Gulf Cultural Club
Deconstructing the Iran-Saudi saga and
lifting of sanctions, within a turbulent Middle East
Professor George Joffe*
Roshan Mohammad Saleh**
20th January, 2016
Recent events in the Middle East have been dominated by sectarianism, terrorism, mass killings and executions, causing a major cold war between the two major powers in the region. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been subsequently severed, leading to a new phase of uncertainty in an already highly turbulent Middle East. Western sanctions on Iran have been lifted and new political realities have are emerging. Five years after the Arab Spring the hopes it had engendered had been aborted; but is this the last episode in the process of re-writing the history of the Middle East? Or is it simply a winter cloud that will soon give way to a brighter political horizon in this stormy region?
Chairman Dr Saeed Shehabi: Welcome to this session of the Gulf Cultural Club and Open Discussions which is going to discuss an important and topical issue which is of concern to us whether we are Muslims or non Muslims: the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the volatile Middle East and the turbulence that is taking place all over the region. I think you will agree with me that it is a hard time for everybody. The oil prices are down but that is not the whole issue. There is some reconciliation between Iran and the West but that has some implications, regionally and internationally. The world is not much safer than it was some 30 or 40 years ago. It is becoming less safe: there are factors, players and contributors to the instability of the region and the world. That is why we have gathered some experts here tonight so they can contribute to the debate about what is going on in that region. Iran and Saudi Arabia have severed relations as a consequence of the burning of the Saudi Embassy in Iran which was a consequence of the execution of 47 people by the Saudi government. All these complications have added to an already complicated picture of the situation. We will discuss these issues tonight.
Professor George Joffe: Let me begin with a very simple observation. Today the Chinese President Xi Jinping is on his first visit to the region as Chinese president since his appointment. The two states on his visit are Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is significant because what is says to us is that our conception of the dominant role these two states play inside the Middle East and particularly inside the Gulf area is also perceived elsewhere. It marks the beginning of a Chinese policy developing towards the Middle East and that could be significant in terms of the confrontation developing between the two states.
I would like to answer two questions. The first is why is the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia articulated in the terms that are actually used - the intense sectarian terms that particularly Saudi Arabia uses. The second question is what are the implications of the confrontation? That has two parts as well. First of all in terms of the crisis in Syria and secondly over the nuclear issue with Iran and I would like to make a few comments about that.
So let me begin by trying to address the question of sectarianism or the narrative of sectarianism through which the confrontation between the two states is actually expressed. Let me begin by saying that it seems to me that this confrontation has nothing to do with sectarianism. It is not really a question of Sunni versus Shia even though it is expressed in those terms. It is a geo political confrontation. It is about the dominance of the Gulf region and it is also very long standing. It is not recent. It goes back in some respects over a century.
Iran has always seen the Gulf as its near abroad and that is the situation that existed under the Shah, it existed with the regimes before the Shah and it is certainly the case now. Saudi Arabia has seen itself as a regional power since the Saudi state was created in 1932. It first began by considering its role inside the Arabian Peninsula, the war with Yemen in 1934, the confrontation with Egypt over Yemen in the 1960s. Even the attempt to take over Kuwait in 1925 all demonstrated the way in which Saudi Arabia saw itself as regional hegemonic power.
I think it becomes a real issue for the Gulf after oil is discovered in Saudi Arabia. It then begins to become a global player particularly after 1945. There was a famous meeting between President Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud. The USA gave guarantees to Saudi Arabia which have lasted until today. The issue comes to a head in the 1970s when Britain withdraws from the Gulf in 1971 because then the region is left to these two states to argue about which of them should control the Gulf region.
Interestingly enough the USA then tried to mobilise both. With President Nixon’s twin pillar policy the Americans tried to guarantee Saudi security by expecting both states to guarantee it to. But the issue becomes acute and begins to take on the terms we recognise today only in 1980 after the Islamic revolution. The reason for that is that the Islamic revolution produced a second Islamic state that could claim its political system was derived from Islamic precepts. It was a very different kind of political system from the one that existed already inside Saudi Arabia.
