The Gulf Cooperation Council in the Rear View Mirror and the Front Windshield: Navigating the Shoals of Regional Uncertainties

In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 9 December 2018 will witness the 39th summit gathering of an institution without peer. This writer, who is here in the Kingdom’s capital, is scheduled to be present as The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, presides over the 39th Meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s Supreme Council, a grouping of Arab rulers and/or their chief representatives.

The GCC was founded in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi in May 1981 at a summit, which it was my privilege also to attend, by the sovereigns of the half dozen countries that line the entire length of the western coast of the Gulf. All six are adjacent to the Islamic Republic of Iran, their maritime neighbor. The GCC’s six member-states are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

A Grouping of Strategically Vital States

Among the world’s 130 emerging and former foreign dominated countries, no other grouping of governments can be reckoned to be as powerful and influential as the GCC. The reason? Collectively, they control thirty percent of the planet’s proven reserves of oil, the vital strategic commodity on which the world’s economies rely.

It is of course true that America’s supplies of shale oil in the past several years have made an enormous difference in global energy production. Indeed, their discovery and accelerated output have catapulted the United States to the position of the world’s largest oil producer. Even so, America has long been the earth’s largest user, greatest importer, and most prominent waster of oil and gas.

There’s a compelling reason for the first two of these observations. Without hydrocarbon fuels, the standard of living, material wellbeing, and the overall level of comfort of every person in the United States would be lower. Despite this, the rest of the world’s peoples are puzzled as to why Americans also remain the planet’s single loudest whiner about the prices, usage, and role of such fuels. An abiding reason has to do with how relatively inexpensive many fuels are in the United States compared to other countries. Even so, this steadily depleting natural resource continues to be among the most important drivers of world economic growth.

GCC foreign ministers meet on the sidelines of the 10th GCC Summit in Muscat, Oman. Photo: Dr. John Duke Anthony, 1989.

In addition, the six GCC countries include within their midst the epicenter of prayer and pilgrimage for the Islamic world. The faith and spiritual devotion of the 1.7 billion Muslims’ worldwide – nearly a fourth of humanity – is anchored here more than any place else.
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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Visit to the United States: A Personal Perspective

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.

Beyond meetings in Washington, D.C., Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the United States has included (clockwise starting at top) discussions with Christian and Jewish religious leaders, meetings with former U.S. leaders such as former President Bill Clinton, coffee with businessman and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, and the signing of an agreement with SoftBank and its founder Masayoshi Son to develop an ambitious $200 billion solar power project. Photos: Saudi Press Agency and Saudi Royal Court.

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.

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Continuity Amidst Transformation: Reflections on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Visit to the United States

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.

King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt aboard the U.S.S. Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal in Egypt on February 14, 1945. Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

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.

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Analyzing the 38th GCC Summit: A Counter-Interpretation

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“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.

His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah addresses the opening session of the 38th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Ministerial and Heads of State Summit at Bayan Palace in Kuwait City, Kuwait, on December 5, 2017. Photo: Dr. John Duke Anthony, 2017.

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.

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A New Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia

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.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud chairs a recent meeting of Saudi Arabia’s Cabinet. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

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.

HRH Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud represents Saudi Arabia during a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting on occasion of U.S. President Donald Trump’s May 2017 visit to the Kingdom. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

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.

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A First Visit: President Trump to Saudi Arabia

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.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with Saudi Arabia's King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 19, 2017.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 19, 2017. Photo: U.S. Department of Defense.

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.

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Syria’s Tragedy: A Different Narrative

Beyond all the reporting about Syria’s conflict and carnage and the fall of Aleppo to government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are important backstories and narratives that seldom, if ever, make it into print. Some of them provide background, content, and perspective supportive of Dr. Imad Harb’s recent essay for the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ Analyses and Assessments series.

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.

Humanity’s Treasures

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.

Palmyra, northeast of Damascus in the Syrian desert, contains the ruins of one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world. Standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, its art and architecture married Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. Palmyra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. It has suffered significant damage during periods of occupation by ISIS. Photo: Dr. John Duke Anthony, mid-1990s.

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?”

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GCC-U.S. Relations Under a Trump Administration

By Dr. John Duke Anthony and Fahad Nazer

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.

Proactive Aspirations

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.

