For the past few months, we’ve been carrying out interviews with European and American experts and this time we had the pleasure to interview Dr. Najat Alsaied, Middle East Expert and Media Researcher based in the UAE. The interview was conducted by Denys Kolesnyk, French consultant and analyst.
What are, in your opinion, the main dynamics that have been shaping the Middle East for the past few years? And what are the rising challenges besides the recent Hamas attack on Israel?
In my opinion, the main dynamic that has been shaping the Middle East lately was the efforts to zero out the problems. That’s why we can see them trying to solve the problems with most countries that they had a conflict with, for instance, Syria or Turkey. They even started from the very beginning of late 2020, or the beginning of 2021, reconciliation with Qatar. Hence, the blockade has ended.
Another important development that happened recently is the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, under the mediation of China. The main reason for that is basically to clear the problems because all these conflicts significantly affected the region in terms of security and in terms of economy.
The Middle East simply couldn’t continue with conflicts if they intended to go for development and a stronger economy. That’s why they started to reduce or to solve the conflicts, especially with countries that have been a long time in conflict, for example, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Well, in the recent Hamas attack on Israel, we should remember that Hamas is not a country, and we don’t even consider it as a political party. It is a militia based on radical ideologies, and frankly speaking, it is a terrorist ideology. And with such mentality, they don’t want peace and they don’t want stability, since they prosper in conflicts and instability.
And here we also can think of timing. Why did they do it now? One of the elements that irritates Hamas the most is the talks about the normalization process between Israel and Saudi Arabia. And, in my opinion, such talks should have been concealed, in order to avoid such situations.
Another aspect is the weakness of the Biden administration. Or, at least the perceived weakness. The American position only encouraged this terrorist attack, since Washington took the Houthis off of the terrorist list, and was running after the Iranian regime to return to the nuclear deal. The Biden administration handed Afghanistan to the Taliban. They gave the Palestinian Authority and Gaza Strip millions of dollars.
In other words, they were trying to do everything differently than the Trump administration, only to prove that the Trump administration acted wrong. All of this can be characterized as a chaotic foreign policy. Giving the “green light” to radicals to go forward, and then talking about peace is not the best option to avoid conflicts, in my opinion. The lack of consistency of the foreign policy between the US administrations is one of the causes of different problems in the Middle East and beyond.
Therefore Hamas and Iran wanted to stop the normalization process, the peace process because they didn’t fear the US or Western reaction to start with. In addition, these kinds of normalization, especially with a big country like Saudi Arabia, or peace talks to find a solution to the conflict between Palestine and Israel would put an end to these kinds of militias, especially Hamas. Reaching out a peace would mean that they have no more legitimate reason to exist because they don’t want even the two-state solution. They don’t want any kind of solution, to be honest. They want this chaos to last forever.
And I see the recent Hamas attack as a cause of the US in general, and the Biden administration in particular, foreign policy. To me, it’s not the mistake of the Arab countries at all.
And it brings us to the second question. The normalization in the Middle East has been a significant recent development. And I mean the reintegration of Assad’s Syria back into the Arab League, the Abraham Accords and general better convergence of interests among the Arab states. I wonder, what are the chances that the Hamas’ attack on Israel derails this process?
Well, some trends and developments it won’t affect. For example, the fact that Syria is getting into the Arab League, unless Syria gets involved in this war. And I don’t think Al-Assad will be crazy enough to bring more destruction to his country which is already destroyed economically, from security and every possible perspective.
And with that regard, Turkey is trying to play with a certain rhetoric. Ankara wants to accumulate the public opinion of the people. But I have serious doubts that Turkey would get militarily involved. One of the reasons I think so is because this is Erdogan’s policy to give one talk to the Muslims, for instance, that endorses the Muslim Brotherhood who are supporting the people in the Gaza Strip. But in reality, he’s working hand in hand with the Israelis. By the way, Turkey exports agricultural products to Israel.