In addition Iran had been in a position, through its revolution, to give leadership to the wider Arab world and the wider Muslim world to – an indication that Islam had a role to play in terms of the political construction inside the region. In a way that marginalised Saudi Arabia. Saudi concerns about Iran go back to that event. They also date to the question of the export of the revolution the policy favoured by Ayatollah Khomeini although hardly articulated and the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988.
Saudi Arab supported Iraq and the geo political concept of the conflict then began to be expressed in sectarian terms. Indeed Saudi Arabia tried to popularise the question of Salafi Islam. Iran at the same time in Europe tried to popularise the Iranian example instead.
That kind of confrontation, that kind of challenge on both sides begins to shape what was to happen thereafter. To understand that we need to remember that there was a wider dimension to this. In 1982 or in 1980 the Americans decided to confront the Soviet Union over its occupation of Afghanistan and it mobilised its allies in the region – particularly Saudi Arabia to help it in that particular effect.
It also helped to create the conditions for the construction of the Gulf Co-operation Council. And both those events in a way were a rejection of the Iranian status inside the region. With the end of the Gulf War Iran tried to articulate the collective security response inside the Gulf but Saudi Arabia resisted that although in 1998 (and it is worth remembering this) the then Crown Prince Abdullah actually travelled to Tehran for the first time to come to an agreement with Iran over the operation of OPEC – something that may happen again in the near future.
But in reality Saudi Arabia was challenged by the anxieties it felt because of the growth of Hezbollah with Iranian support in South Lebanon, by the American withdrawal from the Middle East under the Reagan administration - an event though it was able to isolate Iran because of the embassy crisis it wasn’t able to guarantee any more the Saudi position inside the Gulf even though to Saudi Arabia the United States was an integral part of its security structure.
The crisis we have today begins over two other events: the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Arab spring in 2011. 2003 is a very interesting date but up until that time Iran had in effect been able to recover its position inside the Gulf. It had access to central Asia. It proposed access to South Asia – Pakistan and India. It was able influence events inside the Gulf to. It had become a geopolitical hinge for access to the whole of the region around it and as such boded to become the dominant hegemon inside the region.
But then in 2001 it suddenly discovered the USA its prime enemy to its east in Afghanistan. At the same time to its north in central Asia supply lines to the American operations inside Afghanistan meant that the American presence was there to. And then in 2003 in effect Iran because of the American occupation of Iraq was cut off from the Gulf as well.
So over a period of two short years Iran’s dominant position at the head of the Gulf was reversed to one of isolation. The irony of course is that the American invasion of Iraq was to provide Iran with the mechanism by which it could recover control of north Gulf affairs and become the dominant power inside Iraq itself.
That meant that Saudi Arabia’s role was marginalised and the crisis that we see begins to date from that time. The Arab spring simply made things even worse because Saudi Arabia was horrified by the way in which the Arab spring implied the destruction of established regimes inside the Middle East. It was particularly concerned about the consequences of the revolution inside Egypt. It was particularly anxious about the American desire to allow that revolution to develop. America’s acquiescence inside the revolution was something that Saudi Arabia profoundly disliked. It therefore rejected the idea of the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after the revolution had been completed. It joined the UAE a long standing enemy of the Muslim Brother hood in constructing a new alliance against the growth of yet another Islamic archetype in terms of state organisation.
It turned against Qatar seeing Qatar as a supporter of the Brotherhood and it sought an alliance throughout the region proposing that the GCC should be expanded to include Jordan and Morocco as the two major monarchies inside the region. It was a proposal that did not go very far and it gave an indication of the way in which Saudi Arabia was thinking. And of course it invaded Bahrain as part of its process of trying control what it saw as a threat to the stability of the region because of the Shia populations there.
This brings out another point that the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia has always been expressed through a series of proxy wars. In a way what happened in Bahrain was the beginning of the cycle of proxy wars over the question of Saudi containment of Iran itself.
With the advent of the crisis in Syria, a regime which Saudi Arabia had relatively good relations despite the difference in the nature of the regimes themselves Saudi Arabia turned against the Assad regime and found itself confronting Iran and the second proxy war developed. That war in a particular was expressed in sectarian terms.
