A Summit Amidst Uncertainties

Today, the 40th summit gathering of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Supreme Council is taking place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Founding President and CEO of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, Dr. John Duke Anthony, is attending as an observer. He is doing so as The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, presides over the meeting of Gulf leaders and/or their chief representatives.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was formally established in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi on 25 May 1981, at a summit that this writer was privileged to attend, as he has attended every GCC Summit since. An Arab sub-regional organization that represents some of the world’s wealthiest per capita countries in a geographical swath lining the length of the western coast of the Gulf, the GCC region encompasses what is arguably the most strategically vital area on the planet. The GCC’s six member-states are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In addition to all five of the member-states being a landward neighbor to Saudi Arabia, all six share maritime borders with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Location of the Summit

This 40th GCC Heads of State Summit is the first time the summit has been held in the same location (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) in two consecutive years. Observers differ regarding the reason. Some believe it is a testament to the effectiveness and importance of the GCC Secretariat that, from the organization’s inception in 1981, has been headquartered in Riyadh. Others hold to the view that the repeated focus on having Riyadh host the annual summits is but an echo of the United Nations, whose annual General Assembly Meetings are held in New York.

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The Road of Interdependence

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Introduction By Dr. John Duke Anthony

The author of the essay that follows heads the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Founded in Abu Dhabi on May 25, 1981, the GCC is comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Its Secretariat, comprised of representatives of all six of the Member States, is headquartered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

His Excellency Dr. Abdullatif Bin Rashid Al Zayani is the GCC’s fifth Secretary-General. He was appointed by the GCC’s Supreme Council, which is the organization’s highest decision-making body. The Supreme Council is composed of the Heads of State of the GCC’s member countries.

The GCC has long been viewed as the most successful sub-regional organization in modern Arab history.

Incorrect and Flawed Perceptions

Some take issue with this description. They disagree. In the eyes of some of the GCC’s critics, such a positive assessment is incorrect and misleading.

Some contend that the GCC has failed to live up to its aspirations regarding maximum cooperation. Others emphasize how the GCC has fallen short of integration. Still others point to the lack of success in forging a more unified set of achievements.

The GCC’s leaders do not deny that there is a significant measure of truth in these complaints. They acknowledge their shortcomings. They admit to their having failed to achieve what some had hoped and others expected the organization to accomplish at the time of its founding.

In fairness, though, one needs to ask: what organization’s achievements have not fallen wide of what its founders hoped to effectuate? No such organization exists. In this, the GCC is no different.

This writer was present at the GCC’s founding meeting. He has attended each of the GCC’s Ministerial and Heads of State Summits since then. He has experienced firsthand the heady atmosphere and the genuinely euphoric mood that accompanied the GCC’s establishment. He has witnessed firsthand also the genuinely jubilant climate that has followed many of its subsequent summits.

Regional Comparisons

Shortcomings and all, the six east Arabian Peninsula countries never cease to amaze. Their material progress has been and continues to be mind-boggling. The nature, pace, and extent of their modernization and development can be catalogued in myriad ways.

Lest one suspect such comments are a paid advertisement, which they are not, check them out. For comparison, examine the entire 22-country Arab region and, regarding the 16 other Arab countries, see if there is anything remotely comparable to what the GCC, as an organization, and its Member States as its components, have accomplished. One will not find it because it does not exist.

The unconvinced are urged to apply a different test. Use another set of contexts to test the viability and robustness of the GCC. Attempt to find another international organization in the region that meets with as much frequency. Searchers will not find a comparable example nor even a remotely similar one.

What one will discover instead is that the GCC Secretariat hosts and administers no fewer than 400 meetings a year. They will learn that, in some years, it hosts as many as 700 meetings. What is more, there are no absences; all six of the members convene to discuss common issues and challenges. No Arab organizational grouping and no Arab countries meet as regularly to anywhere near the same degree.

Additional Frames of Reference

Still not persuaded? Try another frame of reference.

To determine the robustness, and overall appeal and attractiveness to local and foreign investors of a given region, or even of a single country, the following test might be useful. Examine the nature, pace, and extent of people clamoring to enter the GCC region or one of its specific countries. Determine whether it could be classified as: (1) many, (2) some, (3) few, or (4) none. In many countries, the answer is either of the latter options. In the GCC region, it is the first.

Flip the coin and examine the trend from the opposite perspective. Ask how many people are trying to leave the region. Ask what the reality is in terms of the same four options. The answer will be between (3) and (4).

