Oil alone is “unable to deal with the challenges of a region that has gone through demographic expansion,” says renowned scholar and author Gilles Kepel in a new podcast interview with Al-Monitor.
“If there is no post-oil vision, the whole area is going to sink,” adds Kepel, “and that is the challenge that is being taken up” by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and others.
“This is a watershed period for the Middle East. Its place in the world system will not be as it was, and it is now facing its destiny,” Kepel says.
Kepel, an author whose most recent published work is “Away from Chaos: The Middle East and the Challenge to the West,” discussed the trends and fault lines shaping the region, including the impact of COVID-19, falling oil prices, political Islam, and the fallout of what was called the Arab Spring in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the region.
Here are some highlights and teasers of our conversation:
On Egypt: Kepel says that the Muslim Brotherhood, the longtime Islamist opposition group in Egypt, has “been dealt, for the present time, a death blow” following the military coup in 2013 that ousted former President Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist affiliated with the Brotherhood. “As long as the balance of forces is not tipped” between Qatar and Turkey, which support the Brotherhood, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which oppose it, “I don’t think the Brothers have a chance to resurface in Egypt.”
On Syria: The course of the conflict and civil war, from the popular protests of 2011 to the dominance of radical jihadist groups among the opposition, was “not well perceived or well understood, particularly in the West, because we still dreamed about rebels who were forebearers of democratic visions and who would topple dictatorships of the region, and so on” (as in 1989, when peaceful revolutions brought change to Russia and Eastern and Central Europe).
On political Islam: As regional populations increasingly hold their governments accountable for how they deal with COVID-19 and more expansive demographic and economic challenges, Kepel says, “The political language of Islam, which was key to social peace in the oil era and which nurtured competition between conservative Sunni Islamism in Saudi Arabia and so-called revolutionary Shia Islamism in Tehran, is now becoming increasingly irrelevant.”
On emotions: “Everything is global...and emotions travel fast...whether emotions can last and develop into an organized movement, well that is the challenge, but there are many entrepreneurs, be they secular or religious, who are bandwagoning....A number of Islamist militants are trying...to find a new legitimacy in hijacking these revolt movements against police brutality.” (See below on how these events reflect “Islamist fragility” in Turkey.)
On the future: “There is a desire to find some sort of solution, because of the horror of the wars, civil war, people being bombed, people being tortured...[this is all] such a trauma there has to be a way forward.”
More: You can listen here to my interview with Gilles Kepel and sign up for our Al-Monitor podcasts, “On the Middle East” and “On Israel.”