How the World Turns: Saudi Arabia in Transition

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Following is important background information. It has to do with numerous high-profile administrative changes made by Saudi Arabia Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud in the past few weeks in the government of Saudi Arabia. Of special significance is the appointment of a new Ambassador to the United States, HRH Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, and a new Minister for Culture and Information, H.E. Dr. Awwad bin Saleh bin Abdullah Al-Awwad.

HRH Prince Khalid bin Salman was previously an adviser to the Saudi Arabian Minister of Defense, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Royal Court, and the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C. He is also an accomplished F-15 pilot and was one of the first Saudi Arabian fighter pilots to conduct attacks on ISIS in Syria. H.E. Dr. Awwad Al-Awwad was most recently the Kingdom’s envoy in Germany.

Note also the more than a dozen new ministerial-level appointments of governors and deputy governors of various among the Kingdom’s 13 provinces. Note, too, the assignment of new director-generals to key agencies responsible for various aspects of the country’s modernization and development.

Saudi Arabian princes and ministers designated to new posts with the King, Crown Prince, and Deputy Crown Prince.

Saudi Arabian princes and ministers designated to new posts with the King, Crown Prince, and Deputy Crown Prince. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

The declaration of such changes will naturally invite close examination and comment by specialists. This is to be predicted. What even the country’s critics will be unable to deny, however, is that the shakeup in the upper echelons of the country’s leaders gives the lie to those – and no doubt there are many – among the country’s critics, adversaries, and enemies who tend to dismiss any announcement that contains positive information about and insight into the Kingdom as rubbish.

As ever, these include those that are prone to perceiving the nature and extent of any Saudi Arabian governmental commitment to economic or any other kind of reforms as insincere, deceptive, cosmetic, and/or sclerotic. These will almost certainly do the same in this case.

The latest changes illustrate not only the degree to which important components of the Kingdom’s reforms are underway. They also demonstrate that among the reasons the reforms are being undertaken is an effort to enhance the country’s image, reputation for, and the increasing reality of its public sector accountability.

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Dr. John Duke Anthony on “America, Arabia, and the Gulf: At a Crossroads?”

On May 11, 2016, Dr. John Duke Anthony spoke to the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs on the subject “America, Arabia, and the Gulf: At a Crossroads?” A video recording of the program is available below, and a podcast of the program is also available below as well as in iTunes with recordings of other National Council programs:

Dr. John Duke Anthony – “America, Arabia, and the Gulf: At a Crossroads?” podcast (.mp3)

In Memoriam, A Giant Has Fallen: Clovis Maksoud (1926-2016)

This past week, a larger than life figure among us fell physically. Although in our presence his body is no more, as example, as role model, and as inspiration, he is still in front of, beside, and behind us – and will remain so for a very long time to come.

Ambassador Clovis Maksoud’s reputation was legendary as far back as during my studies at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University in the 1960s.

Whenever one had the privilege and pleasure to meet and be with as well as briefed by Clovis, regardless of the subject, one could not but revel in his perennially upbeat personality and marvel at the many unrivaled aspects of his professionalism. Among humanity’s orally gifted and silver-tongued orators, Clovis could be, and in numerous instances was, nothing short of spellbinding. Certainly, he earned my awe early on. Never once in my presence did he use notes or even have, for easy recall, a slip of paper tucked away on which he had written something.

Whatever the subject he happened to be addressing, Clovis was invariably not only articulate; he was also frequently eloquent. His delivery and diction were flawless. Indeed, one at times had reason to wonder whether he had switched languages, for his use of English could be inventive – more than a few will acknowledge that, sometimes, it took a bit of getting used to the kinds of words and phrases he used with unsurpassed exactitude to hammer home his points. Even now one can hear him thundering about the cause that remained to the end dearer to him than any other, that of the Palestinians.

Who can forget Clovis’ forever repeating that, among the biggest obstacles to strengthening and expanding the Arab-U.S. relationship were the United States’ history and policies with respect to Palestine? These, he never tired of emphasizing, lay at the heart of what he aptly termed America’s “crisis of conscience.”

H.E. Ambassador Clovis Maksoud (1926-2016).

H.E. Ambassador Clovis Maksoud (1926-2016).

