On March 23, 2018, Al Jazeera Arabic’s program Min Washington, a weekly current affairs show hosted by Dr. Abderrahim Foukara, interviewed National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Founding President and CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony.
The focus of the interview was on Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. The Crown Prince is currently visiting the United States.
Following is a transcript of the interview. Included at the end is an additional question asked and answered that did not make it into the program’s final cut. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Min Washington: Founding President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Dr. John Duke Anthony has followed developments in the Arab region closely for decades. This includes Saudi Arabia.
Dr. Anthony, how do you assess the visit of the Crown Prince to the United States and its timing?
Dr. Anthony: What Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince is doing is what he has not yet done extensively beyond his meetings with U.S. officials in Washington, D.C., and various private sector leaders in New York City.
In this instance, he is spending time in those two cities again but with additional groups and individuals in both places and, also, in other locations such as Boston, Houston, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley in California.
He is doing this for two broad strategic reasons.
One stems from his awareness that he is largely unknown to large and significant sectors among the American people.
The other is his wanting to build on the meetings he had last year with President Trump and members of his staff – here as well as in Riyadh.
The close strategic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been vital for the security and prosperity of both countries as well as for regional peace and stability.
This historical relationship has never been more important than it is today, mainly for two intertwined reasons: the change in the complex security landscape of the Middle East and the change within Saudi Arabia.
President Trump’s administration came into office during an unprecedented tumultuous time in the history of the Middle East. The system of the modern nation state is crumbling, states are falling apart, and armed non-state actors are proliferating.
In the face of all this, the Trump administration inherited a Middle East foreign policy quagmire, in which the US plays the slightest role in influencing the events in the region. Due to vital US interests in the region, President Trump embarked on a Middle East foreign policy overhaul to put “America first” on this front.
The major themes of President Trump’s Middle East policy are eradicating terrorism, confronting the danger from Iran, and revitalizing partnerships with stable regional partners. Saudi Arabia appears to be the most reliable and suitable partner for implementing this policy. In addition to being a long-standing traditional partner, Saudi Arabia shares the US concerns on the threat posed by Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud begins a visit to the United States today. He is reported to be planning stops in several cities, including Washington, D.C., New York, Boston, Houston, Seattle, and San Francisco. The occasion will mark his second official visit to the United States since Donald Trump assumed the U.S. Presidency and Mohammed bin Salman’s first official visit since assuming the post of Crown Prince in June 2017.
Roots of the Relationship
In considering the modern U.S.-Saudi Arabian strategic partnership, reference is often made to a meeting the Crown Prince’s grandfather, King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, had with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 14, 1945. That historic visit had the two heads of state sitting and exchanging views with one another aboard the U.S. Navy’s U.S.S. Quincy in the Great and Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal. Academics, scholars, media specialists, policymakers, and foreign affairs specialists of all stripes have ever since referred to that visit as “historic.”
Yes, that visit was historic in the sense that it occurred on a certain date in time. Except for the fact that those two outsized heads of state met each other for the first and only time then and there, however, the encounter was far less “historic” in the usual sense of the term than countless commentators have since made it out to be. To be sure, a myth about what transpired at that meeting is deeply embedded in the literature and lore of the American and Saudi Arabian peoples.
The truth, however, is that the so-called Saudi Arabian-American love affair dates not from the meeting between the U.S. President and the Saudi Arabian King in 1945. Neither does it stem from the discovery earlier by American engineers, aided by skilled Saudi Arabian Bedouin guides, of a Kingdom-based petroleum bonanza in 1938 the likes of which the world had never seen before and has not seen since.
Rather, the roots of the special relationship date from decades before – from 1917 onwards. The seeds of the extraordinary one-of-a-kind international special strategic partnership of the American-Saudi Arabian alliance that has lasted to this day were laid then by others. None among them were officials of either country’s modern government.
“After 37 years, it would be a shame if all of our efforts and what we have achieved were to come to an end.”
In his opening remarks to the assembled throng, Kuwait’s Amir, HH Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, spoke from his heart. He did so to a hushed gathering of his peers representing the six member-countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), at the organization’s recent 38th Ministerial and Heads of State Summit.
Had there been a more solid substance than the carpet beneath their feet, one could have heard a pin drop. The muted tones were not merely out of respect for one of the organization’s two longest-serving leaders (the other being HM Sultan Qaboos of Oman). They were also a reflection of the serious juncture at which the summiteers were gathering. For the past six months, the organization has been witness to a crisis the likes of which the six-country grouping has never before experienced between and among the members. In addition, it has also been beset with an unprecedented and extraordinary array of exceptionally difficult issues. The effort to manage and deal effectively with such issues would strain the statecraft skills of any diplomat or foreign policy decision maker.
