Professor Matteo Legrenzi says: Gulf States are not keen on all-out war

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By 2017-11-13

By Rathindra Kuruwita

Professor Matteo Legrenzi is the first visiting fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) and an expert on the Middle East. Ceylon Today interviewed him on the current state of the Middle East where close to 500,000 Sri Lankans live and work.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Professor Legrenzi, you are the first visiting fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL), the National Defence think tank of Sri Lanka under the Ministry of Defence. Shall we start with a brief introduction of who you are and how you became INSSSL's first visiting fellow?

A: I am an Associate Professor at Ca' Foscari University of Venice and I am extremely happy to be the inaugural visiting fellow at the INSSSL. I specialize in the Middle East, especially the Gulf countries. I initially studied in the United States, but then moved to the American University in Cairo to study Arabic. I did my MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies and DPhil in Politics and International Relations, at Oxford University where I remain an academic visitor and a Senior Research Associate at St. Antony's College. My specialty is International Relations of the Middle East, in particular of the Gulf. I have written two books, one on the cognitive decision-making in the 1973 War and the other is on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a regional grouping and a sub regional organization and my focus is very much on the international relations of the Arab Monarchies of the Gulf and their interaction with Iran. I also hope to set up a few exchange agreements and partnerships with universities and institutions in Sri Lanka while I am here.

The relationship between the Arab Monarchies and Iran seems to have reached a culmination in recent years with their power being tested in several theatres? However, the Gulf monarchies are also no longer a unified front?

A: We have a confrontation between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Iran that informs the international relations in the Middle East. On the other hand, within the GCC there is a confrontation between Qatar, where your President was visiting a couple of weeks ago, and its neighbours Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) assisted by Bahrain and Egypt. This grouping has imposed an embargo on Qatar since June. The dispute has escalated and has become bitter and personal, you can see this by looking at the exchanges between the rulers.

How will this affect Sri Lanka? We do have a stake here because we have a significant number of workers in these countries. How do we ensure their safety?

A: I have been asked this question many times in the last few days. People have asked me what the Sri Lankan angle is. I think the President did well in going to Qatar because the visit has been planned for a long time and cancelling it would have been seen as a provocative gesture. The most important thing for Sri Lanka is the wellbeing of the resident communities of Sri Lankans in Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia. I don't think anyone will pressure Sri Lanka into taking sides and I hope Sri Lanka manages to maintain cordial relations with all the parties. I think that is by far the wisest course of action because otherwise innocent people who are there working hard run the risk of getting in trouble.

When will this end? I am not sure. I hope eventually the United States, which has close relations with all the parties in the dispute, will be able to leverage the important security role it is playing to bring the parties together, or at least prevent the dispute aggravating further.

In recent days we have seen the arrest of prominent Saudi Arabian dignitaries under the directives of the Crown Prince. This has been seen as a move to cement his power. Is that all, or is there something else at play too?

A: I think that the view that it is a power move is more or less accurate. What we are seeing in Saudi Arabia is the consolidation of power by the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. He has now started this anti-corruption drive under which these prominent personalities were arrested and I think we see a gradual departure from what used to be a consensual or at least family based and collective style of decision-making within the royal family.

I think that the Crown Prince has a clear idea where he wants Saudi Arabia to be, at the domestic level and at the regional and international level. He is acting with energy and drive that is quite a departure from the usual rules and unwritten codes of decision-making in the Kingdom. He is enacting these measures of social liberalization like letting women drive and trying to enact an economic transformation, but this is accompanied by a consolidation of power. There is also a feeling that Iran is on the rise, that it has been successful wherever it has engaged in the last few years and that Saudi Arabia will have to lead a coalition to confront Iran. In the past, the Saudis were cautious regarding foreign policy decisions, but now they are taking a more assertive role, this is partly the result of the coming to power of the Crown Prince.

Saudi Arabia provides a lot of welfare for its citizens, that is how it maintains consensus, but the economy is not doing that great, which is why they have pushed for a Russia – KSA fuel freeze, to increase prices and there is also talk of Aramco, the Saudi Arabian oil company's initial public offering (IPO) at the New York Stock Exchange?

