Dr. Jamal S. Al-Suwaidi: Staying Abreast of Change is Imperative

  • 7 May 2014

ABU DHABI - His Excellency Dr. Jamal Sanad Al-Suwaidi, Director General of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), an erudite personality equipped with vast knowledge, talks about many issues. As always, he never puts limitations on questions and does not censor himself, except for self-imposed constraints based on experience, concerns, uncertainties and his personal considerations.

After several interviews undertaken with Dr. Jamal Sanad Al-Suwaidi, starting back in 2002, it is not my intention to talk merely about the man as researcher, thinker and founder; talking about his merits is something already done before this dialogue, and will continue after it. However, this interview explains an issue that remains very important, and my discussion with Dr. Al-Suwaidi has a special cognitive pleasure due to his clarity and frankness. Therefore, my questions this time have focused on two books authored by Dr. Al-Suwaidi, and reviews for both books were published in the first episode of this series.

However, the questions in this interview will not be limited to his writings, rather they will go beyond that to discuss his political and epistemological visions. His views are often controversial, debatable, or objectionable to some elites who choose to ‘antagonize’ Dr. Jamal Al-Suwaidi intellectually, from his early writings, with and without pretexts. Therefore, this interview has also discussed the issue of accusations that he is an advocate of Americanization and Westernization. He has challenged these charges bluntly and with irrefutable evidence.

In this dialogue, Dr. Jamal Al-Suwaidi analyzes a range of problematic issues relevant to the future of the UAE, Arab countries and the world at large. Among these controversial issues are:

-the trends of global/international change;

-the concept of state sovereignty;

-refuting change under a religious pretext;

-exchange of ideas through utilizing the diverse demography of all Arab countries;

-future of the Arabic language;

-the darkness of the modern Arab age;

Dr. Jamal Al-Suwaidi also reveals one main theme from his forthcoming book titled Al-Sarab (TheMirage). However, discussing the writings of Dr. Al-Suwaidi here does not ignore the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR). The ECSSR has always been the first priority for Dr. Jamal Al-Suwaidi, regularly putting the Center ahead of his personal affairs. Moreover, he has attributed the success of the ECSSR to two factors: first, the unlimited support from H.H. General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. Second, the aptitude of the ECSSR’s staff. This view is appreciated as it reveals the importance of the Leadership and its awareness of the historical role and responsibility in building a knowledge-based society. Throughout the interview, Dr. Jamal Al-Suwaidi also focused on the significance of achieving the objectives of the ECSSR through the processes of support and innovation.

The interview:

After your long experience in research, as well as founding and leading the ECSSR, which is celebrating its 20th Anniversary, are you satisfied with what you have achieved? How would you describe your relation with the ECSSR? What are the boundaries which distinguish Dr. Jamal as the thinker from the ECSSR as a think-tank?

It is a tough question. Mingling the institution and the individual is wrong, even though it happens. The institution simply will remain longer than the individual. After 20 years of institutional work at the ECSSR, we feel contented with what has been achieved, but we feel that we should do more productive and constructive work, through research, studies and publications. We should do more in order to maintain the gains, the global prominent status and good reputation enjoyed by the ECSSR. We hope also to elevate the current position of the Center and to fulfill the great ambitions and high expectations of our wise leadership in the field of scientific research. The initial list of achievements by the ECSSR over the last 20 years include:

  • approximately 1,000 publications
  • more than 260 publications under process
  • 800 academic events (conferences, symposia, lectures, workshops etc.)
  • UAE Federation Library (contains a collection of one million titles)

Do you mean that you gave the institution priority over the individual?

Of course. Putting private individual interests first place is a huge mistake. The above mentioned achievements would never have been realized without an institutional system of performance operating in compliance with work schedules, programs and targeted goals. Each and every individual at the ECSSR performs his job precisely and efficiently.

What are the aspects attributed to Dr. Jamal Sanad Al-Suwaidi, as a writer and researcher, throughout his work at the ECSSR?