So here we come to the Abraham Accords. The recent Hamas attack will not end them, since it didn’t end Camp David and it didn’t end the Jordanian peace agreement. So why would it end the Abraham Accords? But it definitely will turn to a completely cold peace between governments only, while the local populations will become affected.
The involvement of the people from the beginning of the Abraham Accord was minor. And now it will be zero with this attack. And even regarding the governmental deals, maybe it will slow the process down a bit, but it won’t end it. And that’s for sure because this was based on security deals and many kinds of aspects. But the people-to-people contacts will suffer greatly. That’s how I see it.
But yet again, I’d like to stress the inconsistency and the US’ chaotic foreign policy and the Biden administration that is the cause of different negative dynamics in the Middle East. It is well known that the Iranian regime is sponsoring and supporting Hamas and proxy wars. So why didn’t the US show toughness from the very beginning? Why wait until this disaster comes to react?
And that is what we keep saying as moderate Arabs and we keep hearing from the Western world, where is the moderate voice? Well, why don’t you listen to us. And only when the disaster happens, we start to be heard. And the message was that the appeasement of radicals and regimes like Iran, should not have been taking place. And it doesn’t help the stability in the Middle East when the US foreign policy drastically shifts from one administration to the other.
Well, it seems that inconsistency of the US foreign policy doesn’t help security either in the Middle East or in Europe. As you know, in February 2022, Russia carried out a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the US’ ally, didn’t join the Western camp but steered its policy to benefit the most from the conflict. How did this conflict influence the regional dynamics? And how could you explain the stance of the key regional powers?
Well, we are back to the problem I’ve touched upon previously. For instance, when the US doesn’t consult with the countries on its decisions, and doesn’t get 100% involved in the outcome of its decisions, it creates problems. For instance, when the US decided to go for such a war, it didn’t take the opinion of the Gulf countries.
As for the Gulf states, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in this case, they are not trying to say that they support the Russian invasion, but they didn’t see that the US has worked hard on the diplomatic resolutions of this crisis that became a war. War has consequences on the economy, oil prices, and many other things. In my opinion, getting involved in a war can be possible only when all diplomatic efforts have been exhausted, and only then it can be justified. And we didn’t see that from the Biden administration, as if they were planning to go to war with Russia from the very beginning, even before the invasion.
So, regarding this war, Saudi Arabia has shaped the role of neutrality, mediation efforts, and providing humanitarian assistance to the Ukrainian refugees. In other words, we can say that Riyadh went for a neutral stance. Nevertheless, the Saudis condemned the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. They tried to help Ukraine with humanitarian assistance at the same time maintain their relationship with Russia. This is their stance.
In other words, the KSA has positioned itself as a possible mediator in the war and has touted its ties to both Moscow and Kyiv. When there is a war, somebody has to play the role of a mediator, because, in the end, this war couldn’t last forever. And if everybody goes for the war, who’s going to be the mediator in this case? Hence, in this case, Saudi Arabia has ample reason to uphold its neutral stance in the war, evading pressure from the US.
Riyadh strives to play a bigger diplomatic role in world affairs. On one hand, Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with Russia didn’t stop at all. They have been cooperating in energy and investment fields and other domains. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has backed the UN Security Council resolution denouncing Russia’s invasion as well as its illegal annexation of territory in eastern Ukraine. And this is not only the stance of the KSA but also of the UAE and most of the Gulf states.
And now, after the Hamas attack against Israel, we can see that the concentration is shifting from Ukraine to the Middle East. Because the West is trying to save its face from the failure in Ukraine. There is less and less emphasis on Ukraine. And here I can conclude that the neutral stance of Saudi Arabia from the very beginning turned out to be right.
An interesting angle. And I guess such a stance of Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf states also highlights the desire of the region to maintain more independent foreign policy. Don’t you think so?
To put it short, yes. We remember that previously the region especially Saudi Arabia, was rather in the Western camp on a lot of issues, and supported the United States’ policies. But right now there is some more appetite and more desire to carry out their policies and to shape their future. The region has its place in the world. Saudi Arabia as a regional leader, wants to have a better place under the sun.
