more latitude when it comes to foreign policy.
But there is a reality, and that is that the new President will have the same narrow set of menu or policy options in front of him that his predecessor had. Realities don’t change overnight. The new President inherits the same problems from the previous President so there is not a whole lot beyond sort of atmospherics and style and tactical level changes that can be affected.
So if we use that as our guiding principle, then I don’t see how there will be a complete sort of rollback of the nuclear deal. It is not in the United States’ interest to create a new problem in the region when the previous ones have not been solved and new ones are emerging on their own. And there is this, again, unintended convergence of interests. ISIS is an enemy of Iran, and ISIS is an enemy of the United States. Iranian and U.S. interests converge more than they diverge at this point in time.
And I don’t see why the Trump administration, or any other President, would try to undermine the status quo. What is the benefit from it? Unless the Iranians are trying to somehow exploit the nuclear deal and become far more powerful, and disproportionately more powerful than the United States wants them to. In that respect I can see how there would be efforts to place limits, or to sort of scale back on certain issues with regard to the nuclear deal, but I don’t see a major course reversal here.
I think that it would be safe to say, the more things change, the more they remain the same. So, I don’t see the incentive, or the need here, for the United States to say, “We need to scale back or change the parameters in any significant way to the nuclear deal that was cut by the Obama administration.
David: One of the things that we have talked about in years past with you on the program, was Turkey and the Justice and Development Party, and things that were changing at different points in time. We had the recent political events in Turkey which set up Erdogan as a pretty powerful guy. The question in my mind is this sort of a foundational stage to Turkish regional dominance? How does Iran and Saudi Arabia respond to Erdogan’s consolidation of power? Do they see it for what it is? And then, maybe take it up to 30,000 feet, we had Ataturk who led Turkey through secularization in the post World War I period. Is Erdogan sort of the foil for that in the post 9/11 world, taking Turkey back to its Ottoman roots?
Kamran: I would say that there is no going back, in general, anywhere. You never really go back. Yes, history repeats, and rhymes, and what not, but you never really go back because what was evolves rapidly as the years and the decades and the centuries roll on. So I think that what is happening with Turkey is that we are not really understanding the full scope of what is to become of Turkey, because again, we are just looking at it from the lens of authoritarianism and what most people are talking about as the demise of Democracy in Turkey.
Now, while all those arguments are valid, there is a bigger question here, which is that if Democracy is not taking root in Turkey, liberal Democracy as we understand it, and it is being eroded by President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party, then does that also mean, at the same time, that Turkey is somehow going to become weak geopolitically, and its significance in geopolitical terms is going to reduce? I think those are two separate things.
Keep in mind that Turkey was not a Western Democracy to begin with, in that sense. Ataturk’s Democracy had no room, so yes, there were parallels between French laicism and Kemalism in the sense of zero tolerance for any public religious activity in civil society, but that wasn’t what it was in Britain or in the United States or Canada, the larger democracies of the West. And so, it wasn’t a Western democracy to begin with. Yes, there was secularism, but there was no freedom for those who opposed secularism.
Now, you go through the decades and we see the slow moving away from that form of secularism to an American style, for lack of a better term, secularism, where the state does not impose religion but the state allows for religion to be practiced in civil society. You can bring in the examples of the religious schools that have grown over the years of AKP rule, the wearing of the hijab, and now also it is allowed for women in the military to don the headscarf. So yes, that does happen. And so, we need to understand that it wasn’t a democracy in our sense, to begin with.
Now, to the extent that it was, obviously, there is erosion to that. But is that also necessarily leading us to the conclusion that Turkey will become a weak player? I have problems making that logical leap. I think that, yes, democracy, as we know it, is on decline. But I think that given the factionalization within Turkey, the civil military divide, the intra-religious divide between the Gulen movement and the Ak Parti, the secular versus religious divide, and the Kurdish divide, the ethnic nationalism of Kurds and how it collides with Turkish national identity – given all these problems, and then you have the Alawi community in there as well, and the growth of Syrian refugees – there are some three million refugees now – there is a lot happening in Turkey.
And perhaps, and I am not prescribing this and I am not supporting this, but perhaps at this point in Turkey’s history it needs a strong central government to pull all these threads together so that the country can be coherent. There are so many challenges that Turkey faces on all its borders. There is the problem with Russia, not just to the south in Syria, but to the north as well.
We are at a point in time where Turkish relations, simultaneously with Russia and the United States, are not good. And this is something that the Turks cannot afford. You cannot afford to be at odds with both major powers of the world. So I think in this time period perhaps this centralization, this trek toward autocracy, is going to bring more coherence to a deeply divided country that is faced with a lot of geopolitical challenges.
David: You are right, it doesn’t fit sort of the Western model of progress, and that is where we started by talking about the way we view the flowering of democracy informed by the Renaissance and Reformation and Enlightenment. And it is a different story in Turkey altogether. As they are juxtaposed with Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia, that move toward a strongman probably does give them greater stability for many of the domestic issues which you just outlined. And maybe even on a geopolitical basis raises their profile and puts them on a more even playing field. Maybe they were on one to begin with, but it certainly strengthens their position, I would think, from a geostrategic standpoint, with those other countries in the area. So when we as Westerners look at the Middle East and just say, gosh, this is awfully complex. There are a lot of players. There are more sectarian interests than we can remember. How do we stay engaged? What are the critical points to keep an eye on moving forward as it relates to U.S. foreign policy, as it relates to the global markets and a trend toward either further globalization or de-globalization?
