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Transcript: Robert Worth talks with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"

Journalist Robert Worth on profiling Mohammed bin Zayed

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with author and journalist Robert Worth, who conducted a rare interview with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, for a profile featured in the New York Times Magazine. Worth, who previously worked as the New York Times' Beirut bureau chief, explains the internal politics of and regional dynamics surrounding the United Arab Emirates, and explains why M.B.Z. is among the most powerful Arab leaders today. He also shares unpublished anecdotes from his reporting.  

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS - ROBERT WORTH

INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT WORTH

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS, JAMIE BENSON

MICHAEL MORELL:

Robert, thanks for joining us. It's great to have you on Intelligence Matters.

ROBERT WORTH:

It's a pleasure to be here.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Robert, as you know, I read your piece in The New York Times Sunday magazine, I think it was January 9th, on Mohammed bin Zayed who we all affectionately call MBZ, and we can do that throughout this piece. And I read it with great interest. I've known MBZ for many years and I think this is the first profile that I've ever seen of him, number one, and number two, I think you did a terrific job capturing him. So I wanted to have you on the podcast to talk about him because I think he is an important and an extraordinary person. So maybe the place to start is to ask you why you wrote the piece in the first place. Why'd you want to do this?

ROBERT WORTH:

Well, I had heard a lot about MBZ over the years. He's someone who is very well known to policy makers, as you know. He keeps a low profile, though. So ordinary people really haven't heard much about him. I think part of that is because he's not the official ruler of the UAE. His brother remains the titular president.

But he's really been exercising the levers of power there for many years. And he's a sophisticated thinker. I mean, that's one of the first things that people will tell you who knew him well. You know, former heads of state and so forth who often to go to see him and seek his advice. Military leaders, a number of them had told me, including General Mattis, I hope he doesn't mind me saying that, know him well and respect his judgement.

And then secondly, I wrote a book about the Arab Spring and its consequences. And I was very interested in the role of the UAE, specifically MBZ who guided those efforts in what happened there. He and, let's say the Emirates and the Saudis, are often portrayed as the bad guys of the Arab Spring, as the, sort of, autocrats who snuffed out of the hopes of Arab Democrats.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right. Right.

ROBERT WORTH:

And I had a feeling it was much more complicated and I wanted to get a better understanding of how they saw all of those events.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. Well, I was one of those government officials who found him and still find him to be a very sophisticated thinker and someone who I always found great value in sitting down with and having a conversation about almost anything. So I'm not surprised you heard that from many people. Why do you think they decided to cooperate with you? Because they've been so reluctant to let him talk to a journalist, for example, and you had the opportunity to interview him. Why do you think they did that?

ROBERT WORTH:

I think it's a couple reasons. I think, one, they were independently, I think, moving closer towards being a little more transparent. He's made more head of state visits to places. He's, sort of, come out a bit as being the decision maker in the Emirates. And also I had lobbied them over some time and I think the fact that I had written quite a bit about the Gulf over many years may have made a difference. And then finally, I wrote a story that came out in in 2018 about a big ransom, a group of Qataris who were falcon hunting in Iraq and were captured. And then there was an enormous and complicated ransom.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Captured by?

ROBERT WORTH:

Captured by a Shiite militia. Iran played a big role in all of this. And I wrote a long story about how that happened, which, to be pretty frank about it, made Qatar look bad. Now as you know, the Emirates is in a big, big feud with Qatar. And I think that may inadvertently have endeared me to the Emirati leadership.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So I think it was, Robert, one of the first two paragraphs of your piece that you called MBZ one of the most powerful men on Earth. That's a quote. Why?

ROBERT WORTH:

Well, if you just look at the moment, you know, the sovereign wealth funds of the Emirates, they're tremendous. More than 1.3 trillion. He's also developed a small, but very sophisticated and efficient military. Really, as far as I understand, probably the best trained special forces apart from Israel in the Middle East.

MICHAEL MORELL:

I think that's right. Yeah.

ROBERT WORTH:

And he's deployed them. So he has the levers of power in several different ways, and also because unlike some other countries, he really, along with his brothers, is in charge, can make independent decisions without having to worry too much about domestic audience, since it's a very small country. So for all those reasons, I think he just, sort of, stands out.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Okay. So for our listeners, let me ask you some questions about him personally. Who is he from a family pedigree perspective?