And yet again, we come back to the lack of inconsistency of the foreign policy of the different US administrations that made Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries not rely on the US foreign policy. Because it is confusing, even irritating I would say, since it causes a big deal of instability in the region when there is one approach that lasts four years under one administration, and then for another four years there is a different approach under another administration with a totally different foreign policy.
Accordingly, these kinds of inconsistencies that I always highlight and I always write about that will put the region in danger and it also will reduce the credibility of the US’s role in the region had consequences. And what are those consequences?
First of all, the Gulf states started to look for multipolar alliances. That’s why they increased their ties with China, Russia, and India, as well as among themselves. And that’s why they also started to resolve the conflicts in the region. The lack of credibility of the US foreign policy due to its internal conflicts and due to its inconsistency, it became an unreliable partner.
And since you’ve mentioned China, this country is becoming an important foreign player in the region. How can you explain the role of Beijing in influencing the regional state of affairs?
We have to note that the Chinese vision and approach are different from the American and Western in general. China presented itself in a situation when the US’s inconsistent foreign policy was no longer a reliable option for the Gulf states, hence they started to develop better ties with Beijing in the quest for this multipolar approach I’ve been talking about earlier.
And unlike the US, China is consistent in everything. In the very beginning, the relationship between China and the Arab Gulf countries was economic, not more than that. Because of this kind of unreliable American foreign policy, China has been promoted from being only an economic to a more diplomatic partner.
And we saw it in the mediation process chaired by China in the peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. So from that point, there’s a turning point here from economic player to more diplomatic player, which was focused at all of the ages before, all the decades before on the US only. But if the US foreign policy changes, we will see that the Arab countries will go back to better partnership with the US.
In terms of its role in this Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, I see still the US will be playing a greater role. First of all, this is a very, very complicated conflict. And the other thing, it’s more global than it may seem.
For instance, the Israelis have strong ties with the West, especially with the Americans. A lot of them have dual citizenship and have a strong impact on their lobbies inside the US. Therefore I don’t think they will agree that such a resolution will be in the hands of China since it’s different than the peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
But the other side, no matter how much China plays a role, it will be still limited. And I hope China will not have a strong role in it, and I’m talking here as an American citizen. I wish the Americans fix their foreign policy, become much more consistent and try to resolve their internal divisions, because that will have an impact on their foreign policy. But with time, China can play a bigger role, especially if the divisions inside the US government remain.
If we see those conflicts between the Republicans and the Democrats every four years, every eight years, whenever there’s a new administration, the more division will be inside the US, the more China will be powerful inside the region.
Let’s touch upon the United Arab Emirates. What is their foreign policy?
Their foreign policy is more geared towards the “soft power”. Actually, from the very beginning, the UAE was never involved in regional conflicts. That’s why the country got developed to that extent, because it was trying to be aloof from the regional conflicts and it’s more into the internal and domestic development.
This helped the UAE to surpass the big countries in the region in terms of investment, in terms of business, in terms of educational sector, in terms of entertainment, in terms of more or less everything.
However, it was the Arab Spring that made the UAE involved to a certain extent in regional conflicts. And I’d like to remind you that the Arab Spring was mainly supported by the Western countries in empowering the Muslim Brotherhood. And the Muslim Brotherhood is the number one national security threat to the UAE. Hence the UAE started to get involved in the regional conflicts because they were concerned about the Islamist domination in the region.
But in terms of conflict resolution Abu Dhabi depends on its soft power, which is diplomacy and mainly humanitarian aspect when it comes to conflicts. For instance, we’ve seen it in action during the earthquake in Syria and Turkey. And the UAE was focused mainly on humanitarian assistance, even when it got involved with Saudi Arabia in the coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen, it withdrew its troops from Yemen in 2019, and it started to get involved only in humanitarian assistance.
Also when they tried to solve regional conflicts, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they got involved with the Abraham Accords because their main foreign policy was saying, that instead of not doing normalization before the actual resolution of the conflict, the normalization could help in the conflict resolution to reduce the conflicts.
