Arabia to Asia: The Myths of an American “Pivot” and Whether or Not There’s a U.S. Strategy Toward the GCC Region

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That the foreign policies of various governments often appear to be confusing or contradictory is because they frequently are. During Barack Obama’s presidency, such inconsistency has seemed to characterize aspects of America’s relations with the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The ambiguity and uncertainty that accompanies it is among the things that Obama has sought to dispel and clarify in the course successively of his March 2014 visit to Saudi Arabia, his May 2015 summit at Camp David with senior leaders of all six GCC countries, and his mid-April 2016 attendance at a similar meeting with leaders of the same countries. As this essay seeks to demonstrate, what he has had to contend with – and what others of late have had to contend with regarding aspects of his administration — in terms of background, context, and perspective has not been easy of resolution, amelioration, or even abatement.

Assumptions, Ambitions, and Abilities

Dating from before and since these high-level GCC-U.S. meetings, Washington has taken steps to strengthen and extend America’s overall position and influence in the GCC region. A principal means for doing so has been through the GCC-U.S. Strategic Dialogue.[1] But one example among several was when former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, came with approvals for billions of dollars in sales of U.S.-manufactured defense and security structures, systems, technology, and arms to GCC countries, together with long-term munitions and maintenance contracts.

President Barack Obama attends a U.S.-GCC summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in April 2016. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

President Barack Obama attends a U.S.-GCC summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in April 2016. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

Yet, simultaneously, signals from Washington and the mainstream U.S. media before and since Obama’s meetings with his GCC counterparts have not always been as clear as the signalers thought would or should be the case. That said, what specialists have had no doubt about for some time is that the Obama administration is recalibrating the strategic focus of its international priorities in hopes of being able to accomplish two objectives at the same time. One objective has been, and continues to be, a steadfast resolve to remain committed to the security, stability, and prospects for prosperity in the GCC region. The other has been and remains a parallel determination to emphasize the Asia-Pacific regions.

Affecting the need for such a recalibration have been major U.S. budget reductions and their impact on strategic concepts, forces, and operational dynamics. At issue and under examination in this regard, according to the Secretary of Defense in advance of the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), are, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, America’s assumptions, ambitions, and abilities.

Understandably, the GCC region’s reaction to these trends and indications was and continues to be mixed.

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President Obama’s Meeting with GCC Leaders in Saudi Arabia: An Opportunity for Heightened Cooperation

This week President Obama will travel to Riyadh to meet with King Salman of Saudi Arabia. The next day he is scheduled to meet with leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

According to a White House Press Briefing, these meetings will be broken into three sessions – one on regional stability, one on defeating ISIL and al-Qaeda and counterterrorism cooperation, and one on Iran and efforts to prevent the Islamic Republic’s destabilizing actions across the region.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Sa’ud and President Barack Obama during the king’s September 2015 visit to Washington. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

The day before the meeting of the two heads of state, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is expected to meet with Saudi Arabian and GCC nation defense officials. According to U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, that meeting will focus on “enhancing GCC capability, interoperability and how to confront asymmetrical threats.” Mr. Rhodes also expects that the U.S. Defense Secretary “will have specific conversations about how to enhance certain defense capabilities across the Gulf.” Whether this might advance further consideration of a reported pan-GCC missile defense system in which several GCC members have expressed an interest and willingness to purchase – and which the American aerospace and defense manufacturing sectors remain prepared to sell, though there are reports that the Israel lobby and a leading American think tank are allegedly opposed – remains unclear.

Sticks and Stones

President Obama’s visit comes at a propitious moment. It will take place at a time when aspects of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia and GCC countries are being vilified. U.S. domestic political campaign rhetoric, legislation contemplated by the U.S. Congress, the media, and special interests are seemingly opposed to strengthening and expanding America’s strategic, economic, national security, and related interests with and in Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries. In addition, the visit comes on the heels of President Obama’s comments in a recent article in The Atlantic in which he was characterized as portraying various Arab and GCC allies as “free riders” and thinking that Saudi Arabia needs to “share” the neighborhood with Iran. If the quoted remarks accurately depict the President’s views, the implication is inescapable: namely, such comments from a sitting U.S. President can only cause America’s longstanding GCC allies to wonder how the U.S. head of state really analyzes and assesses their value as strategic partners and American allies in what is arguably the world’s most vital region.