Yet, despite the moment’s need for context, perspective, and detached analysis, perhaps no previous summit has been as misreported as this one. The phenomenon was apparent from even before it was announced that invitations for the summit had been sent.
Keynote speech by HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal delivered at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ 26th Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference on October 19, 2017, in Washington, D.C.
The Middle East today is in a state of turmoil as never before. I will limit my talk to issues causing disorder and anarchy and on my hopes for a peaceful, secure, and stable region.
Looking into today’s prevailing conditions and state of affairs in the Middle East, particularly, the Arab region, we find no credible signs that call for much optimism: strategically, it is vulnerable on all fronts and is widely exposed to all possibilities. This strategic vulnerability is as old as the establishment of the nation-state order following World War I. However, catastrophic events during the past decades such as the recurring Arab-Israeli wars and conflicts, the Lebanese civil war, the Iraq-Iran prolonged war, the invasion of Kuwait, the invasion of Iraq, and constant foreign interventions have contributed greatly to this vulnerability. Coupled with this is the failure of many of our states in facing the shared and constantly looming threats to our existence and to our people. Poor social, economic, educational, and cultural policies, and the selfishness that characterized some Arab leaders’ foreign and domestic policies for decades are causes of this mess.
All of what we witness nowadays unfolding and that was exposed by what is called the “Arab Spring” is but an indictment of these policies and natural results of it. In Iraq it has led it to becoming a failed state with a collapsing society; the cause of Syria’s free falling into a swamp of blood, destruction, desolation, terrorism, conspiracies and foreign interventions; the cause of the sinking of Yemen into an inferno of conflict and civil war; the cause of the failure of the Libyan state; the unrest in other Arab countries; the cause of the spread of the transnational phenomenon of terrorism within many of our states; the cause of the spread of armed militias that are not under the control of nation states; and the spread of appalling sectarianism and other negative development. All that is a condensed representation of our deplorable state of affairs.
Our unenviable present was the future of our recent past, and the way we deal with our present is the future awaiting us. It is imperative that we must consciously learn from the pitfalls of the past. We must plan our future wisely and be alert at all times if we want to avoid a catastrophic future. We must courageously face the challenges that threaten our existence and attain a visionary approach to the future, if we wish to attain a decent place on the world stage.
On June 20, 2017, many Americans shut down their computers. Others turned off their televisions. Still more set down their mobile phones for the night.
Few could have imagined the next morning’s news. Fewer still would have predicted a new Arab political reality. It occurred in the heart of the Arab countries, the Middle East, and the Islamic world.
On June 21, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud issued a royal order. He made two epochal pronouncements. One announced that HRH Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud would be stepping down from his extraordinarily rich and productive career as one of the most effective public servants related to domestic security in the country’s history. The king relieved him from his posts of Crown Prince and Minister of Interior. The other stipulated that his much younger cousin, HRH Prince Mohammed Bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, would become Crown Prince.
The order noted that the change was agreed to by 31 of the 34 members of the Allegiance Council. This Council is a body of senior members of Saudi Arabia’s Royal Family. It was established in 2006. The Council’s purpose: to secure the peaceful and successful transition of governance. The king’s pronouncement indicated that there were three dissenting votes. Reports have stated that one was cast by Prince Mohammed Bin Salman himself. One could speculate that the reason was in keeping with cultural norms. Two particular norms are that one not call attention to one’s self and also the norm in one’s personal conduct of always manifesting respect for elders. If so, it would also have religious connotations. One in particular would be acknowledging a powerful hadith. Paraphrased, it stipulates the following: “Almighty God, please show me a thousand ways not to say, ‘I.'” Another could have been wanting the vote tally not to appear as similar to those that periodically transpire in other countries.
As a candidate for the Oval Office, Donald Trump was not shy about criticizing Saudi Arabia. Contexts change, though, and as President his administration has refrained from unjustified, unnecessary, and provocative statements in this regard.
Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam and home to the faith’s two holiest places, is a country that is vital to America’s national interests and strategic concerns. It has been one of the foremost U.S. national security partners for the past eight decades – longer than any other developing nation.
If America is to be “great again,” it can and must be greater in very particular ways. One of which is to be far greater than derogatory and antagonistic rhetoric toward a country central to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, who represent nearly a quarter of humanity.
By selecting Saudi Arabia as the first stop on his historic visit, the first official one to any foreign country, President Trump has been prudent to seize an opportunity to turn a new and more positive page towards Arabs and Muslims in the region and beyond. The President’s visit has a chance to begin healing wounds that have been inflicted on Muslims the world over.
A Historic Visit
Selecting Saudi Arabia as the first stop on this historic visit – when the American President could easily and without controversy have selected any one among numerous other countries – sends a strong message to the Arab countries, the Middle East, and the Islamic world.
