Mitchell Belfer is President of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre, a Rome-based organization that is engaged in building political and economic bridges between European countries and the Gulf states. Mr. Belfer is Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Terrorism and Security at the Metropolitan University Prague (Czech Republic) and Editor-in-Chief of the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies. He also sits on the Steering Committee of the Global Institute for Cybersecurity Technologies among other editorial, research, and scientific boards.
What is the mission of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre and why was it established?
We were founded in 2015, and I am the founder of the organization. Basically, after 10 years of working as an academic — I was the head of the Department of International Relations at the Metropolitan University of Prague — I saw that there was really a gap, not very much work was done in terms of outreach and trying to really create mechanisms of better understanding between civil society groups and between scholars in the Gulf and Europe. Most importantly, there was also a gap between decision-makers and practitioners of politics. Of course, there are national institutes in Europe that are related to the Middle East and vice versa, but I thought that an outreach center that does think tank work as well was something very much needed and in 2014 we set up a kind of process of dialogue to prepare the groundwork. Since then, we have hosted an assortment of activities: assisted with delegations, we have done events in Brussels, London, Paris, Prague, and of course, Rome. We have helped the European Parliament in terms of understanding different militia groups, from ISIS to Hezbollah. We have done work together with key leaders in Europe and the Middle East to try to establish contact points between them. This week we are moving to a different area a little bit — women’s empowerment in Europe.
Which Gulf states are considered to be the key partners of the EU? Which countries in the region have closer relationships with Europe and why?
I think there is diversity in security policy in Europe and the Gulf. The EU has a specific relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), they have been working on a free trade agreement for some 18 years and it is still not complete. But relations to the EU members are very engaged and the Arab Gulf states are very close to Europe. In terms of the trend, Europe is increasingly engaging with Saudi Arabia in terms of security, in an assortment of economic projects, religious affairs and in infrastructural development as well. I think that Saudi Arabia is going to play a much more important role in the European policy in the years ahead. Bahrain is a small island country, but it is also very important strategically. Britain has a naval facility there, and the United States which binds a lot all Europe together, especially under the aegis of NATO, also have a facility in Bahrain. Bahrain is also the most tolerant and open country in the region. Kuwait is another example of quite close partnership with the EU and the new delegation to Kuwait is an indication of their relationship. The UAE too is allied to nearly all EU states.
Saudi Arabia accused Qatar of supporting terrorism. In your opinion, are these claims grounded? How do you assess the efforts taken by the Qatari government to counter terrorism financing?
Qatar is a major financial backer of the Muslim Brotherhood and fractions of the Muslim Brotherhood are very close to terrorism and radicalization. Some Muslim Brotherhood groups are championing all kinds of fringe groups like ISIS. Qatar is not signing over cheques directly to ISIS, it is signing them to Muslim Brotherhood cells who are aligned in ideology and strategy to ISIS and other radicals. For the record, a couple of years ago Qatar literally paid a billion dollars in cash to Islamic radical groups in Iraq for the release of a group of vacationing (in Iraq?) royals that had been taken a hostage in very odd circumstances.
I think that Qatar needs to be much more responsible. In the last year, it tried to cut back on financing the groups that are terror-linked. It is not 100-percent working. There are still members of their government who support these groups and do not even view these groups as terrorists. This is probably the biggest problem. Saudi Arabia also has a problem, but it is emerging as a country that is stopping and challenging radicalized militias.
Also, over the past 6–7 years, Qatar has started to work very closely with Iran, while Saudi Arabia and Iran have hostile relationships. Iran is responsible for creating great levels of instability in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in general. Some people in the Gulf question the loyalty of Qatar because of its relationships with Iran.
How is Qatar coping with the boycott?
It is not coping very well and has to import more from Turkey and Iran. The truth is that it always has been a small actor in these relationships. In the Gulf region, while the other countries are collaborating for their collective benefit, Qatar has to work closely with Turkey and Iran, and it is becoming dependent. In that dependence, the Qataris will never have the opportunity to break out. Turkey has a military base there and Qatar has less of a chance to tell them to leave as Ankara seeks to place more and more soldiers in Qatar to the point that the Turkish contingent will be half the size of Qatar’s own standing military. It is tremendous.
The New York Times reported a secretly recorded phone call suggesting that the Qataris could allegedly be behind a May bombing in Somalia. What are Doha’s interests in the region?
All counties in the Gulf have their interests in Africa in general. They are interested in it primarily because of resources. All the Gulf countries require food and water importation. Saudi Arabia does have its agricultural sector, but they also have to import so much food. Given those circumstances that all the countries do have vested strategic interests in Africa, they could have a kind of increased competition in Africa. And it is not only between the Gulf countries, but it also includes China. Basically, everybody looks at Africa as a new Great Game of competition. In term of specific recording and suggestion, I refrain from reading too deeply into it. This kind of information is not 100% reliable. But I could see it happening, I mean relationships between this kind of groups and countries like Qatar exist.
As for Saudi Arabia. Recently, the Saudi government announced that it would extend new rights to women. In particular, Saudi women will be able to travel independently. How do you assess these changes? Is it really a step towards greater freedom for women in Saudi Arabia?
Every time one goes to Saudi Arabia over the last decade, they see a different country. It is not only because of the 2030 program, that’s part of it, sure. But actually, you have a young population that is making demands on its government. And some of those demands are about women’s roles and others on the changing role of religion in society. And Saudi Arabia is developing its own national interests rather than pursuing pan-Arabism or pan-Islamism and its national interests are also about increasing tolerance and modernizing socially, politically and economically.
So it is not only that women can drive and women can travel freely, but that women can and are contributing to their country. More than 300,000 Saudis, men and women, leave the Kingdom every year to study abroad. They go to London and Paris, New York. And they come back and have ideas, ideas on how they can shape their society. Everyone is interested in seeing the evolution of the country. A whole generation is changing the country forever and women are at the forefront of those changes. There is a mixed institution — MISK — which is comprised of young men and women and it is an innovation center with projects all over the Kingdom. It is led by young ladies who are so vital to the future of the country and they know that their mission is not just about the center but about the country and women’s roles in it.
In your monograph titled “Small State, Dangerous Region: A Strategic Assessment of Bahrain” you focused on this country in the Gulf. Could you please tell us what this book is about?
Bahrain is a very good example of a small country surviving a very difficult strategic environment. If you think about the Gulf, one thinks of both the regional powers such as Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the global actors: the US, UK, Russia. I decided to look at something else, at Bahrain, the smallest state in the region. It is less than one thousand-square-kilometers. And the academic question of how Bahrain could survive against such massive forces around is important to answer. And the answer is simple—smart leadership, strong citizenry, and functional alliances.
The recent video appearance of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi has sparked concerns among experts who warn that more terror attacks could be expected. In your opinion, what does this recording tell us?
The short answer is that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is still alive, ISIS has money and soldiers. I think that we should be reminded that just because the Islamic State has lost its territory, it should not be discounted. It remains a threat to European, Middle Eastern, and international security. And we need to take it seriously. I think that more emphasis has to be paid to finding and bringing somebody like Abu Bakr al Baghdadi to justice, on the one hand. And, on the other hand, to properly invest in the future of Iraq. If you don’t invest in the future of Iraq, we will keep getting a repetition of such groups and violence.
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