Omar Saif Ghobash is the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia. He is one of the authoritative voices calling for a change in the global approach to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Most of the public debate about the ISIS has been tactical: How to bomb them out of existence. Ghobash believes that the battle should really be fought at a strategic level in the realm of ideas and by getting moderate Muslims to speak up and take a stand. In this wide-ranging interview with Knowledge at Wharton, conducted during the ambassador’s recent visit to Wharton, Ghobash also speaks about the situation in Ukraine and the potential of Western education in the Middle East.
An edited version of the transcript appears below.
Knowledge at Wharton: You have come from the UAE. These days, everyone who’s thinking about the Middle East is concerned about what’s happening with terrorism. We hear news reports all the time about yet another beheading by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). I wonder how you see the situation from your perspective from within the region.
Omar Saif Ghobash: We’re all obviously very concerned about the recent developments with the emergence of the ISIS. In a sense, the ISIS has presented a real development — a kind of qualitative one, in a negative sense — of extremism in the region. The fact is that they seem to have what looks like an army and revenues from oil. What’s probably the most dangerous thing about them is they have a very attractive, reductive view of how Islam should progress. One of the worries is also that in the realm of ideas they provide all the correct references. So, in a sense, they legitimize themselves by making references that are very common in the Muslim world about the khilafat [originally, the 1920s movement to support the Caliphate of Turkey], about fighting both the Persian empire through Baghdad and Iran and then the West, presumably representing historical Rome. In a sense, they’re playing to all the themes that we’ve been educated in. That’s what’s extremely worrying.
The other thing of interest is that most of the public debate about ISIS has been tactical: How to bomb them out of existence. This is going to take many, many years. I think the strategic aim should be a global issue, an issue for Muslims and for the Arabs to think about — the set of ideas and the reductive interpretations of our own history and our belief system which have led to this.
Knowledge at Wharton: How do we do that? In order to take the strategic view, what is the correct response both for governments in the Western world and for countries in the region?
Ghobash: The first thing to do is to recognize that there is a strategic element that hasn’t been addressed, which is the realm of ideas. We’ve heard about it ever since September 11… that the realm of ideas is where these battles really need to be fought. That’s part of the reason why I’ve continually been personally very interested in where this is going. We often hear about moderate Islam and moderate Muslims. I regard myself as a moderate Muslim. Frequently, there are calls on moderate Muslims to stand up and say something, and that’s pretty much where it ends.
Moderate Muslims will appear on television, on news broadcasts, and they will make an appeal to other moderate Muslims to say something. But they themselves don’t say anything. So, I think we moderate Muslims have done Islam a disservice by not providing a clear framework for young men and women, whether in the West or in Indonesia or in the Arab world, to deal with the problems of modernity. There is an existential crisis that young men face when they haven’t got a job, when they haven’t got a wife, and they haven’t got any opportunities. How do we take Islam as this moderate force and provide sustenance to them rather than providing an extremist version of Islam that satisfies their anger and their need for vengeance of some sort?
“There is a great deal of interest, at least among the youth of the Arab world, to see a better future. It’s pretty clear that mass execution of your enemies is not the way forward.”
So I think we really need to tackle that. There have been a couple of attempts. For example, recently there was a conference — Peace in Islam. That took place in Abu Dhabi and it was organized by the ministry of foreign affairs. So we had Islamic clergy, theologians, thinkers from across the Middle East. They got together and had this two-day conference. But the question is: Are they able to tackle the issues of Arab and Muslim youth?
I’m somewhat hesitant about giving them 100% on that. I think that it’s perhaps time for people of goodwill, young men and women who are concerned about where the religion is taking them, to start thinking for themselves outside of theological circles and outside of religious authority, to begin to really think of how we can interpret our traditional Islam in modern terms.
Knowledge at Wharton: Obviously, what you’re saying about the war at the level of ideas, if you can call it that, or at least the debate at the level of ideas, is extremely important. Do you believe that the situation, especially with the ISIS — and I’m not singling them out with other aspects of extremist thinking — has gone beyond the realm of debate and needs some sort of a political or even military solution? And if so, what should that be?
