#ScholarSpotlight with Caroline Tynan


Caroline is currently the ACLS postdoctoral fellow and research manager with the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, where she helps to document and analyze global trends in legal and physical assaults on journalists. She completed her PhD in political science in 2019 at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she also has taught several courses in international and comparative politics. She is currently working on a project documenting attacks on the media in Yemen.

In this chat with Global Policy: Next Generation, Caroline discusses her new book on Saudi interventions in Yemen, thinking through writing, and the academics who inspire her. 

What is the focus of your research?

My research examines the relationship between political transitions, national identity construction, and foreign policy, with a regional focus on the Arab world. I problematize traditional understandings of state ‘security’ as well as fixed categories of democracy and autocracy, and the essentialization of religious, sectarian, and national identities.

My recently published book, Saudi Interventions in Yemen: a historical comparison of ontological insecurity (Routledge 2020) is based on my doctoral dissertation. It argues that the Saudi government’s decision to lead a full-scale military intervention into Yemen in 2015 is an [authoritarian] regime survival strategy, in which the Saudi monarchy has constructed foreign threats in an inflexible way, due to unprecedented challenges to its legitimacy from within. In contrast, the ideological nature of [predominantly secular, revolutionary] Arab nationalist security threats in the 1960s actually made a useful foil against which the Saudi regime strategically positioned itself. The ways in which the regime dealt with Arab nationalist revolution in the region was through constructing threats as flexibly different.   At home, it balanced repression with co-optation, and abroad, mitigated its confrontation with Nasser in Yemen with appeals to Arab unity, and calls for reconciliation with its enemies—even as conflict continued.

In contrast, the monarchy didn’t know how to address the diffuse nature of threat embodied in the Arab region’s 2011 uprisings, other than upping its repression. MBS later capitalized on this regime anxiety, amplifying the strategically heightened sectarian discourse and repression the regime had shifted towards in 2011. But we are already seeing the fragility of this policy play out. Khashoggi backfired, and finally, Yemen is starting to backfire. Even if the international community’s response remains timid to the regime’s aggressive policies, the growth of Saudi opposition has only grown.

 Attaining ontological security, or a ‘stable’ sense of self, is a process at which authoritarian regimes must continuously work to maintain their rule. While some tactics lead to lengthier resilience than others, no method creates conditions for permanent rule. The two time periods are not discrete entities—a lot happens from 1970 to 2011, and I weave this in to show how the eventual deterioration of the system built up to deal with threats in the 1960s was inevitable, leading the regime to where it was in 2011, and today. 

Why is your research important to you?

My research has always been about bringing better understanding of and, awareness to fundamental challenges of human rights and human security. I think these are universal issues, and when it comes to the Arab world and Middle East, my home country, the US just has such an extensive legacy over the last several decades there. So whenever I get asked ‘Why do you study the Middle East? Or why Saudi Arabia, or why Yemen?’ I say: As an American, how could I not be interested.? There’s so many misconceptions and oversimplified, misleading or outright incorrect narratives on authoritarianism in the region, on religious and sectarian identities, which fail to explain variations in time and place, and ultimately reinforce the discursive toolkit of dictators: that authoritarianism somehow brings stability. Unfortunately, many policy decisions, such as the US intervention in Iraq in 2003, have inadvertently fueled this authoritarian playbook. “Hey look, overthrowing a dictator brought chaos and instability—maybe autocracy is for the best”. No—authoritarianism breeds instability, and the idea that wars will somehow solve these problems is of the same line of ill-informed and dangerous thinking.

I’ve always thought best through writing—it is essential to reflecting on research, and to gain better understanding. I can say definitively that I’ve learned so much about other places, other times, and in the process even, about myself. It’s my hope that my work can help others to learn as much as I have, and to help in bringing about improved understanding of one another—the cornerstone of a more peaceful world.

Which academics’ work has inspired some of your key thinking?

This will be tough to keep short, because there’s just been so many.

May Darwich’s work on ontological insecurity and the role of nonmaterial threats in shaping states’ foreign policy has been both thematically and theoretically inspirational, including, of course, her identification of a shift in Saudi ideological legitimation after 1979—to a more narrow, sectarian approach.