The announcement of his visit to the country has already had a powerfully uplifting and relevant symbolic effect. Its impact has been greatest on the Kingdom and its neighbors.
Peoples of this region include large numbers that have longed for this kind of American leadership for quite some time. The visit speaks volumes as to how vital these countries are to the United States. It underscores their critical importance to America’s friends, allies, and the rest of the world.
The last ten days were dramatic and, potentially in their own way, historic. The occasion was a visit to the United States by the Saudi Arabian Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense, HRH Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The setting was at once stirring as was the atmosphere laced with a degree of uncertainly given some of the perceived, media-fed strains in the U.S.-Saudi Arabian relationship over the past several years.
Not least among the reasons the visit was so portentous are the following:
First, only days before the Deputy Crown Prince’s arrival the Trump administration had slapped punitive sanctions on half-a-dozen Muslim-majority countries, of which all but Iran are Arab nations.
Second, the visit came on the heels of ongoing uncertainties over the implications of significantly plummeted international oil prices since 2014. What each side will do about this sea change in the price of the strategic commodity that drives the engines of the world’s economies remains to be seen. One of the key dimensions of the likely near-term outcome turns for a greater extent than ever before on discussions between the Arab-led OPEC nations, on one hand, and key non-OPEC countries such as the United States and Russia, on the other.
Third, the Kingdom’s and America’s leaders convened at a moment when the growing encirclement of ISIS in Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, is fraught with an uncertain finale. More open to question is what will likely follow the eventual routing of one of the most lethal and debilitating scourges to have dominated parts of the Arab landscape in history.
Similar uncertainty underpins any sound analysis and assessment of the near term future of Syria. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, among the foreign forces that have tipped the balance in favor of the Assad regime in Damascus, are undoubtedly riding high at the moment. It remains to be seen, however, what the fate and future will be of the remaining opposition groups, including, in particular, the separatists, or at a minimum pro-autonomy, Kurdish forces in the country’s northeast.
Fourth, the nature, content, and extent of U.S.-Saudi Arabia cooperation in counter-terrorism going forward has, understandably, remained high in the national strategic imperatives of both countries’ needs, concerns, and interests.
Fifth, the two countries remain, for better or worse, locked in an inevitable strategic, national security, and defense cooperation-related relationship of the upmost importance as it pertains to Yemen. This is despite the growing anti-American involvement sentiment regarding this campaign in the media, so-called think tanks, and in rising numbers of members of Congress. Many of those favor, at most, a halt to further U.S. arms exports to the Kingdom, and, at minimum, a cessation of deliveries of munitions and ordnance designated for the two year old multinational coalition campaign to restore the legitimate government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Americans need to know there will be no slackening in this component of the two countries defense relationship. Indeed, there will be likely no slackening in the two countries determination to ensure that the conflict in Yemen, aided and abetted by Iran, does not further threaten the security and stability of the Kingdom. Nor will there be any willingness to further enhance Iran’s Shia-centric objective of expanding Tehran’s appeal to and influence over the region’s Shia Muslim people beyond that which it has already achieved.
Finally, the visit should help to put to rest the unseemly innuendo of the past year in which there were reports that President Barack Obama considered, if not Saudi Arabia itself, then those in its camp “free riders.” In reality, a persuasive argument could be made that the reverse is the case.
For the later perspective, consider those American livelihoods that turn directly on Saudi Arabia’s tens of billions of dollars of purchases of American goods and services. The tens of thousands of full-paying Saudi Arabian students at American universities. The tens of thousands of Americans whose livelihoods are derived from living and working in the Kingdom, versus no comparable number of Saudi Arabians taking money out of the United States. This is in addition to the Kingdom’s rock-solid support, against all competitors, for ongoing reliance upon the American dollar as the instrument of exchange in all of its international economic and financial transactions. The benefits of that alone have aided mightily in the ongoing preeminence of the American monetary banking system worldwide.
These are but a few of the bountiful and poorly-understood American benefits that derive from the eighty-year old, unapologetically special relationship between our two peoples. As Fahad Nazer’s insightful essay thoughtfully illustrates, one ought not to count on any near- or long-term jettisoning of the reciprocal rewards that remain embedded in these extraordinary special ties that remain the envy of practically every other nation in the world.
Dr. John Duke Anthony Founding President and CEO National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Washington, DC
Over a quarter-century ago, the United States and Saudi Arabia fought side by side in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. They did so to reverse Iraq’s August 1990 aggression against Kuwait. Afterwards, as to whether the United States and Saudi Arabia were friends, both answered “yes” unequivocally.
