Our 97th Conference on Capitol Hill
When: Friday, July 19th - 10am - noon
Where: Russell Senate Office Building, Room 485 (Directions here)
RSVP: Email [email protected] or call 202-296-6767
GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: All right. Good morning, everyone. I am Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, the vice chairwoman of the board of the Middle East Policy Council. I’m pleased to welcome you to this, our 97th Quarterly Capitol Hill Conference. Our topic today is the United States-Saudi Arabian relationship. Over the last forty years, many of us have observed and supported this relationship, from deepening our counterterrorism cooperation, to championing women’s rights. The challenge on each side has been to reconcile close, effective cooperation on national security issues, while remaining faithful to two very different value systems. Under the current leadership of both countries these tensions have been brought into sharp focus. The nature of our military cooperation, human rights violations, addressing regional bad actor and more demand attention and likely change. These issues are ripe for informed, dispassionate review, and we are fortunate to have an experienced group of panelists today to delve into the factors at play affecting the U.S. approach to Saudi Arabia, our relationship, and its future.
However, before I turn to today’s program I would like to say a few words about the Middle East Policy Council. The Council was established in 1981 for the purpose of promoting dialogue and education concerning the United States and the countries of the Middle East. We have three flagship programs. Our quarterly Capitol Hill Conference, such as today’s event. Our quarterly journal, Middle East Policy, which enjoys a strong reputation among those with an interest in Middle Eastern affairs and can be found in 15,000 libraries worldwide. And I think, very importantly, our education outreach program, TeachMideast. It provides educational resources for the Middle East, targeting mainly towards secondary-school students and teachers. Please visit us on our website www.MEPC.org, and our TeachMideast program at www.TeachMideast.org to learn more about our organization and our activities.
Now to today’s event. This program is being livestreamed on our website, and so I’m pleased to welcome all of you who’ve joined us online. The conference proceedings will be posted in video and transcript form on our website, as will a recap of the discussion. An edited transcript of the program will be published in the next issue of our journal, Middle East Policy. Let me now briefly introduce our panelists. We will begin the program with Mr. Tom Lippman, an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute and the former Middle East bureau chief of The Washington Post. Our next speaker will be Ms. Dana Stroul, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy, and a former professional staff member for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Welcome. And finally, my long-term colleague and friend Ambassador Gerald Feierstein, senior vice president and director of Gulf Affairs Programs at the Middle East Institute. Gerry is also a former principal, deputy assistant secretary, and former ambassador to Yemen. I’d like to thank all of you for joining us today.
The program will begin with each panelist delivering brief opening remarks. And this will be followed by a discussion session which will be moderated by my colleague, Dr. Tom Mattair, executive director of the Middle East Policy Council. Note that we have followed our usual practice of placing index cards on all of the seats. Please use these to write down any questions you have as the speakers are speaking, and then hold up the card. Our staff will collect them during the presentations and give them to Dr. Mattair, so that he can consolidate the questions for the discussion period. And with that, I’d like to turn the podium over to Tom. Thank you.
TOM LIPPMAN: Thank you very much, Gina. Thanks to the Middle East Policy Council for organizing this event and inviting me to participate in it.
It’s now 43 years since I first went to Saudi Arabia. And, you know, in the days when the best hotel in Jeddah didn’t even have telephones in the rooms, before it was really a fully developed country in a material sense. And even then it was very difficult to understand the nature of this peculiar relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which had come together in the days when they were really at opposite poles of civilization. And so what I thought I would do is talk a bit about the relationship. As I’m sure you all know if you’re interested enough to be here, can be traced back to the time of the 1940s.
But in the 1930s when, you know, an American oil company got the first oil concession, and then in the 1940s, the two countries forged their first strategic and security relationship when the king gave permission for the United States to build a strategic airbase at Dhahran, because the United States was fighting a two-front war. That elevated the relationship to another level. And under Truman, we sent in a team of specialists to create the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority. So by that time, we had – we sort of had the peninsula blanketed, so to speak.
But all through the time since, this relationship has been beset by furious disagreements, anger, and policy differences that you might think would have left some kind of permanent damage. And they began – I’m going to enumerate them because they’re – some of them are better known than others. They began, of course, when President Truman recognized Israel, the moment it was created. And other Arab leaders wrote to King Abdulaziz and urged him to cancel the American concession, which he declined to do because it was the only source of real money.