So the geo political dimension of this becomes in effect sectarian by choice as the mechanism of developing a new narrative of confrontation. That has gone on to be the case and with the advent of the new monarch inside Saudi Arabia King Salman we see that extended to a third proxy war that in Yemen.
The Saudi calculation was that by creating a series of proxy wars it could drag Iran into a confrontation that would have global implications as well. Western powers, particularly the USA, would be forced to support the Saudi objective of isolating Iran once again. The irony is that those calculations have been completely overthrown as have Western calculations by the Russian intervention inside Syria and the Syrian crisis. So in effect Saudi Arabia now finds itself involved in three proxy wars against Iran in Yemen, in Syria and previously also inside Bahrain.
That brings in the question of the nuclear deal. This is the keystone that completes the arch. It does so because the USA as a result of the nuclear agreement has been in effect been obliged to open diplomatic relations with Iran that have been broken for 35 years. That means that in effect the security structure that had been constructed so painstakingly based on Saudi Arabia and the USA is now coming apart.
It raises a question, and I put this to you as speculation, as to how real the Iranian nuclear threat actually was. Iran has good justifications for wanting peaceful nuclear power. It needs it because its population demands ever increasing amounts of energy. It needs it because it requires the gas to reinject into its oil fields to improve their production and it needs it because the gas is more valuable sold then used for domestic purposes.
Beyond that it is very difficult to see what advantage it would gain from possessing nuclear weapons. It could make use of the principles of mutually assured destruction, the policy known as MAD that was operating during the cold war between West and East. There is no way in which it could actually use nuclear weapons. Nor could it direct them against Israel. Were it to do so it would destroy the very thing it had promised to protect, namely Jerusalem and the Palestinians. I don’t think one can argue that Iranian leaders are so irrational that they would of done that.
So in a way the nuclear issue was very cleverly manipulated to allow Iran to re-establish diplomatic relations, admittedly at great cost with the United States. This has now been done. It has taken as long as it has taken because of the intervention of the United States in the policy of negotiation with Iran begun by European Union at the beginning of the last decade.
Nonetheless it has been completed and that means in effect that the big winner out of this confrontation has been Iran. I see little evidence that that is going to change.
Even the Saudi policy of bringing down oil prices by trying to claim market share is not really going to achieve that objective. And again that policy is not only directed at Iran and to an extent at Russia to but also at the United States, its ernst while protector and guarantor of security because of the American shale oil industry.
Therefore Saudi Arabia finds itself marginalised over the issues of security in the Gulf left only with the sectarian issue by which it can express its frustration. But in terms of the real debate and real confrontation – that of geo politics and geopolitical control of the Gulf region it seems to me as things stand it is lost. The question is will it be able to accept that? Will it be able to repeat what it did in 1998. That seems to me very unlikely. So the crisis is going to persist and the manipulation of sectarianism as the means by which it can be expressed it going to intensify and that in itself is bound to further undermine stability inside the region.
Roshan Mohammad Saleh: I would first like to mention that I am not actually Iranian myself. I am a Sunni Muslim. Obviously I have worked full time in a freelance capacity for Press TV for eight years now and I talk to Iranians every day, visited Iran many times so instead of being a neutral analyst as Professor George Joffe is I am a bit more of a partisan cheer leader for Iran because that is the position that I come from. So I will lay my cards on the table and you can see everything I say in that context. I am not going to pretend .
So in terms of how Iran sees Saudi. I think Iran’s self image is diametrically opposed to Saudi. So Iran sees itself as anti-West, anti -mperialistic whereas Saudi is pro West and has a strategic alliance with the West. Iran is pro Palestinian rights anti Israel and it puts its money and its weapons where its mouth is on that issue whereas Saudi pays little more than lip service to Palestinian rights.