ROBERT WORTH:

Sure. He is the son of the founder of the United Arab Emirates. The country was founded in 1971. And his father, Sheikh Zayed al Nahyan, is just a legendary, huge figure. Really, I think universally respected in the Middle East because no one thought that country would really come together. It was a group of sheikhdoms on the north side of the Arabian coast, of Arabian peninsula.

And they were fractious and there was a history of fighting even within some of those sheikhdoms, including Abu Dhabi, which is the largest, and that's the one MBZ comes from. But Sheikh Zayed was a very charismatic, very wise character who managed to pull them all together. And then, of course, used the tremendous oil money they had wisely and they built this incredible example of a peaceful and very developed country.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And then you said his brother is actually the leader. And he's got a couple roles. Right? He's the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and he's also the defense minister of the entire country. So how is it that he essentially becomes the leader of the whole place?

ROBERT WORTH:

Well, his brother Sheikh Khalifa had a stroke years back and so was really out of commission. The titles that they have, the leaders of the different Emirates, are a little out of whack with their actual responsibilities. So for instance, many people are more familiar with Sheikh Mohammed who's the ruler of Dubai, one of the other seven Emirates.

But Abu Dhabi has always been by far the richest and just in geography, it's by far the largest of the Emirates. And so that automatically gave its leader a greater share of power. And then finally, I think there's a kind of complex internal process in which people are sifted out. And it's not exactly democracy, but there's a kind of collective judgement on who is most fit to run the place. And I think for a number of years, it's been clear both to outsiders and inside the Emirates that Sheikh Mohammed was the guy.

MICHAEL MORELL:

A little bit about his background, where he went to school, jobs he had in the runup to his current roles?

ROBERT WORTH:

Sure. So when he was fairly young, when he was a teenager, his father sent him to Morocco where he lived and studied and even worked briefly in a restaurant. I think his father wanted to move him away from a place where he was seen as this, sort of, (UNINTEL). You know, the heir apparent or one of the heirs apparent and to toughen him up a bit and I think that worked.

He lived a pretty simple life. He studied there. He later went to a famously tough boarding school in England where Prince Charles and other royals had gone. And then he went to Sandhurst, the British military academy. And then he returned to the UAE where he followed a military path. Learned how to fly, was an officer, progressed through the ranks, and eventually became the leader of the UAE's military.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So how would you describe him as a person? You spent some time with him. How would you describe him?

ROBERT WORTH:

Yeah. You know, I've met a number of heads of state. And what's interesting is that when you sit down with him, you don't see that sense, sort of, how to put it, PR antenna that you see with a lot of heads of state who are, sort of, conscious always of how they sound and looking around. They're seeing who the audience is and so forth.

He sits down, looks at you. You have this sense of a private conversation. He's very deliberate, soft spoken, analytical. There's something a little bit almost professorial about him. He's charming, too. He's funny. I mean, I think I mentioned in the story, his accent is maybe slightly British, but his vocabulary is definitely American.

You know, he'll say things like, "Come on, guys. Let's do this. Let's not do this. Whatever." So and he loves to surprise people. He clearly has a sense of humor about that. Sort of, playing off the image of the ruler. He loves to be informal. Take you out for a walk to show up in the helicopter that he's flying instead of someone else.

MICHAEL MORELL:

There's a humility about him, too. Right?

ROBERT WORTH:

There is. Yeah. Yeah. Compared with some Arab rulers, potentate (?) sheikhs, whatever that you come across, he doesn't present himself that way. And I suppose that may be partly character and partly a legacy of his father who was famously humble in the way that he approached people. It's also partly by calculation. I mean, people revere that quality in him.

MICHAEL MORELL:

I wonder if his time in Morocco instilled some of that in him as well.

ROBERT WORTH:

I don't know. Yeah. It's possible. And again, I think that's part of the legacy of his father. He was very conscious, I think, early on of the danger of the oil money making a generation of spoiled brats who hadn't earned anything on their own. And I think his father wanted to prevent that from happening to him.

MICHAEL MORELL:

You talk about surprises and informality. The first time that I went to the Emirates after I retired, he asked to see and a car was sent to pick me up and I was taken to a small restaurant. And I had no idea where I was going, but this small restaurant where he was doing his meetings that day. Not in some palace, but in a restaurant. So he is absolutely what you said he was. How did you find him as an interview subject?

ROBERT WORTH:

Well, I should say I only spent an hour with him. I first met him with one of the surprises. I was attending an iftar during Ramadan, an evening breaking of the fast meal. And he just, to my complete surprise, walked up behind me and, sort of, tapped me on the shoulder and brought me in and sat me down next to him.

