At the end of August, we spoke to Pierre Berthelot, a French Middle East specialist and Associate researcher at the Institute for European Perspective & Security (IPSE). The interview was conducted by Denys Kolesnyk, a French consultant and analyst based in Paris.
What are the main challenges the Middle East is facing?
There are new challenges, but there are also old ones. By old challenges, I mean the energy issue. This is an issue that has existed since the countries of the Middle East became key players, producers and exporters of oil, in other words since 1960 — the year OPEC was founded.
And this long-standing challenge continues, even in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And even more so than before. The problem is that we still haven’t found tangible alternatives to fossil fuels. And what we have been able to find, for instance nuclear power, has not been well received in many countries.
In other words, the energy question is essential, and the major energy players in this region are being courted more than ever before, because the European countries are trying to find an alternative to Russian energy ressources. A second factor is the attempt to control the rising prices of these resources.
The second issue is, of course, religious radicalization. This remains an essential challenge, even if there is some good news. For example, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are weakened, but the problem is that they are only temporarily weakened in the Middle East. And, unfortunately, they are spreading elsewhere.
This is particularly true for Africa. We talk about it enough these days, but it’s also true in other parts of the world, in Asia for example, and the threat is not totally absent in Europe, even if we can be satisfied with a reduction in terrorist attacks. But the problem of religious radicalism goes beyond violent action, as you probably know.
It’s about mind control, in other words, the influence these ideas can have in European societies, which can lead to conflict. To put it simply, there’s “soft” Islamism, and then there’s “hard” Islamism. Even if sometimes they converge, sometimes they differ, but in the end, we can say that it can be source of division and tensions in European societies. Or even within Muslim groups, societies or communities.
For the time being, we haven’t found a lasting solution to reduce the persistence of religious extremism, which, I should add, is not mainly linked to Islam, as it can also be found among certain Jews in the Middle East. For example, we can see a rise in religious radicalism in Israel, where small religious extremist groups are in power, and we can worry about their position, which could lead to more conflicts.
A very interesting element has emerged in recent years. It’s a form of contestation, of political Islam. Whereas before, it was fought by secularists, now it’s being fought by Arab political regimes that don’t define themselves as secular.
And I’m thinking, for example, of the Alliance that has been formed between the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and other countries, the quadripartite format, which has been called the Counter-Revolutionary Alliance. So, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, and it’s interesting because these are regimes that, at least the UAE and Egypt, that are not anti-Islam, but don’t put secularism first.
On the other hand, the most important development in the Middle East is the change in Saudi Arabia’s attitude. It’s not just an energy superpower, but also a pillar of the Arab world, and a pillar of the Muslim world. It should also be noted that this religious influence is “exported”, so to speak, through Wahhabism, the country’s official doctrine. And “petrodollars” help to export this ideology.
What’s also interesting, but needs to be confirmed, is that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) seems to want to distance himself from religious rigorism. I’m by no means saying that he’s going to fight it, but apparently, for him, Saudi Arabia’s power, its influence, can ultimately come through other means, notably “soft power” as he calls it, hence the investments in football, for example.
He wants to change the image of Saudi Arabia as an ultra-conservative, medieval country that supports rigorist Islam. The country won’t be moving towards secularism, of course, but will ultimately have an image of modernity. And when we say “soft power”, we also mean tourism, hence the pre-Islamic sites that are being promoted, thanks in particular to France’s archaeological support. But in order to implement this, he must to become king first.
And from that point on, it’s highly likely that political Islam, or ultra-rigorist, ultra-conservative Islam, would be in decline, as its main sponsor would no longer want it. So if he ever gets past that, it’s going to be a total turning point, in my opinion.
To sum up, in the Middle East there’s the energy question, which will be with us for decades to come, because, as I said, we haven’t found any serious, sustainable substitutes for fossil fuels, not just in Europe, but worldwide. And secondly, the religious question, with some rather interesting developments, as well as the relative weakening of Daesh and Al-Qaeda. The third issue in the Middle East is the question of geopolitical evolution and positioning, and here again, we find Saudi Arabia at the forefront.
It’s clear that, in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Saudi Arabia has distanced itself from the Americans. Before February 2022, Riyadh was considered the United States’ number one ally in the Middle East.
MBS refused to follow the Americans and Westerners on energy, who wanted a relative drop in prices. It will be part of the BRICS from 2024. They have reconciled, at least temporarily, with Iran thanks to China – Washington’s sworn enemy. They enjoy excellent relations with the Russians. And all this is a thunderclap for the Americans. A very strong evolution, if you like.
So it’s fair to say that this is the emergence of another pole in the multipolar world that China wants and is building?
