Professor Gencer Özcan regards oil as an important element in geopolitics.
Q: You have a different approach to many Western journalists and analysts who seem to be inspired by orientalist views and Samuel Huntington’s article, “The Clash of Civilizations”. They see the main cause of conflicts in the MENA region and perhaps the terrorist attacks in Europe as deriving from the clash of religions and cultures. What is your opinion of Huntington’s work? Are the “civilizations” in fact essentially different?
A: I disagree with his “Clash of Civilizations” theory. First of all, I strongly believe in human civilisation in its entirety. Of course, this does not necessarily mean there are no variations in civilisation, but we still have to see it holistically. It is obvious that when you compare Chinese and Estonian cultures, the differences are conspicuous. Yet the cultural borderlands between so-called civilisations are so wide that a huge number of people live in what I would call grey areas and the borders dividing neighbouring cultures are blurred.
By the same token, focusing on cultural differences can be misleading. What we have to look into is interactions and the fusion between the cultural variants. The history of cultures tells us that boundaries between cultures are permeable, and that people keep criss-crossing so-called cultural barriers. Some call it encroachment, others acculturation, but I like the concept of cultural osmosis … it is natural and to some extent inevitable. We are all human beings, we can adopt new variations of cultures and readily make them part of our own identity. Is not the world we live in full of examples of people who adapt themselves to different cultures? If it is imperative to talk about clashes, then why do we not talk about intra-civilisational ones?
If we put aside culture and religion as the main reasons for the lack of democracy or human rights, or the cause of authoritarianism, we have to look elsewhere for explanations, especially in the MENA context. Can you describe some main theories that are useful, such as rentier states,1 allocation states, “black hole” states, or even a combination of all these, with some examples? It is interesting that, while Egypt, Syria and Jordan can’t be called rentier states, they face similar problems.
We should differentiate between rentier states and allocation states. The oil-rich Gulf monarchies are typical rentier states; they do not need taxation as they have enough resources to buy the citizens’ obedience. By the same token, they do not worry about problems of legitimacy. Rentier states in one form or another are allocation states, as they have natural resources such as oil to provide public goods and services for their citizens without collecting taxes. However, all allocation states are not necessarily rentier states. In some authoritarian allocation states, such as Egypt, the ruling party or elite runs a command economy controlling the redistribution of public goods. Allocation states should not be bad by definition—as there are ways to allocate public goods wisely, there may be other forms of allocation state which function in a more democratic framework, like the Scandinavian countries. So we should also look into the way allocation is done. Is it done to increase social inequality and poverty, leading to the frustration of the majority of people? That’s the question we have to ask if redistribution is necessary.
There is another aspect of politics which goes hand-in-hand with the phenomenon of the rentier/allocation states in the Middle East. This is the mukhabarat2 state, in which societies are forced to live under a constant state of emergency that suspends basic rights and freedoms in the name of so-called “national security”. In the eyes of the state, the imperatives of such a security understanding never disappear and are continuously bolstered with new alibis. To maintain such a state, what you need is a very strong executive branch of government, secured by numerous intelligence agencies geared to keep society under constant surveillance. Everything is designed to maintain the prerogatives of the ruling minority. In Egypt’s case, it is the army; in Syria, the Alawite minority rules the rest of the country through a complex mukhabarat system propped up by numerous intelligence services. Each service is also meant to check on the other so it does not become an alternative focus of power; so every time you establish an intelligence service, you need to create another one. Once you put these factors together, the outcome is of course a non-democracy, authoritarian political structures and regimes.
In the cases of Syria and Egypt, it became fashionable in the literature on the Middle East to follow Paul Gelvin’s theory of “black hole states” (a concept first mentioned in a UNDP report, from which Gelvin quotes). This implies that the strong executive sucks in everything that moves as if it were a black hole whose gravity allows nothing to escape.
The impact of the Arab uprisings on the region is still transforming them. What major dynamics have they created in the region so far?
