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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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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Redefining the Syrian Predicament to a Trump Administration

A seismic change is taking place in the United States while important foreign policy issues confront its ascendant political leadership. From a resurgent Russia to a dangerous Chinese grab of international waters in the South China Sea, and from the troubled Middle East to uncertainties facing Europe, the new Trump administration – as heir to America’s leadership legacy – will have to hit the ground running on January 20, 2017. Among the insanely complicated challenges it will have to untangle and help resolve is the Syrian civil war and tragedy that has caused internal destruction and invited foreign actors to interfere and intervene in the heart of the modern Levant.

Syria the Unimportant?

President-elect Donald Trump made it clear during his improbable presidential campaign that the United States should just cede Syria to Russia and Iran and allow them to help its president destroy whatever opposition he faces. Incorrectly, and ignorantly, he claimed that the trio was fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). However, to the contrary, the evidence is that the brunt of Russia’s, Iran’s, Lebanon Hezbollah’s, and the Iranian-led Afghan Shia’s military action has been against the moderate opposition.

In Aleppo, Syria, four-year-old Esraa and her brother Waleed, three, sit on the ground near a shelter for internally displaced persons. Photo: UNICEF/UN013175/Al-Issa.
In Aleppo, Syria, four-year-old Esraa and her brother Waleed, three, sit on the ground near a shelter for internally displaced persons. Photo: UNICEF/UN013175/Al-Issa.

Candidate Mr. Trump also opined that Syria does not constitute an American strategic interest. This claim has actually been bandied about not only by Obama administration officials. Some Republican politicians and members of the foreign policy community in the American capital also adhere to this view. Neither claim – that Russia and its allies’ attacks have been directed entirely against ISIS and that Syria is of no strategic interest to the United States – was or is true. Mr. Trump’s analyses and assessments are therefore not only perilously flawed; in light of the facts, they are downright dangerous, the exact opposite of accurate, and, as such, constitute serious threats to American and American allies’ national security and related interests.

What Must Come

The first imperative the new administration will have to examine about Syria, come next January, should therefore be Mr. Trump’s claims regarding Syria. Some of the more misleading claims admittedly carry a grain of accuracy and for that reason are seductive, but at the end of the day they are half-baked and hardly the grounds for making sound and effective policy regarding the country. These include the assertion that Syria lacks sufficient hydrocarbon resources to make it a pivotal ring within the international economic chain that American global hegemony cherishes, a perception that is buttressed by the fact that, with the advent of shale oil, the United States’ need for offshore sources of energy has decreased dramatically. A second perception that adds to the confusion is grounded in the fact that, notwithstanding Syria’s having long maintained the peace on Israel’s north-eastern border, and despite its having administered the American-approved Syrian condominium over Lebanon during and after the latter’s civil war, no Damascus government has ever been a pillar of American foreign policy in the Middle East.

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U.S.-GCC Relations and the Fight Against ISIS

The National Council is pleased to present the most recent addition to its Analyses and Assessments series: an essay on “U.S.-GCC Relations and the Fight Against ISIS.” The author, Dr. Imad Harb, is a Non-Resident National Council Distinguished International Affairs Fellow.

Dr. Harb has served as an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, George Washington University, and the University of Maryland. Earlier, he worked for seven years as a researcher and analyst in the GCC region. He also served as a Senior Program Officer for Education at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), where, in 2008, he authored a USIP Special Report on “Higher Education and the Future of Iraq.”

The author takes measure of the robust and enduring defense and security relationships between the United States and the GCC countries. In so doing, he takes note of the nature and extent of progress made by the 67-member coalition battling the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Dr. Harb examines the need to plan now, not later, for the reconstruction and stabilization efforts necessary for the territories already liberated – and those yet to be liberated – from ISIS control. In so doing, he identifies the numerous but little reported contributions that GCC countries have made in the fight against ISIS. He also highlights the ongoing challenges to domestic security as well as external deterrence and defense that the region continues to face.