So we spoke a little bit then. During the interview, I mean, he was a great subject. He answered my questions and then he went off sometimes in slight digressions, which ended up being tremendously helpful for me because they were full of rich anecdote. And he didn't hold back. You know, he said some things that maybe he didn't want to be ultimately quoted on.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So how would you, Robert, describe his world view, his mindset, his vision? This is the heart of your piece, right?

ROBERT WORTH:

Sure. Yeah. I think you could compare him a little bit to Lee Kuan Yew. He wants to further develop the country, which after all, was initially developed by his father. And he wants to, I think, make Emiratis more disciplined. Education is immensely important. Probably the most important thing to him. He wants to extend that.

That's what he's worked so hard with NYU and other educational institutions he's brought there. And I think his vision of the Emirates and the Arab world's future is-- well, first of all, it's not democratic. We should say that right out. Although, it does have its own, sort of, how to put it, certain forms of accountability in which people can bring concerns to the ruling family.

And I don't think he would use this word, but I think, at least in relative terms in the Arab world, it's a secular vision. He does not want to see political Islam taking over that region. And I think he's immensely, immensely concerned about that. He's seen what's happened in the past few decades, what happened starting in Iran with the Islamic revolution there, what happened with successive waves in the Sunni Arab world, what happened in Saudi Arabia, which is right next door and was a huge concern for him. He did not want to see that kind of Wahhabi extremism take over. And he's worked very hard to stop it.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Has this vision been a constant for him for a long period of time or has he grown into this, do you think?

ROBERT WORTH:

I think he's grown to it. And after all, I should say he was an Islamist in his thinking as a young man. So many people in this generation were. It was partly because his own father unwittingly had put a guy in charge of his son's education who was, himself, a Muslim Brotherhood member, an Egyptian living in the Emirates, and he was under the sway of that thinking for several years and then he, at some point, decided in the early '80s that it was completely irreconcilable with the kind of the country he was growing up in and with the kind of ruling system it had. And so I think over time, as he saw how powerful the Islamist thought was in the region, he began to develop a stronger desire to push back against it.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So you tell a story in the piece about a conversation that he had with his father right after 9/11. Can you tell that story?

ROBERT WORTH:

Sure. This is when he went to his father and said-- this must have been, I guess, October 2011. He said, "The Americans are going into Afghanistan." And his father, Sheikh Zayed, was quite an old man, said, "Well, we have to be there with them. We need to be fighting alongside them." And MBZ wasn't quite prepared for this. And he said, "Well, how I do sell this?

I mean, after all, this would mean Muslims killing Muslims, which is going to look bad." And his father then said, "So tell me. Do you like the Quran? The Hadith? You know, the son of the prophet?" And of course MBZ, "Yes, of course." And he said, "Do you think that this guy out there, Osama bin Laden, in the mountains is living according to our religion?" And MBZ said, "No. Absolutely not." And he said, "You're right. Our religion is being hijacked."

MICHAEL MORELL:

And he ultimately takes on that view. Correct?

ROBERT WORTH:

Yes. Yes. Yes. And he told me that that really stuck with him.

MICHAEL MORELL:

You mentioned, kind of, Lee Kuan Yew of the Middle East. Do you think he thinks about it that way? Does he have a role model in his mind?

ROBERT WORTH:

I don't think so. He certainly never mentioned Lee Kuan Yew. That was my thought. I think, actually, Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, who, after all, got more attention earlier, I think, for the way that he developed Dubai and did this very flashy both tourist and economic--

MICHAEL MORELL:

-- Kind of Disneyland feel to it.

ROBERT WORTH:

Disney. Exactly. Kind of a crazy Disneyland. And I think he has mentioned, Lee Kuan Yew, as a kind of role model. I think for MBZ, it's less about being an economic hub. After all, Abu Dhabi is really more the capital. It's more involved in political and financial military decisions. But I think he does want to build a place that is where more or less secular values are being promoted, where he wants to build a future beyond oil, and he's worked very hard on that. That's one of the things that doesn't get talked about much, but he created this alternative sovereign wealth fund Mubadala that has worked very hard at creating alternatives to oil.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So Robert, he's deeply concerned about political Islam. And I think he would argue that more open democracies in the Middle East are more vulnerable to it and you need a more authoritarian state to take it on, and that's that convenient argument for him. Right? But do you think at the end of the day-- you know the region well. Do you think that argument is right?

