The Consolidation of a New Arab Political Order

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Operation Decisive Storm Coalition Forces' spokesman Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri provides a briefing on developments in the campaign.

Operation Decisive Storm Coalition Forces’ spokesman Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri provides a briefing on developments in the campaign. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

While the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm against the Yemeni Houthis and their allies continues and its long-term results are so far unknown, it is not pre-mature to project that a new Arab political order is being consolidated. Its elements include a firm and sustainable commitment to fight extremism and sectarianism, bring order and stability to the heart of the Arab world – namely, Syria and Iraq – and design, chart, and lead an independent course for the protection of pan-Arab national interests.

Such an order has a leader in the collective energies and capabilities of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, with Saudi Arabia as a first among equals, and essential assistance from such countries as Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco. Indeed, to assure its collective interests, arrive at a hoped-for peaceful stability, and sustain much needed political, economic, and social development, the Arab world must coalesce around a strong political order that can utilize its capacities and permissible international conditions to achieve what it needs and deserves. Importantly, the consolidated new Arab political order appears to emphasize essential principles that require astute judgment, committed resources, and continuous vigilance.

Fighting Extremism and Sectarianism

The status quo states of the new Arab order are cognizant of the threats represented by the plethora of extremist groups operating at the heart of the Arab world. In Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has staked a claim in Hadramawt Province abutting the Saudi Arabian border after it lost its bases in Shabwa and Abyan to the west. In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State group has erased the borders between the two countries in a mission to re-establish an imagined and borderless Islamic Caliphate while al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front controls strategic areas of Syria. Both organizations are serious threats to Lebanon and its pluralist political society.

In Libya, the Islamic State group, al-Qaeda affiliated Ansar ash-Shari’a, and a sundry of militias have settled, and promise to both keep the country unstable and use it as a base to spread chaos and mayhem elsewhere. In Tunisia and Egypt, jihadist extremists are waging a war of attrition against state security institutions. The actors of the consolidating Arab political order must know full well that they alone can address this threat in a fashion that combines a sense of shared responsibility for common interests and an attempt at forging an independent course that serves such interests.

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The Syrian Regime and ISIS: Equal Guilt Requires Equal Sanction

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People inspect damage at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped in Aleppo's district of al-Sukari on March 7, 2014.

People inspect damage at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped in Aleppo’s district of al-Sukari on March 7, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Hosam Katan.

In an interview on February 8 with BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad alluded to indirect and de facto coordination between his government and the Barack Obama Administration in the fight against the Islamic State group (also referred to as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh). Confident that the United States-led international coalition will continue its air campaign against the group without widening its operations to include his forces, the president appeared triumphant and convinced of his own survival and that of his regime. Whether the Syrian President was truthful remains to be seen since his regime thrives on misinformation and propaganda. Yet the possibility that he may at least benefit from the U.S. Administration’s perceived blindness raises serious strategic, tactical, and moral questions about the nature and direction of future developments in Syria.

The Atrocities of the Syrian Regime and ISIS

It is undeniable that the Syrian President has used the existence of ISIS and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front as justification for his regime’s prosecution of a brutal military crackdown on all opponents. He has used tanks, bombers, helicopter gunships, field artillery, barrel bombs, and chemical weapons in pursuit of a military solution to what was originally and essentially still is a political crisis of profoundly and widely contested rule, and lack of representation and civil liberties. In the aforementioned interview, he even denied that his Russian-supplied flying war machines use barrel bombs against entire neighborhoods in areas outside of his control – that, despite innumerable media and eyewitness reports and raw footage videos available for anyone wishing to document such atrocities.

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Yemen’s Houthi Takeover: Domestic and Regional Repercussions

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Sanaa, Yemen, is considered by many historians to be one of the oldest, continuously-inhabited cities in the world.

Sanaa, Yemen, is considered by many historians to be one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world. Photo: Dr. John Duke Anthony.