Iran sees itself as promoting Islamic unity and disseminating a tolerant brand of Islam. Internally it is a Shia Muslim state but it does not shove that down the Sunni world’s throats by any means whereas Saudi promotes a sectarian intolerant takfiri version of Islam. Saudi is a hereditary monarchy which pays lip service to Islam where Islamic law only applies to the poor. It certainly does not apply to the royal family whereas Iran is a fully functioning, in its eyes, Islamic state.
Iran works with foreign allies like Hezbollah who are disciplined and restrained. It may use violence in certain circumstances but it can also turn that tap of violence off when there is no need for it. Saudi works with terrorist groups who are a sort of Frankenstein’s monster and which will probably devour Saudi itself at some stage. Iran does not invade and bomb countries like Saudi Arabia obviously does. They see themselves in opposition to Saudi ideologically as well.
From Iran’s point of view Saudi Arabia is a nation which tired to strangle it at birth through financing and arming Iraq during that prolonged and devastating conflict in the 1980s and that war still has a profound influence over the Iranian mind set. Their military doctrine is now never to fight another war on their own soil which is the same military doctrine as Western countries. So if they are going to fight their enemies they are going to fight them in Syria and Iraq. They are not going to do it on Iranian soil itself.
Iran sees Saudi in a nutshell as being part of the American led coalition of countries that want to destroy it. They used Iraq to destroy it. Their enemies are trying to surround Iran militarily and also to launch economic warfare on it. That sanctions regime has been in place for 35 years and it has only been partially lifted now. These countries try to prevent Iran from having a sphere of influence and they try gain a foothold in Iran’s immediate vicinity in Syria and in Lebanon, in Pakistan.
Iran also believes that Saudi has sponsored internal armed insurrection within its own borders by trying to get ethnic and religious minorities to agitate. Saudi Arabia sponsors a sectarian version of Islam which targets the Shia and tries to delegitimize Iran from the leadership role that it sought in the Islamic world. The lower oil price policy that Saudi seems to be pursing and the hankering down to ride that out over several years is aimed at Iran and Russia in particular.
We must say that at the beginning of the Iranian revolution Iran could have been accused of trying to export that revolution in terms of rhetoric anyway. But I think Iran has moved on from that position. It realises that it is not going to dominate the Persian Gulf. It is not going to dominate the Sunni world by any means. But Iran does seek a sphere of influence. It seeks a buffer. That buffer in in my opinion is a legitimate buffer because it has that experience from the 1980s that powerful countries in its vicinity want to destroy it.
No in terms of the way Saudi sees Iran. The revolution in Iran in 1979, Saudi Arabia perceived this as an existential threat. It was worried about its own 20 percent Shia uprising as well as about Sunnis who were inspired by the Iranian revolution and inspired by political Islam.
Saudi has used its considerable energy resources and its alliance with the world’s only super power to counter Iran. It financed Saddam Hussein. It was extremely alarmed by the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan which seemed to remove two of Iran’s greatest enemies – the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. It sought to move into Iraq by funnelling the so-called Sunni insurgency there.
It did the same in Syria. In saw Syria as an opportunity. That is what it is all about for Saudi Arabia. It is a way to get at Iran and to cut Iran’s supply lines to Hezbollah. To gain a foothold in Syria. Saudi has supported the anti-Hezbollah elements in Lebanon. It has also exaggerated the threat Iran poses to Bahrain and Yemen. Because of geographical reasons I don’t think Iran has much penetration into Yemen. Iran might actually be exaggerating the influence it has over the Huttis for propaganda purposes. They might be doing that themselves but Saudi Arabia has used the so-called Iranian threat, to invade those countries and bomb them.
Obviously we know from that famous wikileaks memo that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia tried to do his best to get the US to cut off the head of the snake – a code for bombing Iran. That didn’t work. Saudi has become a little bit independent in the last few years of America. Barak Obama has pursued a slow kind of withdrawal policy from the Middle East – not the gun ho interventionist policy that his predecessor had. And because of that Saudi has begun to pursue a more independent and more aggressive policy not relying on the United States to launch wars on its behalf.
Mohamed bin Salman especially, a clique of the royal family is a real power behind the throne. The king seems to be able to concentrate for a few hours a day alone. We have seen some quite aggressive manoeuvres from this 30-year-old child who is running Saudi Arabia.