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Fostering U.S.-GCC Trade, Economic Cooperation, and Investment Opportunities

On April 13, 2016, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, the Middle East Council of American Chambers of Commerce, Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the U.S.-GCC Corporate Cooperation Committee hosted a public affairs briefing on Fostering U.S.-GCC Trade, Economic Cooperation, and Investment Opportunities in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC.

Featured specialists included Mr. H. Delano Roosevelt, Chairman, Middle East Council of American Chambers of Commerce, Member, Board of Directors, National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, Director of New Business Development, Reza Investment Group; Ms. Nahlah Al-Jubeir, Director, Center for Career Development, Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, Senior International Affairs Fellow, National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations; Mr. Khush Choksy, Senior Vice President for Middle East and Turkey Affairs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Mr. Christopher Johnson, Attorney based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Chairman, KKR Saudi Limited; Ms. Randa Fahmy, President, Fahmy Hudome International, Treasurer, Board of Directors, National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, Former Associate Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of Energy; and Mr. Mike Jones, Founding President, Capitol Capital Group, LLC. Dr. John Duke Anthony, Founding President and CEO, National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, and Member, U.S. Department of State Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy and Subcommittee on Sanctions, served as moderator and facilitator.

A video recording and a podcast of the program are available below. The podcast can also be found in iTunes along with recordings of other National Council programs: http://bit.ly/itunes-ncusar.

“Fostering U.S.-GCC Trade, Economic Cooperation, and Investment Opportunities” podcast (.mp3)

2016 Rocky Mountain Model Arab League Pictures

The National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ 2016 Rocky Mountain Model Arab League was held March 4-6 in Denver, Colorado.

Some pictures from the conference are available below.

Click ‘Continue Reading’ to view the full gallery.

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Answering President Obama’s “Free Riders” Allegations

In yesterday’s Arab News and Alsharq Al-Awsat, HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal defended the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against some of U.S. President Barack Obama’s disparaging comments quoted in the recent Atlantic article, “The Obama Doctrine.”

In the article, President Obama declared that “free riders” – that is, other countries, which by clear implication he included Saudi Arabia and an unspecified number of additional Arab allies – “aggravate me.” Obama stressed that he wants such countries to take action for themselves, rather than wait for the United States to lead.

As Prince Turki points out – but which the article overlooks, ignores, or downplays – this is exactly what Riyadh has done. In keeping with American intelligence and targeting assistance that the president himself authorized, Saudi Arabia has responded to the threat represented by Iran-backed insurgent rebels along the kingdom’s southern border. The kingdom has also been the sole country thus far to contribute to the New York-based United Nations Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force – to the tune of $100 million.

In addition, the kingdom has initiated the formation of a multi-country coalition numbering nearly two dozen Arab and Islamic countries designed specifically to fight terrorism and terrorists wherever they appear, including within Saudi Arabia itself. Further, not mentioned are the steps Riyadh has recently taken alongside the armed forces representatives of more than two dozen other Arab and other Islamic allied countries. For the second year in succession, the representatives witnessed the kingdom’s mobilization and deployment of more than 130,000 of its armed services personnel. This demonstrates precisely the kinds of defense capabilities that Washington officialdom has long stated it wishes to see manifested by and within the kingdom and other GCC countries.

HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal speaking at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference.

What Prince Turki did not point out but other prominent Saudi Arabians have is how Obama administration officials, in contrast to the president’s recent remarks, have repeatedly commended Saudi Arabia in ways other than those noted. They have done so in regard to the kingdom’s creative approach to doing what it can to end the scourge of extremist violence within and beyond its borders.

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Summer 2016 Intensive Arabic Language Study Abroad Opportunities

Summer Intensive Language Program at The Arab-American Language Institute in Morocco

The National Council, in collaboration with The Arab-American Language Institute in Morocco (AALIM) for the summer of 2016, is pleased to announce a Summer Language Program in the Kingdom of Morocco. Students will spend six weeks in historic Meknes, Morocco taking part in intensive Arabic language instruction. Students at all levels of Arabic proficiency are encouraged to apply. The AALIM center is a host to a community of Arabic learners throughout the summer, providing for a fully immersive program. Those selected will also gain direct personal expertise in Moroccan culture, history, and society through a variety of day excursions, local outings, workshops, and demonstrations.

For more information, visit: http://ncusar.org/study-abroad/aalim

2016 AALIM Application (.pdf)

Students should submit completed applications to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. Applications are due by April 10, 2016.