In the process, Dr. Harb acknowledges the ways in which robust GCC-U.S. cooperation is working for the respective partners’ and parties’ collective and mutual as well as individual interests and benefit.

In terms of timing, the atmosphere for producing such an essay could hardly be more receptive. The moment, moreover, could hardly be more propitious. The evidence for both is rooted in the extraordinary array of summit-like meetings of late among the coalition’s principals.

The sheer number of these high-level gatherings has been remarkable. So, too, among the participants has been the seriousness and intensity of their deliberations. Together, these endeavors have hardly been mere academic exercises. To the contrary, they have been the opposite.

Conventional Opinions, Thoughts, Wisdoms

They have exposed the purveyors of so-called informed opinion. They have revealed the quackeries of established thought. They have uncovered what otherwise passes, but should not be allowed to pass unchallenged, as conventional wisdom.

As such, they have helped mightily to counter many of the cynics. Among these were the perennial pessimists. Counted among them were those professional naysayers who had never regarded the GCC-U.S. relationship as a serious alliance or even a credible geopolitical arrangement to begin with.

A National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations delegation of Model Arab League students and faculty advisers, led by National Council Founding President and CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony, visits Queen Effat University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir at a July 2016 meeting in Brussels, Belgium with other regional Foreign Ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Photo: U.S. Department of State.

Dr. Harb’s essay therefore refutes the many who had seemed resigned to believe that whatever the parties to such international leadership summits might agree to – in terms of how best to wage the war against ISIS – is likely to be too little and too late.

In the process, the essay’s author underscores how numerous analytical factors are frequently missed or receive insufficient attention in American commentary regarding the Arab countries, the Middle East, and the Islamic world.

In this, one might ask, “Is there nothing new under the sun?” What’s new and exciting is that, yes, there is.

This has arguably been and remains the case with regard to the anti-ISIS campaign’s efforts to come to grips with ISIS’ roots and rise. And it continues, too, to be the case in the battle to free the territories that ISIS has captured.

Aims and Aspirations

In any rational effort to comprehend how ISIS came into being and what is a driving force for many of its members, it would seem unquestionable that one should, and would, focus foremost on first factors, on causal realities.

With this as context, metaphorically speaking, would the phenomenon of there being a “Made in the United States” label in the eyes of so many ISIS’ victims ordinarily be viewed as a commonplace occurrence?

No, researchers and writers would ordinarily regard something of this nature, context, and dimension as no everyday experience but, rather, a reality and insight of profound importance and relevance.

Yet an insight as significant as this, key as it is to one’s knowledge and understanding of the roots, formation, and evolution of ISIS, is frequently overlooked, forgotten, or ignored.

So, too, for many commentators, is the otherwise seemingly inexplicable reason for how and why so many U.S. government policies, positions, actions, and even attitudes have severely damaged key American foreign policy objectives in Arabia and the Gulf, one of the world’s most vital regions.

“Of what objectives is one talking about,” would be a legitimate question. The answer: the maintenance of security and stability, something so basic to any people’s existence and prospects for future development and prosperity – which is arguably just as legitimate – that it could hardly be clearer and more straightforward.

Included among the decisions with the gravest negative consequences was the George W. Bush Administration’s rejection of the United States’ GCC allies counsel not to attack Iraq.

That the United States’ invasion and occupation of Iraq caused the deaths and maiming for life of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands more Iraqis and other Arabs, there can be no doubt.

That one group of human beings could and would attack and murder another group of human beings who are not in the process of mounting an imminent attack begs the simplest and therefore the most profound of questions: “Why?”

Truths and Consequences

If this and the mainly American policies, positions, actions, and attitudes towards Palestine from the very beginning fail to provide insight into the raison d’etre and staying power of ISIS, insofar as its leaders and rank and file members from the beginning have been and remain so anti-American, then what would?

In the process of killing a country – of destroying a nation and a people that had not attacked the United States or posed any grave danger to U.S. interests – America cannot say it didn’t know what might happen.

