Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?

Dania Koleilat Khatib (DKK) and Marwa Maziad (MM): This edited volume stems from a workshop that we co-directed as part of the Gulf Research Meeting that takes place every year at the University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom. When we decided to propose a workshop, we deliberated on endeavors of the Arab Gulf States to project themselves into Western imagination. We came up with the title “The Arab Gulf States and the West: Perceptions and Realities—Opportunities and Perils.” Fourteen authors, including the two of us, contributed to that workshop, and our papers eventually became the book chapters. The book was published by Routledge as part of the UCLA Center for Middle East Development (CMED) series on Middle East security and cooperation.

The main question for us was: “How are the Arab States of the Gulf perceived in the West?” At the heart of international relations, as well as intercultural communication, lies this question of perception. How do you perceive the Other? How does the Other perceive you? What is the nature of the encounter when it happens?

Recognizing, yet extending beyond a traditionally realist framework, which has dominated the analysis of Arab Gulf States’ foreign relations with Western countries—conceptualized in the broader sense to be based on sheer pragmatic economic and security interests—the book tackles both the materialist and the symbolic in the efforts and initiatives launched by the Arab Gulf States. As these Arab States of the Gulf actively engage with projecting themselves into the West, perceptions shape up and realities manifest. As opportunities emerge for further cooperation, perils also surface and can potentially proliferate. The various book chapters address these very perceptions, realities, opportunities, and perils. Thus, it is this book’s purpose to examine how the Arab Gulf States and their citizens are imagined, constructed, and perceived—and how that affects actual foreign policies of the various sides involved.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

DKK and MM: The topics covered in the book are broad in scope, yet specific in focus, and therefore the theoretical frameworks of contributing chapters have been interdisciplinary in nature. Fourteen of us, as authors, wrote our chapters in order to bridge and/or combine humanities and social science methods as we addressed the nature of perception and realities, as well as the opportunities and perils facing the Arab Gulf states’ engagement with the West. Some of the theoretical frameworks employed maintain a realist international relations framework. Others are founded on the notion of the “encounter,” with anthropological lenses and concepts of intercultural communication. The main themes include: The Arab Gulf States and the US; The Arab Gulf States and Europe and the non-Arab Middle East; with chapters on Gulf relations with the UK, France, Turkey, and Israel. A third section is on Gulf media, culture, and film festivals. A fourth section is on the Arab Gulf States relations to international organizations such as NATO and the UN.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

DKK: The workshop’s substance ties into my specialty, which is US-Arab relations. My previous research has focused on Arab lobbying in the United States, and on the issue of image and perception. In a way, the workshop was a continuation of my work. I think also there was a need for the workshop as the relations between the Arab Gulf States and the West have always been treated in various scholarly works from a realpolitik perspective. There has been no significant work on the question of perception, even though perceptions have affected and been at the roots of many policies that influenced the course of these relations.

MM: The book builds on my established anthropological fieldwork research on the Gulf that goes back to 2007, as well as my years as faculty member at Qatar University and Northwestern University in Qatar. My own contribution to our edited volume analyzes the Qatari–Turkish alliance; here, I conceptualize Turkey’s pan-Islamist regional expansionism to be a burden on Qatar’s once much more agile and independent foreign policy, causing Qatar’s current regional isolation and incessant struggles to clear its name from accusations of having been a “permissive jurisdiction” for terrorism finance.

Also, given my ongoing research agenda on comparative civil-military relations in Turkey, Egypt, and Israel, the book reflects my theorization about how these three important regional players split the Gulf Cooperation Council countries into their respective allies: Egypt-UAE versus Turkey-Qatar, as well as how the two pairings competed over attracting Saudi Arabia to follow their respective foreign policy directions. These pairings also formed strong lobbies and counter-lobbies in the Western capitals.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

DKK: Most of the chapters are written in accessible language and hence can be understood by the general reader. I hope that readers from both the Arab Gulf States and the West will read it. In a way, I hope it will clarify some misconceptions about the Arab Gulf States. Both the workshop and the book were built on a central idea: that perception is reality. Perceptions influence how we conceive and assimilate reality, and even create realties of their own. I hope that the Western reader will understand that many of their previous conceptions of the Gulf were not due to the realities of things but rather due to their perception of them. For example, while JASTA, the resolution that incriminates Saudi Arabia in the 9/11 events, was hugely popular in the United States, the chapter on this subject by David des Roches addresses the negative effect of passing this resolution on the United States itself.

The second theme that the book addresses is opportunities and perils. Here, I hope policymakers from the Arab Gulf, as well as the West, read the book and identify windows of opportunities that they can use to improve relations. I also hope that Arab policymakers will see how some of their policies are counter-effective, such as the lobbying they conduct in the United States. For example, lobbying on Syria was ineffective; it was not done in coordination with Syrian Americans and hence had no credibility. Additionally, the Saudi-UAE lobbying conducted against Qatar and vice-versa was counterproductive and only helped bring fees to companies on K Street, without influencing policies.