Two weeks ago, the Zaidi Shiite-Houthi march to control the Yemeni state triumphantly arrived at its destination in Sanaa, and forced the resignation of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the country’s two-month old government headed by Prime Minister Khaled Bahhah. The withdrawal of the President and Premier was the natural end of an aborted political process that was derailed by a gradual Houthi military advance that brought their militia, Ansar Allah, to the streets of the capital. With the Houthis welcoming both resignations and proposing to form a pliant provisional Presidential Council, the country seems to be heading towards more domestic instability and disunity that will generate regional uncertainties. More importantly, perhaps, the pro-Iranian Houthi triumph in Sanaa is nothing short of a coup d’etat that may, in the end, deliver yet another Arab capital to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

An Unpredictable Yemeni Domestic Scene

In justifying their military putsch, the Houthis accused President Hadi of subverting an all-party agreement at a National Dialogue Conference in 2014 – part of a November 2011 initiative proposed by the Gulf Cooperation Council in answer to widespread pro-reform protests. Participants in the dialogue had agreed to write a new constitution, the draft of which still awaits ratification by popular referendum. The new charter creates a federated Yemeni state composed of six regions to replace the current 22 administrative divisions.

The pro-Iranian Houthi triumph in Sanaa is nothing short of a coup d’etat that may, in the end, deliver yet another Arab capital to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Desiring autonomy and eventual independence, the Houthis, who currently comprise about 30 percent of the population, prefer a condominium between a northern and a southern region that many believe would be demarcated along the pre-1990 division of the northern Republic of Yemen and the defunct southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Such a division would presumably give the Houthis control over the north where their numbers would not be excessively diluted by Sunnis. With the desired division, they could either simply enjoy long-term self-rule or await propitious circumstances to declare independence in a northern rump state that would be a re-incarnation of the old Imamate that died over half a century ago. As for the southern secessionists, whose leader Ali Salem al-Beidh resides in Beirut as a guest in Hezbollah’s southern suburbs, the dissolution of the current union would help them realize a long-held desire to re-establish a state they believe would free them of the oppression of northern politicians.

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The ISIS Challenge and HRH Prince Khaled bin Bandar’s Visit to Washington: The Issues, The Implications

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Prince Khaled bin Bandar greets President Barack Obama upon his arrival in Riyadh in March 2014.

Prince Khaled bin Bandar greets President Barack Obama upon his arrival in Riyadh in March 2014. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

Strategic Saudi Arabian-U.S. cooperation continues. Another prominent Saudi Arabian leader – Chief of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Presidency HRH Prince Khaled bin Bandar bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud – visits Washington, DC this week. Coming after recent visits by Saudi Arabian Minister of the Interior, HRH Prince Mohammad bin Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, and Minister of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, HRH Prince Mit`eb bin Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, Prince Khaled’s visit will most likely continue discussions on joint efforts to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Four months after the formation of the U.S.-led international coalition to degrade and defeat ISIS, Prince Khaled will review past accomplishments, study lessons learned, and coordinate future steps to combat what has become a serious threat to peace and security in the Arab East.

Ameliorating the ISIS Challenge

Since its June 2014 conquest of northern Iraq with a then-ragtag army, ISIS has become the foremost security and strategic challenge to the nation-state order in the Levant and Arabian Gulf. A now-much-better-equipped and -armed military force occupying large swaths of Syria and Iraq, it possesses a contiguous base of operations that threatens all adjacent countries. The bearer of a messianic vision to re-establish what it considers a virtuous state – a “Caliphate” – that harkens back to the first few decades of the pax Islamica in the Arabian Peninsula more than fourteen centuries ago, ISIS and its close and distant adherents alike sadly represent a hope, albeit false, to disenfranchised, alienated, or simply misguided Sunni Muslims everywhere.

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Fighting Extremism and Clarifying Commitments: HRH Prince Mohammad bin Nayef’s Visit to Washington

A very important Arab leader in the American-Saudi Arabia security and defense relationship arrives to the nation’s capital today. To understand the significance of his visit, and as an aid in how to analyze the implications of visits between world leaders who grapple with internationally relevant issues of security and stability, a word about context and perspective might help. 