What Clovis was and stood for to the last – in the way of unbridled conviction, steadfast commitment, and unflinching moral courage – are bedrock guidelines by which one can live a purposeful, meaningful, and contributive life. What he epitomized – in his manners and elemental decency, in his unfailing kindness, and in his manifesting the gamut of Arab, Islamic, Middle Eastern Christian, Druze, and other humanistic values, ideals, and principles to which so many aspire – has left an indelible impression not just upon me but many.

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The Establishment of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Office in Washington, D.C.

National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Founding President and CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony recently returned from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He arrived on the heels of President Obama’s second summit meeting with representatives of the six Gulf Cooperation Council member countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, together with the GCC Secretary General. Following is a special report on a little-noted development that transpired at the meetings.

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At the invitation of King Salman of Saudi Arabia, leaders of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries met with U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday, April 21 in Riyadh for a U.S.-GCC Summit.

One of Obama’s primary goals for the summit was to reassure these U.S. strategic allies and partners that the United States is committed to countering threats to the GCC.

U.S. Statements of Intentions

The president could not have been clearer in stating that, “I reaffirm the policy of the United States to use all elements of our power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region and to deter and confront external aggression against our allies and our partners.”

In the same vein, Obama was tough on Iran in his rhetoric, noting that the United States, even with its nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic, has “serious concerns about Iranian behavior.”

Obama and the GCC leaders also spoke about other issues including ISIS, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, and Lebanon.

President Barack Obama met with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 21, 2016. The summit meeting came almost a year after Obama hosted his GCC counterparts in the United States for a summit at Camp David. Photo: The White House.

President Barack Obama met with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 21, 2016. The summit meeting came almost a year after Obama hosted his GCC counterparts in the United States for a summit at Camp David. Photo: The White House.

King Salman said the summit was “constructive and fruitful” and thanked Obama for “enhancing the consultation and cooperation between the GCC countries and the U.S.”

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Arabia to Asia: The Myths of an American “Pivot” and Whether or Not There’s a U.S. Strategy Toward the GCC Region

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That the foreign policies of various governments often appear to be confusing or contradictory is because they frequently are. During Barack Obama’s presidency, such inconsistency has seemed to characterize aspects of America’s relations with the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The ambiguity and uncertainty that accompanies it is among the things that Obama has sought to dispel and clarify in the course successively of his March 2014 visit to Saudi Arabia, his May 2015 summit at Camp David with senior leaders of all six GCC countries, and his mid-April 2016 attendance at a similar meeting with leaders of the same countries. As this essay seeks to demonstrate, what he has had to contend with – and what others of late have had to contend with regarding aspects of his administration — in terms of background, context, and perspective has not been easy of resolution, amelioration, or even abatement.

Assumptions, Ambitions, and Abilities

Dating from before and since these high-level GCC-U.S. meetings, Washington has taken steps to strengthen and extend America’s overall position and influence in the GCC region. A principal means for doing so has been through the GCC-U.S. Strategic Dialogue.[1] But one example among several was when former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, came with approvals for billions of dollars in sales of U.S.-manufactured defense and security structures, systems, technology, and arms to GCC countries, together with long-term munitions and maintenance contracts.

President Barack Obama attends a U.S.-GCC summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in April 2016. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

President Barack Obama attends a U.S.-GCC summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in April 2016. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

Yet, simultaneously, signals from Washington and the mainstream U.S. media before and since Obama’s meetings with his GCC counterparts have not always been as clear as the signalers thought would or should be the case. That said, what specialists have had no doubt about for some time is that the Obama administration is recalibrating the strategic focus of its international priorities in hopes of being able to accomplish two objectives at the same time. One objective has been, and continues to be, a steadfast resolve to remain committed to the security, stability, and prospects for prosperity in the GCC region. The other has been and remains a parallel determination to emphasize the Asia-Pacific regions.

Affecting the need for such a recalibration have been major U.S. budget reductions and their impact on strategic concepts, forces, and operational dynamics. At issue and under examination in this regard, according to the Secretary of Defense in advance of the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), are, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, America’s assumptions, ambitions, and abilities.

Understandably, the GCC region’s reaction to these trends and indications was and continues to be mixed.

