Exploring Saudi Complexity: A Conversation with Guido Steinberg

Clock Icon Feb 25, 2023
Guido Steinberg on Saudi Arabia: From historical roots to current developments. (Source: Pexels)

Guido Steinberg on Saudi Arabia: From historical roots to current developments. (Source: Pexels)

Understanding the complexities of Islamist terrorism is a daunting task, but with the right guidance, it can become much more manageable. Guido Steinberg, an expert in this field, is someone who possesses the knowledge and skills necessary to explain this subject in an understandable way.

Having started his career as an advisor on international terrorism in the German Federal Chancellery in 2002, Guido quickly established himself as a respected voice in the conversation surrounding Gulf politics, Saudi Arabian history, Islamism, Islamist terrorism and International terrorism. What sets Guido apart from others in the field is his objective, realistic, and balanced analysis.

His ability to cut through the noise and provide a clear, to-the-point perspective on this complicated matter is truly exceptional. Guido currently works at the SWP and has been serving since 2006 as an expert witness in major trials against Islamist terrorists in Europe and the US. His experience and knowledge have also led him to write many books and papers on the subject, solidifying his status as one of the foremost authorities in the field of Islamist terrorism.

- How did you first get interested in the Arab World? 

A: I always wanted to learn Arabic. In 1986, when I was at high school, I went on a school trip to Israel/Palestine. There I heard Arabic for the first time and fell in love with the language. While studying Islamic Studies and History at Cologne University, I took courses in Arabic. After that, I went to Damascus for a year to learn the language properly.  

- Until today, the Arab world remains unknown to many Germans. By that I mean culture and mentality. Do people wonder why you chose this part of the world to be an expert on?

(Laughs) The first question is often whether I am a Muslim. Some people ask whether I speak Arabic languages like Farsi. (Laughs again). In more serious encounters, people ask why I work in connection with this part of the world. My answer is always: the language and the people.

- In your Opinion, why has that not changed despite the Immigration Flow?

A: Not really. Generally speaking, way too many Germans still believe that the whole Arab world is one and the same. So not really. It is a hard sell that the Middle East is full of Christians. Look at Turkey, for example. Germany’s close relations with Turkey go back to the 1960s, when many Turks came to Germany as expatriate workers. Until recently, Germans knew very little about their history and culture, although historical relations are a lot deeper.

The Prussian military sent its first advisers to the Ottoman Army in the 1830s. Tens of thousands German soldiers were seconded to the Ottoman Army in World War I.

Still, Germans seem to have lost track of international relations before 1945. There is widespread interest in our neighbours, like France, Spain, the EU generally, as well as the US and China. Meanwhile, many people ignore how close the Arab world is to us. Many came to realise this fact in 2015, when refugees from the Arab world came to Germany in record numbers. In 2022/2023, I observe that interest in the Middle East has faded again.  

- Do People in the West understand how different Arab Societies are?

In general, I don’t see that. Many ordinary Germans still see the Arab world primarily as a source of threats, and this view is perhaps more widespread today - and more openly articulated - than a few years ago.

Even conservatives see Islam as a political ideology, and not a religion. The main reason, I believe, is a lack of intellectual curiosity. On the other side are many who do not want to see the security threats emanating from the influx of refugees from civil war countries, religious ideologies, terrorism. Germany and other European nations are increasingly divided over this matter. I think that we need a more sober but still sympathetic approach.  

- With this understanding, how is it different being an academic historian to an expert on real life terrorism? After September 11th, the German government made a serious effort to hire experts who understood what had happened and to advise on future policy. I applied for a job at the Chancellor’s office, and was hired. Although I enjoyed my years there, it wasn’t easy to switch from working in an academic environment, where research tends to be on a long-term basis with the main aim to understand. In a government setting, the aim is to understand what you need to fight your adversary. The job was prestigious and I learnt a lot that I make use of until today, but I wanted more intellectual stimulus in the long run.  

- Your first trip to Saudi Arabia was for your dissertation ‘’Religion and State in Saudi Arabia: Wahbi scholars from 1902- 1953’’ in the late Nineties and published since a lot on Saudi Arabia. How do you see Saudi Arabia today?

I found Saudi Arabia fascinating. Once the people open up, they are willing to talk a lot and teach you about them. When there, I was listening carefully to what people were telling me, observing to understand. This helped me a lot in getting a more complete picture of the people and their mentality and - as a result - their history. I have a soft spot for Central Arabia, my original field of study, that I am going back to these days.

The country has come a long way since Riyadh was still surrounded by a mud wall in the 1940s, and that is not only due to oil but also to the inhabitants of the country. Now that the post-oil-age is approaching faster than many expected, I sincerely hope that the social and economic reforms kick-started by the Saudi government will prepare the country for the next decades.  

- Among Arab Cities which is your favorite?

A: I prefer Syria over most other places. This includes Damascus, but also the immense variety of beautiful landscapes, sceneries and historical places. Lebanon comes next, although someone once told me that one can’t like Beirut and Damascus (Laughs). Saudi Arabia is a fantastic place too; Bahrain my is my favourite country in the Gulf; and Oman is probably the best travel destination in the area.

These countries are physically attractive and historically rich. Their

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