In 1953, the Saudis were furious because the United States refused to back them in their dispute with Britain over the Buraymi Oasis, a piece of land where Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE come together. Dulles didn’t want to choose between friends, so he didn’t. And the Saudis couldn’t understand that. In 1954 was a little-known episode in which the new King Saud gave a contract to a gentleman named Aristotle Onassis that would have ended the American oil monopoly on the Saudi oil industry. The Americans were – Eisenhower personally gave the order to make sure that contract never went into effect. And I know about this episode because it’s the subject of my most recently book, which I’m happy to say is excerpted in this issue of Middle East Policy. Thank you for coming. Great book. You should all buy multiple copies.
Then, of course, came the oil embargo of ’73-’74. When you read Kissinger’s telephone transcripts and cable traffic you’ll see that the he referred to the Arabs as a bunch of savages, which will give you an idea of the esteem in which – after all, it was even – Kissinger when he finally went to Saudi Arabia received a gift from the king, which was a bound copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was, you know, not the thing I would give a Jew every day of the week, but. In 1979, the Saudis made Jimmy Carter very unhappy by not only refusing – not only not endorsing but refusing to accept the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. And the last time I was in Baghdad was a time in the spring of ’79 when all the Arab foreign ministers got together and threw Egypt out of the Arab League. As much effort as Jimmy Carter has put in on courting the Saudis, it wasn’t enough.
In 1988 came the peculiar episode in which the United States discovered by accident that the Saudis had acquired nuclear-capable Chinese missiles, which they would not let us inspect. That – I mean, the first thing that happened was Richard Armitage, which some of you may remember, told the Saudis that they had managed to put themselves right at the top of Israel’s target list, where they had not been. That episode took some doing to unravel. Then, of course, there was 9/11. Fifteen of the 19 – please don’t ask me about the 15 of the 19. I’ve answered that question every day for, like, 15 years. In 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq over Saudi objections, you had the famous remarks in which King Abdullah referred to it as an illegal occupation. And then came the nuclear agreement with Iran, which made the Saudis very unhappy. Not so much because of the contents of the agreement itself, but because it spooked them. They thought that we were trying to forge some kind of equitable relationship with the Iranians, which they could not understand. And then, of course, came the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Now, in the whole history of this relationship, there has never been a time when the strategic planning or the relationship in any sense was put in jeopardy or threatened by human rights issues of any kind, or the fate of any individual. Every year the State Department excoriates Saudi Arabia in its annual report on human rights around the world, and it never makes any difference in terms of policy. Even Jimmy Carter, who made human rights the foundation of his foreign policy, went to Saudi Arabia and was deferential to the point of obsequious because he wanted something from them. They didn’t deliver, namely the endorsement of Sadat’s initiative, but that’s the way it has always been. One side wants something from the other.
So now the question is, what happens if Donald Trump is not reelected? I can imagine, let’s say, Joe Biden or Amy Klobuchar, who are pragmatist and centrists, holding their noses and continuing to do security business with Saudi Arabia. But it’s hard to imagine Elizabeth Warren, or Pete Buttigieg, or Cory Booker, or some of the others, doing business as usual – endorsing the arms sales, you know, inviting the Saudi princess to the White House. Security cooperation, I think will continue regardless of what happens in this country. But it’s – otherwise, it’s possible, and maybe even likely, that there would be quite a change, especially in the visuals and atmospherics.
And one reason is, as you’ve seen in the votes on JASTA a couple years ago and on Yemen, there’s never been a popular constituency for Saudi Arabia in the United States. Every few people’s grandparents came from Saudi Arabia. And there’s a reason why there is no congressional Saudi Caucus. There’s a Tajikistan Caucus, but not Saudi Arabia. And that’s because there’s no political risk for anybody in Congress in coming out and taking a vote that’s hostile to or opposed to Saudi Arabia. There’s nothing to lose. And now you have a situation where we don’t need the oil, we don’t have military bases there, and unless you have major defense contractors in your district you have nothing to lose by coming out against the Saudis.
So I think now, for the first time really since 1945, it’s possible to envision an evolution of the relationship in which at long last Saudi Arabia will be treated like any other country. Thank you. (Applause.)