ROBERT WORTH:

That's a very tough question. And I think it really depends on the particular country. When I look at the countries in the Middle East today, I take great hope in looking at Tunisia, which, as you know, is a democracy now. It's still troubled. It's still got a very weak economy. But you do have a balance there between the relatively moderate liberal Islamist party and the principle secular party.

But I think that's because Tunisia was in a very different condition from just about every other country in the region. For the rest of them, unfortunately, the nominally democratic republics that emerged after the second World War have just been catastrophic. And we saw what happened. I was living in Iraq after the American invasion when this rapid introduction of American style elections really seemed to make the country more unstable and violent and helped to propel it into a civil war. So I think that for a lot of those countries, some sort of benign autocracy may be the best way towards a more democratic future.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So I want to ask you, Robert, about his views of his relationships with the other players in the region. And maybe the place to start is us, the United States. How does he think about us? And I'll start by saying I've gotten earfuls over the years about U.S. policy. So I'll put that on the table.

ROBERT WORTH:

Sure. Yeah. I can imagine. Well, I mean, first of all, the first thing to say is that there's a deep relationship. His father was very much in favor of a strong relationship with the United States and towards the west in general, you know, at a time when-- and remember Zayed founded the country in 1971, when anti-imperialism was running very strong.

Arab nationalism was very strong. There were countries that were nationalizing their oil. And Zayed's attitude was, "No. These people have the skills and the education and the wherewithal to help us and we need to be friends with them." And so MBZ, when he was growing up, absorbed that point of view, worked very closely as a military officer and later as the defense minister working with the Pentagon.

But I think he was also anxious about what came to be called the democracy agenda. He felt that the United States should continue to value stability more in the region and that promoting elections often meant being blind to the circumstances of those countries. I mean, he saw what happened in Hamas with the elections there in 2006.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right.

ROBERT WORTH:

I think they were very anxious about the American invasion of Iraq in the first place. I think they would have probably preferred to have, if it were necessary in the first place to invade, to simply decapitate the regime and put a more palatable figure in charge, but not to change the system.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right. What about the Saudis? And you mentioned a little bit of concern about Wahhabism and the spread of it. But his relationship with Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. How does he think about that?

ROBERT WORTH:

You know, I think Saudi Arabia was maybe in some ways the biggest foreign concern for MBZ for many years just because it was right next door. It was so powerful, so rich. And I think the feeling, sort of, was, "We have to help the Saudis help themselves," because the leadership there was feckless. He would never say that, of course.

I think when he saw MBS come along, and he had actually even under late in the reign of King Abdullah, there had been a recognition and a feeling that they could work together. So it started then. But when he saw MBS, he thought, "Okay. This is a young guy who's got bold ideas for reform," which were patterned, I think, in large measure on the UAE and what MBZ had done.

And he said, "You know, this guy may be young, impetuous. He may have made mistakes, but he's headed in the right direction. We really need to encourage him." And he told his American counterparts, "You guys should get on board." I don't think he believed that the United States would be able to make that decision about who would be the next ruler.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right.

ROBERT WORTH:

You know, that's a decision that's made in Saudi Arabia.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right.

ROBERT WORTH:

But what he did say was, "Please get to know this guy."

MICHAEL MORELL:

So he actually has mentored MBS a bit?

ROBERT WORTH:

Yes, he has. I think the trouble there is that nobody wants to admit that for various reasons. The Saudis see themselves as the big gorilla in the region.

MICHAEL MORELL:

The big boys on the block. Yep.

ROBERT WORTH:

Right? They're in charge. Right? And even though MBZ is older than MBS, if there's a mentoring relationship, they don't want to present it that way. And the Emirates, for the same reason, doesn't want to get out of line. They're keen to present themselves as an assisting partner.

MICHAEL MORELL:

But it would certainly, I would say, be in our interest for him to be mentoring MBS. That would be actually a good thing.

ROBERT WORTH:

Exactly. Well, I certainly heard a lot of talk about that, especially after the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, who I knew personally. And I think there was a feeling of, "Who is going to do it? Who is going to coach this guy? Who is going to--" I mean, I've called--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Who's going to tell him, "You can't do this," sort of thing?

ROBERT WORTH:

Exactly. Right. I mean, if we can't get rid of him and replace him with someone else, which, after all, is a very perilous enterprise and probably beyond our powers, who is going to help him change? And a lot of people would say, "Well, the only person in a position to do that is MBZ." I'm not sure MBZ is in the position to do that, though, because especially now that MBS has been in place for a number of years, he sees himself as the main guy.