The recent execution of Sheikh Nimr has to be seen as a sign of things going quite badly for Saudi Arabia. It is not going their way in Syria. It is not going their way in Yemen. The execution of Sheikh Nimr has to be seen in that light – trying to scapegoat Iran and distract attention away from their own domestic problems.
In terms of what the future holds for Iran I think obviously sanctions have been lifted Iran is likely to slowly grow in power over the next few years while it is still facing many problems. It has managed to get sanctions lifted without compromising on its core principles. It has not given up Palestine, it has not given up Syria or Hezbollah or Islamic governance. What it has given up it has limited its own nuclear programme – but they were not trying to get a nuclear bomb anyway.
Iran still has to finance wars in Syria and Iraq in a low oil price environment. The lifting of sanctions does not mean, like a lot of commentary we see in the Gulf media, that they are in bed with the United States. They are two enemies who have essentially done a deal because it benefits both sides. It is a temporary deal.
Iran will still need to maintain an offensive stance. I see their wars in Syria and Iraq not in an offensive light. A lot of the Gulf media talk about Persian expansionism. I see it as being smart and going on the offensive in order to have a good defense. And I think Iran will maintain that policy.
As for Saudi they have become very aggressive over the last year, they are hunkering down for a low oil price era which will last for a couple of years. They are going to maintain an aggressive posture in Syria and Yemen. They will seek to become more independent of US policy as the US moves out of the region and directs its attention elsewhere. But at the same time that alliance will remain. The US still needs cheap oil, it still needs the Saudis to act as bulwark against Iran and Saudi still needs the US for its own security. And their interests coincide.
So just to conclude in terms of the future (I am shooting in the dark like everyone else but ultimately my money is on Iran. It has a large and educated population, it has existed within the same borders for thousands of years, it is internally secure, it has a strong military. It is the master of proxy war as we have seen in the countries in its vicinity. It has wise leaders. It might not have very good PR to explain its actions to the world but in terms of strategic policy decisions especially in foreign policy it has extremely wise leaders.
On the other hand Saudi has a small population, it is dependent on foreign labour, it has not prepared for the post energy era. I am not really worried about it when that energy era finishes. I am not even sure it is even a real country. I think Turkey and Iran are ultimately the real states in the region and the dominant real forces in the region.
Long term I do not see a bright future for any of the Persian Gulf energy potentates. At the same time in the short time in our own life time I do not want to see wars and fires breaking out throughout the region. This is crazy stuff and it is poisoning relations between Muslims al over the world. I favour one side in Syria and elsewhere but that war has to come to an end with a very messy political compromise and there has to be some kind detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran otherwise the whole situation will spiral even more out of control.
Jonathan Fryer: Perhaps I should begin by explaining very briefly what I have been doing for the last twenty years. I was part of the BBC’s twenty four hour rolling news coverage of what we call in Britain the First Gulf War and then the invasion of Kuwait and the war and the liberation of Kuwait. For the last twenty years I have been covering partly for the BBC but more as a freelancer for Arab television channels in particular developments in the region as well as producing a couple of books, one on Kuwait and one on Iraqi Kurdistan.
Because we had such a comprehensive view point from George Joffe and then a very interesting perspective from an Iranian point of view (an honorary Iranian point of view) I will try and give something which is different and in particular to try and locate the subject we are talking about in a global context and a European context as we are here in Britain.
The 19th century was a century of rivalry between Britain and France. They built up their rival empires and from time to time fought each other and then they declined. The 20th century was largely a century of rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. They had their proxy wars and their ideological battles. I was wondering if we are going to have a 21st century that is going to be such a conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Of course we live in globalised world these days. It is true that the Chinese president’s visit to Tehran and to Riyadh reflect the importance of these two countries. It also reflects that the world is much more complex these days. China itself having for a long time not really got involved in political issues abroad and only to a certain extent in economic issues is now much more playing a role as a global power. What is happening in the Middle East and in the Gulf area is in a much more complex context.