DANA STROUL: Good morning, everybody. So I’m going to build off some of those comments and talk about the U.S.-Saudi relationship, both in the context of the congressional debate, and then take it a little bit more broadly and ask some fundamental – pose some fundamental policy questions for those of you who are engaged in either framing the foreign policy debates for your bosses on the Hill, outside the Hill, talking about these issues.
So you all should know that I just wrapped up last year several years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as the Middle East staffer, and so had a front-row seat to a lot of the debates about Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Saudi relationship as a lot of these votes were taking place here on the Hill. I would characterize the current state and debate of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as the most serious crisis in the relationship since September 11th – since 9/11. And what’s unique about the debate right now, and the focus on Saudi Arabia, is that it includes members on both sides of the aisle, it’s bipartisan in both chambers, it’s bicameral. And it is – it has – it’s not unique to the current administration. There were very fierce debates about U.S.-Saudi policy in the previous administration as well, specifically when then-Minister of Defense – well, current Minister of Defense Mohammad Bin Salman decided to engage in military operations in Yemen, with very little heads-up to Washington. And that was in the previous administration, not the current one.
If you had to give one sentence to describe what the crux of the debate is right now on the Hill and in Washington, I think it is: Is the U.S.-Saudi relationship and is Saudi Arabia more destabilizing in the region, and for U.S. interests, or is it – can it be a force for stability? So is it recklessness or not? And if you look at some of the language, the findings, the senses of Congress and some of the legislation that’s coming out of both the House and the Senate, words like “recklessness,” “destabilizing,” “instability,” are used to describe this relationship. Generally U.S. partners and allies, we create networks of alliances and we use tools like security cooperation, military assistance, economic engagement, trade, scholarships, cultural engagement, et cetera, because we believe that our relationships can contribute to stability, particularly in the Middle East.
In Congress, members of Congress for this Congress and the past Congress have probably taken more foreign policy votes that somehow touch the U.S. Saudi relationship, compared to any other issue. More votes on Saudi Arabia than Israel, BDS, Iran, et cetera. That is different from several Congresses ago, but now it’s about Saudi Arabia. And that’s whether it’s the vote for the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism, JASTA, many – four years ago. And that was actually vetoed by President Obama and then overridden in the Senate. That’s a very strong expression about that. And here it was viewed as a domestic issue, but certainly Riyadh saw it as a statement about the U.S.-Saudi relationship. And the Senate overrode that veto, which takes a strong bipartisan majority, obviously, 67.
There have been multiple resolutions of disapproval on arms sales, both offensive and defensive weapons. That’s also not new to this year. It’s been going on for years. In both the House and the Senate there’s been multiple votes on war powers resolutions, multiple votes on this issue. There have been votes on amendments to the NDAA, the National Defense Authorization Act, in both the House and the Senate, that specifically are about the U.S.-Saudi relationship, specifically about weapon sales, and specifically about U.S. support to Saudi-led military operations in Yemen, I’m not going to talk too much about that, because Gerry’s going to do that.
And the latest series of showdowns are about Congress’ attempts to demand some accountability and assessment from the current administration about what happened related to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee invoked Global Magnitsky designations and asked for a determination that didn’t happen by the – by the Trump administration. And then finally the most recent showdown was when the – an emergency exception under the Arms Export Control Act, the AECA, was invoked in order for the administration to move forward on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf partners, without the statutorily required congressional review period here on the Hill.
So some of this is about Saudi Arabia and a very stark difference in opinion between members of Congress and the strategic utility of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. And some of it is about congressional-executive purview. Where should Congress be determining foreign policy, and what’s in the executive branch’s purview to determine. But all of this has been taking place over years. So members of Congress are not just taking votes on the U.S.-Saudi relationship; they are leaning about weapons sales.
How do they work? What do members of Congress get to review? What are offensive systems – defense systems? What are defensive? They are learning the legislation. They are learning the process. They’re learning about security cooperation. They’re learning about all the other U.S. programs, and policies, and colors of money, and tools that form the foundation of this relationship, and have for a long time. So now they can talk about professional military education. They can talk about students studying in the United States. They can talk about the different kinds of entrepreneurship, economic commercial engagement, et cetera.
So members of Congress are deeply familiar now, not just with broadly the U.S.-Saudi relationship, but they can – they are well-versed in the tools. Which means, when people talk to members of Congress about the U.S.-Saudi relationship the general talking points on foreign policy just don’t cut it anymore. They are deeply educated in the details of what’s going on in Yemen, about the various parties in this conflict. They are deeply educated about how military systems go through a process of approvals before they’re sold to any partner. So now we’re in a situation where it’s not just about Saudi Arabia, but there’s a debate about how military sales will go forward to the rest of the Middle East – the largest purchaser of U.S. defense equipment.