MICHAEL MORELL:

The Iranians. How does he think about the Iranians?

ROBERT WORTH:

I think as we said earlier, that Iran since '79 has been a tremendous concern for the Emiratis, a feeling that right next door, they have this radical revolutionary power. And there were times, well, for many years, I should say, they would encourage, I think somewhat irresponsibly, they would encourage the United States to be more aggressive with Iran without really adequately recognizing or understanding how dangerous that would be for them. After all, they're the first line of defense. They're right across (UNINTEL). You can practically see Iran from the UAE coastline.

And I think they've recently become more realistic about that not just because of Trump. And after all, under Obama, they felt that Obama was, kind of, throwing them out to the winds and, sort of, leaving them to Iran's mercies. But then they've seen that Trump, who they initially welcomed as someone who was going to be a tougher opponent of Iran, is actually very unpredictable.

You know, that he's made these gestures. He assassinated Qasem Soleimani. And other times, he seems to be saying, "Sort it out yourselves. I want to pull my forces out of this region. It's not my problem." And so they have now undertaken, and I think they pioneered this and the Saudis followed, a sort of quiet diplomacy with Iran in an effort to make sure that at least they are not targeted if there's a war. I mean, that may be impossible. I think and I hope they recognize that's impossible. You know, the notion that you can cut yourself out of a war is unrealistic.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Particularly when you have a U.S. military base sitting there.

ROBERT WORTH:

Exactly. Exactly. It's not going to work.

MICHAEL MORELL:

How do you think he sees Russian and Chinese attempts to gain some influence in the region?

ROBERT WORTH:

I think he sees Russia and China as important powers that he needs. He needs to balance his relationship with the United States with these guys. He sees that Russia, for years now, has worked hard to play a powerful role in Syria and elsewhere. Russia's really all over the place in the region. It wants to be a power broker.

And I think with Russia, my sense is that his principle goal is to pull Russia away from Iran. But I think he also figures than he needs to be working with them if they're involved in the region. With China, it's just a fact of their tremendous economic power in Africa, to a less extent, in the Middle East. If he doesn't get what he wants from American military suppliers, he's long been perfectly willing to deal with the Chinese. And he sees the Belt and Road Initiative as something he's got to be part of.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. You know, my sense a little bit is that his view of the Obama administration not being there for him and the Trump administration's unpredictability, he has no choice but to hedge a bit, right, and talk to the Russians and talk to the Chinese and be more engaged with them. It's just reality for him. It's real politique for him.

ROBERT WORTH:

Yeah. Absolutely. I think he's right about that.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So Robert, MBZ made a decision in 2009, around 2009 to pursue a more activist foreign policy. Why did he do that? What were the drivers?

ROBERT WORTH:

I think what really began to move him in that direction-- I mean, he had developed a much stronger military. He saw the United States, first of all, playing a less active role in the region. He thought he couldn't rely on them anymore. And then when the Arab Spring happened, I think he was very anxious about political Islamists taking advantage of that vacuum.

And he didn't think anyone else was going to play that role. There was an important meeting. I don't think I mentioned this in the story. But a meeting of the friends of Syria group I think in Istanbul and around 2012, 2013 at which there was a discussion about the Syrian rebels and who to back.

And the foreign minister, MBZ's brother Abdullah bin Zayed, said, "Look, we're getting concerned. A lot of these rebels are very, very Islamist. You know, we're going to end up repeating what happened in Afghanistan here." And the Turkish and Qatari foreign minister said, "No. No. No. No. No. We can't worry about that.

These guys are the best fighters. We've just got to back them and then when it's all done, when Asaad's out, we'll figure out the rest." And Abdullah bin Zayed, ABZ as he's known, was horrified, but also horrified that John Kerry, who was there and listening to this, did not step in. Did not say anything. And that moment was later described to me by MBZ and others as an important moment when they realized, "Wait a minute. Something's going on here. No one is recognizing how dangerous this is."

MICHAEL MORELL:

What are some of the examples of the more activist foreign policy that they've pursued?

ROBERT WORTH:

Well, first of all, they were very much involved, I think, in what happened in Egypt in 2013 when Mohamed Morsi, the Democratic elected president, was overthrown and replaced by the military and now we have Sisi who, in many ways, has been a pretty disastrous figure.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Not a bastion of dem-- he's not Thomas Jefferson.