On authoritarian regime legitimation strategies, I build from: Johannes Gerschewski, Christian von Soest, and Dan Slater. Mazhar al-Zo’by and Birol Baskan’s article on the ‘discourse of oppositionality’ in the UAE during the Arab uprisings ended up providing a key terminology I adapted to differentiate the contemporary period in the region from the revolutionary period in the 1950s and ‘60s.  On categorizing personalist styles of rule and linking regime type to foreign policy, there was Jessica Weeks and Jeff Colgan. On Saudi Arabia specifically, some of the best work has, unsurprisingly, come from Saudi women. Madawi al-Rasheed and Mai Yamani were the two whose works I drew most inspiration.

Last but not least, Ivan Krastev. ‘The Paradoxes of the New Authoritarianism’ may have been in the background whenever I grappled with ideology. In the conclusion, I discuss some of this, and his work on protests, as it relates to the current wave of nationalism we are seeing in the world today.

My advisors Sean Yom and Samer Abboud were also so key—not only as useful sounding boards as I developed my thinking and writing, but as intellectual mentors. The initial spark to write on the Saudi intervention in Yemen came from the way Sean talked about the astounding proportion of the population involved in the 2011 revolution in Bahrain, and the agency of the Gulf states in coming together through a military intervention to maintain the status quo. Seminars and conversations with Sean cultivated in me a strong interest in the agency of Arab states—beyond a simple colonizer/colonized or victimizer/victim narrative in West/ East terms. Along these same lines, by introducing me to work on critical security studies in the Arab world, Samer and others in the ‘Beirut School’ of security studies were inspirational to problematizing traditional narratives on studying the region,.

What issues do you see your field being focused upon in the next several years?

To better understand and explain current phenomena, political science needs to continue to borrow more from sociology, psychology, and history. So much of what is happening in the Arab world requires explanations beyond the material—as important as oil has been to explaining current shifts in Gulf countries, it is not the full story. And the region is so much more than a place of continual conflicts or primordial identities—to see beyond those as inevitabilities is necessary for truly understanding what is going on.

I also think we are going to see a lot of renewed debates on how to categorize authoritarian regimes, as well as differentiating authoritarian from totalitarian regimes, in a way not seen since the end of the cold war and the introduction of this particular differentiation.

There will also be more on non-state actors, whose role is so central to politics and conflict in the Arab world. As with these other topics—authoritarianism, nationalism and foreign aggression—non-state actors’ role in challenging state authority may be something various regions and regime types can learn from the Arab world. Again, that is central to the thinking of the Beirut School of security studies—rather than continuing to apply Western-centric theories to the Arab world, studying the Arab world from within, and with those insights, having much to offer not only for Middle Eastern and ‘postcolonial’ politics, but perhaps informing broader theories with global insights. My studies of political transitions in the Arab world, for example, certainly informed my own analyses of the current era in the US, including Trump and the Republican Party, the resurgence of right-wing terrorism, and mass mobilization of peaceful demonstrations in 2020.

How does your research link to or have an impact on global policy issues?

As a study on [Saudi] foreign policy, it is intrinsically global in nature. Much of it is regionally focused on the Arab world, but, as the US and others are finally waking up to—what happens there has implications for the rest of the world, and vice versa. As most already know, there is a lengthy history of British, and later US, role as a military supporter of and political partner to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Even though Saudi Arabia’s current war in Yemen was carried out with a new level of independence, especially in terms of decision making, the US and Europe still played a pivotal role in arms support, which is why Biden’s decision to halt US support to the war was so momentous. Time will tell what the future of international military support to Gulf states will be, but I do not see it ending altogether any time soon, from the US and other Western states.

What is the one piece of advice you wish you had been given when starting your academic career?

To not second-guess so much. Earlier on, I was more hesitant to submit to conferences, always thinking I did not have an interesting enough topic, or polished enough writing. Writing is a process and it’s important to get used to writing to rewrite, to receive feedback, and to keep going no matter how challenging. We are not remaking the wheel when we write dissertations or books—just, to repeat what my friend once said, helping it to turn a little. So, maybe I could have internalized that sort of advice a bit more.

What is one must-read book/ article for scholars not in your field?

This is so hard to answer not only because there’s so many great works out there, but because I see my field as overlapping in multiple subfields, if you will.

I’d have to go with May Darwich’s article “The Ontological (In)security of Similarity Wahhabism Versus Islamism  in Saudi Foreign Policy” best conveys the two things in my field I see as crucial to understanding the relationship between authoritarian legitimation and foreign policy in the region, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

As for books—I’ll give two. For the Arab Spring: Asef Bayat’s Revolution Without Revolutionaries and for Saudi Arabia specifically: Stephane LaCroix’s Awakening Islam.