The Arab spring, that dreadful phrase, - I remember when it was first used on the BBC I rang them up and asked them to please find something less simplistic because first of all it is a lazy journalistic phrase which is based on the fact that there was the Prague Spring in 1968. So is this going to be the Arab spring. I said it is certainly not going to last just for spring. I suspect it is going to see me out and probably most of the people working in the BBC at the moment.
What happened after Mohammed Bouazizi’s self immolation outside that government office in Sidi Bou Said in December 2010 triggered a movement or a series of movements of which we have only seen the first act. Apart from Tunisia itself one would be tempted to say that for most countries that first act has been something of a disaster, certainly a disappointment.
For a while, until I was turned away, I covered what was happening in Bahrain and there obviously there is a feeling very strongly that although a battle was lost on the part of the people who were calling for reform, the ideological battle is by no means over.
The Arab spring – those popular movements in Cairo, then in Benghazi in Libya – threw down a challenge to European countries and the United States. Obviously in principle the first reaction of Western governments was to say this is a jolly good time. It is about time the Arab world and the Islamic world had a revolution of this kind where people are able to express their ideas and young people are able to challenge fixed positions of people who have been in power for a long time.
But after the whole process turned sour and after in particular after having the experience of having a Muslim government in Cairo turned sour and there was a return back to a military led government the West has been in somewhat of a quandary to know what to do. Diplomatically it reaches out to opposition groups in many of the Arab states and in principle it promotes democracy and human rights.
But when we look at what happened to Saudi Arabia to put it mildly there is a disconnect between the official policy of Western countries and their relations with Saudi Arabia. When the Conservative Party won the election one of the first things it did was to change their foreign policy guidelines and the significance of human rights. There have been a number of very specific issues which had been promoted during the past five years of the coalition government – for example opposition to the death penalty. Basically what happened was that the Foreign Office revised its policy and muted things so that criticism of Saudi Arabia in particular would be only at a very low level at behind closed doors.
And yet Saudi Arabia is the most aggrievous example because of the regime and the way they are cracking down on not only Shia protesters in the Eastern province but also on young intellectuals. A young blogger has been sentenced to years in prison and in principle a thousand lashes. Mercifully he has only had to suffer only one dose.
It is a huge challenge to those in Britain and in Europe for those who believe that it is necessary for there to be a European narrative of human rights and democratic progress at a global level. This is not something which should be separated from economic interests.
I was in Syria when everything kicked off in March of that year and most people were surprised that that happened because rather interestingly the East Germans told me in 1989 it could never happen here. The Syrians have always been saying it could never happen here this Arab spring. And then of course there were the demonstrations and quickly things developed into what is essentially a civil war. We have the two countries we are focusing on essentially on opposite sides.
That also poses huge problems for the European Union and its member states in particular because we as Europeans politically have no clear affiliation to any of the parties in that Syrian civil war. Assad has become essentially persona non grate in Europe. They are not calling overtly for his removal but there would be a huge collective sigh of relief in most European capitals if he were removed providing there was something better. And that is the $64,000 question – what could be better? And certainly it would not be Daesh or any of the political groups which are fighting on the other side. So Syria is a huge problem but one that Europe desperately wants some sort of solution to be brought about: hence the hosting of meeting of Vienna and the idea that it will be possible to have sort of peace conference which would lead to some sort of cease fire. It is difficult when you have actors like Daesh in the mix. I do believe that Europe wishes to follow that line and will support efforts in that line.
And of course Iran must be involved. At the very beginning it was not now thanks to the nuclear agreement Iran is coming in from the cold in the way in which some central and eastern European countries came in from the cold at the end of the Cold War. That is to be welcomed.
We do have another problem which is that there are these conflicting ideologies which are being championed by Saudi Arabia and Iran which are problematic from a European point of view. The Saudi because if we look at the teachings of Wahabi Islam and the way in which it has been promoted not only in the region but in Pakistan and by some Sunni Muslim communities in Europe is something which is deeply hostile to many Western values and to the stability of Western countries. It is very problematic because despite David Cameron’s snuggling up so closely to the Saudis and selling yet more arms to the Saudis, it is getting to the point where Europe is going to have to say to Saudi Arabia we are not your friends any more and you are going to have to change.