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President Obama’s Meeting with GCC Leaders in Saudi Arabia: An Opportunity for Heightened Cooperation

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This week President Obama will travel to Riyadh to meet with King Salman of Saudi Arabia. The next day he is scheduled to meet with leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

According to a White House Press Briefing, these meetings will be broken into three sessions – one on regional stability, one on defeating ISIL and al-Qaeda and counterterrorism cooperation, and one on Iran and efforts to prevent the Islamic Republic’s destabilizing actions across the region.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Sa’ud and President Barack Obama during the king’s September 2015 visit to Washington. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

The day before the meeting of the two heads of state, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is expected to meet with Saudi Arabian and GCC nation defense officials. According to U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, that meeting will focus on “enhancing GCC capability, interoperability and how to confront asymmetrical threats.” Mr. Rhodes also expects that the U.S. Defense Secretary “will have specific conversations about how to enhance certain defense capabilities across the Gulf.” Whether this might advance further consideration of a reported pan-GCC missile defense system in which several GCC members have expressed an interest and willingness to purchase – and which the American aerospace and defense manufacturing sectors remain prepared to sell, though there are reports that the Israel lobby and a leading American think tank are allegedly opposed – remains unclear.

Sticks and Stones

President Obama’s visit comes at a propitious moment. It will take place at a time when aspects of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia and GCC countries are being vilified. U.S. domestic political campaign rhetoric, legislation contemplated by the U.S. Congress, the media, and special interests are seemingly opposed to strengthening and expanding America’s strategic, economic, national security, and related interests with and in Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries. In addition, the visit comes on the heels of President Obama’s comments in a recent article in The Atlantic in which he was characterized as portraying various Arab and GCC allies as “free riders” and thinking that Saudi Arabia needs to “share” the neighborhood with Iran. If the quoted remarks accurately depict the President’s views, the implication is inescapable: namely, such comments from a sitting U.S. President can only cause America’s longstanding GCC allies to wonder how the U.S. head of state really analyzes and assesses their value as strategic partners and American allies in what is arguably the world’s most vital region.

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Answering President Obama’s “Free Riders” Allegations

In yesterday’s Arab News and Alsharq Al-Awsat, HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal defended the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against some of U.S. President Barack Obama’s disparaging comments quoted in the recent Atlantic article, “The Obama Doctrine.”

In the article, President Obama declared that “free riders” – that is, other countries, which by clear implication he included Saudi Arabia and an unspecified number of additional Arab allies – “aggravate me.” Obama stressed that he wants such countries to take action for themselves, rather than wait for the United States to lead.

As Prince Turki points out – but which the article overlooks, ignores, or downplays – this is exactly what Riyadh has done. In keeping with American intelligence and targeting assistance that the president himself authorized, Saudi Arabia has responded to the threat represented by Iran-backed insurgent rebels along the kingdom’s southern border. The kingdom has also been the sole country thus far to contribute to the New York-based United Nations Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force – to the tune of $100 million.

In addition, the kingdom has initiated the formation of a multi-country coalition numbering nearly two dozen Arab and Islamic countries designed specifically to fight terrorism and terrorists wherever they appear, including within Saudi Arabia itself. Further, not mentioned are the steps Riyadh has recently taken alongside the armed forces representatives of more than two dozen other Arab and other Islamic allied countries. For the second year in succession, the representatives witnessed the kingdom’s mobilization and deployment of more than 130,000 of its armed services personnel. This demonstrates precisely the kinds of defense capabilities that Washington officialdom has long stated it wishes to see manifested by and within the kingdom and other GCC countries.

HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal speaking at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference.

What Prince Turki did not point out but other prominent Saudi Arabians have is how Obama administration officials, in contrast to the president’s recent remarks, have repeatedly commended Saudi Arabia in ways other than those noted. They have done so in regard to the kingdom’s creative approach to doing what it can to end the scourge of extremist violence within and beyond its borders.

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The Founding of the Gulf Cooperation Council: A Retrospective and Diplomatic Memoir

What follows is an edited transcript of recent discussions between His Excellency Abdulla Y. Bishara, Founding Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and Dr. John Duke Anthony, National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Founding President and CEO as well as Founding Secretary of the U.S.-GCC Corporate Cooperation Committee.

