Last week, we had an opportunity to discuss the MENA issues with Marcin Styszyński, Assistant Professor and Researcher at the Arabic and Islamic Studies faculty at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań (Poland) and a former Polish diplomat who served in Egypt, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia. This interview was conducted by Denys Kolesnyk, a French Consultant and Analyst.
Let’s start with a general question. In your opinion, what are the main geopolitical challenges and dynamics in the Middle East?
It’s a very important question because the word « dynamic » is the right word to talk about the processes in the Middle East since we observe dynamic events and different circumstances, political and social events. One of the biggest challenges is the relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and its allies on one side and Iran and its allies on the other.
Since 2016, these relations decreased and were damaged because both countries have cut their diplomatic ties due to different events. The key factor happened in 2016 – the execution of a very active Shia cleric Nimr Baqr al-Nimr by the Saudi authorities. Worth noting in this context that around 10% of Saudi Arabia’s population in the east province are Shia Muslims. As a response, Iran burned the Saudi embassy in Tehran. In addition to this, of course, there was a conflict in Yemen and Syria.
But since March 2023 we observe certain improvements in contacts between Tehran and Riyadh. Here we can note the comeback of ambassadors to Tehran and Riyadh and the improvement of relations. Interesting and important to note the Chinese mediation of such improvement between the KSA and Iran.
But, at the end of the day, Saudi Arabia remains a traditional ally of the West, while Iran is China’s and Russia’s ally of course. And I found it interesting that Riyadh accepted the Chinese mediation despite this fact. This development may also hint at other dynamics in the Middle East, even new objectives and directions that certain regional powers may develop with Asia instead of staying in the shadow of the Western world, especially the US hegemony. And it concords with the US withdrawal from regional affairs, switching its attention from the Middle East towards Asia, especially China and North Korea.
At the same time, we should not forget that the Gulf states’ economies and military sectors still rely on the West. Therefore, it will be interesting to see whether those states will eventually switch to the Asian direction in full. But it is difficult to imagine since Western military equipment is much better than Russian or Chinese.
Improvement of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran also affected Yemeni conflicting sides. One of the outcomes of this warming was a visit by the Saudi ambassador to Yemen, who met the Houthi leader to discuss relations improvement. It is an optimistic signal for the region, especially after almost a decade of war, producing around a million dead people in Yemen.
There is also a different regard concerning the Arab Spring. When it all started in 2011, the optimistic opinions and feelings regarding the system change, the transition process, and the collapse of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and other states dominated. However, further developments affected the opinions and activities of leaders and political parties in those countries. In other words, they considered the Arab Spring a source of instability, unrest and problems. Moreover, many believed that the Arab Spring was inspired by the West.
That’s one of the reasons behind what we observed starting from 2012. The mood has changed, as well as the approach with the return of a certain status quo. For instance, Egypt is a good example, since after the tumultuous period in this country, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi supported by Saudi Arabia, managed to take over the Muslim Brotherhood rule, signing the return of stability. However, his arrival in power also negatively affected the freedom of speech and liberties. In my opinion, his model resembles the ASEAN or Chinese model, with a centralized government and free liberal economy.
I’d like us to return to the normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Given Saudi Arabia’s ambitions not only in the region but in the multi-polar world in the making, I wonder what was behind the normalization with Iran. What circumstances made it possible for Saudi Arabia and Iran to normalize their ties?
To be honest, I wonder as well. According to the analysis of the speech and communication between both countries, the tone has been extremely hostile since 2016. Iran was blamed by Saudi Arabia for different things, for instance, supporting terrorism and the situation in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, of course. At the same time, the Saudis were blamed by Tehran for accusations of terrorism.
Speaking of Yemen, the war leads to an impasse. The US administration also declared that it would stop the military assistance to Saudi Arabia. So, I think Riyadh looked for any solution to this crisis because the price was too high for them. The accusations and the worldwide opinions regarding the tragic consequences of the war didn’t helped the Saudis either.
