Catching up with Greg Gause on Saudi Arabia, Arabic and Texas A&M

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F. Gregory Gause III is the head of the International Affairs Department at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University and a world-renowned expert on Saudi politics. I caught up with Professor Gause recently in Rehoboth Beach. Some questions of interest to Real World Arabic readers that I asked my old friend and fellow Delaware native:

In your recent Foreign Affairs article you challenged a popular policy notion that the Saudi government can somehow control or stop Global Salafism. You argued that they lost control decades ago “if they ever really had it.” I happen to agree with you 100%. At the biggest picture counter-terrorism policy level, what does this mean in dealing with this new spread of populist-ISISism?

I think it means two things, one Saudi-centric and one having to do with, if you will, the “targets” of salafi proselytization, whether that be by Saudi-supported institutions or by violent jihadists like ISIS.

On the Saudi-centric side, I think that we in the US should give up the hope that we can force the Saudis to become good liberals.  They just are not going to do that.  We have to push them to use all of their resources – not just intelligence resources, but their ideological resources as well – to discredit, delegitimize and attack ISIS from within the salafi world view.  They are taking some steps in this regard in the intellectual and ideological fields, but not as many as they are in the intelligence field.

The US government also needs to be very specific in terms of their approaches to the Saudi government.  It really is not very useful to say “stop supporting extremists.”  It is much more useful to bring evidence about specific groups, charities, individuals that might be getting Saudi support and say “stop supporting this particular group.”  My understanding is that the more specific the US is about such requests, the more responsive the Saudis are.

On the “target-centric” side, I think that the US has to encourage Muslim governments and governments with substantial Muslim minorities to keep a close eye on salafi proselytization efforts generally.  I am not saying that the free exercise of religion should be curtailed, or that somehow salafi Islam should be singled out for government control.  The vast majority of salafis are peaceful.  We might not like them, because they are not liberal, but they are not terrorists.  Nor is there substantial evidence that Salafism is a unique pathway to violent extremism.  We are finding out that many of the perpetrators of terrorist acts inspired by ISIS know little if anything about Islam, much less Salafism.

But what is clear, and the New York Times article of late August on this subject confirms this, is that the Saudis do very little oversight of the institutions that they support.  So home governments are going to have to take up the slack on that, because the Saudis are not doing it sufficiently on their end.

Over the last 15 years and especially since 9/11 there has been a dramatic increase in the number of students studying Arabic in the United States compared to the beginning of your career.  How has this affected the broader field of Middle East studies?

I think that we are getting more and better students pursuing Ph.D.’s in the politics of the region and pursuing other graduate degrees, like the Master in International Affairs degree we give out at the Bush School, with a focus on the region.  Part of that interest comes from veterans who have served in the region.  They make very interesting students.  I thought we might get that kind of boost after the Gulf War of 1990-91, but that did not happen.  But in the post-9/11 world, I think that the quality of young scholars focusing on the Middle East is very high.  I don’t know how long that will last.  With some many interesting international issues arising, regarding Russia, China, the European Union, we might find attention shifting away from the Middle East.  But we have had a real surge in interest over the last 15 years.

Let’s talk about the recently declassified 28 pages from the 9/11 report. My impression was that what some are alleging to constitute “ties” between the Saudi government and al-Qaeda looked like the loose and informal, “all over the map” employment arrangements that I saw every day while working in non-national security related areas of the Saudi public sector. It didn’t seem like the  big “story” some make it out to be.  What in your opinion is the practical policy significance of the 28 pages?

I don’t think that there is much practical significance at all to the 28 pages.  They demonstrated that a few Saudi government employees might have been sympathetic to the al-Qaeda mission.  Richard Clarke, the NSC official in the Bush 43 Administration responsible for counter-terrorism, speculates that one of the “persons of interest” identified in the 28 pages might have been working for Saudi intelligence, in cooperation with the CIA, to try to infiltrate al- Qaeda.

My bottom line on the 28 pages is that we do not know that much more than we did before.  It certainly does not change my view, and the view of both the 9/11 Commission and the subsequent official bodies who have looked at the evidence, that the Saudi government was not involved in the 9/11 attacks in any way.

Three years ago you took up a new position as the head of the Department of International Affairs at the George HW Bush School of International Affairs at Texas A&M.  It’s a relatively new MA program.  What are some of your goals in the coming years for the  program?

I really want the Bush School to be the place where students who are serious about pursuing a government career dealing with foreign policy and international affairs come to get their master’s degree.  I am particularly interested in making us a place where students who want to focus on regions come.  We are strong in Europe and the Middle East right now, have a good contingent of scholars on China and East Asia and are developing our capacities on Latin America, particularly Mexico, in the area of political economy.  So many places have sidelined the study of regions in recent years.  I want the Bush School to be strong in that.

The School is a great place to study.  We are the best value in the market.  Our tuition is substantially lower than that of our peer institutions in the Association of Professional Schools in International Affairs (APSIA).  Because of the generosity of our donors, friends and admirers of President George H.W. Bush, we are able to give every admitted student to the School a merit scholarship, thus qualifying them for in-state tuition.  Students can come here and get their MIA degree either debt-free or with substantially smaller debt burdens than would be possible at comparable institutions.  If anyone is interesting in the School, please visit us at

If we are to assume that the Iran nuclear deal is going to move forward – what should the US approach to Saudi be? In DC it seems as if there is an anti-Riyadh policy school that is subtly rooting for the Kingdom to fail. Thinking into the next 10, 20 years – what is an abstract ideal of where US policy makers might aim for Saudi Arabia “to be” – in order to make the Iran nuclear deal work for everyone?

