REGIONAL SECURITY IN THE MIDDLE EAST. Dr. Sanam Vakil is the Deputy Director of the Middle East North Africa programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London where she leads project work on Iran and Gulf Arab dynamics. Iranian by birth, Dr. Vakil has lived most of her life outside of the Middle East. She obtained a Master’s and then a PhD in international relations at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington DC. She then lived in Germany with her husband before moving to London, and she commutes to Bologna twice a month to teach for Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Sanam Vakil, what is your job at Chatham House? 

To conduct research and to inform various stakeholders – which include governments, the public, the media – regarding important political dynamics that take place in the countries that I study. I focus primarily on Iran and the countries of the Arab Gulf, and I conduct research projects that examine regional security dynamics alongside domestic political developments.

How do you get your information?

Through research on the ground. I travel quite a bit to the Middle East. I spend a lot of time interviewing policymakers, economists, analysts and politicians. We also have workshops where we bring together other analysts like myself that examine political and economic and social dynamics.

What is Chatham House?

It is an independent policy institute. Often we are conducting research , but in fact we pride ourselves in being independent. We don’t represent any government or policy. We do obtain funding to pursue projects from various governments, but not solely the British government, and our objective is to inform policymakers as well as the general public of our findings, without bias. We have broader institute-wide objectives directed to support peaceful and thriving societies, accountable and inclusive governance, and sustainable and equitable development. We pursue research on a wide array of issues, be it geographic areas like the Middle East and North Africa, but also on thematic areas like artificial intelligence, the sustainability of work, food security, and climate change. We try to elevate important international, local, regional issues that merit government but also general public attention, because it’s important to inform and bring more people into the conversation.

You are impartial in your judgements?

What’s unique about Chatham House is that we do not have an institute opinion about issues. There is no one institutionalised view on anything. We are allowed to have our independent judgements, and in the Middle East and North Africa program we do not accept any financial support from any government in the Middle East. We do that to maintain our independence.

“Middle Eastern states have hard and soft power and are gaining influence regionally and internationally.”

Sanam Vakil, what are your major concerns as a specialist on Iran?

The Iranian political establishment is in a very difficult position today, really under pressure, because they’ve experienced over three months of protests. Those protests have been quite significant, but they haven’t been revolutionary. Secondly, the Iranian political system has chosen to support Russia in the war in Ukraine and is exporting Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to Moscow. This very stark decision is going to have more serious consequences for Tehran. Thirdly, Iran has yet to sign a return to the nuclear agreement and its nuclear program is accelerating dramatically. These three issues are going to raise a crisis and a profile for Iran in 2023 that will be quite dangerous for the region as well as the international community. There is a huge risk that Iran’s nuclear program will accelerate to unprecedented levels.

Will the Iranian government give concessions to the protestors in order to keep power and not implode?

Unfortunately, I don’t see any concessions coming. The Iranian supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, continues to very strongly state in his public speeches that protesters, and foreign powers that have supported the protests, have to be dealt with very harshly. This is a very paranoid man that has been in power for over three decades, does not trust Western governments, and believes that the West would like to see a very much transformed Iran. He thinks that that transformation, should it ever come about, will be the end of the Islamic Republic. He also thinks that compromise breeds further pressure, so the state is going to remain very repressive. They are trying now to reinforce the veiling on women, not remove the veiling. They are reinforcing their surveillance of Iranian society. They have executed four young men. I suspect most of that is going to continue.

Do you see a regional security framework emerging? 

In this current climate of tension with Iran, the concept of an inclusive regional security framework that would bring Iran in is very unlikely. This concept would have been very hard to establish even with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), because there’s very limited trust in the region, but with Iran experiencing domestic unrest and increasing sanctions it would not be possible for the states of the region to engage in such a constructive dialogue with Iran. I expect more of a regional informal coordination to contain Iran and to contain any instability that might come from Iran. Unfortunately a more organised security construct is still quite far away, but there have been some positive efforts. For example, we saw in 2020 a Baghdad conference in Iraq, and we’ve just seen another conference in Amman, Jordan. Very nascent initiatives are underway, but it’s still going to take quite a bit of time and effort.

What is your view on how the different nations of the Middle East relate with Iran?

The region is very much in a period of flux. There is a prevailing sense of deep insecurity and this is primarily driven by insecurity tied to the U.S. role in the Middle East. This phenomenon has been accelerating over the past few years and has become more acute since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Biden administration’s very different approach to the region. Most American partners feel very frustrated that the U.S. is not the same reliable actor that it had been, and so this is guiding a lot of tensions in the region. Many countries share a common view that Iran is a regional threat, a destabiliser that must be managed, and traditionally the containment of Iran was managed by the United States. In the absence of more overt U.S. engagement on this issue, regional states are pursuing their own independent Iran strategy, and that means that there is no direct coordination. There are tactical approaches that are unique to each country’s national interests.