In my opinion, Saudi Arabia is now trying to diversify its relations with the world powers. For instance, we should remember that in 2017, King Salman, who does not travel a lot, had a long trip to Asian countries, improving ties with China, Malaysia and so on. This diversification of relations remains an important objective for Riyadh.
At the same time, as I have already mentioned, this diversification is not about cutting ties with the West. I remember when I was working in the Polish Embassy in Saudi Arabia, they relied and still rely on the Patriot systems, and I remember them destroying the Soviet and Russia-made missiles launched from Yemen. In other words, this confirms the dependence of Saudi Arabia and many other regional states on Western equipment.
I anticipate significant challenges ahead, particularly in terms of diversification of relations. We observed a similar scenario in the context of OPEC+. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Western nations encouraged OPEC+, and in particular Saudi Arabia, to adhere to Western recommendations. They were advised to continue oil exploration rather than halt it since the Western countries were reducing their oil imports from Russia. Hence, the idea was to compensate for this shortfall by relying on higher-producing nations, particularly Saudi Arabia. However, Riyadh chose to decrease its oil production – first by half a million barrels per day, and later in the fall of 2022, they slashed it by 2 million barrels per day.
This situation led to a significant crisis between Saudi Arabia, the West, and, most importantly, the United States. There were even suggestions from some American diplomats to reevaluate diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, as they seemed to be favouring Russian and Iranian partnerships over the United States. Signals and comments had emerged earlier, indicating that Saudi Arabia was actively seeking to diversify its economic and political partners. This effort commenced as far back as 2016, before the implementation of their Vision 2030 plan. This strategic plan aimed to shift away from heavy reliance on the oil sector and expand into various other sectors, such as tourism.
The driving force behind this diversification isn’t solely a desire for variety, but rather a response to the collapse in oil production and subsequent price drops. I recall the turmoil of 2016, during which I was present in Saudi Arabia. The price of a barrel plummeted to less than $60, causing significant distress across Arab nations. Budgets relied on a barrel price of $120 or above to remain balanced. This highlighted the vulnerability of economies tied too closely to oil production, as its fluctuations have widespread consequences.
Let’s continue with the increased role of Saudi Arabia in the region and the world. How could you explain the invitation of Assad’s Syria back into the Arab League?
That’s also an example of the improvement of relations between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia. We should also remember that Assad is a good ally of Russia. He managed to survive and continue ruling Syria due to the help from Moscow and Tehran, hence he remains their loyal ally.
Despite the historic competition with Turkey, every party wants stability in Syria. The revolutionary forces de facto lost and remained weak. Assad supported by Russia and Iran managed to remain in power. And for Turkey, when it comes to choosing between Assad and the Kurdish forces, the choice is quick, and it is Assad, for obvious reasons.
There is a growing preference to return to the previous experiences of stability, let’s say a certain status quo in the region. It is not the first time the Arab states have pardoned brutal regimes and normalized relations with the central goal of achieving stabilization and preventing unrest. However, this pursuit of stability often comes at the cost of diminished liberties.
Talking about instability, let’s shift to the war in Sudan. Could you explain the main drivers that led to this conflict and the role of the Arab states in finding a solution?
Indeed, tragic developments started last April in Sudan. And the main actors are two generals who lead the country after the coup d’état of 2019. More precisely, it is General al-Burhan, who is the Commander-in-Chief of the Sudanese Armed Forces and General Dogolo, Head of the Rapid Support Forces, also known as Hemedti. The conflict erupted due to a rivalry and struggle for power and influence in the country.
The fights between these two factions, in other words, the regular army and the paramilitary group of rapid forces, lead to tragic consequences, provoking a humanitarian crisis and exodus of refugees to neighbouring countries, for instance, Chad and Egypt. There is destruction of infrastructure, a shortage of water and food, including medicine, etc. Terrible situation.