In terms of their relationships with some countries, it’s neutrality. We see them meeting with officials from China and Russia. At the same time, they have very strong ties with the US, France and Germany. And recently Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed have been meeting a lot of officials from the United States and France. So it is a completely balanced relationship between Western countries and Eastern countries because, to them, neutrality will prevent them from getting into conflicts.
The UAE is always trying to avoid to combat any kind of country. Their main strategy is zero problems with all the countries. So that’s why even with countries like Iran, for example, that is invading three of their islands, they never fought for them. Even in Dubai, for example, they have huge trade and business between UAE and Iran. To summarize their approach in one sentence — they don’t go for military confrontation.
And I have one more question. In Europe, we are wary of foreign malign influence, especially during the electoral period. The public opinion often decides what happens in democracies. In 2022, you published a book on Twitter diplomacy and media polarization. How does it look in the Middle East and how could you explain the role of media, including social media in shaping the people’s minds in the Middle East?
Okay, so certainly the media has a big influence on what people think. but when things get chaotic, especially during conflicts, people tend to follow media that matches their views.
There’s a theory in the media that is called the use of gratification theory. In a nutshell, the audience will pick the channel that fits its ideology and its way of thinking. Unlike in the 1960s, we don’t have only one or a few at most, channels and newspapers, but a multitude of them. And in addition, we have social media, which means there is no more passive audience, but an active audience.
During the peace people watch certain channels to know what’s going on in the world. But during conflict, people turn to a channel that they know very well, that doesn’t go opposite of people’s ideology or political stance.
For instance, I won’t, during time of conflict, go and turn to Al Jazeera Arabic and watch it because it will irritate me. When it comes, for example, to Western channels, I prefer to watch, for example, Fox News, and Newsmax, because they match my political views. That’s exactly what happens with most of the people.
But if you ask me how the media influences people in this age of information and this age of interactivity through social media, it doesn’t tell you what to think, it doesn’t force you because you are free to choose whatever you want. But it decides what you think about or what you talk about the most.
So when a topic gets a lot of airtime, it seems that it is really important. The media has the power to make a important subject from a small one and make a big subject look like something insignificant.
For example, the Ukraine war was a big deal recently, but now the focus has shifted to the situation in Gaza. So now Ukraine is not anymore number one, even though in reality, maybe it’s more important than Gaza. So the media, because it shifted its focus, it made the people shift their attention as well.
See how the media is having a huge impact on the people, no matter how much they think that they are free, no matter how much the social media gives the impression that the people are free. The media has the power to set the agenda.
I’d like to give an interesting example, most of the Arab people are more geared towards Al Jazeera. But when Al Jazeera showed that the missile that attacked the hospital in Gaza was not from Israel, but actually from the military side of Hamas, you see the reaction of the people, they didn’t believe it. They were even attacking Al Jazeera, accusing them of being liars.
People want to believe what they think is the right thing and they don’t want to listen to the other part. You tend to believe in Al Jazeera, and when things are not according to what you want or think, Al Jazeera becomes a liar. The same applies to Israel and elsewhere in the world.
During times of war and heightened emotional sentiment, it is crucial for traditional media to adhere to principles of objectivity and neutrality. The same standard should apply to “Twiplomats” (diplomats and politicians on social media) to mitigate polarization in the online sphere. Furthermore, Israeli officials need to appear on Arab countries’ television networks and vice versa to foster understanding.
However, one of the significant challenges facing Arab officials and experts when appearing on Israeli media is the potential backlash, where they may be labelled as traitors or seen as apologists for Zionism, which can lead to accusations of neglecting the Palestinian cause. This is particularly pertinent given the significant civilian casualties during times of conflict.
It is essential to recognize the importance of public opinion in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Unfortunately, radical groups like Hamas and their supporters are adept at utilizing the media to shape public opinion, often using civilian casualties as a public relations tool. In contrast, those seeking a resolution to the conflict often struggle to gain public support and effectively utilize the media. This is because it is easier to appeal to emotions in the media than to engage in reasoned, logical discourse.
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