Nothing is attributed to “Jamal Al-Suwaidi” the writer and researcher, through his work at the ECSSR. All this successful work which you see today is attributed to two main factors – which are considered the vital pillars of success at the ECSSR – namely support and innovation. The support has been, and still is, provided generously by the Leadership, H.H. General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and President of the ECSSR. Innovation represents one of the values of the institutional work at the ECSSR. That is clearly evident through the performance of my colleagues, the ECSSR staff.

You have published two books; the first is on social media and is of middling size (157 pages), the second is on the prospects of the American Age and is much larger (858 pages). Do you aim, through such efforts, to escape from the confines of the field of management to the wide open spaces of scholarly thought?

The first book was released in 2013 and the second in 2014. The first is extremely important as it deals with the study of the phenomenon of social media and its growing influence in the Arab world today and in the future. The second addresses a global issue, the prospects for the new world order and the boundaries of competition and conflict between the forces of the contemporary global strategic landscape—namely the United States, China, Russia, the European Union, Japan, India and Brazil. One of the aims of this book is to review global changes and their impacts in order to show Arab citizens what it is going around them, allowing them to analyze reality. The Arab citizen must understand the nature of the new world order to avoid being marginalized in the various equations of strategic interests. There is a third book that I am working on, to be published in 2015, entitled The Mirage; what is this mirage? That is a surprise!

Aren’t you taking a considerable risk – especially with your last book Prospects for the American Age – by directing such a large and invaluable book in terms of thought and vision at audiences that don’t read?

In principle, if you were to consider the fact that Arabic books are neither widely distributed nor sold, you would not publish at all; but because the statistics are disappointing, it becomes very important to publish in both Arabic and English. You target your Arab audiences with Arabic publications, and the global audience with English ones. However, the most important thing is to publish, regardless of sale and distribution figures. On the other hand, it is important not to give in to any single idea, because the role of thought and research is to observe and analyze developments and changes, and to try to affect the situation regardless of the outcomes; simply put, if the current situation did not suffer from some problems, the critical views of researchers wouldn’t evolve in order to achieve change.

Do you mean that the writer, thinker or researcher should write no matter whether his/her material will be read or not—that their only mission is to write?

If you are interested in distribution and profit, you have to give up authorship and writing. Statistics for the whole world – not only the Arab world – indicate that those who read constitute 10% of the global population, 20% of which are in the Arab world. So, don’t expect 80% or 90% of people to read your publications. It is worth mentioning that even with this small relative readership (10%) there is still a profit. Distribution of the best Arabic books reaches 4,000–5,000 copies. Another fact is that change, and the shaping of attitudes and beliefs, do not materialize through universal transformations in all segments of society, but rather are pioneered by an elite that leads public opinion and always plays the primary role in comprehending and understanding the realities of a given situation.

Some observers wonder about the secret behind the extensive advertising and media campaign you have organized for your book From Tribe to Facebook: The Transformational Role of Social Networks?

Advertising and marketing are important elements in our present era. This is an unquestionable fact, whether for books or any other activity. People need to know what is going on in order to pay attention to it, given the deluge of preoccupations in our lives in terms of the massive flow of daily events or simply daily concerns. This advertising doesn’t necessarily reflect financial profit, as book sales in the Arab world certainly make no profits. Nevertheless, the main goal of advertising is to highlight the theme of the book, which I think hasn’t received the attention it deserves—at least not sufficient attention to reflect the important impacts of this topic on different aspects of life.

Media and symbolism

Is your constant, distinguished presence in various media a necessity, particularly when it comes to different national events and developments?

The answer to this question will be determined by two key points: first, our media presence with regard to national developments and events comes is a result of the fact that there are very few commentators on such issues, and many people are not familiar with the symbolism of some occasions and events, as in the case of the Qasr al-Hosn celebrations, for example. This means that it is necessary to talk about such events.