There are two issues on whether the Iran deal will “work” – the immediate, direct issue of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure and the larger question about Iranian behavior in the regional more generally.

On the specifics of the nuclear limitations, I think that the deal will work.  The Iranians will be constrained in terms of the development of their nuclear infrastructure.  This is independent of Saudi Arabia, and has much more to do Iran’s relations with the big powers – the US, Russia, China, the major European states.  I don’t think that the Iranians are going to want to be tagged as faithless partners by breaking their commitments in the deal, and likely being subject to the re-imposition of serious economic sanctions.

It is on the broader question of Iranian regional behavior that the Saudis come in.  The Obama administration clearly had a “theory of the case” on the nuclear deal with Iran, that over time the deal would strengthen the more “moderate” elements in the Islamic Republic and that, again over time, this would lead to a more restrained and less revolutionary regional policy.  Of course, that has not happened yet.  I doubt that even the most optimistic analyst of Iranian foreign policy thought that Iranian regional behavior would change in a year.  But there is still that hope.  Philip Gordon, who served on the Obama NSC, makes this argument in a recent article that is worth a read.

This is where the Saudis come in.  Iranian regional moderation is going to require some kind of understanding with the Saudis, who are opposing Iran (though not terribly successfully) in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.  Right now, there does not seem to be much hope of a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement.  We might look at oil market negotiations, where both countries have made noises about production limitation agreements to try to prop up oil prices, and see where they go over the next few months.  But the likelihood of a larger Saudi-Iranian geopolitical deal seems pretty slight right now.

I think that is because the Iranians think that they are winning in these various Arab country civil wars and conflicts in which Tehran has picked a side.  Let’s face it, their position in Iraq is very strong, thanks to the aftermath of our stupid war in 2003.  I’m not sure that any Iranian government, no matter how “moderate” it is, would give up that strategic advantage just for better relations with Saudi Arabia, or with the United States.  Maybe, if things change in Syria, Tehran might want some kind of settlement that would lead to a transition from the Assad regime, but I do not see them taking that position now.

Like all countries Saudi Arabia faces major challenges. Yet in the last year there has been a surge in highly pessimistic and negative articles specifically about the Kingdom in Western media. You have always been a voice of balance and nuance on Gulf affairs.  A couple of years ago you wrote that Saudi Arabia is the most stable country in the region right now. In the bigger picture, does that still hold true?  

I do think that Saudi Arabia remains a very stable regime.  They weathered the big storm of the Arab Spring.  They are facing difficulties with lower oil prices, without a doubt, but they have a decent financial cushion and they seem to realize that changes have to be made.  The regional situation is not positive for them, as they see the Iranians willing the regional geopolitical game, but there is not much that the Iranians can do to disrupt Saudi stability internally.  The Saudi Shia are too small a demographic group to be able to threaten the regime directly, and the community is divided, with many Saudi Shia accepting of and willing to work with the regime (if not enthusiastic about it).

To me, the two big issues for the Saudis in terms of regime stability are:  1) the social and political consequences of economic change and 2) internal ruling family politics.  On the first, if Muhammad bin Salman’s ambitious economic program is fully implemented, there will be fewer government jobs and reduced subsidies on consumer goods and utilities.  This is a regime that has been a classic rentier state, providing citizens with economic benefits in exchange for political quiescence.  Can that bargain be sustained at a lower proportional level of benefits per citizen?  Can citizens be persuaded/pressured into private sector jobs?  Will the private sector be willing to hire them, which basically means will the government act to raise the cost of foreign labor, so that it makes economic sense to hire Saudis?  These are big questions.  I don’t think that we have a sense of the answers right now.  But I do not see an immediate problem for the regime in terms of stability on this score.

In terms of family politics, there are, as always, all sorts of rumors about the relationship among the king, Muhammad bin Nayif and Muhammad bin Salman, and MbS’s relationship with the broader family.  Internal family cohesion is central to the stability of the regime; open conflict within the ruling elite puts the entire regime at risk.  The closest the Saudis came to a regime crisis in recent history was during the contest for power between then King Saud and then Crown Prince Faisal in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.  Right now, I do not see that kind of open conflict within the family.  It is worth keeping an eye on, but I do not see it right now.

Tourism is a huge part of the Saudi 2030 plan.  Wouldn’t it be nice to see them develop a Saudi equivalent of the Delaware beaches? 

I would love it if there were a Nicola’s Pizza restaurant in Jeddah or the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, near the coasts.  It would make dining choices for me when I am in those places much easier.  The Saudis might have some problems with dress code if they went in for beach tourism.  I did not see many burkinis on the Delaware beaches this summer.  But for me, you can’t recreate the Delaware beaches.  They are home.

If you are interested in the contents of this interview, here are some related articles I’ve written recently:

The Potential of Saudi Economic Reforms: The Washington Institute for Middle East Policy

Stop Sending So Many Young People in the Middle East to University. Al-Fanar Media

Not Just Tech: Entrepreneurship in the Middle East. Tahrir Center for Middle East Policy

To Beat ISIS Focus On Economic Reforms.

Taking Stock of Saudi Labor Reforms Five Years On.  Saudi US Trade Group


3 thoughts on “Catching up with Greg Gause on Saudi Arabia, Arabic and Texas A&M

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