Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Washington D.C. Cafiero is an expert of Middle East politics and trends, with a specific focus on Persian Gulf-related dynamics and is a regular contributor to the Middle East Institute, Al-Jazeera, The New Arab, ISPI, Al-Monitor and more. Geopolitica.info has interviewed Giorgio Cafiero to discuss recent crucial events and important dynamics related to the Middle East.
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Mr. Cafiero, thank you very much for joining us. I would like to start by asking you a question on the recent passing of former UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed, who has been succeeded by his half-brother Mohamed bin Zayed (MBZ), for years the already de-facto man in charge. Should we expect major policy changes related to the country’s foreign stances?
As a result of MBZ becoming the UAE’s official ruler, there is no reason to expect any significant changes in Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy. In 2014, when Sheikh Khalifa suffered a stroke, MBZ became the Gulf Arab country’s de facto ruler. The foreign policy agenda of the UAE since 2014 should inform us of what to expect from Abu Dhabi on the international stage moving forward. That said, now that MBZ is the President of the UAE and the Emir of Abu Dhabi, he might be more assertive and confident at the helm.
The event also prompted leaders worldwide to flock to Abu Dhabi to offer condolences, what does it tell us about the UAE’s status in the regional and international arena?
The long list of prominent foreign leaders who came to Abu Dhabi to pay respect following Sheikh Khalifa’s passing tells us that the UAE is an influential country with expansive networks across the globe. The UAE has a high profile, and the country has spent years investing in sophisticated relationships with countries in all regions of the world.
Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad on 13 May quickly offered his condolences to UAE’s MBZ on the passing of Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. In late 2018 Abu Dhabi reopened its embassy in Damascus, and since then started pushing for a reintegration of the Syrian regime within the regional community. I would like to ask you how far the UAE is succeeding in the process, and what is the stance of other states in the region.
There is no denying that throughout the Arab region the general trend vis-à-vis Syria is toward reconciliation with the government in Damascus. The UAE is the main GCC state driving Arab efforts to rehabilitate President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Abu Dhabi sees itself as a trend setter that is always ahead of the curve. Nonetheless, until and unless Saudi Arabia reconciles with Assad’s regime, Syria will not be fully reintegrated into the Arab world’s diplomatic fold. This question of how to engage Damascus is one where officials in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have different perspectives, and the two Gulf Arab countries are pursuing different strategies. Yet there is good reason to expect the Saudi leadership to, at least eventually, follow in the UAE footsteps based on the logic that with the Syrian government being here to stay there is more to gain from reopening formalized relations with Damascus than continuing with policies aimed at isolating Assad’s regime.
On May 11 Enrique Mora, EU senior official, travelled to Tehran, and said the country was seeming to be ready to restart talks on the nuclear deal. The biggest obstacle, yet to be solved, is the IRGC designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the us government. The Iranians are pushing for the delisting, but so far the Biden administration seems to be reluctant to satisfy Tehran. Is there really still room to resurrect the JCPOA, and what is the mood in Gulf capitals about the deal?
There is still room to revive the JCPOA. However, given that Iran has no idea who will be President Joe Biden’s successor, there is much uncertainty surrounding questions about what future a reconstituted JCPOA would have in the post-Biden era. Therefore, with each day that passes without the US re-entering the nuclear deal, the Iranians have less incentive to make painful compromises for the sake of reviving the JCPOA, which serves to dim the prospects for the 2015 deal being reconstituted. That said, Iran is desperate for sanctions relief and even a short span of time in which sanctions are lifted and/or eased would bring Iran economic benefits that are badly needed.
The six GCC states have diverse views on the JCPOA. In Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Manama, there are grave concerns about the implications of sanctions being lifted on Iran. These Gulf Arab capitals fear the ramifications of a revived JCPOA from a security standpoint, believing that a removal of sanctions on the Islamic Republic will result in Tehran’s foreign policy becoming increasingly aggressive in the Middle East. Yet in Doha, Kuwait City, and Muscat there is support for the JCPOA. Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman, which are sometimes referred to as the GCC “doves”, believe that there is no superior alternative to the 2015 nuclear accord which is realistic. To the Qatari, Kuwaiti, and Omani leaders, the JCPOA represents the best path toward regional security and stability, and an easing of friction between Arab states and Tehran.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine clearly impacted the Middle East, a region strategic for its energy relevance but also prone to vulnerability related to food shortages. I would like to ask you how the conflict in Europe is perceived within Gulf leadership, and their main priorities when it is about taking a position between the US and Russia.
There are many secondary impacts of the Russian-Ukrainian war being felt in the Gulf and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa as bifurcation between East and West increases. Geopolitically, most GCC states are attempting to strike a delicate balance between Washington and Moscow. Over the years, Gulf Arab countries, especially the UAE, have invested in closer relations with Russia within the context of their efforts to diversify their set of alliances and partnerships away from the us. As GCC members have become less confident in the us as their security guarantor while increasingly doubting Washington’s commitment to the Gulf, the six GCC states have, to various extents, been working to deepen their ties to Moscow. Abu Dhabi and other Gulf capitals realize that eventually the dust will settle in Ukraine and in the post-war period they want to retain close relations with the Kremlin. Thus, most of them are navigating this conflict carefully to avoid antagonizing the Putin administration. Nonetheless, mindful of American/Western pressure on GCC states to toe the line against Russia amid this war, this balancing act is rather difficult, and it will become increasingly challenging to maintain with the conflict in the Eastern Europe continuing to rage.