The second point relates to the activities of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), which we have to publicize in the media in order to alert people to important events, including lectures delivered by prominent Arab and international figures. For instance, Javier Solana, the former Secretary General of the Council of the European Union, former High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and former Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, who gave a lecture at the ECSSR on February 19, 2014. Before that, the former president of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari, delivered a lecture on February 9, 2014 in which he presented an important strategic vision regarding the EU position toward vital issues, including Ukraine. I didn’t understand the importance of such a proposition until recent events occurred. This is one of the benefits of discussion and communication at a global level. In general, the aim of the statements in this respect is only explanation; however, regarding our presence in the media and our statements and comments about other issuers, you should ask the media outlets to which we make such statements.

What is the future of “virtual allegiance”? And, in your opinion, could Facebook “tribes” become manifested through military force?

In general, the role of military force has declined significantly. The future belongs to other tools and mechanisms, such as media, social networks, and interaction. In my lifetime, I watched black and white TV, and it was a revolution when color TV was introduced. Now I see the smartphone as a revolution, as well as social networks which are used by the majority of people. There is an advantage in this, as newspapers, radio and TV were previously dominated only by elites, but now everybody is a media contributor. There have been radical cultural changes between the past and present situations, and the Arab individual should interact with these changes, because the change is radical and inevitable. If you ask me in which aspect of life change is taking place, I will tell you it is taking place in the cultural, political, economic, social and all other fields.

But you point out in your book that such changes have also caused problems?

One of the problems that social networks have to overcome is the problem of misinformation, but I don’t know how to overcome it. However, there should be a set of standards to ensure the credibility of news. As you know, media around the world is controlled by the state. For example, CNN defends American policies, the BBC espouses UK policies, Le Monde newspaper defends French policies. There is no free press or free TV anywhere, but social networks largely ensure the freedom of news and information exchange. By contrast, there is another issue, which is: Arab countries continue to think of how to control social networks, which is nearly an impossible task, because Facebook users in the world have already exceeded one billion, and the number is expected to increase rapidly, rendering the idea of censorship largely futile and absurd.

What is your opinion of the future relationship in general between the citizen, the state and authority in the Gulf and the Arab world?

I think that the state, as an absolute sovereign entity, is in a bad situation right now, and I don’t know what will be its destiny years down the line, given the rapid changes in the new world order.

The authority or the state, or both?

I mean the state, namely state sovereignty, defined by boundaries that make up national sovereignty; but now civil society organizations and new actors on the world stage dominate many issues, which until recently were at the heart of a state’s power. What is happening these days in Ukraine, Venezuela and Thailand is the same as what is happening in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen. This is a global phenomenon, and we are not talking here just about the UAE and Gulf countries, but talking about the whole world, which is witnessing massive transformations.

What is the situation of Arab Gulf countries with regard to this change?

The Arab Gulf countries have an inevitable option, which is adapting to the current situation and keeping up with the transformations of the new world order, since no nation is immune to the global phenomena taking place; this is inevitable.

Since social media facilitates change, do you think the streets of other Arab Gulf countries may see demonstrations as witnessed in Bahrain? Is the Arab Gulf region immune from such threats?

What is taking place in the Kingdom of Bahrain is a sectarian and security issue, and it has been there for a long time. What I am talking about is the need for economic change, change in family upbringing and the system of values; here for example a question arises – how should one raise children today? 30 years ago things were very different; today, you cannot control your kids, and yet you have to think about your children at school, at home, at college, and then in the workplace for years to come. Things have become different; you cannot control them; that’s what I mean by change. What has changed with young people will have political, economic, cultural consequences. The cultural dimension also has changed, for example, 30 or 40 years ago, there was one favorite poet, favorite singer, actress and writer of choice. Today, stardom has become dispersed, and the same applies to the state, and on many other things like literature. I’m sure that the future will witness new things, but I do not know what they are!