MM: I hope that academics, journalists, and policymakers in the West and the Arab Gulf States alike will read the book, because the analyses are very insightful in showing how previous polices have played out. In fact, I argue that the joint lobbying effort of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (as opposed to that of Turkey and Qatar) succeeded in the longer run in pressuring Qatar to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in July 2017, that allowed the United States to closely monitor terrorism-financing networks from within Qatar. As I analyzed the reasons behind the Arab Quartet boycott of Qatar on 5 June 2017, I deduced from my interviews that the boycott worked in pushing for “the formal US monitoring of Qatar” by July. It is also a fact that the regional financing for ISIS dwindled right after the MoU signing at the 2017 juncture. By mid-2018, ISIS was no longer the expansionist threat it had once been, because Qatar was no longer allowed to remain a “permissive jurisdiction” for terrorism finance, as a 2014 US treasury report had explicitly designated it. Things changed following the 5 June 2017 juncture, long before the ultimate military defeat of ISIS in March 2019.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

DKK: I am working on several papers on US-Arab relations and sectarianism. I also write a weekly column commenting on hot current affairs. However, the book project I am working on now is another edited volume that addresses post-crisis Syrian security architecture. The edited volume gathers a number of chapters that investigate how the Syrian crisis has affected international and regional relations. It has, for example, put to test the Saudi role in the region. At the same time, it has shown the increasing role of Iran and  gave Russia the opportunity to reassert itself on the global scene, after its long hibernation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a nutshell, the book discusses a new balance of power and the alliances that were forged as a result of the Syrian crisis.

MM: I am currently working on a book project on Comparative Civil-Military Relations in the Middle East: Cases of Turkey, Egypt, and Israel. I am also revising two other book chapter contributions, entitled “The Turkey-Qatar Alliance: Through the Gulf and Into the Horn of Africa: The Rise and Fall of Turkey’s Regionally Expansionist pan-Islamism” and “The Arab Gulf States and the Arctic: An unusually shared past and a shared trajectory towards indigenous knowledge for sustainable development.” It stems from a piece that I wrote here for the World Policy Institute.


Excerpt from the Book

Introduction: “The Arab Gulf States in the West: imaginings, perceptions, and constructions,” Marwa Maziad and Dania Koleilat Khatib

The problem of perception, accordingly, is two-fold. On one the hand, the Islamic cultural ecosystem is conceived as totally separate, or even alien to Western culture: as in some points, it is incompatible with Western values. On the other hand, Arab Gulf States have not yet fully mastered yet an effective strategy to portray themselves positively to Western societies as opposed to sheer pragmatic interests-based relations with their Western governments. This was mainly due to the approach they adopt. Each country individually focuses it public relations effort on boosting the image of the ruling family, at best, of the nation-state. However, the main reason why the Arab Gulf States have a negative image is due to the negative image of Islam, as a cultural prism. In their effort, the Arab Gulf States have thus far sought to treat the symptom while providing no cure to the ailment. Promoting the image of Islam has to be done by explaining to the West, Islam as a system with its own particularities, as well as much more importantly its shared convergences with other World Religions, specifically Judaism and Christianity. Thus, framing seemingly “Islamic” cultural practices in a manner that can be accepted by the West is key so as to highlight similarities and convergences as opposed to differences and divergences. Focusing on the contribution of Islam to the development of Western culture as well as the contemporary contribution of Muslims to Western societies is of prime importance. This is a project that not only Arab Gulf States have to conduct collectively; it is a project that has to be undertaken jointly with Muslim and Arab communities in the West. These communities make the best conduit to promote a certain image to the societies of which they are part. A case in point is how football fans love Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah of Egypt, as he won the Premier League’s Player of the Season award. As an Arab Muslim individual he has done much more for the image of Islam, through his record-breaking professional success, than myriad state-sponsored campaigns. Unless Arab Gulf states realize the importance of image management, they will continue to struggle in their relation with the West. In this respect, we can say perception has created a new reality with which the Arab Gulf States have to deal, and are starting to do so.