Summer Institute for Intensive Arabic Language and Culture at the Lebanese American University

The Summer Institute for Intensive Arabic Language and Culture (SINARC) is a multi-faceted language and cultural immersion program that welcomes students from all over the world at the Lebanese American University (Beirut Campus). In business for over 17 years, SINARC has quickly become a top choice for Arabic language learners looking to not only improve their language skills but also to gain a true understanding of the cultural and social dynamics in the region. SINARC offers courses in Arabic language and culture at various levels of proficiency. Formal language instruction is enriched by immersion in an authentic cultural context. Cultural activities include weekly lectures on topics related to Arab and Lebanese politics, history, society, and culture. In addition, students partake in a series of excursions to historical, cultural and tourist sites throughout Lebanon.

For more information, visit: http://ncusar.org/study-abroad/lau

2016 LAU Application (.pdf)

Students should submit completed applications to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations; students will be admitted on a rolling basis.


Intensive Arabic Language Programs at the Center for International Learning in Oman

The National Council is pleased to offer students an opportunity for intensive Arabic language study with our partner organization in Muscat, Oman, the Center for International Learning (CIL). Comprised of Americans and Omanis with PhD and Masters Degrees, the CIL faculty facilitates experiential education, cultural exchange, and comparative studies to deepen understanding, promote common interests, and explore the shared aspirations of people from different cultures. CIL offers all three levels of Modern Standard Arabic (beginner, intermediate, and advanced), as well as Omani dialect, media Arabic, and skills classes.

For more information, visit: http://ncusar.org/study-abroad/cil-oman


For more information:

If you have questions or need more information about any of the National Council’s summer language programs you can contact Kaylee Boalt, Director of Student Programs (kaylee(at)ncusar.org).

Dr. Khalid J. Al-Jaber Joins NCUSAR as Fellow

NATIONAL COUNCIL ON U.S.-ARAB RELATIONS WELCOMES DR. KHALID J. AL-JABER AS DISTINGUISHED INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS FELLOW

Al-Jaber Joins Collective of National Council Scholars Contributing Analysis on the Arab World and U.S.-Arab Relations

Washington, DC: The National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations [ncusar.org], founded in 1983, is pleased to announce that Dr. Khalid J. Al-Jaber has been named a National Council Distinguished International Affairs Fellow.

In announcing the appointment, National Council Founding President and CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony said, “We are delighted to welcome Dr. Al-Jaber to this important position. His extensive experience as a journalist in Qatar and thoughtful and incisive academic scholarship on media in the Arab world, particularly in the Gulf, is necessary to the understanding of mass communication, public diplomacy, and news in and on the region. Dr. Al-Jaber will be a vital resource as the Council works to strengthen and expand its publications and bridge-building efforts.”

Al-Jaber is Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English language daily newspaper. Previously, he served as Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Al Sharq (“The East”), the sister Arabic daily of The Peninsula. In addition, he is Principal at Global Media Consultants in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

Among his additional responsibilities, Dr. Al-Jaber is Assistant Professor of Political Communication in the Gulf Studies Program (GSP) at Qatar University. The GSP, established and led by Dr. Abdullah Baabood in conjunction with College of Arts and Sciences Dean Dr. Eiman Mustafawi and University President Dr. Hassan Rashid Al-Derham, and for which Dr. Anthony serves as a member of its advisory board, is in the process of becoming the world’s foremost center for Gulf studies. It is also the GCC region’s first accredited university program for Gulf studies offering Master’s and Ph.D. degrees.

Al-Jaber’s scholarship has appeared in academic and professional journals such as International Communication Gazette and the World Press Encyclopedia. He holds an M.A. in journalism from the University of Florida, USA, and a Ph.D. in political communication from the University of Leicester, UK. He has also conducted postgraduate studies at Fordham, Stanford, and Georgetown Universities.

About the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations: Founded in 1983 and based in Washington, DC, the National Council is an American non-profit, non-governmental, educational organization dedicated to improving American knowledge and understanding of the Arab world. Information about the Council’s program, projects, events, and activities can be found at ncusar.org.

The Founding of the Gulf Cooperation Council: A Retrospective and Diplomatic Memoir

What follows is an edited transcript of recent discussions between His Excellency Abdulla Y. Bishara, Founding Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and Dr. John Duke Anthony, National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Founding President and CEO as well as Founding Secretary of the U.S.-GCC Corporate Cooperation Committee.