ROBERT WORTH:

That's putting it very mild. Yes. And in many ways, has been more repressive than Mubarak was. Of course, MBZ would make the argument and it's impossible to know. What if Morsi had stayed on and had led a thorough Islamization of the state? After all, demographically and otherwise, Egypt is the anchor of the Arab world. That could potentially have been catastrophic. And that's the argument they will make. So that was, I think, the first, and in many ways, the most important intervention MBZ was involved in.

Then there was Libya where they had been involved along with NATO in 2011, but then as Libya collapsed and starting in 2013, they got more and more worried. And they eventually backed Khalifa Haftar who was a big enemy of Islamists of all stripes. And they have given all kinds of military support to him and continue to do so. And many people have criticized him heavily for that, because after all, Libya just seems to get worse and worse with the Turks backing the other side.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right. And Russians there now.

ROBERT WORTH:

The Russians are there. Many foreign powers.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right.

ROBERT WORTH:

And then, of course, the other big place where he's been involved is Yemen, where he joined the Saudi intervention, the war in Yemen starting in 2015, which has been a catastrophe for that country. I think the Emiratis recognized much, much earlier than the Saudis that this was a very bad situation and they pulled out. But it took them a little too long to do that.

They've also been involved in the Horn of Africa. The Emirates has backed militias in Somalia. And there again I think much of this has gone badly. They ended up in a kind of proxy war with Qatar, which almost everywhere backs the Islamist militias. But I should say the Emirates also played a very good diplomatic role in the (UNINTEL) between Ethiopia and (UNINTEL). So not all of their interventions are military and not all of them end up badly.

MICHAEL MORELL:

How do you think he assesses how this more activist foreign policy has gone?

ROBERT WORTH:

I think he probably sees Yemen as, if not a mistake, then something that went badly. They did try. The Emiratis tried very hard to create a political solution there. They tried to work with (UNINTEL) who was aligned with the Houthis in Yemen and they tried to end that war. They failed for complicated reasons. It's a very messy, messy place.

I think MBZ would defend it and say that what's happening now may look bad, but that's weighed against a what-if, weighed against the potential Islamization of these countries, which could, it's true, have been catastrophic. I mean, Libya, for instance, enormous supplies of weaponry and in an important place on the Mediterranean coast could have been really dangerous if it had become a theocracy.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So he has this fear, right, of a dark future for the Middle East, which is leading him to behave the way he does both at home in trying to build a modern society, almost liberal modern society, and the way he behaves from a foreign policy perspective in the region. Do you think he's ultimately optimistic about the future of the region or not?

ROBERT WORTH:

I think he is. I think he believes he's going to win. But I think he believes he has to fight hard in order to do so. And some people would say that he's fighting too hard. I mean, for instance, you mentioned he's building a liberal society at home. Well, in certain respects, yes. He's empowered women. He's very much about pluralism. You go to the Emirates and you see things you don't see in Saudi.

You see Hindu temples. You see Christian churches. All that kind of thing. But in terms of civil liberties, no way. I mean, that is a surveillance state where you really better not criticize not just the Brotherhood, but express any serious disagreement with the government. Everyone is being watched and there's just quite a bit of fear about that in the population.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So as a writer, I'm sure that some things were left on the cutting room floor in your piece. Was there anything that was taken out that you really wish would have made the cut?

ROBERT WORTH:

Well, one thing that I find interesting is the way that the embargo with Qatar developed. You know, it's a longstanding thing. It has personal elements, but I think the most important part is this deep disagreement about the role of political Islam. And so in 2013 and 2014, there were meetings between the Qatari Emir and the leaders of the other Gulf powers where very, very tough confrontational meetings.

One of them in particular that I got accounts of that I had to take out, in 2014 in which the young, new emir of Qatar was essentially surrounded in a hostile meeting in Riyadh and King Abdullah, kind of, read him the riot act and said, "You're a liar. You've got to sign this paper in which you pledge to change all of your policies," and he wouldn't do it.

And it came to a sort of standstill and then finally, MBZ, sort of, whispered to the king and then took the emir of Qatar aside and talked to him for 15 minutes in full view of everybody else in the room and managed to persuade him to sign this document. That's just one example of the intense rivalries within the Gulf that went on that maybe it was a little bit too inside for the American leaders.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. No. It's a great story. Robert, thank you so much for joining us. To the listeners, you can Google "Robert Worth New York Times" and you'll find a list of all the things that Robert has written including this piece and I would urge everybody to go read it. Robert, thank you.

ROBERT WORTH:

It's a pleasure. Thank you.

* * *END OF TRANSCRIPT* * *

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