The Arab uprisings caused new regional dynamics and led to sea changes across the region. But in the meantime, following different trajectories in respective countries, the uprisings themselves also changed. The uprising in Syria that began in March 2011 has nothing to do with what we see now. While the people of the Middle East became more aware of their power, the states in turn became more alert as to how to keep troublesome segments of their societies under control. In Egypt, the state in general and the military in particular became even stronger. However, with some exceptions, it is surprising to see that, as the French say, the more they changed, the more they remained the same.
By that theory, it seems that Turkey, too, is in the process of transforming into a “black hole state”.
Yes, unfortunately the concept is becoming increasingly relevant to what we have been going through in Turkey for the last two years. We are in the process of getting a much stronger executive branch. The lack or even absence of the separation of powers reminds one of the other authoritarian states of the Middle East. We turn out to be part of the same habitus from which authoritarian states take root. In this transformation, which carries extremely dangerous fallout for Turkey, the uprisings created negative externalities for the country. We tried to control what was happening in the Middle East, and now we are now “controlled” by what the Arab uprisings turned out to be. In this regard, as far as the content of our day-to-day political problems is concerned, we are to a large extent Middle Easternised.
Why is that? There used to be a period when European values had greater influence over Turkey.
We see that the crises in the south are of such magnitude that they created their own momentum; it became impossible to control them and they began to control the parties involved. The way we deal with [the] Kurdish issue [in Turkey], the new regional dimensions that the Kurdish issue assumed, the rise of ISIL, the proxy war in Syria, the Russian intervention … all of these dramatically changed the frame of reference in which Turkish foreign policy is formulated. We have to act in accordance with a totally different set of priorities compared to what we had, say, six years ago. It is now difficult to say what Turkey could have done initially so as not to let the crisis in Syria get out of control. Had Turkey not got involved in the way it did, things would probably be as bad as what we have today. Yet it is obvious that Turkey actively took part in it and bears some sort of responsibility. And now we are asked to pay a heavy price, in all senses of the word.
It is understandable that countries in the region are heavily influenced—we can see the effect of the Syrian conflict even in a seemingly distant country like Estonia. The consequence of the war—the refugee crisis—partly also paved the way for a right-wing populist party to win seats in the parliament.
In that respect, the Arab uprisings created a whirlpool effect which drew in many countries, not least Turkey; not as much as in neighbouring countries, of course, but look at Germany and the influence of the Syrian crisis on domestic politics there. Turkey has very strong historical connections and common denominators with Syria, Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, so how could we remain indifferent to or aloof from events in the region? But the problem was related to the way we deal with the issue. The ruling party in Turkey saw the Syrian crisis as a window of opportunity. So it deliberately tried to play a role, and sought to divert the course of events there. But in the end, it turned into a quagmire; we stepped into it, got bogged down and now cannot get out.
Coming back to the rentier states, let’s look at the future. For example, the Gulf states are planning to introduce a tax system as the oil price falls and global demand reduces. There will be alternative sources of energy in the future, so the importance of oil and gas will probably decline in the long term. Could that transform and develop civil society and naturally lead to the democratisation of the Arab states?
Civil and political society as they exist in Europe are very much an outcome of industrialisation and the formation of complex social and political classes. In the Gulf countries, however, tribal allegiances are still of key importance. Creating a modern democratic society relying on individuals who can act as open-minded citizens is unfortunately unlikely in the foreseeable future.
Another aspect that we should keep in mind is that the majority of the population in the Gulf countries are not natives. They are foreigners—mainly South Asians, Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis and so on. When we talk about the future politics of these countries, we somehow tend to ignore these people as if they do not exist. But they should be included in the picture when making a forward-looking analysis of what might happen after the last drop of oil has been exported. Would these countries not need workers? There will be a day when they will come out, speak up and somehow demand political rights.
Is oil a curse for the Middle East region, as quite a few have claimed? For example, in Iraqi Kurdistan many believe that it is paving their way to independence.
