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Political Dynamics in the Gulf

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

Wikistrat Interview with Cinzia Bianco


Q: This month marks two years since the start of this crisis between the GCC states, so how do you see the relations in the Gulf today?

A: Unfortunately, what we have seen is the crystallization of fragmentation inside the GCC.

The dynamics haven’t changed much in the past few months, considering that we still had three groups, three states group on one hand, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain are very much still hostile against Qatar. And then we have of course, Qatar and in the middle, we have Kuwait and Oman, which maintained a neutral position and have been attempting to mediate but with not much success as things stand now.

What is really evolving is that we start to see a little bit more visible cracks within the anti-Qatar camp. Among the elements in the public eye, we have seen a phone call between the longtime Bahraini Prime Minister and the Qatari Emir recently. This phone call, although disavowed by the Bahraini government and mostly related to internal politics in Bahrain, is a public display of divergence from what is the main message of the anti-Qatar camp.

Q: So could you speak today of cracks in this Arab quartet against Qatar?

A: There were always different nuanced point of views within the anti-Qatar camp. It’s a broad camp, and it includes a very large country, which is Saudi Arabia. So, of course, there are differences of opinions and there were since day one, not much against the idea that Qatar was in some way operating in a way there was the stabilizing for the entire region, but as to the method that was chosen. So the crisis and all the initiatives connected to that, the closure of borders and complete cut of relations, the methodology was contested since day one, but the longer we go on, the more evidence we have of these divergences of opinion.

Q: And do you see that maybe these new differences of opinion could also lead to policy change in this anti-Qatar quartet in sense?

A: No. And seeing as things stand now, we don’t see any likely impact on policies just because there is a bigger convergence at the leadership level, especially between the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince of the UAE.

Q: Speaking of these two Crown Princes, Mohammed bin Salman and Crown Prince

Mohammed Bin Zayed. As you probably know, a few days ago a very big story in the New York Times was published on Mohammed bin Zayed, which emphasized the growing influence of the UAE in the Middle East. How do you see this changing position of power of the UAE in regional relations, also as reflected in the Gulf crisis as we see it today?

A: It wasn’t surprising for observers and scholars. It was quite evident that the UAE was a driving force behind the Qatar crisis since the beginning, and also that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed is seating in the driving seat in a number of dossiers in the region. In some cases, we could even say that Saudi Arabia has been tagging along. Of course, there are notable exceptions like the war in Yemen, where it is the UAE that tagged along, but, generally speaking, there has been a dynamic going on for a couple of years already whereby the greater seniority of Mohammad bin Zayed and his longer experience with world affairs and military affairs has been leveraged by him to influence Mohammad bin

Salman in some of his policies.

So this dynamic has been going on for a while and the fact that it’s now in the public eye is relevant. In fact, given that Mohammad bin Zayed has been careful to keep it behind the scenes, I don’t think that this publicity is welcome in Abu Dhabi.

Q: Interesting. Also, if I recall correctly then your own research focuses on the impact of the Arab Uprisings of 2011 on the Gulf states. Is that correct?

A: Yes. My own research is focusing on the impact of the Arab uprisings and the events that unfolded in the aftermath on threat perceptions at the level of the six GCC monarchies. I’m arguing that what we have then seen emerging with the Qatar crisis was the outcome of structural divergences between the GCC monarchies brought to the surface in 2011.

Q: So, what really changed in 2011? Everything changed in a sense across the region, across the MENA region in 2011, but looking particularly at the Gulf states. So how did that really impact these six Gulf states and how they also interacted with each other?

A: I’m arguing that the major reading key is what happened in 2011 domestically as much as regionally. So, for instance, in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain where you had mostly Shi’a protests those triggered a very much heightened perception of Iran, giving a different light to Iranian advancing influence in other Arab countries, especially in Yemen. In Riyadh they saw these events through the lenses of what had happened internally. The fusion between the regional dominion and the domestic dominion of security was total from that moment onwards. So that’s why I’m working with the concept of intermestic threats, dangers perceived as simultaneously as external and internal. That is very typical of the MENA region and has long been, but has been greatly accelerated since 2011.

Conversely, with Qatar and the UAE, given that they have experienced very limited dissent domestically, they focused on the regional level and became very active after 2011, on

opposite fronts. Qatar was the revolutionary player and the UAE the reactionary one. There is a difference here, of course, given that the UAE still chose to securitize very much its domestic the space: that was more sort of a preventative measure for the leadership to be even more able to pursue their regional objectives and a sign of some degree of internal risk perceived by the leadership.

Finally we have Kuwait and Oman, which saw the 2011 events mostly as domestic-centered

and dealt with the experience through domestic dynamics. Hence they focused on strengthening their domestic politics and that’s why they weren’t as much active on the regional scale, if not to pursue more stability in the neighborhood, considered a prerequisite to their own stability.

Q: Going back to the Gulf Crisis for a minute, if I remember correctly then one of the main

motivations for this blockade from the Saudi and the Emirati perspectives were Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood for Political Islam more broadly. How much is that also relevant for today’s threat perceptions in Saudi Arabia and the UAE? How much is that still a factor in the regional policies of these two countries?

A: It is very much a factor, but with some differences between Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The leadership in Saudi Arabia sees the Muslim Brotherhood in the context of the presence in the Kingdom of a movement that is, broadly speaking, aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sahwa. And, although the Sahwa has been absolutely weakened in the past few years, with the final blow dealt by Mohammad Bin Salman with an arrest campaign of key clerics, leaders of the movement, we are not sure of how broad the support for the Sahwa is in Saudi Arabia at the grassroots level.