Yes, that’s absolutely correct. But it’s not just the Saudis. There’s also the Emirates, who are more or less on the same wavelength, and Egypt too. Cairo is a major player in the Arab world. But these countries are not going to break with the United States, nor are they going to align themselves, in my opinion, with American policy towards Russia and China.
I think they’ve realized that the right strategy for them is ultimately non-alignment because alignment with the United States isn’t as reliable as it used to be. They’ve got a lot of grievances, including questions about shale gas in the United States. They have also seen that the Americans tend to drop their allies when they no longer need them. For example, the Kurds in Syria or allies in Afghanistan, and there will surely be others.
I also think that MBS wants to make his mark. In other words, he wants to pursue different policies from now on, and I think he initially played the American “card” to the hilt, and was rather disappointed.
And we’re seeing it with other countries too, for example, Egypt, which was very pro-American, and the Emirates. So, several countries are distancing themselves, even if it means getting closer to the United States’ enemies.
This brings us to another question concerning the diversification of relations and partners. How would you characterize France’s interests in this region? And which countries are most important to Paris?
The Near and Middle East is a very important issue for France, for several reasons. First of all, securing energy supplies, since we know that France has no oil or gas — it’s a 99% net importer. And given the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Paris wants to get rid of Russian imports, so of course it has to secure its supplies. So the objective of maintaining very good relations with these countries is a natural one.
That’s the first issue. The second issue is of course French exports, and in particular, what remains one of France’s flagships: arms exports. It’s important to remember that our balance of trade is largely in deficit because we’ve de-industrialized.
The only area where we haven’t de-industrialized is high-tech and defence industry. France is one of the few countries in the world capable of manufacturing an aircraft carrier or a fighter jet on its own.
It’s worth noting that, according to SIPRI, France is one of the TOP-5 arms exporters in the world, just behind the USA and Russia. While Saudi Arabia and Qatar are in the TOP-5 of arms importers. The Middle East is therefore a key market for our defense industry.
In addition to arms, there are other areas, such as construction projects, especially railroads. In addition, Islamism as a radical ideology is cooperating in the fields of culture and tourism. And even if the region doesn’t account for much in terms of France’s trade, it’s still of strategic importance to us.
And the third issue for France in the region is Islam, which can sometimes take on the face of radicalism, like any other religion. We need to get to know this region, and assess the risks, particularly the security risks, to ensure that this does not have a negative impact on France.
There’s also the migration issue, of course, even if we’re not on the front line when it comes to migrants from this area. Other European countries are facing migration from the Middle East, but we do suffer from illegal migration from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.
To conclude, I’d say that these different issues are also about France’s geopolitical influence. In other words, if we want to influence world affairs, we need to be present in this region, in relation to what was said earlier, notably the energy question, the question of major export contracts, arms sales, etc.
Still, on the subject of geopolitics and influence, there’s currently a conflict in Sudan. In your opinion, what are the origins of this conflict and what impact could it have on the countries of the Middle East?
The origins of the conflict are sometimes hard to pin down. There is undoubtedly a power rivalry, as exists in many countries. As for Sudan, it’s a rivalry between the head of state and his number two. It’s clearly an ambition for power, and one that was somewhat predictable because power had been relatively stable for some thirty years under President Bachir.
The moment someone who has embodied a form of relative stability leaves or is forced to leave, confrontations arise. This phenomenon can be observed in many African countries. We’ve seen it in Libya, Somalia, Côte d’Ivoire and elsewhere. The power vacuum, unprepared succession and personal rivalries are the primary factors.
There are also geopolitical influences, since from what I’ve heard, it would seem that the question of Sudan’s alliances or its positioning is finally causing trouble. At one point there was talk of a rapprochement with Israel. But Sudan was bombed by the Americans, as it was said that weapons were being sent to the Gaza Strip. And since it was an Islamist regime, it had welcomed Osama bin Laden. At one point, Khartoum had become quite close to Iran. So it was an Islamist regime that was anti-Western and anti-Israeli. The question of a rapprochement with Israel, which has been raised but is now a little more discreet, may have caused the trouble.
The second issue is the Russian question, especially the project of a Russian military base in the Red Sea, more specifically in Port Sudan. Here too, it is possible that this has caused trouble. So, it would seem that in the end, this issue could also be a bone of contention between the two players, one of whom would be rather favorable, the other rather hostile.
In any case, this remains to be taken into consideration, as does Sudan’s position vis-à-vis the United States. Because in reality, the rapprochement with Israel was carried out by Trump and via the United States. So here again, did this rapprochement with the Americans and Israel enable some of the sanctions to be lifted and economic aid to return? And didn’t it ultimately create major unrest within a power that was traditionally anti-American, anti-Western, anti-Israeli and pro-Islamist? That remains a real question.