Rejecting the politicization of religion

What is to be done now in the face of external support for the forces of change, as happened in Egypt? How would the situation be for Arab countries? What is the position of our faith? Do we have one religion or a group of religions proposed by political groups?

External support has its goals and world powers have interests that they seek to achieve through interference in the internal affairs of others, and this is one of the axioms of international relations. The solution doesn’t come through isolationism or raising slogans of confrontation and resistance, etc., but rather to fortify and strengthen the immunity of countries by supporting development plans and communication between the leaderships and their people. Here in the UAE, you find the application of a model of good governance, because meeting the voice of the people with deaf ears is the beginning of the end for any system of governance. The question of religion should not be subjected to the lies and fabrications of political Islamist groups, which are trying to discredit Islam and our relationship with God. Islam is one and will remain so as long as God wants, and it has its specific sources for Fiqh and jurisprudence. What these groups propose doesn’t mean the existence of a different version of Islam beyond what we all know, but they use distortions in religious interpretation for the purposes of exploitation for the benefit of these opportunistic groups. Our peoples reject these arguments; intelligent people can be deceived for a time, but they soon discover the truth and reject any attempt to mix religion and politics.

Do you mean that any politicization of any religion should be rejected?

Yes, from any religion, I don’t just mean Islam, but any culture that promotes an overt religious character will end. Of course, Christians want to promote their Christian character, and they are the majority, about two billion in the world. They are trying to do this but they will not succeed, and those who say that it is a religious conflict are mistaken.

There are various opinions that say that the century in which we live, specifically, is the time of clash of fundamentalisms and religions. What do you think?

The current conflict in the world is economic in the first instance. I will give you an example, the religious movements in the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe were separating religion from politics, and religious movements in the Arab Muslim world today use religion for personal and partisan interests, and this is worse than secularism, yet the use of religion in politics for personal interests is very dangerous.


Twitter and Arab leaders

How do you view the popularity of Arab leaders through the number of followers on Twitter?

This popularity differs from one political leader to another, and from one state to another. For example if a political leader in a certain country has half a million followers, such number would be a tremendous record when considering the population in that country, whereas this figure makes him of a limited popularity in a country with a large population. Thus, in general, it is difficult in light of the cognitive and technical realities of the Arab world, to glean indications regarding the popularity of political leaders through social media such as Twitter. For example there is popularity for specific groups on these social media, such as artists, religious leaders, athletes and others. These indicators, from my perspective, basically depend on the spread of technology and development rates in countries, among other factors.

Are you with or against the idea that Arab leaders should have Twitter accounts?

I think these are one of the features of interaction in the world today, it is important for political leaders to communicate with young people, who represent a large demographic in Arab societies, but some of those leaders would prefer to work in more formal environments, and this is a matter of personal freedom.

But is there not a difference between the freedom of a ‘thinker’ or writer and the freedom of a political leader?

In my personal opinion, twitter represents a ‘cultural maelstrom,’ and that is why some people – including politicians, journalists and scholars – prefer to avoid it. As I said, it is ultimately a matter of personal freedom.

What does the future hold for the UAE and the Arab World?

The Arab world must adapt to political, economic, cultural, economic and scientific developments occurring world-wide. Change is inevitable in throughout the world. It is not about the UAE or any particular other country. We are going to see global changes which will impact all countries without exception.

Uprisings and revolutions are changing the world, but for the worse. What can we do?

How can we define ‘the worse’? Yes, it could be worse—if such changes mean there will be no food, no shelter, no healthcare, and no education, we do not want them. What is the use of voting for someone to become a member of parliament if this person will not provide you with employment, education or healthcare?


The Dark Ages and the Arabic language

How do you view the changes occurring in Arab countries brought about by conflicting religious forces with no previous experience of democracy?

The change undertaken by religious–political movements will come to an end, because it will not gain popularity among the people. For example, who has the right to issue a fatwa? And who has direct contact with God the Almighty? These acts by religious movements are taking us back to the European dark ages when the Church used to do what these malicious political religious movements are doing today. Maybe they will next start selling indulgences. So, if the council of Islamic scholars is wrong, if preachers in mosques are wrong, if fatwas issued by governments are wrong, what is right? The right thing is to establish an Ottoman-style caliphate!