H.E. Abdulla Bishara was not only the first leader of the GCC, but is also the longest-serving leader in the organization’s history. He was elected to four consecutive three-year terms from 1981 to 1993. Bishara was previously Ambassador of Kuwait to the United Nations from 1971 to 1981 and, prior to that, Director of the Office of Kuwait’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

H.E. Bishara and Dr. Anthony’s friendship dates from the GCC’s May 1981 founding in Abu Dhabi. Dr. Anthony was one of the official guests present for the occasion, and since then has been invited to every GCC Annual Ministerial and Heads of State Summit. The two reconnected several times recently, first in Doha, where Bishara was the keynote speaker at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies’ Second Annual Gulf Studies Forum. Dr. Anthony also participated in the forum in addition to holding meetings with Qatar University officials, including Dr. Abdullah Baabood, Director of the University’s Gulf Studies Program, on whose Advisory Board Dr. Anthony serves. They met again a few days later in Riyadh, where they were among the invited guests for the GCC’s 36th Annual Heads of State Summit.

H.E. Abdulla Y. Bishara, Founding Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the organization’s longest and highest-ranking official to serve in that position for a record of four elected three-year terms, with National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Founding President and CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony at the GCC’s 36th Annual Summit, December 10-11, 2015 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo: National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.

The transcript includes discussions between H.E. Bishara and Dr. Anthony regarding the GCC’s founding. An earlier report on this topic centered on how the founders envisioned emulating the European Union in matters regarding economic cooperation and integration. That report was offered in conjunction with analyses and assessments by incumbent GCC Secretary General Dr. Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al Zayani in a seminar sponsored by the National Council and the Council’s U.S.-GCC Corporate Cooperation Committee. Both reports venture behind the headlines. In places, they contest what are often mistakenly unchallenged views of the circumstances surrounding the establishment of the GCC.

This transcript does the same by providing hard-to-come-by information, insights, knowledge, and understanding regarding the geostrategic and geopolitical conditions of the time. Readers will also find material that bears on the GCC countries’ contemporary concerns, namely terrorism, regional security, and, by extension and implication, the ongoing issues and challenges represented by Iran and Iraq. As such, the transcript provides context and perspective on the current array of issues and challenges confronting the GCC’s decision makers as they face an uncertain future.

The account is composed in the format of questions from Dr. Anthony and responses from H.E. Bishara.

The Impetus for the GCC’s Founding

Q: Were you to address Americans and others who were not present when the GCC was founded in Abu Dhabi in May 1981, what would you have them recall as to the situation prevailing then that served to bring the GCC into being?

Death and destruction were at our doorstep. We were aghast at the nature and extent of the challenges we faced. Iran and Iraq were at each other’s throats, and each had populations as large or larger than ours combined.

A: Regardless of the fact that the GCC would likely have been established at some point, it was Iran’s and Iraq’s resort to armed conflict that provided the immediate geostrategic and geopolitical context and also the pretext for the GCC’s establishment, indeed its necessity. We were under a cloud. Death and destruction were at our doorstep. We were aghast at the nature and extent of the challenges we faced. (Would that the threatening issues in play then were not still in some ways present.) Iran and Iraq were at each other’s throats, and each had populations as large or larger than ours combined.

Q: Was it just the enormous demographic asymmetry that was such a cause for concern?

A: It was that and the fact that each had armed forces that were larger, better equipped, and more experienced than all six of ours. Given their and our respective capacities at the time, it was also that their swords were drawn and were being used; in contrast, ours, impressive as they were in the eyes of some, were still sheathed. As such, the imbalance was precarious.

Q: But as the two were fighting only each other, and neither Iran nor Iraq appeared ready to attack any of the GCC’s founding members, how did this affect the situation?

A: One had little choice but to assume the worst. Not to prepare for what sooner or later would likely be coming toward us was hardly an option.

[LEFT] H.E. Abdulla Y. Bishara; [MIDDLE] HH Shaikh Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs (1970 to 2005) and present Deputy Prime Minister; and [RIGHT] H.E. Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, Oman’s Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs, at the 10th GCC Summit in Muscat, Oman, in 1989. Photo: Dr. John Duke Anthony.

Q: What made this seem so certain?

A: Baghdad and Tehran alike were reeling in anger at what we had done. In ways that were similar yet different, each was fuming at what most analysts, in retrospect, seem to have forgotten or overlooked. Both were irate that we had, in their eyes, stolen a march on them. Here were the GCC’s six founders forging a degree of unprecedented unity of purpose among the region’s eight countries.

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