Can you give me an example?

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) are geographically very close to Iran, have a long history of trade with Iran, and they have longstanding tensions also with Iran because of Iran’s support for the Houthis in Yemen, because Iran has taken Emirati islands in the Persian Gulf. The UAE has recently, in August of 2021, restored diplomatic ties with Iran because they think that diplomacy and economic engagement is a better way to manage and influence Iran and protect the UAE. Israel has a very different approach. It’s much more coordinated in terms of security and defence. Israel is also surrounded by Iranian proxies in Lebanon, in Syria and Iraq, so it takes much more of an aggressive military posture vis a vis Iran. Each country has its own strategy.

What about Saudi Arabia?

The Saudis are strategically aligned in seeing Iran as a prevailing regional threat, but what the Saudis do not have is the direct capacity to militarily engage with Iran. At the same time, they do not want to diplomatically restore relations with Iran without obtaining some concessions. For over a year and a half they have been engaging in dialogue, but that dialogue has failed because the Iranians refused to give the Saudis any concession to stop supporting the Houthis in Yemen. Everyone is playing three dimensional chess.

“There is an acknowledgement that lack of diplomacy intensifies conflict and there is an awareness that less security guarantees from the West – and specifically the United States – is also dangerous for the region.”

Sanam Vakil, what about Qatar?

Qatar’s influence has become important. There is competition in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and specifically between the UAE and Qatar, that resulted in the 2017 Qatar crisis that lasted for three and a half years. Now the GCC states are trying to build back their trust and their diplomatic ties, but through this crisis Iran strengthened its relationship with the Qataris. They supported Qatar when they were being isolated and so there is greater Iranian influence now in Doha. And the Qataris are playing the role of a mediator, trying to bring down tensions between Iran and the international community, and Iran and the GCC.

Qatar is a peacemaker?

It’s trying to be. In the past, other states have taken that role. Oman played that role during the Obama administration. Today it’s the Qataris that are trying to take that role. They see mediation as the best pathway to manage tensions. They want to avoid war.

Did the World Cup in Qatar give the region a sense of solidarity?

Yes, football was a huge mobiliser and a moment of regional pride. There were a number of important victories, be it Morocco, Saudi Arabia; even Iran beat Wales. These were symbolic and important to ordinary people in the region that are oftentimes forgotten, and it showcases the power of football to bring people together. So it was an important World Cup for the Qataris, but also for regional states more broadly.

Do you also keep an eye on what goes on in Turkey?

More regionally, rather than domestically, but of course Erdogan‘s potential re-election will have huge consequences for regional politics as well as domestic and European politics.

Is the ambiguity in the Middle East about the war between Russia and Ukraine also because of China?

Yes. The Middle East is in a period of flux. We might also describe it as hedging. The region in general is dependent on Western states, and primarily the United States for security, but their economic and commercial interests are very much oriented towards the East and specifically to China. Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia in December, and China has a huge degree of economic influence with almost every single country in the region. So, part of the region’s ambiguity towards the war in Ukraine is tied to its security, as well as its economic interests. The regional states would like to sit out of the war in order to protect themselves from geopolitical tensions and competition.

Do the countries of the Middle East have a common goal?

They are not at a point where there is adequate regional coordination to manage geopolitical competition and even pressure coming from the West or the war in Ukraine. Since Covid, there has been greater regional coordination and acknowledgement that the decade of the post-Arab Spring, the conflicts and the competition alongside Covid, has posed unmatched burden on regional states. Since Covid, there has been greater concentration on diplomacy and building economic resilience, but we have not yet seen a common coordination in terms of regional security. Certain states are closer, and certain states do cooperate, like the GCC states. We’ve even seen significant coordination on security issues between Israel, Bahrain and the UAE that have normalised, Jordan. Iraq and Egypt also coordinate. Egypt and the GCC coordinate. But there isn’t that formal coordination that is needed to insulate the Middle East from instability.

Is the difficult situation between Israel and Palestine ever going to end?

There have been some important shifts there and foremost is Israel’s very oppressive policies over the situation in Palestine. We also have a crisis of leadership in Palestine. Mahmoud Abbas has been there for well over 20 years and it’s time to move him along in order to kick start some energy into this crisis. But the younger generation in the Arab world has less attachment to the issue of Palestine, and this has resulted in more pragmatism focused on the national interest. This has led to more diplomatic, if not formal, recognition of Israel, as we saw with the UAE and Bahrain. This important shift is not benefiting the Palestinians ultimately.

Will these countries ever find a regional agreement and stop fighting one another?  

That’s a very big question with over 20 countries, but we are, for the first time in a very long time, getting to a point where regional security is something that states in the region are considering and acknowledging. I don’t expect to see the development of a regional security framework this year, but perhaps in the medium and long run that is a possibility. There is an acknowledgement that lack of diplomacy intensifies conflict and there is an awareness that less security guarantees from the West – and specifically the United States – is also dangerous for the region.