Kamran: The answer to that question will be different for different people. Obviously, as much awareness as is possible about the issues helps, and this helps from the average citizen in the United States and in the wider West, and going all the way to the political, socioeconomic elite. So yes, there is no substitute for knowing more, for trying to understand the nuance and the granularity. That is a must. How does the United States and the West deal with the situation from a 30,000 foot level, from a higher altitude, is essentially the balance of power strategy?
The United States cannot impose a solution to these problems. If it could, it would have happened a long time ago. Look at Afghanistan. The question is, how long will the United States continue to support a government, and continue to deploy forces in a country where the outcome is nothing. There is nothing to show for it after 15-16 years of being in that country. So there is no way that the United States can impose some form of order. It is just beyond the natural capability and the scale of the problem in the region.
Therefore, what you are left with is a balance of power strategy. You deal with the four major powers, hoping that Saudi Arabia will be included in this down the road, and you continue to balance between the two. You rely on Turkey to take the lead in Syria, but it is a difficult thing to get off the ground. We are struggling with it, and have been for a very long time because of a divergence of interests between what America feels is important at this point in time and what the Turks feel is important.
There is a very strange relationship with Iran. At least publicly, it is a hostile relationship, and it is, in reality, a hostile relationship. But does that mean we don’t cooperate with Iran when needed? We do. The war in Iraq against ISIS, particularly in Mosel, is not happening without a certain degree of Iranian/U.S. cooperation because Iran, militarily, is present in Iraq supporting the anti-ISIS coalition, and the United States is supporting the same forces as well. So it is difficult to imagine that the United States and Iran are not cooperating.
Now, they may not want to acknowledge this. That is a different story. But it is happening. So there is that sort of troubled relationship with Iran that the United States will have to continue to navigate around and continue to find areas from where there could be some cooperation and then continue to make sure that Iran does not disproportionately grow its influence because of the hollowing out of the Arab world, and the current weaknesses that are in Turkey. But over the long haul, the United States will want to use Turkey to counter-balance Iran.
And then the Sunni/Shi’a thing has to be done through some form of Sunni actor. And the Sunni actor at this point in time is Saudi, and we have talked about how it is a weakening actor. So there are going to be problems on that end. And then of course, the U.S. relationship with Israel, and Israel’s security, and how all of this mess is impacting Israeli national security. That has to be factored in. It is certainly something that keeps the Israelis up at night, and I’m sure it is being discussed when Israeli and U.S. officials meet, in terms of what they can do jointly and what each side needs to do on its own.
The United States, at this point, in the Middle East, is kind of like a juggler who is juggling a number of balls, and the question is, is this sustainable? And if it is not, then how do you shift gears? And it is really not clear to me where this will go in terms of a U.S. strategy. But one thing is for sure, which is that the region will have more anarchy moving forward, and for a long time, before we have things coming together. In other words, there is more fragmentation in the years ahead before we can say, now this place is going to turn around and there is going to be some semblance of stability.
David: It seems to me, and sounds to me, like the balance of power strategy, for those who aren’t directly engaged, it is like avoiding the conversation with the butcher. What exactly went into the sausage? You don’t really want to know (laughs). There are a lot of parts and a lot of pieces, and maybe at the end of the day you just want to enjoy the outcome and not worry how we got there.
There is a lot of work in understanding how we get there, and we appreciate the insights that you are bringing to our process of appreciating the landscape and taking us on a whirlwind tour, a trip, if you will, on this Wednesday through the Middle East. We have been able to visit Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. And we had a very good guide. We appreciate your insights and thoughts and look forward to continuing the conversation in the future, Kamran Bokhari.
Kamran: Thank you for having me.
Kevin: Well, Dave, we have had Kamran on many times, and actually, when we have questions on the Middle East it is so complex. If you think about it, it is not just religious differences. We’re talking about Islam, but what are we really talking about? We’re talking about Shi’a, we’re talking about Wahhabi, we’re talking about Sunni, and all the little differences that fit into that.
But we also have this new realm that has come about over the last few hundred years which is called Nation States. We have Turkey, we have Iran, we have Israel, we have Saudi Arabia. And actually, a lot of those countries didn’t even exist in the form that we see today 75 years ago. So, it is interesting to listen to this because if we think we have an opinion in the Middle East, and it is based on Western thinking, we should check our opinions at the door.
David: Financial, economic, political, geopolitical – these are categories of interest for us. And when we look at the U.S. political economy, it is absolutely influenced by a factor, many factors, but one significant one is oil. So when we think about the Middle East, and we look at the role that Britain played in the Middle East, the role that the U.S. today plays in the Middle East, it is absolutely imperative to look at the nuance of what is happening there because what happens there does impact us, even at the level of our pocketbooks.