America did know. Its Arab and especially its GCC friends, allies, and strategic partners in the build-up to the invasion and occupation repeatedly said, “Don’t do it; don’t do it; don’t do it – you don’t know what you’re doing! You’ll be in over your heads and not know how to get out.”

Prior to the American-led attack against Iraq, this writer participated in separate meetings with two quite different GCC foreign ministers in their respective countries who reiterated this message. The ministers spoke to members of delegations of American leaders for whom it was my privilege to lead to the GCC region’s countries on fact-finding missions up to the day in March 2003 when the invasion began.

But speak the truth as often and as forcefully as these and many another Arab leaders did, it was all for naught.

Did not the military action that the United States commenced in 2003 unleash the torrents of carnage that continue to this day? And if not, what did?

Does it require a rear view mirror or a replay of the recordings from years past to underscore that the present challenges which the United States’ GCC allies cautioned against more than a decade ago are – surprise, surprise – also the ones that a robust and enduring GCC-U.S. partnership are working to solve?

This latter question is but one among numerous others that Dr. Harb’s essay seeks to address.

Dr. John Duke Anthony
Founding President and CEO
National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations
Washington, DC


Much has been said about the supposedly troubled relations between the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Many in Washington have gone out of their way to paint the relationship as weakening in a way and to a degree not previously envisioned. The “evidence”: some cite a desire on the part of the Obama Administration to shift its focus to East Asia to counter Chinese adventurism.

Others point to something else. They cite the brokering by the United States of a nuclear deal with Iran. From this perspective, the latter will purportedly pave the way to a full return of American-Iranian relations but only – and some would claim obviously – at the expense of the GCC.

Still others note the United States’ lukewarm attitude regarding the Syrian quagmire, and/or what appears to be a hands-off approach toward pressing concerns elsewhere, whether elsewhere in the Arabian Gulf or in the wider Middle East.

And yet, the reality is that, in contrast, the nature and extent of political coordination and military cooperation between Washington and Gulf capitals have seen a robustness that proves the exact opposite.

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U.S. Policy in Syria: Weighing Bad Options

The Islamic State’s carnage in Paris and other recent attacks have added more urgency to the challenges facing the Obama administration’s approach to the Syrian crisis. Critics have labeled the approach indecisive, reactive, pathetic, late, absent, dangerous, and other adjectives that reflect the quandary in which Obama and his national security team find themselves.

The speed with which events are unfolding in Syria and associated battlefields – from Iraq to France – forces the administration to constantly consider variations of the following options. But because none of the choices are optimal, Obama and his team often seem immobilized as they attempt to find solutions to what has become a massive political, military, and humanitarian disaster. While future U.S. policy in Syria cannot be predicted, it is likely that Obama, in the waning days of his presidency, will continue to battle ISIS from the air, reject calls for American boots on the ground, and rely on Gulf partners to support the fight against Assad.

Direct Military Involvement

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in March 2011 the administration has resisted becoming militarily involved in what it believes should have been a domestic affair leading to the removal of an autocratic leader and his repressive regime through a peaceful transfer of power. Many opportunities for a reversal of this reluctance to use force have presented themselves: the regime’s chemical weapons use in 2013, its ongoing barrel bomb onslaught against civilian targets, and Turkish and other allies’ pressure to establish no-fly zones to provide safe havens for non-combatants and for a potential opposition provisional government or civil administration.

Obama sees no gain from a military involvement that harks back to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries from which he was and remains anxious to withdraw American troops.

Obama sees no gain from a military involvement that harks back to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries from which he was and remains anxious to withdraw American troops. Calls by Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in late 2015 to introduce 20,000 American troops equally to Syria and Iraq increased pressure on the administration. Nevertheless, the outcome of such calls is contingent on whether the countries named by the McCain-Graham initiative – Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia – accept fielding the balance of the total number of forces proposed – 100,000. Given these countries’ domestic worries and regional commitments, this would be a tall order. The latest row between Saudi Arabia and Iran following the former’s execution of Shi‘i religious figure Nimr al-Nimr, along with 46 others, assures Riyadh’s reluctance to engage in such a scheme.

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