Researchers and analysts examining and assessing the dynamics of defense and security relationships between allies are often guided by several factors. One is an understanding of the prevailing environment. Is it one of peace or war? If it is something resembling neither, does it more nearly approximate a brewing conflict, a fragile ceasefire, or an imminent mobilization and deployment of forces? Is there an anticipated intervention or troop withdrawal, a consideration of placing “boots on the ground,” aircraft in the sky, naval destroyers on the sea, submarines beneath the waves, or some other policy or opinion-shaping matter of concern? Then, recognizing the environment, what is one to make of its possible impact on the parties’ respective needs, interests, and key security, defense, and foreign policy objectives? 

A second factor can be rooted in the allies’ military-industrial complexes, i.e., the state of relations between their respective aerospace and defense companies. A third can be the dynamics of their bilateral military-to-military relationships. A fourth can consider such matters as arms purchases or transfers. A fifth can relate to military education and training opportunities such as the U.S. International Military Education and Training Program, known as IMET, as it has long applied to Egyptians, Iraqis, Lebanese, various Arab North African countries, and the nationals of each of the six GCC countries. 

A sixth can sometimes pertain to the prepositioning of security and defense structures, systems, and technologies, together with their maintenance and operations. A seventh can relate to access to and/or use of security or defense facilities. An eighth can focus on the forging, revision, or renewal of a security or military agreement allowing for continuous consultation, joint exercises, and periodic maneuvers. And a ninth can turn on the nature and number of exchanges of visits between and among the allies’ high-level security and/or defense personnel. 

Visits between and among countries’ most senior security and defense leaders can matter and often do matter greatly. This last-named ninth factor is the one that most pertains to the arrival this evening by Saudi Arabian Minister of Interior HRH Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef Bin Abdalaziz Al Sa’ud and is the focus of the National Council essay that follows. 

To help one understand the importance of Prince Muhammad’s visit, to appreciate the context and background for why he is coming at this time, and to anticipate and comprehend the issues that he might raise for discussion, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations is pleased to learn from Council Distinguished International Affairs Fellow Dr. Imad Kamel Harb.

Dr. John Duke Anthony


FIGHTING EXTREMISM AND CLARIFYING COMMITMENTS: HRH Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef’s Visit to Washington

By Dr. Imad Kamel Harb

December 8, 2014

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Prince Mohammad bin Nayef receives U.S. Senator John McCain in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in December 2013.

Prince Mohammad bin Nayef receives U.S. Senator John McCain in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in December 2013. Photo: Mohammad Bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center.

Saudi Arabian Interior Minister, HRH Prince Mohammad bin Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Aal Saud, comes to the American capital this week to continue consultations on a host of issues of mutual interest to Saudi Arabia and the United States. As Interior Minister with additional responsibly for the kingdom’s policy toward the Syrian crisis, Prince Mohammad is uniquely positioned to coordinate with American officials Saudi Arabia’s efforts against violent extremism, militancy, and the continuing slaughter in Syria. Coming on the heels of the recent visit by Minister of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, HRH Prince Mit`eb bin Abdulla bin Abdul-Aziz, this visit further highlights the important strategic relationship between Riyadh and Washington that serves the interests of peace, security, and stability in the Middle East.

Waging War on Extremism

An essential element of Prince Mohammad’s visit consists of coordinating respective visions, policies, and plans to challenge the scourge of radical militancy in the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq. Since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, when Prince Mohammad first took charge of the kingdom’s counter-terrorism policy as assistant to his late father, HRH Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, who himself served as Interior Minister for 37 years, Saudi Arabia has been a linchpin in global efforts to fight terrorist financing, recruiting, and ideology.

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The Return of Strong GCC-U.S. Strategic Relations

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry poses for a photo with GCC and Regional Partners meeting participants in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry poses for a photo with GCC and Regional Partners meeting participants in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in September 2014. Photo: U.S. Department of State.

Numerous recent developments point to a positive and fundamental shift in GCC-U.S. relations. From the U.S. heavy re-engagement in Middle Eastern issues, to the success of the fourth ministerial GCC-U.S. Strategic Dialogue Forum in New York last September, to fighting ISIS, to continuing consultations about Syria, Iraq, Iran and others, it appears that the strategic partnership is being re-established on a different basis than before.  This is despite the perpetuation of various disagreements and misunderstandings. Such renewal is bound to have an important impact on the future of bilateral U.S.-GCC relations and many other related issues, especially their joint and respective efforts to effect positive change in the region.