Against all of these votes, and all of this education as a result of what was going on in the region, consider what members saw taking place in the region that they ascribe as coming out of Riyadh. So there was a military intervention in Yemen in 2015, after years of diplomacy trying to avoid that. There was the blockade of Qatar, which was seen as Saudi-led. There was the detention and, for a while, resignation of the Lebanese prime minister. There was the round-up of arrests – there was arrests and alleged torture at the Ritz Carlton of large swaths – (background noise) – somebody didn’t like me saying that. (Laughter.) Probably the Ritz. (Laughter.) Of a broad cross-section of business executives and elites. There, right after the granting of women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia, there was the detention and alleged torture of several women’s rights activists. There was also the spat with the government of Canada over a tweet about human rights.
All of these things were taking place in the region and seen driven by Saudi Arabia, at the same time that Congress was actively debating and taking votes on different kinds of legislation relating to all different aspects of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. And then there was the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. And then there were weeks of different messages about what was taking place. And then there was the refusal of the Trump administration to respond to congressional invocations of law, like the Global Magnitsky Act. All of this together has reached, you know, this crisis point.
So where are we now? I think there’s no doubt or question that Saudi government officials and people in Riyadh, and really across Saudi Arabia, are very much aware of the dynamics here in Washington. They’re aware of the debate about the strategic utility of the U.S.-Saudi relationship moving forward. And there’s certainly an eagerness in Riyadh to find a way to move forward. And so I think the question here for policymakers, whether on the Hill, in the executive branch, in the communities of interest around people taking votes and creating policies, what are we going to do with that desire to move forward? Is the debate about divorcing the Saudis and going in another strategic direction? Or is there an opportunity here to move forward in some way?
So I’m just going to be briefly touch on the broader geopolitical context. We should be asking ourselves: Do we accept the premise of the National Defense Strategy, that the next – that the current strategic threat environment in which the United States operates are near-peer revisionist powers like Russia and China that deeply challenge us on a multi-spectrum of threats? Or do you ascribe to the premise that still the major threats facing the United States are terrorism, and fragile states, and instability? In that case, the game is still in the Middle East. Whether it’s Russia and China, there’s also obviously Asia-Pacific.
And you saw both the Obama administration tried to do their pivot, and there’s a lot of talk currently in this administration and also on the Hill about disengagement or burden-sharing in the Middle East, which basically means U.S. forces should get out and we should shift the burden, have other people put in resources. But the bottom line is whether you ascribe to either of these world views or both, do you need partners and allies to address those threats? And in that context, would we prefer Saudi Arabia to be in the umbrella with us, or not?
So, Iran policy. Regardless of your views on the JCPOA, there’s a potential for U.S.-Iran confrontation in the Middle East right now. And if the blood of U.S. forces or U.S. personnel is spilled, and we are in a situation where we have to confront militarily, do we want to be working with Saudi Arabia? Do we need them for air space access, for basing of forces, for maritime threats? Israel, there’s a debate right now on the Hill I think – more in the Democratic Caucus than the Republican – about the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship. But there’s no question that relationships between Israel and Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, are expanding. Is it in our interest for these countries to be working together?
Assistance to Syria. The Trump administration cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in stabilization assistance to northeast Syria. But the Saudis actually stepped in right now. So if it’s about burden sharing, and about the U.S. government not always being the first entity to be paying assistance dollars, do we want to be talking to Riyadh about where can share the burden? Iraq. One of the key premises of U.S. policy to Iraq is if we don’t give the Iraqis options other than Iran, than the Iraq-Iran relationship will just deepen. Despite everything I just laid out about all the troubling developments coming out of Riyadh, there’s actually been an opening from the government of Saudi Arabia to Iraq, and some efforts to integrate Iraq into the Arab fold. That might be in the U.S. interest to continue to develop.