I believe change will happen in Saudi Arabia. It has got to happen. I think we are seeing the death throws of a regime and a system that have outlived their usefulness. There was something charmingly pathetic when they tried to get Jordan and Morocco to join the GCC putting together a monarchist survival society. Clearly in the 21st not a very sensible thing to be trying to do.
So if there is change in Saudi Arabia and I believe there will be change which cannot be brought about from the outside. It has to come from the inside and I believe it will because there are growing numbers of disaffected in Saudi Arabia. Not just the Shias but young intellectuals and people who have studied abroad.
They are people who see that if you are not part of the golden few thousand who run the place and therefore have nothing to worry about for the rest of their lives life is not very rosy. You see poverty in Saudi Arabia in ways that you do not see in the smaller Gulf states. You do see real dissatisfaction amongst both young women and young men in Saudi Arabia who see that there is no real plan for the future. They talk about Saudisation but they are still on a drip of the oil money and have not really have worked out what the future of the country is going to be and how the young people of Saudi Arabia can be trained to live in and work in a modern country.
Despite some of the things which I have said which must come across as rather negative and pessimistic I am actually one of life’s optimists. I do believe there is a way if all the parties are willing to avoid making the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia worse. I do believe that Iran now sees opportunities for much closer economic co-operation with Europe and of achieving regional influence to which it certainly has a certain right.
Iran let us remember is the home of a long and proud civilisation and it is a rich country which has suffered under sanctions recently but will play a much bigger role than it has up till now. The challenge, particularly when we see the awful consequences of the Yemen war largely being ignored by the Western media is that we need to use the Syria peace conference to get Iran and Saudi around the same table along with the other actors including Turkey which was mentioned earlier and to actually work together with them and with European countries and the USA and Russia present but not dominating to try and construct a new Gulf future, to bring about a narrative that would lead to Gulf co-operation in which Saudi Arabia reformed and Iran modernised to a certain degree can work together as partners.
I think it is going to be a long long time before the Gulf region has an organisation like the European Union or even Asean. But I think the world is not just globalising but regionalising - that is the way forward for the Gulf. It is absurd when you think how narrow the Gulf is and the historic connections there were across the Gulf that at the moment it has a divide which is almost as visible as the Berlin Wall was until 1989.
* Prof. George Joffe teaches the international relations of the Middle East and North Africa at the Department of Politics and International Studies in the University of Cambridge. His current research interests include trans-national risk in the Mediterranean, legal systems and migrant communities, the situation in North Africa and Euro-American relations. Previously, Professor Joffe was Deputy Director and Director of Studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) between 1997 and 2000. He is also a regular commentator, inter alia, on the BBC and al-Jazeera.
**Roshan Muhammed Salih is journalist at LBP and editor at 5Pillars. He holds BA Hons French and Philosophy from Staffordshire University (August 1994), Post Graduate Certificate in Journalism from London School of Journalism (August 1998 ) and Post Graduate Certificate of Education from Exeter University (August 1996 ). He worked for two years as a teacher in a secondary school before re-training as a journalist. He started out in local newspapers in the UK before moving into TV production, making political, lifestyle and travel documentaries for mainstream British channels. Roshan then moved to Al Jazeera English's new wesbite as a journalist in Doha before returning to the UK to become head of news at Islam Channel. He then became head of news in London for Press TV, a position he held for five years. He is now a documentary maker and run a British Muslim website. His goals are (mainly) to write and report about the Muslim world.
***Jonathan Harold Fryer Jonathan Fryer is a British writer, lecturer and broadcaster who has been focussing on the Middle East since being part of the BBC's 24-hour rolling news team covering the 1990-1991 Gulf War. The author of a dozen non-fiction books -- including "Fuelling Kuwait's Development" and "Kurdistan: A Nation Emerges" -- Jonathan is a regular commentator on events in the region for Arab television channels, as well as teaching a course at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).