On the other hand, some claim that the solution is to go back to religion. But we would like to ask them: show us your solution. Since you want to be in power, show us your political programme. We are living in a Dark Age in the fifteenth century A.H. similar to that of fifteenth century A.D. Europe.

Will the end of the twenty first century see the end of writing in Arabic?

Definitely not! All Arabs must write in Arabic. Most people now know English, French and Spanish. German has the potential to spread. Arabic, however, is part of our identity. Arabic has survived for thousands of years, and there is no reason why it will not continue to do so.

But in your book, From Tribe to Facebook, you stated that social media is a threat to Arabic.

Yes, I have anticipated a new language which is not Arabic, English or Spanish; a special language for social media. You know, the problem with social media is that Arab people interact in English, or at least write Arabic using the Roman alphabet.

How can Arabic survive when most Arab countries are not taking decisions regarding the language?

Arabic must be promoted through the activities of research institutes. In this respect, the ECSSR will host a forum aimed at preserving Arabic, namely the First Arab Pen Forum, which will be held on November 16–19, 2014 under the auspices of H.H. General Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. The forum will be led by H.E. Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, and H.H. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs. All speakers at the forum will present their papers in Arabic.


The power of the United States of America and its allies

In your latest book, Prospects for the American Age, you presented data and figures which suggest that the American age will last for at least the next fifty years. This supports the claim by some that Al Suwaidi is an advocate of American hegemony in the region. What would you say in this respect?

The claim that my book Prospects for the American Age promotes Westernization or Americanization is baseless and inaccurate. The book presents concrete figures. For example, in the USA, there are approximately 5,400 airports with paved runways, and if those with unpaved runways are counted, the figure will exceed 13,000 airports. In comparison, all GCC countries, with all their oil and wealth, do not have even 100 airports. So, anyone claiming that my book serves the CIA and promotes Westernization and Americanization must read the Introduction to the book, which presents accurate figures on transport infrastructure, economy, education, innovation, energy and the military.

So you think that the USA has all resources it requires to continue to dominate the new world order? Does this mean that you are heralding a new American age?

This depends on the rivals to the USA. If China can become friends with Japan and the European countries, it will emerge victorious. But there is a serious rift between China and Japan. I do not believe China cannot make it alone, even if supported by all of the GCC countries; it will eventually be defeated because the strength of the US is derived from its allies—the EU, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and South Korea.

You stated that debate is no longer limited to the extent of state sovereignty, but now revolves around whether sovereignty exists in the first place. What is the position of the UAE in relation to this debate?

The sovereignty issue is beyond the UAE, KSA, Kuwait or Qatar; it is a global issue. For example, all signatories of the Statue establishing the International Criminal Court will be responsible for this in the future, although they signed in good faith. The International Criminal Court was created to prosecute individuals for crimes against humanity; but who decides whether or not somebody has committed a crime against humanity? This is decided by Western countries that talk a lot about human rights, and use it to serve their interests. What does ‘human rights’ mean when the West continues to view Arabs as through the simplistic prism of oil and women. This is a distorted image. Arabs are human beings, and I think this image will change.

Since the sovereignty of small countries depends on the position of superpowers, do you think that what we have seen in Ukraine is a kind of exchange between the West and Russia involving Syria.

If Europe takes Ukraine, this will be the end of Russia. In Syria, it is a humanitarian issue in the first place, as the continuing conflict between the regime and the opposition has exhausted the entire Syrian people.


Arabs and the Demographic Imbalance

Are the Arabs, as mentioned in your book and described by Thomas Friedman, destined to live in the ‘dark street’ of the ‘world city’?

I was quoting New York Times’ Friedman because I believe it is true. The Arab nations may have economic weight, but not that much.