What we know is that the only time that Saudi Arabia had municipal elections in 2005,

candidates that were close to the Sahwa movement performed very well. So we know

that there is some support, we know that there are organizational capacities. And that explains why, while it’s too weak to represent a full-fledged threat, the Brotherhood is certainly seen as a risk. That’s another thing that I’m working on, the difference between threats and risks. I think that given how increasingly securitized today’s environment is in the entire region, in order to be able to perform detailed analysis, we have to make distinctions and define in a more nuanced way how dangerous, how grave is a specific

danger in the perceptions of those making the policies to counter it.

That for instance allows to dissect the difference with the UAE, where the Muslim Brotherhood is even smaller domestically, but perceived as a full-fledged threat for UAE interests at the level of the regional order. So I would argue that for Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood and for the entire leadership, the Muslim Brotherhood is indeed a big risk, but is not being in existential put out for some time. And for the UAE, the domestic level is even smaller and the regional level is even more important, more predominant in their perception of the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat for the regional order.

Q: And you see that as still being a factor today.

A: Absolutely, it’s still a factor because the Muslim Brotherhood is still present in several countries around the region. And again, even though it has been decapitated in Saudi, we are not sure about the grassroot support that this organization has. So, it’s still a factor, it’s weakened, but it’s still a factor.

Q: Okay, great. Thank you very much for that. And also in the past year or so, we’ve seen in

Saudi Arabia this kind of rebranding of the role of Islam in politics, and its drive for “moderate Islam” under Mohammad bin Salman, and also a bit of a parallel track in the UAE in the sense of promotion of a more tolerant, pluralistic Islam. So how do you see that as being influenced by fears of Political Islam or by other factors? How do you understand this kind of rebranding of the role of Islam in these major Gulf States?

A: It is very much connected with their hostility for Political Islam in the sense that the confrontation between autocratic Islamic regimes and Political Islam is not only political or not only security-focused, but also ideological. Therefore, they are competing also for the hearts and minds of their population, both the nationals and the expat population (which is more numerous than the national population in the UAE for instance), and to drag them away from the influence of these organizations, for whom religious ideologies and

politics go very much hand in hand. Therefore he aim is to also drain whatever grassroots support those organizations might have, and trying to deprive them of the population’s loyalty and allegiance really.

Q: Very interesting. You mentioned right now loyalty and allegiance, so looking to Vision

2030 in Saudi Arabia, which is primarily based on economics and the need for transforming the Saudi economy from dependence on oil to something else. On the website of Vision 2030, that loyalty, a sense of nationalism of belonging, is very much a part of the goals of Vision 2030. So, maybe you could elaborate a bit on that.

A: Absolutely. This is one of the most interesting experiments that Mohammad Bin Salman

is carrying on, if not the most interesting. Contextualizing Mohammad Bin Salmans’ rise

to power, is really crucial here. The Saudi senior leadership, senior figures within the royal family, saw the events of 2011 with concern about the wedge and distance between elderly royals and a population that is 60% under 30 years of age. So, the rise of Mohammad Bin Salman is very much related to the fact that he’s young and his project always centered on the youth, and could thus revamp the relationship between this young population and the royal family.

And part of this exercise is therefore centered on pushing a new idea of what it means to be Saudi, an idea that really stimulates the aspirations of a very young population. This tentative, top-down, nationalism seems centered on self-fulfillment, especially in economic terms, on the pride generated by the proactivity of a young ruler in which the youth can identify, bidding to relaunch the Kingdom’s leadership of the Arab and Islamic world. Also, it is very much projected into the future and not as much tied back by its own past: while this emerging Saudi nationalism is re-discovering some of its ancient traditions, those are not necessarily related to Islam and Wahhabism and rejects the constraints that Wahhabism can put on social and economic development.

Q: Is there any other one final point you’d like to add to this interview, anything on the Gulf today or looking forward and the next up in a couple months or so in regional politics?

A: The final point that I would like to add in that it is as crucial as ever to also focus on the personal politics, because the politics is personal oftentimes in the Gulf. There is an ongoing transition of power from an elderly group of royals and leaders to a much more youthful one. In the immediate future it’s going to be very interesting to look at these intergenerational dynamics and see what happens in those countries where, for

instance, there’s still a senior leadership, Oman and Kuwait and to a certain extent Bahrain,

and those countries where there’s a younger leadership, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and to a certain

extent the UAE.

Several unexpected decisions in Doha, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi can be explained by this transition while the policy behaviour in Kuwait and Oman is very much in line with traditional policy-making in the region. We have to see how sustainable this new course of action is and how sustainable is the current interaction between the younger and older leadership at the regional level but also within the countries themselves where intergenerational divergences persist behind the scenes.

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Cinzia Bianco is a PhD candidate in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter

in the United Kingdom, where she is working on a thesis on the evolution of threat

perceptions in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council after the 2011 Arab

uprisings. She is also a Senior Analyst on the Arabian Peninsula at the geopolitical risk

consultancy Gulf State Analytics, based in Washington D.C. Between 2013 and 2014,

she was posted in the GCC region as a research fellow for the European Commission’s

project on EU-GCC relations ‘Sharaka’. Before that, she worked as an analyst in the

Middle East department at the NATO Defence College Foundation. She has published

academic articles on the politics of security in the Arabian Peninsula in journals such

as International Affairs and Middle East Policy, book chapters on relations between

Europe and the Gulf, and analytical reports for think tanks located in Europe, the United

States and the Gulf on domestic policies of the GCC countries. Cinzia holds a Master

of Arts in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies from King’s College London.

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