New Dynamics of the GCC-U.S. Relationship

The current state of affairs between the United States and the GCC countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – is a far cry from public comments by Arabian Gulf officials a few months ago. These intimated what some considered irreparable damage to established strategic relations. GCC governments showed grave concern about America’s intention to re-balance to the Asia-Pacific theatre, its attempts to re-habilitate Iran and bring it in from the cold, its abandonment of Iraq to violent extremism and the Islamic Republic, and arguably, its vacillation regarding Syria and its grinding civil war.1 From its part, the United States showed signs of fatigue from its long and costly commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan and produced debatable decisions relating to one of the world’s most strategically vital regions.

From whence did these turns in trends and indications emanate? For one, they can be traced to developments since the June collapse of the Iraqi army in its fight against the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which gave a much-needed jolt to what many critics allege was the lethargic American foreign policy in the Levant. For another, they are rooted in the potential and actual massacres of minority civilians in northern Iraq, mass executions of Iraqi soldiers, and credible threats of overpowering Kurdish defenses. Combined, these developments pushed the Obama administration to re-calibrate its response by sending military advisors to Iraq and initiating aerial bombardment of ISIS positions.2

In reality, America’s change of policy was the start of a “re-balancing of the ‘re-balance’” back to the Middle East,  while, fortuitously, the GCC and other countries saw it as the right decision at the right time for the world’s leading superpower.

But, given Washington’s many trepidations about being once again enmeshed in trouble in the Middle East, the American about-face could not be sustained without the effectiveness of willing and capable regional allies. In reality, America’s change of policy was the start of a “re-balancing of the ‘re-balance’” back to the Middle East,3 while, fortuitously, the GCC and other countries saw it as the right decision at the right time for the world’s leading superpower.

The United States has obviously re-engaged in the Middle East for the long-term. Equally clear, the GCC states have committed to a broader and more assertive role in the region. As geo-political and geo-strategic realities and conditions develop over the next weeks and months, it will likely become increasingly evident that a strengthened U.S.-GCC relationship is the only practical and prudent alternative for the United States, the GCC countries, and the world at large to help attain and maintain a semblance of sustained stability in the Middle East. An important and thus far little discussed component among these developments in U.S. as well as GCC policy and behavior is a renewal and reformulation of an alignment with Egypt that was shaken over the last few years. A successful realignment of the ties between Washington and Cairo, coupled with strategic linkages between Egypt and key GCC member-countries, will doubtlessly do much to cement the overall GCC-U.S. relationship.

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  1. See Abdullah Al Shayji, “The GCC-U.S. Relationship: A GCC Perspective,” Middle East Policy Council Journal, Vol. XXI, No. 3 (Fall 2014). []
  2. Chelsea Carter, Mohammed Tawfeeq, and Barbara Starr, “Officials: U.S. airstrikes pound ISIS militants firing at Iraq’s Yazidis,” CNN, August 10, 2014, at http://cnn.it/1AfzFOI []
  3. See Imad Harb, “America’s Full-Fledged Return to the Middle East,” Quest for Middle East Analysis, September 11, 2014, at http://bit.ly/harb-return-middle-east []

HRH Saudi Arabian Prince Mit’eb bin Abdullah Comes to Washington

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The Minister of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, HRH Prince Mit`eb bin Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Aal Saud, arrives in Washington, D.C. this week on a much anticipated visit to discuss Saudi Arabian-American relations at a time of great uncertainty in the Middle East.

Prince Mit`eb bin Abdullah receives senior Saudi Arabian National Guard officers

Prince Mit`eb bin Abdullah receives senior Saudi Arabian National Guard officers during a reception in Riyadh. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

Among the most prominent members of the Saudi royal family, Prince Mit`eb will re-affirm Saudi Arabian-American ties but will also bring a unique perspective on the dangers of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the continuing Syrian civil war, the uncertainties in Iraq’s future, and the threat of an expanding Houthi movement in Yemen. Indeed, his visit is likely to be a defining event in Saudi Arabian-U.S. relations and an important occasion to address the implications of potential developments in the Arabian Gulf, the Arab world, and the Middle East as a whole.