Finally, my bias – just to be clear – sustainable, meaningful change I view as incremental and not necessarily on the headlines, and certainly not the stuff of senior leader meetings or senior leader statements. So my eyebrows were really raised at an Economist article that came out during Ramadan about a new television series in Saudi Arabia called Al-Asouf. And it was – the title, and I encourage all of you to look it up, “A Saudi series hints that change is afoot.” Consider the demography of Saudi Arabia, where a large majority of the population is under the age of 30. Mobile phone usage, 100 percent. Internet saturation some of the highest in the Middle East.
A few other points that I wanted to mention. Vision 2030, which was articulated by Mohammad Bin Salman as a transformational project. Even if some of the goals are too lofty, and it’s not talking about democracy, is a vision and some policies undergirding that vision for economic and social change and economic diversification away from oil potentially more stabilizing over the medium to long term? Consider the Muslim World League, the Secretary General Muhammed al-Issa wrote an article in The Washington Post recently, “Why Muslims from Around the World Should Remember the Holocaust.” And he is working on reforming the Saudi educational system.
So while we are having a debate here about the future of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, there are – there are changes taking place in Saudi Arabia. And I think there’s a question for us in framing this in how much are we just going to punish the Saudis for what happened, and can we take a step back and use some of the pressure and awareness that this relationship may need to go in a different direction to open up new opportunities? I think there are many Saudi officials that are eager to have that conversation. There’s a new Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., who’s eager to have that conversation. So I think there’s a fundamental question here about whether or not we want to work on this relationship, whether it needs to be updated, transitioned for 21st century challenges. That’s a question that I think we can explore. The question is, do we want to explore it in cooperation or not? (Applause.)
THOMAS R. MATTAIR: Can I remind you that if you’ve got questions, write them down and raise your hands so our staff can come and collect them? Thank you.
GERALD FEIERSTEIN: I want to first thank Gina and Rich for inviting us to come here today and participate in this – in this conversation, and to demonstrate again that for those of us who are recovering foreign service officers, there is life after State Department, which is good. And also to thank Tom and Dana for their remarks. And I think that we just saw in Dana’s presentation why she was, when she was at SFRC, the best staffer ever, for those of us who, you know, found our way up to the Hill from time to time.
I want to start – you know, this is a – this is a conversation about the U.S.-Saudi relationship. And I wanted to begin by stressing that this is not about the U.S. relationship with Mohammad Bin Salman. And one of the things that struck me over the last couple of years is that we’ve lost sight of the fact that there is a relationship with a whole country out there that, as Tom has said, stretches back for nearly 90 years and has been based on shared interests, shared perspectives, shared policies over a number of years. And I’m not here to defend Mohammad Bin Salman. I’m not here to try to explain what was going through his mind about Jamal Khashoggi, who many of us in this room knew and considered a friend. And so we need to think about the broader relationship.
And one of the narratives here in Washington that I found really striking over this last almost year now since Khashoggi’s murder is the extent to which we have conflated a number of different aspects of Saudi policy, of U.S. – of U.S. perspectives on Saudi Arabia, of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia in ways that I think are unhelpful for the interests of both countries. And primarily, to make the point that I think this conflation is particularly egregious when it comes to how this city and this Congress perceives the Saudi intervention in Yemen. And I think, as Tom said, our – the relationship that we’ve had with Saudi Arabia has had its ups and downs over the years. I think that you could probably make the same point about just about every country in the world.
We have, over the years, found reason to work very closely with the Saudis. And a number of us were involved in the – in the intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s, where Saudi Arabia was a critical partner in helping to implement the U.S. policy objective of driving the former Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. They were principal funders, financiers of a great deal of the activities. They helped facilitate, through their intelligence agencies, through Prince Turki Al Faisal and his organization, working very closely with U.S. intelligence community to achieve what were perceived at the time to be a critical U.S. national security objective.
Today we work together on Iran. We have worked together on Iran since 1979 and, again, largely share the same objectives in terms of Iranian behavior in the region, Iranian threats to regional security and stability. But as Tom said, quite correctly, it hasn’t always been a positive relationship. We’ve had our differences over Israeli-Palestinian issues, over Camp David, over a number of other areas where we have not seen eye-to-eye, and where we have had to manage those differences, and provide stability to a relationship that was troubled.
Yemen fits into that pattern of up and down – up and down relationships with the Saudis over the years. And I think that the Yemenis often have observed, not always positively, that the United States has tended over the years to see Yemen policy, to see our interests in Yemen largely through Saudi perceptions, through Saudi eyes. And that’s not a wrong position that they’ve taken. Our support for Saudi policy in Yemen goes back to the 1960s, when the Kennedy administration worked with the Saudis in support of the monarchy in Yemen, primarily because the Saudis perceived Nasserite pan-Arabism as a greater threat to the stability of their rule of the Al Saud in Saudi Arabia, as well as the other Gulf monarchies, to be greater than support for the imamate Zaidi Shia theocracy that had ruled Yemen for many, many years.
In the 1980s, the United States and Saudi Arabia worked together to support the north Yemen government – the Yemen Arab Republic, at that time, and established a trilateral military assistance program – U.S. providing military support to the north Yemen military that was paid for by the Saudi government. And that was primarily because of the concerns about the threat to the Saudi stability opposed by the people’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, south Yemen, at that time. And so that continued for a number of years. We provided F-5s. We provided other kinds of military support. Until the Saudis and the Yemenis broke in 1990-91 over Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
And then the two governments, Saudi Arabia and the United States, broke. We supported the Saudi decision to expel Yemeni workers in 1990-91 to cut off assistance. But when south Yemen had tried to break off again and form another government in 1994, having merged north and south Yemen in 1990, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia found themselves on different sides of the – of the issue. The United States supported Ali Abdullah Saleh and the government in the north. And the Saudis provided assistance to the south and supported the breakoff of the country, and the resumption of separate north and south Yemen governments.
After a period of years, though, we came back again together in 2011 and 2012, where the United States and Saudi Arabia worked very closely as part of a larger international coalition that included all of the perm five countries of the U.N. Security Council, as the GCC and a number of the European governments, to work on a political transition document that eventually was completed and became the GCC transition agreement. And we worked together very closely after that on the implementation of that document, from the time that it was signed in 2011 until the Houthis disrupted it in 2014.
And let me just make the point that in fact had it not been for the intervention of King Abdullah personally with Ali Abdullah Saleh in late 2011, it’s unlikely that the agreement would have been signed. And we probably would have ended up in this civil conflict that we’re experiencing now in Yemen several years before it actually broke out. After the agreement was signed, after President Hadi was elected or selected as the transition president in 2012, Saudi interest in Yemen declined. They became less involved in the political transition, perhaps in part because it was uncomfortable for them to promote democratic transition in Yemen. It was not something that they were familiar with.
And so the U.S. and our Western partners took the lead. But the Saudis continued to play an important part in providing economic assistance, in providing development assistance, working very closely with the World Bank, with the IMF, and with the West on ways of ensuring that development assistance in Yemen continued to flow and continued to meet the requirements of development in that country. So this was the status up until 2014. We remained in very close touch with the Saudis. We continued to work with them to share views and objectives, to engage with them on the concerns that we both felt as we saw that some of the issues within Yemen, the dysfunctionality of the transition government, the efforts of Ali Abdullah Saleh to undermine the transition, some of the unrest that the Houthis were manifesting in the north. As those issues continued to emerge, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia maintained a very close dialogue, a very positive dialogue.
And that reached a peak in late 2014-early 2015 as the situation in Yemen continued to deteriorate. Dana’s remark that we had very little notice of the Saudi decision to intervene is correct. But I would make a point that the Saudis did inform us. And this I a reflection of a larger change in the nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and the nature of the U.S. relationship more broadly with our – with our gulf allies and partners. And that is that as the perception has developed that the U.S. interest in the region is fading – partly because of the negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal, partly because of the statements by President Obama as well as the policies at this current time of President Trump – that they saw a decline in U.S. interest and came to the conclusion, not incorrectly, that they needed to take more responsibility themselves for protecting their own interests, for pursuing their own objectives.
And so prior to their decision to intervene, the Saudis did come to Washington. They did talk to the White House and to the State Department and others, to inform rather than to request permission to intervene Yemen. And again, to make the point that at the time they made the decision, one, they didn’t anticipate – and we certainly didn’t anticipate – that the situation would drag on for four years. And secondly, their intent at that time was to stabilize the situation that they believed at the time that they were going to secure the stability of the Hadi government, perhaps relocate it to Aden because of the Houthi occupation of Sana’a. But it was not their intent to go beyond what was already agreed to in the transition agreement, that their intention was to stabilize the situation and allow the political transition to reach its conclusion. It obviously hasn’t worked out that way.