Ghobash: I wasn’t suggesting that there shouldn’t be tactical solutions for the short term, whether they’re military or otherwise. But what is worrying is that the ISIS in a sense represents a breakthrough for extremism. Their ideology does not differ that much from other groups who are often called moderate by the Western press who have the same goals, the same intentions, but who are described as being more pragmatic, ready to make compromises with the present. We within the Arab and Muslim community know that they actually have precisely the same goals, which are essentially intolerant and a very narrow worldview. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t tackle the phenomenon of violent extremism right now.
Knowledge at Wharton: Any thoughts on how it should be tackled at the tactical level?
Ghobash: No, to be honest. And I prefer not to think about that because I don’t have any kind of security or military background that would allow me to understand really what’s happening on the ground.
Knowledge at Wharton: What’s the one thing about this ISIS phenomenon that hasn’t been clearly understood by the Western world, which it is very important for them to understand?
Ghobash: I think there are probably two things. The first thing is that the ISIS is a Sunni movement essentially within Iraq. In terms of the battle between Sunni and Shiite Islam, it’s very difficult for the Sunni world to say no, and condemn 100%. This is one of the key problems we face. We face an ethical problem and a political problem. And in the case of the ISIS, I think the political overshadows the ethical. So we have a problem in that there is this perception that the Iranian influence over the region is growing and that the Sunnis of Iraq have genuine grievances. And these are warriors of the Sunni group. So that’s one of the key problems that needs to be resolved.
Now do you resolve that politically by having an inclusive government in Iraq? Well, that’s one possible approach. But I think the deeper and the wider issue there is that we should perhaps begin to think at a global level of a grand reconciliation between the Sunni and the Shia because at the level of leadership — religious or political — we have not succeeded in reconciling with each other. That’s the one thing really very important: for the global community to look at this issue and wonder whether it is appropriate for 1.1 billion Sunni Muslims and 300 million Shia Muslims to be so divided. I think that’s one key issue that needs to be resolved.
Knowledge at Wharton: It’s sometimes said it’s very dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future. But how do you think the situation will play out over the next say, 12 to 24 months?
“For my Russian friends, it’s very difficult to see Russians and Ukrainians actually fighting. They talk about it as brothers fighting.”
Ghobash: I’d prefer to go a little bit further than that, if that’s okay. I’m actually very optimistic about the situation because I think one of the issues is that in our part of the world we generally try to paper over differences. And when the differences are etched in blood, it becomes very clear what the consequences of our differences are. It also becomes very clear what the implications of our beliefs are. And I think that there is a great deal of interest, at least amongst the youth of the Arab world, to see a better future. It’s pretty clear that mass execution of your enemies is not the way forward. So I’m actually optimistic about the future in the Middle East.
Knowledge at Wharton: I’m really happy to hear that. Given your role as the Ambassador to Russia, I am sure you also have very interesting insights about the situation in that country, especially the way things are going with Ukraine. A lot of people have been very concerned about that situation and what it might mean in geopolitical terms. I’d be very interested to hear your analysis of the situation and, again, how you think it’ll play out.
Ghobash: My analysis is going to be piecemeal. In a sense I’m caught between two worlds. Having a sort of British education and being exposed to the West in a direct manner, and then also having Russian roots. My mother is Russian. So I’m almost given an inside track on how people are thinking there, at least at the level of political decision making. It’s very interesting to see how misunderstood different people can be. It’s also interesting to see how little they listen to each other and how ego plays a role in many conflicts. As a result, I’ve become very interested in the role of the shameless ambassador who can take a beating from both sides but tries to see how people can understand each other.
The view from Russia on Ukraine is obviously colored by the historical relationship to Ukraine. It’s colored also by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the promise that NATO wouldn’t expand. And for my Russian colleagues and my Russian friends it’s very difficult to see Russians and Ukrainians actually fighting. It’s actually deeply upsetting, even at the level of decision makers. They talk about it as brothers fighting and they know that the relationship will never be the way it used to be.
They also see it in purely geopolitical terms; they translate Western interests in Ukraine from a geopolitical standpoint. So that’s also very interesting.
Knowledge at Wharton: Let’s assume we have in this room Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama and both of them are turning to you for advice on what they should do next. What would you tell them?
Ghobash: I would tell them to watch the Kissinger-Charlie Rose interview. He got it pretty straight which is: Leave the Ukraine. Come to some kind of agreement. Don’t ask Ukraine to take sides. And just essentially postpone the day of judgment.
