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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A Discussion with Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Dr. Abdul Latif Al Zayani

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The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and its six member-countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – could hardly have been more in the news in recent days.

First, as noted in the analysis and assessment that follows, there was the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ meeting with and briefing by His Excellency Dr. Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al Zayani, Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council, on September 18, 2015. National Council Founding President and CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony, the only American to have been invited to attend each and every GCC Ministerial and Heads of State Summit since the GCC’s establishment in 1981, presided, provided context, background, and perspective, and moderated the discussion and question and answer period.

GCC Secretary General Dr. Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al Zayani addresses a meeting organized by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations and its U.S.-GCC Corporate Cooperation Committee on September 18, 2015, in Washington, DC. Seated to the right of the Secretary General is H.E. Shaikh Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Khalifa, Ambassador of Bahrain to the U.S., and seated to the left of the Secretary General is National Council Founding President and CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony. Photo: National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.

Second, the Fifth Ministerial Meeting of the GCC-U.S. Strategic Cooperation Forum was held in New York on September 30, 2015, in conjunction with the opening of the 70th United Nations General Assembly. According to the Joint Communique following the meeting, the discussion examined issues including “the humanitarian and political crisis in Syria, the importance of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the P5+1 and Iran, the Middle East peace process, and the need for a political solution to the conflict in Yemen.”

Third, was the National Council’s standing-room-only October 6 meeting with and briefing by HRH Navy Captain (Ret.) Prince Sultan bin Khalid Al-Faisal Al Sa’ud in The Gold Room of the Rayburn Building of the U.S. Congress’ House of Representatives. In the ninety-minute meeting, Dr. Anthony provided an introductory overview of Saudi Arabia’s position and role in regional and global affairs and led a spirited discussion session following HRH Prince Sultan’s remarks.

HRH Prince Sultan outlined his views, analyses, and assessments of Saudi Arabia’s heightened assertiveness on the national and regional defense fronts. Upon the conclusion of his remarks, the Prince fielded close to thirty questions. HRH Prince Sultan’s address, Dr. Anthony’s remarks, and the Prince’s response to questions will be posted to the Council’s website by the end of the week.

Fourth, only two hours after the National Council’s program on Capitol Hill, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Senator Robert “Bob” Corker from Tennessee, conducted a hearing on“The U.S. Role and Strategy in the Middle East: Yemen and the Countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.”Accompanied by six of his fellow Senators, he did so in the context of, among other things, President Obama’s summit with the representatives of all six GCC countries this past May at Camp David. Committee members also examined the GCC countries’ leadership in the ten-nation coalition fighting to restore the legitimate government of Yemeni President Hadi.

H.E. Dr. Abdul Latif Al Zayani, Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council, addresses a meeting of the United Nations Security Council concerning the situation in Yemen in September 2013. Photo: United Nations.

In addition, the members asked questions about where the United States and the GCC countries stand with regard not only to the conflict in Yemen. They also voiced their concerns about the situation in Syria and the respective approaches by Washington officialdom, on one hand, and the capitals of the GCC countries, on the other, to the challenges that an assertive and increasingly emboldened Iran poses to the region’s peace, security, and stability.

A recurring issue was GCC countries’ perception of a U.S. disengagement from the region, which American officials, with mixed success to date, have been at pains to deny. Coupled to this issue is what many in the GCC believe is an unspoken American intention to increase the position and role of Iran’s involvement in the region. Were such an eventuality to occur, numerous among the GCC’s analysts are of the view that it could come only at the GCC region’s expense.

Two outstanding resource specialists, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Mary Beth Long and former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche, delivered statements and fielded questions from the Senators for two hours.Their respective testimonies along with a video of the Hearing are available on the Foreign Relations Committee website.

All four of these developments serve to underscore the timeliness and relevance of GCC Secretary General Al Zayani’s following analyses and assessments at the National Council’s recent meeting and briefing.

 


A Discussion with Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General H.E. Dr. Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al Zayani

September 18, 2015

On Friday, September 18, 2015, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations and the Council’s U.S.-GCC Corporate Cooperation Committee convened an informal seminar with GCC Secretary General Dr. Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al Zayani. Present, in addition to GCC ambassadors to the United States, were national security, defense, and other foreign affairs analysts and practitioners as well as scholars and select graduate students from area universities.

Dr. Al Zayani’s remarks focused on issues and interests of current and ongoing importance to the GCC and its six member-countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In a private meeting later with National Council President and CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony, the Secretary General agreed that the following summarization of his key points and perspectives could be published in keeping with the Council’s educational mission.

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The GCC-U.S. Summit: An Opportunity for Strategic Reassurance?

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An unprecedented and extraordinary event is about to occur: a heads of state summit. These, by any standard, can be and often are extraordinary events. That’s what this one is. It is so because it gathers in the capital of the United States President Barack Obama with the representatives of the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The two-day summit is set for May 13-14, 2015.

GCC leaders are scheduled to meet with the president in Washington on day one and on day two gather with him in the more capacious and secluded confines of Camp David. The latter venue is a longtime private presidential meeting place in the Maryland foothills, which is conducive to wide-ranging and deeply probing discussions on matters of common, timely, and varying degrees of urgent interest to the president, his advisers, his guests, and their advisers. The focus of this essay is the issues, challenges, and opportunities that will focus the principals’ attention while there.