Leaders from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates at the recent 37th Gulf Cooperation Council Heads of State Summit in Bahrain. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

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.

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Riyadh’s View of Tehran: An Accentuated Deficit of Trust

Context and history are necessary to understand Saudi Arabia’s decision earlier this month to sever diplomatic ties with Iran. After the storming of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran – a response to Saudi Arabia’s execution of the Shi‘i leader Nimr al-Nimr on January 2 – Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced the cutting of ties. In doing so, he noted that Iran’s aggression is “a violation of all agreements and international conventions” and called it part of an effort by Iran to “destabilize” the region. “We are determined not to allow Iran to undermine our security,” he said.

A sentiment echoing the same tone and spirit while underscoring this Saudi Arabian position of sovereignty and agency in the face of international conflict, and which could just as well have been directed at the recent American media barbs thrown at the kingdom, was conveyed more than two years ago. In an op-ed for the New York Times on December 17, 2013, Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United Kingdom Prince Mohammad Bin Nawaf Bin Abdulaziz Al Sa‘ud explained,

Saudi Arabia has enormous responsibilities within the region, as the cradle of Islam, and one of the world’s most significant political powers. We have global responsibilities – economic and political – as the world’s de facto central banker for energy. And we have a humanitarian responsibility to do what we can to end the suffering in Syria. We will act to fulfill these responsibilities, with or without the support of our Western partners.

The flood of media attacks against Saudi Arabia since the executions has been nonstop. For example, the Iranian policymaker Seyed Hossein Mousavian published an article titled “14 Reasons Why Saudi Arabia is a Failed Mideast Power.” And the New York Times printed an op-ed by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that provided his view, containing unproven statements, of what transpired and the issues involved.

Flames and smoke rise from Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran during a demonstration on January 2, 2016. Photo: REUTERS/TIMA/Mehdi Ghasemi/ISNA.

Because there has yet to appear a different perspective on these matters except for the op-ed by Foreign Minister al-Jubeir in today’s New York Times, this writer, an American who has visited the kingdom often over the past 46 years, is moved to also contribute to the national dialogue on these matters.

He writes as though he were in the shoes of an observer in Riyadh. What such an observer might argue in reply to the media campaign against their country would likely include the following and should be read as quotations.

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Introducing the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ New Article Series, “National Council Analyses and Assessments”

When the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations was established in 1983 and announced that its mission would be education, it stated that serving as a clearinghouse for information and insight would be one of its functions. To that end, the Council is delighted to announce the latest in its initiatives, an online article series titled “National Council Analyses and Assessments.”

The National Council will seek to produce regularly a concise article on an aspect of U.S.-Arab relations or the Arab world, from Morocco to the Gulf and from Baghdad to Berbera and points in between. The authors will hail from across the globe. Each will have deep knowledge. All will have lived experience of the Arab world. The series will attempt to deliver unique analyses and views on contemporary affairs and policies. It will also seek to provide a forum for pieces on broader issues such as women’s rights, climate change, and economic reform.

It is to be expected that readers have various outlets from which to choose for material on the Arab world and U.S. foreign relations. With that in mind, a purpose of the series will be to furnish readers with exceptional, thoughtful, and timely content difficult if not impossible to find elsewhere. Each piece will be chosen and edited with careful consideration of the issues at hand and an appropriate specialist to examine them.

For the launch of the series, two pieces on issues of importance are offered by dynamic, credible, and seasoned voices.

Imad Harb, Distinguished International Affairs Fellow at the National Council and an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, discusses the array of poor policy options that the Obama administration faces in regard to Syria. He concludes that the president will likely continue to battle ISIS from the air, reject calls for American boots on the ground, and rely increasingly upon GCC country friends, allies, and strategic partners to support the fight against the government in Damascus.

Michael C. Hudson, Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University, former longtime director of the university’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, and a member of the National Council’s International Advisory Committee, writes on the crisis of the Arab state in the current, post-uprisings period. “Until effective leadership emanating from society emerges,” he writes, “the Arab center — the millions of ordinary citizens who rose up — will remain on the periphery.”

The National Council’s hope is that as many people as possible will become regular and avid readers of the series. To that end, anyone’s and everyone’s comments and suggestions will be welcomed and appreciated.

John Duke Anthony, Ph.D., Founding President and CEO, National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations