Dr Witold Repetowicz, War Studies University: In Europe, the clout of the Middle East is growing

‘Saudi and UAE businesses are investing hard in the West – no doubt to be able to influence the public opinion. The economic influence is going to translate into political clout, that’s certain,’ says Dr Witold Repetowicz from the War Studies University, a journalist and researcher specialising in the Middles Eastern matters, who has been invited to collaborate on the Krynica Forum 2023 agenda for the Strategic Security thematic stream.

Rich countries of the Middle East, especially Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, are investing more and more across Europe. They are buying famous football clubs, media outlets. At the same time, they are accused of co-operating with Russia and helping it dodge the sanctions. Whose side are they really taking?

We need to remember there are many Middle Eastern countries and the policies they pursue abroad tend to be very diverse. In the case of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, this policy, or actually a game, is singularly complex. Both countries try to secure their own interests most of all, and so for years have been winding their way between the US and Russia. Moreover, the personalities of their rulers play a large role here: it’s Mohamed bin Zayed, Emir of Abud Dabi and President of the United Arab Emirates for over a year now, and Mohammed bin Salman, the thirty-eight-year-old son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz, formally the crown prince and heir apparent to the Saudi throne, in reality the leader of the country. The two countries actually keep expanding their influence in Europe through large investments, e.g. in sports or the media, which many people are oblivious to.

In what way does it matter to us?

I think fairly soon they will decide to be more active in shaping the Western public opinion. Let’s recall in this context that not long ago Mohammed bin Salman was quite commonly associated across the West with the chainsaw allegedly used in 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to murder Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the ruling dynasty. Obviously neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE are willing to break off their relationship with the West, first of all because their safety still mostly hinges on the American support. On the other hand, the Middle East puzzle, after several normalisation attempts, is beginning to change, which lets the countries make a bid for a more autonomous policy.

An interesting case is Qatar.

Yes. Qatar has got its own ambitions. Up until recently, it was stuck in bitter squabbles with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In theory, these relations are now normalised, but I would advise caution when seeing any public displays of hobnobbing. Qatar also has a score to settle with Russia, tying back to the infamous bomb blast in the country’s capital, killing the former president of Chechnya and a leader in the anti-Russia Chechen independence movement, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev; Qatar showed strong support for the prosecution of perpetrators.

And Iraq?

After a period of major chaos, it’s growing stronger, although this is going to take some time. Iraq has more than one face. You can see in it one of the chief oil producers and the owner of vast natural gas reserves, so untold riches; you can see a source of huge migration stemming from abject poverty. And there are other countries nearby, Oman, Yemen, Syria, each of which should be analysed separately. The Middle East is a very complex and heterogeneous notion.

But we have something called OPEC+. And this organisation limited its oil production after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which plainly helped the aggressor. Wasn’t this disappointing for the US and other Western countries?

Of course it was. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia tried to argue, and is sticking to its guns, that this move had nothing to do with politics but everything to do with oil prices. Actually, they didn’t rise despite the cuts. Some arguments raised by Saudi Arabia have, I’d say, plausible validity. Still, it is no secret that what impacts their relation with the West, especially the US, is the temperament of Mohammed bin Salman. He is not a seasoned, coldly calculating politician but someone emotional, who seized power as a rather young man and who is largely driven by dislike for Joe Biden. Mutual, if I may add. It is no secret that a nearly ideal partner for bin Salman was the previous president, Donald Trump, and even more so was his son-in-law Jared Kushner, with whom Mohammed is now raking it in. Many hints suggest that the actual ruler of the Saudis will go to great lengths to let Trump retake the White House next year.

And what is China doing in the Middle East?

Same thing as anywhere else: trying to push the US out and take over the region. This can affect the course of war in Ukraine and the future of the country. I wouldn’t connect these efforts directly with the war in Ukraine. It’s a piece of a much bigger puzzle. China profits the most when there are no conflicts – either in Ukraine or the Middle East – e.g. because an important leg of the Chinese commodity export route is there. For this reason, China backs up normalisation at various levels, especially of the kind where Beijing can strengthen its position at Washington’s expense.

Arab countries are important to China?

Yes, since they are rich and willing to trade. In this sense, they seem a perfect partner for China in this part of the world, especially as long as the Iran sanctions are in place. Importantly, China is not interested in Russia’s complete defeat, only in it getting weaker. Long gone is the time when the Chinese panda’s relation with the Russian bear was equal and symmetric. Beijing got the upper hand, is making Russia more and more dependent on China, while trying to maintain the impression it remains neutral in the Russia-Ukraine war. But the end goal it will be after is to see Russian-European relations normalised, since it’s in China’s vital interest.

Should we be afraid of the Middle Eastern influence in Europe?

As I said, Saudi and UAE businesses are investing hard in the West – no doubt to be able to influence the public opinion. The economic influence is going to translate into political clout, that’s certain. The growing Muslim community in the Old World should also be noted. Granted, countries such as Qatar, Emirates, or Saudi Arabia are not hotbeds of emigration due to their economic condition, and in the case of Emirates and Qatar their demographic potential as well, but their impact on European followers of Islam is substantial – they underwrite mosques, schools… Since the 1980s, dozens of billions of dollars have been spent this way, especially by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This isn’t accidental.

Russia, China, Middle East, Africa, international security – these are the topics the Krynica Forum 2023 agenda is sure to include. Dr Witold Repetowicz was invited to collaborate on the programme of the Strategic Security thematic stream.

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