The West does not really understand the Middle East, and will struggle to do so until the Arab world becomes more open and accepts a greater degree of pluralism in its social and cultural life, according to a respected German diplomat with nearly four decades of experience in the region.
Dr. Gunter Mulack, who served as senior diplomat or ambassador in many Middle East countries until his retirement, said: “I don’t believe the West understands the region, and is often not interested in developing a really deep understanding of it. The overall impression in the rest of the world is negative.
“But it is less negative about those parts of the region that Europe and America can visit as tourists, like Oman and the UAE for example. Tourism has brought a good impression of those countries because they are beautiful or historic. Germans loved Yemen when it was possible to go there.”
“The Middle East should learn from this that it has to open up and accept pluralism if it wants to change perceptions in the rest of the world,” he added.
Mulack is visiting Saudi Arabia as a speaker at the Top CEO Conference, the public sessions of which open today at the King Abdullah Economic City near Jeddah. He is set to participate in an Arab News panel on the “Middle East’s perception problem.”
Mulack retired from the German diplomatic service in 2008 after posts in Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Syria and Morocco, and is now a director at the Berlin-based German Orient Institute, which is aimed at promoting greater knowledge of the region in Europe and the US.
“I first came to Jeddah in 1972, and it was a very different place. It was always a trading center, but it was just the old town then, there was hardly any development. The religious police would smash shopkeepers’ goods if they did not close for prayer,” he recalled.
Mulack applauded the moves by the government to transform the country’s economic and social system embodied in the Vision 2030 strategy, but warned it would not be an easy task.
“It is not the first time there has been an attempt to change Saudi society for the good, but this time they are taking it seriously. The Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is young and ambitious, and he wants to change the attitude of a rentier state that lives off oil income into a real economy with real industry, with less reliance on public sector jobs.
“But to bring young Saudis into the private sector is difficult because you have to motivate them, and that is difficult in a society where the government has provided many jobs in the past,” he added.
He said it might take a full generation to bring about lasting change, and that the 2030 timeframe might be difficult to meet.
On two crucial issues — education and the role of women — he thought the plan faces challenges. “The quality of education, in an open minded and creative way, is important. And women really are the soft power of the country who are yet to be fully realized,” he said.
Views of the Arab world
Growing up in East Berlin, Mulack was first attracted to the Middle East through the works of author Karl May, who wrote novels set in the Arab world, as well as the American west. “He painted a very positive picture of the region, of the noble Arab defending Islam, and it was my first inspiration,” he said.
He studied law, but learned Arabic, Turkish and Farsi partly, he said, to impress an Arabic-speaking girlfriend he had at the time. “I went to Morocco and it was just so oriental, I had a very romantic view of the place. I learned later of course that the reality was not always in line with that image,” he said.
I believe the Iranians are aggressive and expansionist. They have troops on the ground through the ‘Shia foreign legion’ of recruits from Pakistan and Afghanistan who are fighting in Syria, and they are financing Bashar Al-Assad.
— Gunter Mulack
He learned the diplomatic trade in Kuwait in the 1970s, when the oil price began to rise sharply, and later in Jordan where he was responsible for German relations with the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
“Then it seemed as though there might be hope that here could be a two-state solution in Palestine, but that has faded now, and the region has other problems — chaos, civil war and violence in some parts, and the split between Sunnis and Shiites, which was not so obvious back then.”
He said that he could understand the resentments of Sunni Muslims who saw Iranian power expand along the “crescent” from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon.
“I believe the Iranians are aggressive and expansionist. They have troops on the ground through the ‘Shia foreign legion’ of recruits from Pakistan and Afghanistan who are fighting in Syria, and they are financing Bashar Assad.
“I do not believe the conflict in Yemen started as an Iranian fifth column, but as an internal conflict. Then the Houthis started to get assistance from Iran and it became part of the ‘great game’ rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” he added.
Mulack said that the recent attack on Syrian military positions ordered by President Donald Trump was a positive act by the US leader. “It is the only language Assad understands. It tells him that he cannot cross red lines, even if it was an emotional decision when he (Trump) saw pictures of dead children.”
He said that the West and Russia did not really have a solution to the current problems of the Middle East, and that it needed the intervention of a “facilitator” to try to bring an end to conflicts, though he added that Oman could play a bigger role in the region.
“Many say that the Arabs only understand the language of power, but I don’t agree. The states of the Middle East have got to develop civil societies and education systems. They have to empower women. Then maybe they can deal with the problems here,” he said.
“Saudi Arabia is right to follow the 2030 plan because you have to have a real state, with real economy and real industry, to deal with the long term problems,” he added.
• Dr. Gunter Mulack is a retired German ambassador
and at present the executive director of the German
Orient Institute in Berlin.
• He entered the German diplomatic service in 1971 after
studying law and oriental languages as well as
Middle Eastern regional studies at the universities of
Marburg, Freiburg and Goettingen in Germany.
• He graduated as a lawyer and passed his state
examination in 1968. From 1969-1970 he did
postgraduate studies at the University of California
Berkeley, Boalt Hall Law school — he graduated in 1970.
• In 1971 after having been research associate at the
Institute of International Law at Goettingen University
he received his Ph.D. in International law.
• As a diplomat he served mostly in the Arab world.
He graduated with a diploma in Arabic from MECAS
in Lebanon, serving in Cairo, Amman, Beirut, Kuwait
and other postings.
• He was German Ambassador to Bahrain, Kuwait and
Syria and Consul General in Casablanca.
• In May 2002 he was appointed as the first German
Commissioner for Dialogue with the Muslim world
and served until 2005 in this capacity visiting almost
all Muslim countries. From July 2005 to September
2008 he served as German Ambassador in Pakistan.
In 2009 he was political adviser to the EU Chief
observer for the Afghanistan presidential elections.
• After his retirement in September 2008, he was
appointed executive director of the German Orient
Institute in Berlin. He is member of the board of the
German Orient Foundation and of several think tanks.