ISIS and the Syrian Civil War

Foremost among Prince Mit`eb’s concerns will naturally be the presence of ISIS fighters close to the Saudi Arabian-Iraqi border. The Islamic State has wrested control of Iraq’s Anbar Province in the southwest from the Iraqi army and is threatening to attack the capital Baghdad. Both developments present major challenges to the kingdom’s and the Arabian Peninsula’s strategic posture. While Riyadh has succeeded in the last decade-and-a-half in stanching the domestic threat represented by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, it obviously remains wary of the extremists’ external peril, which is even more ruthless and barbaric this time around.

Moreover, as the preeminent Muslim state in the international anti-ISIS coalition challenging the Islamic State’s use of Islam as justification for war and destruction, and the most powerful member in the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia expects to lead a vigorous response to ISIS’s threats.

It is thus quite possible that Prince Mit`eb will discuss with American officials ways to cooperate militarily and logistically to face down the present challenge to the kingdom’s and the Arabian Peninsula’s northern borders.

Prince Mit`eb’s visit will also provide an opportunity to clarify respective American and Saudi Arabian positions regarding Syria and to consider possible ways to increase cooperation on different aspects of that country’s grinding civil war. As the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-aligned Al-Nusra Front continue to make gains on the battlefield in Syria, the Saudi Arabian-U.S. plan requires re-thinking and re-calibration. The size of the force of moderate Syrians to be organized and equipped (originally envisioned at 5,000 soldiers), the pace of their training and insertion into Syria, and their future maintenance and strengthening will obviously be on the agenda in any discussions.

What is clear, however, is that the prince will seek clarification of the U.S. Administration’s agenda and policy towards Syria with a view to obtaining a clearer commitment to the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and ending the influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in that country.

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The Dynamics of Future Saudi Arabian-Iranian Relations in Context

All is not well in Arabia and the Gulf. The further unraveling of security and stability in Iraq has exemplified this and more to the increasingly beleaguered government of Iraqi Arab Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad, the country’s capital. The accelerated breakdown of law and order in the land between the rivers has also rattled the governments and political dynamics of Iran, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Yemen, and the six member-countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. 

Among these countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran are of out-sized importance. Greater information, insight, and knowledge about how these two competitors for regional prominence perceive, interact with, and analyze and assess the likely intentions of the other – not just regarding Iraq but also Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon – is essential to understanding key trends and indications in Arabia and the Gulf at the present time and where the region is likely to be headed in the days to come. 

It is in this context that the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations is privileged to present the essay that follows by National Council Distinguished International Affairs Fellow Dr. Imad Kamel Harb. Dr. Harb recently returned to Washington, DC after spending the previous seven years working as a researcher and analyst in the GCC region. 

Dr. Harb previously worked to help rehabilitate the Iraqi higher education sector as a Senior Program Officer for Education at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). There he authored a USIP Special Report on “Higher Education and the Future of Iraq,” published in 2008. 

Since earning his PhD from the University of Utah, Dr. Harb has been an Adjunct Professor at San Francisco State University, the University of Utah, Georgetown University, George Washington University, the University of Maryland, and the Middle East Institute. 

Dr. John Duke Anthony


THE DYNAMICS OF FUTURE SAUDI ARABIAN-IRANIAN RELATIONS IN CONTEXT

By Dr. Imad Kamel Harb

June 12, 2014

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Recent diplomatic overtures emanating from Saudi Arabia about possibilities for a thawing of relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran are unlikely to produce their desired results. Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal’s recent invitation to his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to visit the kingdom was tepidly received at the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

A potential visit by the former Iranian President, and former Chairman of the Assembly of Experts, Ayatullah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, itself originating from an invitation by the new Saudi Ambassador to Tehran, Abdul-Rahman bin Ghorman, still awaits the approval of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei.

Myriad contentious issues from Bahrain to Yemen to Iraq, and from Lebanon to Syria have had the two countries’ leaderships at loggerheads and made anentente improbable. Indeed, Iranian-Arab acrimony promises to be the state of affairs for the foreseeable future, negatively affecting regional peace and inter-communal relations between the Gulf’s Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

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