“We have not yet seen a common coordination in terms of regional security.”

Sanam Vakil, could a kind of NATO be established for the Middle East?  

U.S. CENTCOM (Central Command) is promoting a concept that seeks to build greater coordination among U.S. partners in the region, but this is a very long process to develop. They’re trying to work on intelligence sharing as a first step, and there are other sequences that need to be developed. What is missing, and what is integral to this process, is trust, and the trust deficit in the region is a huge one, and that is not just between Israel and some of the Gulf states but also among the Gulf states themselves.

What is the role of China?

My own opinion is that China is an economic security guarantor of the Middle East. It is not providing defensive guarantees to the Middle East. China has long been a beneficiary of the US presence in the Middle East, and China’s principal foreign policy principle is one of non-intervention, and this is an attractive concept for Middle Eastern authoritarian states that do not like it when Western states criticise their human rights practices and involve themselves in the domestic politics beyond their borders. But we have yet to see China involve itself in regional security and with China being very beset by its own domestic problems, Covid, its economic recovery, it is unlikely that China is going to replace or take a bolder regional role in the Middle East.

And Russia?

Russia’s role is important, despite being a weakened state, it is an influential player because of its role in Opec+ and its position in Syria, as well as its ties with Iran. Regional states take very pragmatic ties with Russia, and this is why they have been neutral in the war, because they realised that Russia has influence and they need to manage that influence for their benefit in the region.

Is the ruling political class in the Middle East as weak as many of those in the West?

The profound difference between politics in the Middle East versus in Western states is the nature of those systems. The Middle East has no real democratic state aside from Israel, as argued by many who studied the region, and so you can’t compare the authoritarian nature of Middle Eastern states with those of the West. That said, there is a transfer of power taking place, slowly but gradually in many of the Middle Eastern states, to a younger generation of leaders. Those leaders are not by any means democratic, but they are ambitious, and they are agile, and they are trying to put forward programs and policies to protect their states and their position in those states. What we do not see is the development of democracy, institutions that are democratic, consensus, compromise or strong civil society in most of these countries. In fact, these states are surveillance states. They are repressive states, and they’re being led by individuals who see themselves as benevolent leaders, but not, again, democratic ones.

What is the principal challenge facing the Middle Eastern states today? 

The issue of climate change. Desertification, rising heat, poor agricultural practices, damming of waters, rivers and lakes; all of this is posing huge pressure on ordinary people across the region. Without more coordinated security work by regional states there will be another round of instability in the Middle East, similar to what we saw in the Arab Spring, and this is what states are acknowledging. In the medium to long run I’m a bit more optimistic because there is an acute awareness that without coordination these security challenges are going to rebound and re-emerge.

What are the economic implications of climate change in these energy rich countries?

Not all Middle Eastern states are resource rich in terms of energy resources, it is mainly the Gulf states, Iran and Iraq, and some states in the eastern Mediterranean. The pressure from climate change and the change coming from the West is that regional states are being forced to diversify away from energy dependency, and this is a long, gradual process. The most ambitious and most well-known reform program is Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 that seeks to diversify away from energy by building a more robust private sector. But this process can’t take place overnight.  It’s Vision 2030 as a target, but we should see this more as a generational process, because in order to get there you need to build many different industries and you need to educate and upskill your society to take those jobs. You have to make changes to the social contract in these countries that never really had taxes, for example, but are actually moving to a different relationship between citizens and government. It’s a very long, complicated and gradual process, but one that merits support and one that, should it succeed, will definitely be positive.

At the end of the day, are these states trying to find their way to modernity and to the global world?

Middle Eastern states are already modern. They have hard and soft power and are gaining influence regionally and internationally.  We should no longer see Middle Eastern states as willing to be beholden to geopolitical competition. The Middle East today has developed economic and diplomatic power, and is working to develop their societies so that they have the capacity to be less dependent on the West, and eventually also the East. This is all about creating resilience for their states. How we get there isn’t going to be a linear process, and there will be much instability on the horizon. In theory, the prognosis of where we are today on a stability factor is more positive at the same time though, we are looking at authoritarian states who are not inviting their citizens into the political process. The Arab Spring, which began over ten years ago, did not lead to democratic transition in the Middle East. It led to authoritarian resilience in the Middle East, and this is a profound negative outcome of the Arab Spring. Bashar al-Assad is still in power in Syria. There is still war in Yemen. There is still a huge amount of economic, political and security uncertainty in Iraq. Non-State actors like Hezbollah have deep control in Lebanon. These are not positive outcomes for the Middle East. The Middle East might look like it’s more stable – particularly in the Gulf where there is a higher GDP and it’s capitalised on higher energy prices – but the prevailing trends of instability without regional security coordination are still high.

Thank you very much.