A: The Crown Prince has a plan to transform the Saudi economy, but it's easier said than done to transform the old structure of the Saudi economy and wean it from its dependency from oil, from its rentier economy, a State which derives all or a substantial portion of its national revenues from the rent of indigenous resources to external clients. There is a severe dependency on oil and foreign labour, a lot of it coming from Sri Lanka as well, and the plan is to make the Saudi economy more diversified. What is puzzling about the recent arrests is that some of the people who have been rounded up are the private sector actors who are supposed to help enact his vision.

Transforming the economy is not easy because it requires a transformation in the way Saudi society works. However, the Crown Prince is keen on that and it seems that he wants certain things done under his watch. There is an attempt to attract foreign investments, but it's not easy because Saudi Arabia is not seen traditionally as an easy place to do business. We shall see how his vision will pan out.

He is definitely pursuing these policies with vigour and some of the domestic moves you see must be seen in the light of his desire to be assertive. Another thing is that he has a lot of time on his hands, he is only 32 and he has a good 30–40 years in charge first as Crown Prince and then as King.

The war against Yemen, which has been a stalemate militarily and has caused the death of thousands and has caused a massive cholera outbreak, is also seen as a part of his new assertive foreign policy?

A: The conflict in Yemen, which is in fact more an air campaign than anything else on the part of Saudi Arabia, has been going on for more than what people expected. There is a strong basis in international law for the original intervention and UN resolutions backing it up. However, regardless of international law we have to consider what has happened on the ground, and as you mentioned the humanitarian consequences have been dreadful. Close to half a million people affected by cholera, mostly children, and the world is now finally realizing the extent of the catastrophe, after two years.

I remember that initially many analysts claimed that the war will be over in a few months, but now it has turned into a prolonged conflict, and no one has an exit strategy. The conflict is escalating, if you look at what has happened in recent weeks you see that the Yemeni rebels have been able to disrupt air traffic in Riyadh, the capital of the country. So, the rebels have taken the fight to Saudi Arabia, which is spending a lot of money. This is something that's worth keeping in mind and it is imperative to find a political solution because it's obvious that there will be no clear cut victory for the Saudi-led coalition or the rebels. And I might even ask how does one define victory in a conflict such as the Yemeni one?

Although everyone has now realized that the conflict has reached a stalemate, the Saudi-led coalition has a lot invested in this effort. To pull out would be seen as another victory for Iran and the rhetoric is on the rise. Even the Iranians, right now, despite the fact that I don't think are flooding the rebels with as many weapons as the latter would hope, are always pointing to Yemen as a battlefield where they are fighting oppression. The Saudis and Emirates claim that they can't allow Iran to win at their doorstep and the conflict goes on although it's clear that there can be no clear-cut military victory. So, the sooner a political settlement is made, the better it will be for everyone, especially the Yemeni population who have suffered tremendously.

How much do you think Iran will benefit from China's One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative and how will that affect the balance of power in the region?

A: This is a great question: I think that the Chinese presence is an interesting one because they are there to do business. They want to do business with as many people as possible and they want to involve themselves, politically or militarily, as little as possible.

China does a lot of business with both Iran and Saudi Arabia and they don't want to make any political call because the moment you start taking political calls you start displeasing at least one of the actors.

I don't think that China has any imperial ambitions in the Gulf. They have noted the difficulties the United States has encountered as it got enmeshed politically there. The Chinese are very respectful of a country's sovereignty and the political system which exists in that country and they have not tried to promote a particular vision of civil rights or human rights. They think that the most important aspect is economic development and that when people are prosperous they will find a political system that suits them.

This is different from the approach that was taken by some US administrations in the past.

The Middle East seems to be heading towards uncertainty. How will that affect global energy security?

A: I am not pessimistic about this. I believe that despite the inflammatory rhetoric the Gulf States are not keen on all-out war and also the world is slowly becoming less dependent on oil from the Middle East. For example, we have fracking and although the Saudis tried to price out these new American producers, a technology can't be unlearnt. While it is definitely true that a crisis in the Middle East will have an impact on energy prices, all parties involved know the importance of protecting their reputation as good places to do business because you can lose that in a week, but you need 20 years to regain it, see for example what happened in Brazil in the 1970s. I think that lines of supply through the Gulf are secure and Iraqi production will probably increase further now that the Islamic State there has been defeated.

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