Chapter 2: “Arab Gulf States’ lobbying in the US in the wake of the Arab Uprisings,” Dania Koleilat Khatib

Today, lobbyists face an increasing challenge in defending the Saudi alliance with the US. As explained before, the issue of the strategic importance does not work anymore and the image of Saudi is very difficult to break through. Lobbyists have been trying to restore the bilateral relation. However, few lobbyists no matter how much money is put into play, cannot restore a relation that is unpopular among the Americans, unless things actually change on the ground in Saudi Arabia, as is starting to happen. Qatar has also been the target of criticism as the sponsor of terrorism. The Weinberg report published by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies clearly designates Qatar as a centre for terrorism financing. The UAE has a relatively positive image. However, their lobbying is focused on the elite and has no grassroots base. The UAE is one of the largest spenders on lobbying in DC, having spent a total of $US 3,457,109 in the second half of 2016 according to the FARA filing. The UAE clout in DC has been driven by the persona of its ambassador, Youssef Al Otaiba, who is a frequent guest for major Think Tank and forums in DC. Al Otaiba is said to have established a strong relation with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and his advisor in charge of peace in the region. UAE lobbying has been mostly successful; however the lobbying effort has been mainly focused on trade deals and does not represent controversial issues. The main controversial lobbying conducted by the UAE, has been the anti-Muslim Brotherhood lobbying. On this, the UAE was not able to push the administration to designate the organisation as a terrorist group. The domestic Muslim-American community’s counter lobbying played an important role in blocking the resolution.

To conclude, the issues presented today do more harm to Arab Gulf States than good. The Qatar blockade which led the different countries to trash each other in front of the US administration and Congress will lead to more damage to each of the three countries. These governments are almost uniformly increasing their stakes in the game of influencing U.S. policy. Therefore given, the overall geopolitical situation, the way issues have been presented and lobbied to the US  is not likely to generate any material outcome to anyone in the foreseeable future.

Chapter 6: “The Turkish burden: the cost of the Turkey–Qatar alliance and hard power projection into Qatar’s foreign policy,” Marwa Maziad

Despite the Egyptian military’s success in foiling a pan-Islamist arch that was supposed to pierce right into Egypt under some Turkish auspices, the troubling 2013 military intervention certainly militarized politics in Egypt. And while the military intervention, like Turkey’s own experience of the 1980 military intervention, meant a halt on politics in Egypt, at least for a while to come, such nationalist secularist re-militarization of Egyptian politics, however, should be understood in relation to Turkey’s own transnational pan-Islamist neo-Ottomanism, as two diametrically opposite regional projects, and not simply domestic affairs or, as some scholars reductively see it, as military penchant to rule over its own people. In contrast to those scholars, I argue that Egypt’s re-militarization of politics, after decades of withdrawal from politics since the 1967 defeat, must also be understood from within a “Dynamic Regional Order” conceptual framework that pauses at the Statist comeback from a Weberian definition of the state, in light of many regionally failing states. In this framework, the State has the monopoly over the legitimate use of violence. No competing orders of violence are allowed, in the form of regional Islamist militias—be it Shia militias such as Hezbollah supported by Iran, or Sunni militias supported by Turkey and Qatar in Iraq and Syria. Thus, at this particular juncture of Turkish–Egyptian relations, Egypt’s nationalist militarism, on the one hand and Turkey’s transnational Islamism on the other hand, antagonistically co-constituted one another, across the borders of both countries.

Ironically, Egypt evoked a secularist-nationalist-statist image in emulation of Turkey’s own Republican history of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk of 1923, while Turkey currently evokes a pan-Islamist transnational political project in appropriation of Egypt’s own Muslim Brotherhood born in 1928, in direct reaction to the end of the Caliphate in Turkey by Ataturk in 1924. This cyclical co-constituting dynamic only means that the histories of Turkey and Egypt are intertwined in ways that make them exchange regional positions, all while maintaining some regional Equilibrium of Conflict.

Qatar for its part lost its balance of having once observed such changes from an un-implicated, yet influential, position. It chose, or was pushed to choose, a side—namely that of Erdoğan’s Turkey against Egypt. Egypt’s response was fostering its ties with the other Gulf States, namely Saudi Arabia and Emirates and managing to further isolate Qatar and deter Turkey from its regional encroachments. The Arab Quartet’s position against Qatar is squarely the product of this Turkey–Egypt rivalry.

Chapter 7: “The continuity and change of the Gulf States’ image in the Israeli epistemic community”, Mohamed Abdallah Youness

The image of The GCC Countries in the political epistemic community in Israel changed drastically after the eruption of Arab Uprisings in 2011. Compared to considering Gulf States periphery actors in the Middle East during escalation periods between Israel and its neighboring countries, members of the Israeli epistemic community repeatedly described GCC Countries as influential key players in the complicated regional interactions. Most Israeli analysts and researchers considered the Gulf region, the advanced geostrategic frontline against Iran and the strategic depth of Israel’s national security against the Iranian threats.

Dania Koleilat Khatib and Marwa Maziad (eds.), The Arab Gulf States and the West: Perceptions and Realities—Opportunities and Perils (London: Routledge, 2018).