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 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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U.S.-Saudi Arabia Relations Returning to Normal Plus

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.

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense HRH Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on March 14, 2017. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

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.

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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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