The Summit’s Participants in Context

That the summit is occurring at this time is no mere coincidence. In terms of the GCC-U.S. relationship, it brings to the forefront the chief representative of the world’s most militarily, economically, and technologically advanced nation. Joining him will be the leaders of six neighboring Arab Gulf countries from what is arguably the world’s most strategically vital region that are little known and even less well understood by the American people as a whole.

What needs to be better comprehended by the American public regarding these countries are the roots and nature of their multifaceted strategic importance not just to their peoples and immediate region, but also the United States and the world in general. To begin with, the six GCC countries possess thirty per cent of the planet’s proven reserves of oil, the vital strategic commodity that drives the world’s economies. Collectively, they are also the holders of the developing world’s largest reservoir of financial assets, as measured in the trillions of dollars.

Crude Oil 2014 Proved Reserves.

In addition, the GCC countries have no rivals in their combined positive impact on the American aerospace and defense industries. In the past half-decade, their purchases of U.S.-manufactured defense and security structures, systems, technology, weaponry, ammunition, training, maintenance, and operational assistance have massively impacted and continue to impact the American economy.

The dynamism and mutuality of benefits in the U.S.-GCC relationship are envied by virtually every country that wishes it could accomplish anything remotely similar.

The purchases of American export goods and services by these countries have provided jobs essential to the material wellbeing of millions of Americans. They have extended production lines of products that would otherwise no longer be available. As a consequence, they have lowered the cost per unit of many American manufactured goods. In so doing, they have thereby enhanced the competitiveness of this component of the American economy to a degree envied by virtually every government or corporation in other countries that would wish they could accomplish anything remotely similar.

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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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Tenth Manama Dialogue and Regional Challenges

By Dr. John Duke Anthony and Dr. Imad Kamel Harb

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High level delegates from about twenty countries will meet in the Bahraini capital Manama on December 5-7. They will convene to debate regional realities of defense and security. Among the unwelcome developments since last year’s gathering have been Israel’s heightened provocation, oppression, dis-possession, and ongoing denial of the rights of Palestinian Arab Christians and Muslims among its citizens and those under its continuing illegal occupation. The participants are also faced with the further rise and sweep of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS); the Houthi advances in Yemen to the capital in Sanaa and beyond to the Red Sea and Hudeidah, the country’s second largest port; and the problematic and yet-again-extended negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

The Islamic State

F-16 Desert Falcons from the UAE Air Force

F-16 Desert Falcons from the UAE Air Force lined up during joint training with the U.S. in 2011. Photo: U.S. Air Force.

Few intelligence analysts and political and security watchers predicted that an extremist Islamist faction in Syria’s civil war would sweep with such force through northern Iraq, threaten Baghdad, and inch its way through the country’s western Anbar Province to within range of Saudi Arabia’s borders. Indeed, the confused and confusing battlefield in Syria has again proven that it can spawn the kinds of circumstances, events, and players that at once threaten to destabilize the Levant and pose what, a year ago, were then unforeseen challenges to the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf regions. Just as dangerous in the rise and advance of ISIS has become the lure, to many recruits to its ranks, of its millennial ideology and its promise to establish an unsullied Islamic Caliphate that would redress Muslim grievances.

One of the most difficult issues confronting the Manama Dialogue participants is how to address the multifaceted causative underpinnings of the threat that ISIS poses to regional stability and peace. Having the necessary military means to protect against real and imagined threats is one thing. Being able to mobilize, deploy, and effectively implement such means is another. Of the two, the latter is vexing as it is pinned to the hope of containing and countering, if not delivering a mighty body blow, to regional radicalism and violent extremism that would discredit and severely weaken the appeal of such phenomena for far into the future. That a small militant faction like ISIS, which was originally armed with only the most rudimentary weapons it had collected on the Syrian battlefield, was able to roll over a well-armed Iraqi army proved two interrelated facts that contained important lessons.

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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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Listen to NCUSAR Public Affairs Briefings from Spring and Summer 2013

Audio recordings of National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ Public Affairs Briefings held during the spring and summer of 2013 are available for streaming and downloading. Listen to and download each program through the links below, or visit the National Council’s podcast feed through iTunes to access recordings from Council programs.

Bahrain: A Conversation About Its Challenges and Opportunities

May 21, 2013 briefing in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC on “Bahrain: A Conversation About Its Challenges and Opportunities.”

On May 21, 2013, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations and the U.S.-GCC Corporate Cooperation Committee hosted “Bahrain: A Conversation About Its Challenges and Opportunities” featuring Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann, President, American Academy of Diplomacy and former U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain, Afghanistan, and Algeria; Professor David Des Roches, Senior Military Fellow, Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University; Ms. Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director, Middle East and North Africa Division, Human Rights Watch; and Professor Paul Sullivan, Professor of Economics, National Defense University and Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University. Dr. John Duke Anthony, Founding President & CEO, National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, served as moderator.

Links to a podcast and video recording of the program are available below. The podcast, along with recordings of other National Council programs, is also available through iTunes: http://bit.ly/itunes-ncusar.

“Bahrain: A Conversation About Its Challenges and Opportunities” podcast (.mp3) “Bahrain: A Conversation About Its Challenges and Opportunities” podcast (.mp3)