In terms of the impact on regional powers, the conflict in Sudan has aggravated the situation not only in the MENA region but also in the Sahel, particularly in Chad. And Chad is the virtually last stable country in the Sahel because when it comes to Niger, we’ve seen what’s happened. The countries in the area are moving away from France and closer to Russia.
The humanitarian situation is disastrous, and may, of course, increase immigration to Europe, or perhaps also aggravate the difficulties of Sudan’s neighboring countries, which are themselves confronted with conflicts, and here we’re thinking in particular of Ethiopia.
You just mentioned the possible increase in immigration. Let’s talk about France and the Maghreb. How can we improve cooperation in the fight against illegal immigration, given that the majority of migrants either pass through the Maghreb or originate from this region?
It’s a very difficult question indeed and is complicated for several reasons. First of all, relations between France and the Maghreb have deteriorated in recent years.
Relations with Morocco used to be quite good since there was always a somewhat special relationship between Paris and Rabat, with very close, even personal ties. But that has disappeared under Emmanuel Macron’s presidency. Morocco criticizes Macron for not recognizing Western Sahara as an integral part of Morocco. The French president seems to be too accommodating with Algeria because this country can offer its energy resources, and this is important, especially in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war.
But the paradox is such that relations have deteriorated with Morocco, and at the same time they haven’t really improved with Algeria either. Algiers still has grievances with France, dating back to the Algerian War. Something similar can also be observed in Tunisia, as Macron criticizes the authoritarian drift of President Kais Saied.
So the question is how to fight illegal immigration together when political relations are not good. This inevitably makes the situation more complicated. But there are areas where we could improve relations, notably the visa restrictions with Morocco and Algeria.
After that, even if we manage to improve our bilateral ties, we have to bear in mind that the local authorities of these countries don’t have complete control over their borders and, consequently, migratory flows. Therefore, even if they commit to containing illegal immigration, it’s not clear whether this is feasible on their side.
Relations are complicated, but I’d like to say that if we really wanted the Maghreb to show a genuine determination to fight illegal immigration effectively, our political relations would have to improve, and we’d also have to provide substantial aid to these countries.
But the question is, will it remain as effective given this deterioration in political relations?
You mentioned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the problems and challenges it posed. So, what impact do you think the Russian invasion of Ukraine has had on the Middle East?
I think there’s a certain disappointment on the part of the West. The countries in the region didn’t react as we’d hoped, because we saw that on the oil question, with Saudi Arabia in particular, there was no increase in production, which would have brought the price down and therefore reduced the amount of money coming into Russia.
Nor was there any firm condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some say there’s a double standard, referring to Palestine, for example.
Above all, I think there’s this non-alignment that means they feel they don’t have to take sides because it’ll backlash if they get too close to either Russia or the Americans, or the West. As a result, they try to maintain good relations with both, but without really taking sides. We saw this at the Arab League summit.
There was the inclusion of Syria, which is very close to Russia. This did not go down well with the West either. And at the Riyadh summit, Ukrainian President Zelensky was invited. He was listened to, but no position was taken.
And then, when we talk about the so-called “Global South”, of which these countries are a part, the isolation of Russia we’re talking about doesn’t happen. Of course, Russia is isolated in the West, but not elsewhere. Morocco, for example, is an interesting case, because it’s a rather pro-Western country and has even drawn closer to Israel, but at the same time it’s one of the biggest importers of Russian diesel while delivering tanks to Ukraine.
So I think this is a pretty good reflection of the position of Arab countries, which are mostly non-aligned on the subject of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And it’s revealing because the war has shown that Arab countries with a reputation of being pro-Western are distancing themselves from the West.
And if we come back to Saudi Arabia, if MBS manages to show that it is possible to be an Arab country while being non-aligned, and to present an image of modernity and tradition at the same time, then he could embody a form of leadership in the Arab world that has been absent since Egypt and Iraq were wiped out. Saudi Arabia could become the new leader of the Arab world if MBS manages to follow through on this logic of non-alignment and modernization of his country.
And what about Turkey, especially after Erdoğan’s re-election?
Turkey can never be the leader of the Arab world, because it’s not an Arab country. But it’s true that although it’s not an Arab country, it was the leader in the region during the Ottoman Empire, which controlled the majority of the Arab world. And the Turks still wield influence, that’s for sure.
Many countries have a certain admiration for Turkey or are influenced by it through, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood, which embodies part of political Islam. So it’s clear that there’s a rivalry for what we call Sunni leadership.
But this rivalry also exists with Qatar, it also exists with the Emirates, but in any case, I think that Saudi Arabia has more means to achieve it because it is an Arab country, or even more, it is the heart of the Arab and Muslim world.
So in this respect, Turkey may have fewer trump cards up its sleeve, and it doesn’t have the financial clout of Saudi Arabia either.
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