It is an asset in many respects. Those who hold power in Iraqi Kurdistan control the oil trade as well. However, independence there is dependent on many other prerequisites. For instance, it depends as much on internal developments as external factors. We should keep in mind that Kurdistan is a landlocked area, so they would need the green light from others to obtain an exit. For instance, I do not see any likelihood of independence should Iran or Turkey not give the go-ahead. Unless Turkey lets Kurdistan export its oil, and unless Iraq, Iran and Syria give it the green light, I don’t think it will happen.
I believe that calls for independence should be understood as part of a survival strategy for the ruling KDP, which is trying to cope with dire economic and political circumstances. What I see is not what I want to see, but this is what I read from the facts on the ground.
The other thing is that I do not think independence would necessarily bring more freedom for the layman in Iraqi Kurdistan or improve the lives of others who are not Kurds. If they go for independence, Masoud Barzani is going to do everything to consolidate the KDP’s stronghold in Erbil, including silencing the opposition. I am afraid that this is going to transform the whole of Kurdistan into a small authoritarian state. That is why the rest of the Kurdish parties are not very keen on independence; they probably know what will happen after it is declared.
By the way, oil is a curse, but that does not necessarily mean that the lack of oil is a blessing. It all depends on how the income it produces is used.
Do you believe the borders of the Middle East will eventually change?
Well, not only the Middle East borders; all borders are artificial and bound to change. They are doomed to change; we can see how many times European borders have changed in the last century. The borders in the MENA region were drawn in part by the colonial powers, but this does not necessarily mean that the borders in the Middle East are less stable. It is important to recognise that, since the 1920s, the international borders of the Middle East, with the exception of Alexandretta [Iskenderun], have remained intact, while borders in Europe changed I don’t know how many times in the same period.
I believe borders are by definition artificial, but living, institutions once they have been created and have always been in the process of constant change. Their significance for the people living on either side is also constantly changing. Recent decades in Europe, for example, saw borders undergo a huge transformation. Perhaps, a hundred years on, the whole discussion of borders and bloody struggles over them will be part of history.
But in current circumstances, where the states and nations are defined by borders, it is not logical that a huge nation such as the Kurds should have their own state?
Yes, but the eventual formation of a Kurdish state, in particular in Syria, stretching from Afrin Canton [autonomous district in Aleppo Governate] through southern Turkey to Iran, is definitely easier to talk about. It depends on many variables. Those who simply claim that there is going to be a Kurdish state should keep many other conditions in mind. If those conditions are met, of course there will be a Kurdish state. But if you asked me if the conditions are ripe enough in the foreseeable future, I would definitely say no.
Let us talk little bit about methods. There are some peculiarities in the work of scholars in the region when discussing and analysing MENA issues. Information is often hidden from the public due to strictly controlled media, to war or conflict, or to secret agreements and alliance-building. Compared to the West, everything is much less straightforward and things change rapidly, while the turmoil prevents any clear foreign-policy doctrines. How should analysis be undertaken?
Most political decisions are made behind closed doors and the public are left in the dark. We can only have a very limited amount of information … the tip of the iceberg. The news is censored to give the public a perspective that merely suits the needs of the ruling party or group. So we have to follow the news with a critical mind and check it twice before we believe it. We have to keep our eyes wide open. Furthermore, we should study history carefully to learn relevant lessons; we always need to know the historical background against which current events take place. So it takes a lot of effort to get a good picture of what is going on.
As an example, in our seminar in Istanbul Bilgi University, Current Issues in the Middle East, you did not take a stand on whether chemical weapons were used by the Assad government in the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, in April. Why? Most of Europe strongly condemned the regime since the moment the news came in.
I am not a politician, I raise questions—and we should always take such cases with a pinch of salt. Furthermore, what is the hurry? We still do not have reliable information about what really happened. On this specific event, the footage that came from the White Helmets is troublesome; they are notorious for making up such propaganda. So is the regime. Furthermore, for the regime, the timing of the attack was too risky a step to take.
Realism seems to be a popular theory for attempting to explain international relations. However, to me it seems insufficient, for one thing because the states are obviously not acting rationally. In MENA, it is certainly not enough to explain anything. What factors should analysts keep in mind when discussing the Middle East? Is it possible to analyse MENA at all without being well informed of the domestic politics, for example?