Demography and immigration were cited in your book as elements of US dominance. Is it possible for the UAE to absorb foreign expatriates – Arabs in particular – permanently rather than temporarily?

It is my view that the Arab nations should learn from world demographic experiments. All nations, except Arabs, have their individual naturalization policies. I think it high time for the Arab nations to reconsider demographic policies because they cannot afford to lag behind. They should enact a clear-cut system of cultural engagement with specific pre-conditions, such as the naturalization of those with in-demand skills, degree-educated foreigners and newborns.

Are there any fears of the expatriate Arab presence in the UAE? Why are Emiratization plans focused on Arab expatriate-occupied positions?

It is a UAE policy. I’m not, I’m afraid, familiar with this issue, but it is common knowledge that the UAE and other Gulf nations sustain a demographic imbalance because of the Indian community, which is the largest. Are we, eventually, to become an Indian community for example? Check Abu Dhabi mosques and you’ll find that Emiratis represent only 5% instead of 50% as supposedly expected. The same applies to Al Ain, Western Region, Dubai and Fujairah – this is a phenomenon to look into. Demographic imbalance, I think, extends to other places like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman, but is strongly felt in the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait. It is an economic matter because all property and real estate projects throughout the Gulf will readily come to a standstill once expatriates are phased out.


The Mirage – forthcoming publication

About your new book,The Mirage, does it refer to the individual, a certain group or the state in general?

The Mirage offers a cognitive and historical review of the 15th and 16th centuries when church and state were separated following a frenzied spree of sectarian infighting and slaughter. An analogy is made with political Islamist movements in the Arab and Islamic world at present, where Islam is manipulated for personal, partisan and political reasons and killing is justified, although evidently prohibited by the Quran. It is just one of several ideas which will be discussed in my new book.

Shouldn’t Arab nations take part of the blame for allowing certain groups to hijack Islam?

I think this absolutely true. In the 1990s, political Islamist movements dealt with Islam as some sort of car franchise/dealership, offering their own interpretations and issuing own fatwas (legal opinion) as if they were the only Muslims. It is an ideological conundrum in the first place. In the UAE, we have the Zakat Fund, which is a religion-oriented institution. Islam is the only religion without a go-between between the Worshipped and worshipper. So, how come Islam is franchised? This unfortunately was the case with certain movements in the Arab and Islamic world over the past two to three decades. Who should represent Islam: the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar or (Muslim Brotherhood) Mohammed Badie’? Al Azhar has been around since the 10th century. The matter is ugly and dangerous because it takes us centuries back, throwing aside the ideas and Ijtihad by moderate Ulemas such as Mohammed Abdo and Jamal Eddin Al Afghani. On the other hand, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (1924–1928) brought about a vacuum which the Muslim Brotherhood Movement stepped in to fill. They criminalized liquor and narcotics which is quite natural and offered nothing new, but my question is: Do they have a program/plan other than calling for the Caliphate state and defamation of liberals and drunkards?

Do you consider what is happening in some Arab nations to be a sectarian struggle?

It is a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional struggle, indeed, but the most dangerous element is the hunger for power by certain religion franchisers like the one living in Qatar. How could he describe one million Emiratis as Kuffar (non-believers)? The same accusation applies to highly committed and devoted Muslims in Saudi Arabia (20 million), Bahrain (one million) and Oman (two million). Long beards and short Thobes are no proof that you are Muslim. Islam is very much broader than that, but decontextualization of (true) Islam is one of the many aspects of crises in the Arab world nowadays. How to be a genuine, devoted Muslim is a crisis today because of facts twisted along certain political Islamist agendas. Life has changed, so how come we accept a fatwa taking us backward? Why get millions busy doing nothing less but debating absurd matters and fatwas? Why allow the ignorant to hijack Islam?


Support and Innovation

Any successful institution requires two factors: support and innovation. The former was given by His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, ever since the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) was established in March 1994. The latter was offered by my fellow colleagues.