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


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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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 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. ((See Abdullah Al Shayji, “The GCC-U.S. Relationship: A GCC Perspective,” Middle East Policy Council Journal, Vol. XXI, No. 3 (Fall 2014).)) 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. ((Chelsea Carter, Mohammed Tawfeeq, and Barbara Starr, “Officials: U.S. airstrikes pound ISIS militants firing at Iraq’s Yazidis,” CNN, August 10, 2014, at

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, ((See Imad Harb, “America’s Full-Fledged Return to the Middle East,” Quest for Middle East Analysis, September 11, 2014, at 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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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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Arab League Ambassador Mohammed Al Hussaini Al Sharif Appears on “This is America & The World”

H.E. Ambassador Mohammed Al Hussaini Al Sharif, Chief Representative of the League of Arab States to the United States, former Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Canada and Turkey, and former Head of the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Houston, recently appeared on Episode 1801 of THIS IS AMERICA & THE WORLD with Dennis Wholey. The program is a weekly, international affairs television series produced in Washington, New York City, and in countries around the world, and distributed nationally on PBS. On This is America & The World, “Dennis Wholey sets out to explore the cultural, social and political lives” of “high profile individuals that shape our world.” The interview with H.E. Ambassador Al Sharif “focuses on the various sources of extreme tension throughout the Middle East and touches on Islam, ISIS and recent developments in Israel and Palestine.”