Realism is not sufficient, because it blinds. We should employ other theoretical perspectives, because the reality of world politics that we try to understand is complex, multi-layered, and ever-changing in many ways. It is not enough to understand it through the perspective of the nation-state system. Plus, states don’t make rational choices, either in the Middle East or in the West. They create a mess and later say that we will have to fix it. Anarchy, war and instability are by and large caused by wrong decisions taken on behalf of the states. American policy in Iraq or Saudi policy in Yemen are the reasons for instability [in those places]. We should take similar lessons from the Arab uprisings.
For example, in Syria what should be done is very simple: there should be a ceasefire. All the debate on political change, the regime and so on can follow later. I have no sympathy for the Syrian regime and those who sympathise with Assad, but we have to come to terms with him in one form or another.
Many say “Assad should go,” but actually think “Putin should go” (from the region) …
But Putin is there, and Khamenei is there, so Assad is going to stay. It is so simple. When you force them to go, the cost is very high for the ordinary people.
There have been suggestions that the reformation of Islam would eliminate extremism. Would it make any difference on the ground?
We are now facing a very complex situation, where many people are getting entangled by many different motives. I don’t see a strong relationship between what is going on in the Middle East and religion. Religious rhetoric has always been part of this kind of war. The easiest way to ask people to die for political purposes is to promise them life after death, a promise that no politician can make. Religious rhetoric in this regard is indispensable. It makes people think that wars in the Middle East are the result of religious differences, but the routes of proposed pipelines carry more weight. Nobody can convince people to die for pipelines, but if you wrap your narrative in religious rhetoric, it becomes much easier to justify your position.
So you agree that theories such as the “Shia crescent” are too simplistic, and consider possible oil corridors as a more important cause of these wars?
Of course they are too simplistic. It is like paint on the wall—underneath you have plaster, mortar, bricks and other things. One should take a closer look at the reality. This does not necessarily mean that the religious rhetoric is not significant, but we have to be aware that it is used as a smokescreen over reality. Pipeline routes explain more. These are the things we have to focus on; there are very interesting connections underlying current crises and they have nothing whatsoever to do with religion. For example, quite a few of these countries would like to export their oil to Europe, so they fight for the corridors to do this. To understand Qatar’s ambitions in Syria, one also has to shed light on the natural gas issue. I believe that part and parcel of the scramble over Syria is to a large extent related to pipeline strategies. Of course, Iran is very interested in having its own pipelines to reach European markets, another ambition that troubles the Russians. Oil geopolitics is one of the key aspects we should keep in mind.
What can we expect in the region in the years to come?
I am very pessimistic about the foreseeable future. Authoritarian regimes will become even more authoritarian to maintain power and to keep their societies under tight control. So they will be much more alert to the slightest form of social movement which might pose a challenge to their regimes. Permanent states of emergency will probably prevail across the region for years to come. This will, of course, suffocate all democratic movements, which are already in dire straits. Similarly, the regional order will become more consolidated. It is understood that the Saudis will take the lead and no longer let the Qataris overplay their hand. The Saudi-Egyptian-Israeli modus operandi will be more conspicuous. In the meantime, Turkey’s room for manoeuvre will be reduced. The course of events in Syria and the miscalculations Ankara made there seem to have cornered Turkey in the Middle East. In the days to come, I am afraid there will not be good news for Turkey.
1 Rentier states theory refers to states in which the predominant part of wealth comes from utilising existing resources (e.g. oil or gas, or a geographical location which enables income from their transport) rather than generating wealth. “In a rentier state, the government is a principal recipient of the external rent. This type of economy in turn affects the role of the state in the social fabric. The role of the few, such as elites or a government, becomes paramount in distributing the wealth to the population. G. Luciani therefore proposed productive and allocative states.” (H. Beblawi, “The Rentier State in the Arab World”, Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Fall 1987), pp. 383–98); “There is no fiscal connection between the government and the people. The government has only to keep its people in line so that they do not overthrow it and start collecting the oil rents themselves.” Noah Feldman, After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy.
2 Intelligence service or secret police.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.