Saudi Arabia was involved in the resolution of this conflict. Some time ago in Jeddah, they gathered to try to implement trust, similar way it happened in Yemen. But with no immediate result yet to be seen.
In my opinion, there are also foreign influences in this country. For instance, in February 2023, the Sudanese confirmed the deal to host the Russian naval base on the Red Sea. Moscow wanted this to happen and has been negotiating since Bashir’s presidency. This country is strategically important for Russia. But we should not exclude other world powers’ influences.
Given your diplomatic background, could you tell us what kind of policies Poland has regarding Middle Eastern countries?
I was representing Poland in different Arab states, and I was always wondering what our objectives were in this part of the world. To me, it is quite difficult to indicate any main objectives of Poland towards the Arab world. However, I can stress that the instrumentalization of migrants by Russia and Belarus, as we’ve seen in a hybrid attack against Poland a few years ago, is a crucial challenge for my country.
In the past, we followed mainly the European Union approaches, plans, declarations and statements regarding the region. In other words, we didn’t orchestrate our own policy, but we usually followed the foreign policy of the European Union concerning the Middle East.
And it was good because during the meetings in the Arab world, we spoke with more or less one voice, and it was a strong voice. There are powerful and influential countries in that region and it was important to speak with one voice. Having around 30 countries speaking with one voice was sort of good policy for us because we followed more or less the same objectives, especially regarding human rights, local conflicts and tensions.
But because we currently have certain problems in the relations with the European Union, we have disproportions concerning the policies in place. I think we focus on migration issues due to the exploitation of migrants by Belarus and Russia to put pressure on Poland and the EU, one of the key objectives is to prevent a new migration crisis.
But the way we have handled that hybrid attack instrumentalizing migrants affected our relations with the Arab states. Unfortunately, there were cases of violent behaviour from our side while dealing with this hybrid attack using migrants from the Middle East. Similar things were seen in 2015 in Hungary, for instance, during the migration crisis.
And, in my opinion, the problem is that we don’t have a real migration policy so to speak. It concerns not only the security of the borders but also the absence of an approach towards the migrants who are in the country already. But that’s the problem not only for Poland but for other European states as well.
We usually consider migrants as security threats and potential risks, not as a part of society. Therefore, we need a decent integration policy. This is necessary to avoid problems that exist in certain West European states, for instance, France.
Speaking of the brighter side of things. What are the main partners of Poland in the Middle East?
We can say that the Gulf states are important to us, but I won’t call them our main partners. I think that Poland tries to pursue a so-called positive policy with all Arab states. We don’t have any disproportions or disputes with Arab states. But as for the economy, the Gulf states are indeed very important.
With Saudi Arabia, we have good economic ties in the oil sector, and we can mention strong cooperation with Aramco company. The turnover is significant between Saudi Arabia and Poland. Here we can add the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the fact that we have abolished visa requirements. Hence promoting people-to-people contacts and economic cooperation.
And maybe the last question, what could be done to improve the relations between Poland and the Middle Eastern countries, in your opinion?
I think the military and economic sectors are, in my opinion, doing good. At the same time, people-to-people contacts and communication can be significantly improved. It is also important to work in the direction of perception change because if we have these populations living side-by-side with us, we need to improve the relations and stop considering them hostile people.
Another aspect is education. It is important to improve students’ and academic exchange, as well as cultural cooperation. Unfortunately, even in Poland, we have certain enclaves with foreign populations living without integrating into Polish society. This problem should be addressed.
But also, we should not be naive. It is necessary to carry out a responsible and strong policy against any activities or actions aimed at violating regulations and laws, of course.
To conclude, I would say that interpersonal and cultural relations are very important, and we have to improve, encourage and reinforce them. And I think it will be the main challenge, especially in the context of ecology, when we may face climate migrants or refugees coming to Europe due to climate change. And we should be prepared to deal with this as well.
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