The reason for these positive realities is clear to specialists if not to generalists. It has to do with the six countries being globally distinctive in terms of their domestic safety and external defense. Search the globe and one will not find six other geographically contiguous countries or six identical systems of governance that illustrate these same realities.

In other words, the negative, pessimistic, and dismissive views that one will find in much of the media are at once incorrect, unfair, and misleading. The extraordinary frequency with which the GCC Member State representatives meet to further their countries’ and peoples’ progress is but just one example.

Agenda Items

Of related importance is the range of matters that the GCC brings members together to discuss: security, defense, intelligence, economics, commerce and trade, investment, and technology cooperation. In addition, the members meet regularly to plan operations pertaining to the members’ periodic security and defense maneuvers and exercises designed to enhance their common deterrence and protection.

These facets of the GCC’s forward momentum in matters of a material, social, and economic nature have no rival among any of the world’s other sub-regional organizations. More specifically, the region as a whole and each of its countries exhibit a range of truisms, certainties, and predictability that would-be investors find a marvel to behold. These do not, however, exist in a vacuum.

At The Helm: Preparation, Preparation, and Preparation

They are present alongside the author of the remarks that follow, His Excellency Dr. Al Zayani. Abiding by the strictures of three-year terms in office, Dr. Al Zayani is presently in his ninth year as head of the six-country organization’s Secretariat in Riyadh. What is it that to date has made this particular leader so effective in the eyes of his peers as well as his superiors?

Dr. Al Zayani, a native of the Kingdom of Bahrain, is a graduate of Sandhurst, Great Britain’s premier military academy. Upon returning to Bahrain, he began a period of service in his country’s armed forces and its Ministry of Defense for the next three decades.

From there, Dr. Al Zayani was transferred to Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior, which is not like America’s Department of Interior but rather, in close association with the administration of an effective system of civil justice, is focused on the maintenance of law and order. He served there as Bahrain’s Chief of Public Security with responsibility for all aspects of the Kingdom’s domestic security and safety.

After that, Dr. Al Zayani could have taken up a full-time teaching position—he holds a PhD and has taught at several universities. Rather than do so, however, he accepted an appointment at Bahrain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was serving in that role when he was appointed Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council by the GCC’s Supreme Council in 2011. Dr. Al Zayani was elected for a second three-year term in 2014 and elected yet again to a third three-year term in 2017.

In October 2018, Dr. Al Zayani addressed the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations 27th Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference in Washington, D.C. In his remarks, Dr. Al Zayani stepped outside of his role helming the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Secretariat. In doing so, he drew upon his deep knowledge of public service to issue a personal call for a brighter future for the region’s people.

Dr. Al Zayani is mindful of the pessimism and feeling of hopelessness stemming from regional violence and turmoil. Despite this, he has charted a specific path forward through regional collaboration and cohesion. If national leaders were but to heed Dr. Al Zayani’s advice, they would realize the benefits in how it could breed optimism and bring shared peace.

The National Council is privileged to share here an edited transcript of his remarks.

John Duke Anthony, PhD
Founding President & CEO
National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations

THE ROAD OF INTERDEPENDENCE

By H.E. Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani,
Secretary-General, Gulf Cooperation Council

Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary-General H.E. Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani addressed the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations 27th Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference in Washington, D.C., on October 31, 2018. This transcript of his remarks was lighted edited for publication.

Your Royal Highness, Excellencies, Distinguished Guests,

I am delighted to be with you this evening. It is a privilege and an honor to be among such a distinguished gathering of leaders in the capital of one of the world’s most important and powerful countries. I come before you to say a few words on some of the difficulties facing the Gulf and the Middle East. I do so also to briefly outline my vision, as a citizen of the region, of how such challenges might, in the longer term, be turned into an opportunity for genuine peace, stability, and prosperity.

Of course, any vision for the future must be rooted in the reality of today’s challenges. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, these geopolitical challenges are at once well known and exceptionally complex. Among the more intractable are those in and associated with Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

Any vision for the future must be rooted in today’s challenges. In the Middle East and North Africa region, these challenges are at once well known and exceptionally complex.

The opportunity you have offered me is one that is seldom extended to someone in my part of the world.

It is not every day that one is asked to offer a vision of what may lie ahead. Even less frequently is one requested to suggest how one might best proceed to address the challenges they represent.

Lebanon as But One Example

Of the various challenges we face, Lebanon is but one among others. The structure of governance and the system of political dynamics in that Arab country are steered by Hezbollah (literally, “the Party of God”). People may differ in their descriptions of the party, but there is no doubt that many regard a significant proportion of it as a violent, sectarian, extremist militia.

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The Middle East Today: Where To?

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.

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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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