If the first two months of Donald Trump’s presidency are any indication, bilateral ties might return to their “Kuwait Crisis” heyday. That was when both countries’ officials routinely characterized them as “special.”
Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense, HRH Prince Mohammed bin Salman, visited Washington. Accompanied by foreign affairs and defense policy advisers, Prince Mohammed met with President Trump at the White House on March 14 and with U.S. Secretary of Defense General (Ret.) Jim Mattis at the Pentagon on March 16. The visit’s timing and the meetings themselves, as well as the statements issued by the American and Saudi Arabian participants, suggest that both countries’ leaders agree on a wide array of political and economic issues and policies. This bodes well for their future relations. To the envy of many, these ties have endured for the past eight decades. What is more, they have broadened and strengthened on many levels.
The timing of the visit – less than two months after President Trump’s inauguration – was at once indicative and propitious. To critics, it was too soon. To others, it emphasized yet again the importance that the two countries accord their relations. It highlighted the keenness of both countries’ leaders to establish good personal relations early in the Trump administration.
Dr. Harb took issue with President-elect Trump’s allegations that Syria has no strategic significance for the United States. Beyond the numerous rationales to the contrary that Dr. Harb so effectively provided – his line of reasoning is powerful and persuasive – the following are further considerations.
Taken individually, these phenomena do not equal the force of the zeroed-in strategic perspective that is a feature of Dr. Harb’s essay. Considered collectively, however, it would be hard to argue that, beyond the immediate and dire humanitarian issues that cry out for an effective rescue and relief response, Syria, for so many additional reasons, is not of immense strategic importance.
The classical and modern day country that is, or at least was, Syria – which for the longest time was one of the world’s richest open-air museums and which brims with archaeological treasures – remains at once immense and diverse. Buried in its lands are the relics and remains of those who paved the way before modern peoplehood came to be and whom those with ancestries rooted in the so-called West are the descendants of, including the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Elamites, Nestorian Chaldeans, Greeks, Romans, and many, many more.
In my sixteen visits to Syria in the 1980s and 1990s, one curator of its treasures after another declared that, of the nearly 450 archaeological sites in the country, the number that had been opened was only forty. When the dust of the rebels’ defeat subsides and a sense of normalcy returns to the country, it would seem fair to ask what, therefore, awaits humanity in the gems of insight into human history and heritage that lie beneath Syria’s lands?
With the devastation visited upon Syria these past five years still unfolding, the ensuing losses to knowledge echo the tragically near identical earlier and continuing ones tossed to the winds next door. Indeed, they bear an indelible footprint from the ongoing American-induced chaos – in Rafidain, or historical Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers – in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.
In one of the first acts accompanying America’s trampling of Iraq’s sovereignty and ending its political independence in 2003, U.S. soldiers, ordered to seize control of the Ministry of Petroleum, sped past the country’s unsurpassed historical museum. In so doing, to the delight of vandals, they left not only the museum, but also the priceless remains of numerous other Iraqi archaeological sites, together with numerous weapons depots, unguarded.
The world’s immediate and lasting response was massive and pervasive disbelief. As if in one voice, many asked: “How could such a powerful America be so mindless of the moral and humanistic obligation to protect one of the world’s richest storehouses of knowledge and understanding related to humankind’s destinies and its earliest achievements and limitations since time immemorial?”
The results of the U.S. Presidential Election last month confounded most American political pundits and many professional pollsters. Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton also surprised many observers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (the GCC is comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates). Almost immediately after the result was announced, though, it became clear that leaders from the region were ready to embrace the new President-elect and prepared to quickly adjust to the new political reality.
Within hours, GCC officials congratulated President-elect Trump. They expressed a desire to strengthen the decades-old partnerships between their respective countries and the United States. According to at least one Saudi Arabian news outlet, President-elect Trump conveyed a similar sentiment to King Salman. The two reportedly spoke by telephone within hours of the election results. Each side appears to be fully aware of what lies ahead. All appreciate how difficult it will be to overcome the unprecedented political violence and insidious sectarianism that has convulsed seven of the 22 Arab countries in recent years.
Numerous observers in the GCC countries have expressed hope that President-elect Trump’s administration will adopt a proactive approach to the turmoil in the region. Others are particularly eager to ascertain what, if anything, he may do differently than the Obama administration regarding the threat posed by militant groups like the so-called Islamic State. Just as importantly, there is anticipation that the new President will take seriously the GCC’s deep concerns about Iran’s policies in the Arab world.
The reference to the latter concern is especially Tehran’s support of militant non-state actors like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen as well as what further assistance it may extend to the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. It is difficult, of course, at this early stage to ascertain the contours of what may, at some point, become known as the “Trump Doctrine.” Even so, important lessons can be drawn from history.