Knowledge at Wharton: Great. From the Middle East and Russia, I wonder if we could turn now to the UAE and especially some of the educational initiatives over there. I know that you were personally involved in helping some institutions move to the UAE. Could you tell me a little bit about how you see the educational needs of the region today and how they will evolve over the next few years?
Ghobash: After September 11, there was this great interest — global interest — in the educational systems of the Middle East and the Muslim world. There’s big criticism of rote learning and not having a policy of inquiry, basically, not encouraging inquiry. So governments in the region took the opportunity to invest tremendous amounts of money into education.
I criticize only from the point of view that I think we could always do better. The situation I see today is that we have a large number of vocational technical colleges, colleges that focus on business, on creating opportunities, entrepreneurial opportunities. This is all very useful and very interesting. But what I’ve always wanted to see is a much broader education. So you can have your engineering degree, but you need to be also informed by the social sciences, by philosophy, by history to be able to place your engineering tradition within a context so that you know why you are building. It’s not purely to create economic value or purely to reinvest the proceeds of oil. I think one of the problems we’ve got at the moment is that, whether it’s in the Arabic language or whether it’s in English language education in the region, we don’t look at history as a place of debate, of opinion, of proof and evidence. We have these, again, reductive histories. And so you have a checklist of facts, selective facts that are supposedly to help you orient yourself in the world. I think that’s one of the key problems.
Why is a Western educational institution important? I remember being told that this was a case of Western intellectual imperialism. My response to that was: At least they ask questions. And that’s the most important thing. If we look at education as an opportunity to be fed opinions, then yes, it is imperialism. But if we are taught the art of asking questions repeatedly, then you’ve got an education. That’s why I still support Western education in the region.
“Losing your life in jihad is the easy way out. The tough one is to learn, face daily troubles, get married and have children.”
Knowledge at Wharton: I think you’re so right because very often people see education as something that tells you what to think, rather than teaching you how to think. How has the role of education in the region and collaboration with Western institutions been and where do you think this could lead to in the future?
Ghobash: I think the experience has been broadly positive. It’s going to be interesting to see these graduates fill places, whether in government or in business in the region.
One of the other things is that the Emirates has tried to be a magnet for students from the surrounding region. I think that’s extremely important. What it’ll do is create that kind of personal connectivity with, let’s be honest, elites from Iran or India, Pakistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. To be able to have that kind of personal understanding is going to be very important.
Knowledge at Wharton: I remember having a wonderful discussion some years ago with Sheikh Nahayan [Mabarak Al Nahayan] when he was education minister of the UAE. I was very struck by one of the things he said when I asked him about the festival of thinkers, one of the great initiatives you have in the UAE. He said: “We know that oil is not going to last forever. When that day comes, the only thing that will keep us competitive is the quality of human capital that we have and that we are able to offer to the world.” Do you think that process is going smoothly? If not, what are the primary obstacles that need to be dealt with?
Ghobash: That’s a very interesting question. Knowing that that is actually the policy of the government, and knowing that it’s a policy that comes out of the nature of the leadership of the Emirates, where they actually value the individual, is very important. What I think is happening is we’ve got these very powerful forces within the Middle East and within Islamic thinking that are pulling kids to very simplistic interpretations of the world. Often, I think why would a jihadi or a suicide bomber go and do what he does, or what she does? At times I think they’re just very selfish and lacking in responsibility.
Now they would think that they’re selfless because they’re giving their lives and taking full responsibility. Losing your life in jihad is the easy way out. The tough one is to learn, face daily troubles, get married and have children. Bringing up children is unbelievably difficult. These are the true responsibilities and this is the true challenge, I think, people need to refocus on. And that’s what needs to be raised up as a holy way of living, rather than this whole idea of going off and blowing yourself up in the desert somewhere, as cannon fodder in somebody else’s game.
Knowledge at Wharton: I think that’s a great way to come back to where we started in the beginning. How do you think that message can be communicated most effectively to the youth of the region?
Ghobash: I have to be honest. I think it’s going to have to come from people speaking out and speaking in the manner that I’m speaking to you today. Very often we have a traditional respect for somebody in a higher position, whether it’s in a job or in the community or by age. I think we need to go beyond that. We’ve got people of my generation and the generation before me who are educated and well traveled. There’s absolutely no reason to maintain that kind of patriarchal approach to youth. The reason I think that it’s very important that we stop treating youth [in this fashion] is because there are recruiters out there who are making sure that they grab those youth from us. And I think that’s the challenge.