H.E. Abdulla Bishara was not only the first leader of the GCC, but is also the longest-serving leader in the organization’s history. He was elected to four consecutive three-year terms from 1981 to 1993. Bishara was previously Ambassador of Kuwait to the United Nations from 1971 to 1981 and, prior to that, Director of the Office of Kuwait’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

H.E. Bishara and Dr. Anthony’s friendship dates from the GCC’s May 1981 founding in Abu Dhabi. Dr. Anthony was one of the official guests present for the occasion, and since then has been invited to every GCC Annual Ministerial and Heads of State Summit. The two reconnected several times recently, first in Doha, where Bishara was the keynote speaker at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies’ Second Annual Gulf Studies Forum. Dr. Anthony also participated in the forum in addition to holding meetings with Qatar University officials, including Dr. Abdullah Baabood, Director of the University’s Gulf Studies Program, on whose Advisory Board Dr. Anthony serves. They met again a few days later in Riyadh, where they were among the invited guests for the GCC’s 36th Annual Heads of State Summit.

H.E. Abdulla Y. Bishara, Founding Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the organization’s longest and highest-ranking official to serve in that position for a record of four elected three-year terms, with National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Founding President and CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony at the GCC’s 36th Annual Summit, December 10-11, 2015 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo: National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.

The transcript includes discussions between H.E. Bishara and Dr. Anthony regarding the GCC’s founding. An earlier report on this topic centered on how the founders envisioned emulating the European Union in matters regarding economic cooperation and integration. That report was offered in conjunction with analyses and assessments by incumbent GCC Secretary General Dr. Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al Zayani in a seminar sponsored by the National Council and the Council’s U.S.-GCC Corporate Cooperation Committee. Both reports venture behind the headlines. In places, they contest what are often mistakenly unchallenged views of the circumstances surrounding the establishment of the GCC.

This transcript does the same by providing hard-to-come-by information, insights, knowledge, and understanding regarding the geostrategic and geopolitical conditions of the time. Readers will also find material that bears on the GCC countries’ contemporary concerns, namely terrorism, regional security, and, by extension and implication, the ongoing issues and challenges represented by Iran and Iraq. As such, the transcript provides context and perspective on the current array of issues and challenges confronting the GCC’s decision makers as they face an uncertain future.

The account is composed in the format of questions from Dr. Anthony and responses from H.E. Bishara.

The Impetus for the GCC’s Founding

Q: Were you to address Americans and others who were not present when the GCC was founded in Abu Dhabi in May 1981, what would you have them recall as to the situation prevailing then that served to bring the GCC into being?

Death and destruction were at our doorstep. We were aghast at the nature and extent of the challenges we faced. Iran and Iraq were at each other’s throats, and each had populations as large or larger than ours combined.

A: Regardless of the fact that the GCC would likely have been established at some point, it was Iran’s and Iraq’s resort to armed conflict that provided the immediate geostrategic and geopolitical context and also the pretext for the GCC’s establishment, indeed its necessity. We were under a cloud. Death and destruction were at our doorstep. We were aghast at the nature and extent of the challenges we faced. (Would that the threatening issues in play then were not still in some ways present.) Iran and Iraq were at each other’s throats, and each had populations as large or larger than ours combined.

Q: Was it just the enormous demographic asymmetry that was such a cause for concern?

A: It was that and the fact that each had armed forces that were larger, better equipped, and more experienced than all six of ours. Given their and our respective capacities at the time, it was also that their swords were drawn and were being used; in contrast, ours, impressive as they were in the eyes of some, were still sheathed. As such, the imbalance was precarious.

Q: But as the two were fighting only each other, and neither Iran nor Iraq appeared ready to attack any of the GCC’s founding members, how did this affect the situation?

A: One had little choice but to assume the worst. Not to prepare for what sooner or later would likely be coming toward us was hardly an option.

[LEFT] H.E. Abdulla Y. Bishara; [MIDDLE] HH Shaikh Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs (1970 to 2005) and present Deputy Prime Minister; and [RIGHT] H.E. Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, Oman’s Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs, at the 10th GCC Summit in Muscat, Oman, in 1989. Photo: Dr. John Duke Anthony.

Q: What made this seem so certain?

A: Baghdad and Tehran alike were reeling in anger at what we had done. In ways that were similar yet different, each was fuming at what most analysts, in retrospect, seem to have forgotten or overlooked. Both were irate that we had, in their eyes, stolen a march on them. Here were the GCC’s six founders forging a degree of unprecedented unity of purpose among the region’s eight countries.

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