But here’s another point where I have some concerns or disagreement with the way the narrative plays out in Washington. Two issues. One is that there is an inclination in Washington to look at the conflict in Yemen as a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and somehow to see the Houthis as the element that is defending Yemeni sovereignty against Saudi aggression. This is absolutely incorrect. The reality is that what’s happening in Yemen is a civil conflict. It’s a conflict that goes back, its roots, 40 or 50 years. It’s a conflict that has erupted in violence periodically throughout that 50- or 60-year period. And this is only the latest manifestation of a conflict that has never been resolved among the Yemenis. The Saudi intervention is quite aside from that.
And then the other point is that one needs to distinguish between the issues that drove Saudi – the Saudi decision to intervene versus their implementation of their decision. And here, again, I would say that while I believe that the Saudi decision to intervene was based on real and legitimate concerns that they had, this is not to suggest that their implementation is not a fit subject for criticism. It absolutely is. Some of the Saudi – some of the Saudi efforts have been tragic, abominable and completely incompetent and incoherent. So it’s not to say that, you know, because we understand why the Saudis intervened, therefore we must understand how they intervened. That’s not – that’s not the case.
In my view, the Saudis have three legitimate concerns about the nature of the conflict. One is, of course, as we’ve seen increasingly over these past months, the security of their southern border. And I would say that the – that the Saudis in particular see an existential threat from a Houthi presence on their southern border in the same way that they perceive that the Israelis face a threat from Hezbollah on their northern border. And that is something that is completely unacceptable to Saudi Arabia.
The second is the presence of the IRGC and Hezbollah in Yemen supporting the Houthis. And again, to clarify a point, because sometimes you’ll see arguments that, in fact, the Iranian intervention, the IRGC presence are a response to the Saudi intervention. I can say that even when I was still in Sana’a in 2012, several years before the situation deteriorated, the Iranians were already involved in providing weapons and sending IRGC personnel to the Houthis to provide training to receive Houthi elements in Iran for – not only for military training, but also for proselytization in Shia religion.
So the second element of Saudi concern is this presence of IRGC and Hezbollah trainers and assistance inside Yemen. And then the third element of Saudi concern, of course, is the nature of the government. And that is that the Saudis want to see a government in Sana’a that they can work with. And does not mean that they are opposed to – opposed to a Houthi presence in the government. And I have been with senior Saudi officials when they’ve said quite explicitly that they are not opposed to Houthi participation in the government, but Houthi participation as a political entity and not as a paramilitary Hezbollah-like entity.
So this war has dragged on for several years. We, of course, have supported, as the Saudis and the other coalition partners have supported, the idea of a U.N.-negotiated resolution. It’s not clear that we’ve come any closer to that resolution at this point, primarily, in my view, because on neither side have we seen a decision that they can achieve more at the negotiating table than they can achieve on the battlefield. Neither side feels as though they’ve been defeated. Neither side feels as though momentum has shifted to the – to the other. And therefore, neither side feels compelled at this point to find a political solution.
To wrap up, I would – I would make just a couple of final points. One, of course, what we’re all seeing now is the decision on the part of the Emirates to withdraw their military forces from the aspect of their presence in Yemen that is related to the Houthi campaign – keeping in mind that the Emirates has two strictly separate objectives in the region. One is to support the Saudis and their coalition activities. The other is a CT mission. The Emiratis have been clear in saying that they intend to continue their efforts on the CT side. And it’s only in relation to the Houthis and they’re withdrawing.
They make several points in explanation of their decision. One is that they believe that they have trained a sufficient number of Yemeni personnel so that the Yemenis themselves can take on the resistance against the Houthis without Emirati intervention. There are also several thousand Sudanese troops in Yemen who are participating in that – in that military campaign. Second point that they make is that given the rise in tension with Iran that they believe that they needed their forces back in UAE, particularly their patriot air defense systems, in order to guard against a potential conflict with Iran. So that’s our explanation.
But this has serious implications for Saudis, of course, because the Emiratis have been the ones who have been leading the ground campaign over these past several years. The Saudis have been primarily involved in the air campaign. And whether the Saudis will be able to fill the vacuum that would be left by an Emirati withdrawal remains to be seen. But I would say, in conclusion on that point, that because of what I see as a Saudi perception of existential threat from Yemen, I do believe that they will carry on their campaign regardless of what the Emiratis do and, frankly speaking, regardless of what the U.S. government does. There are many people who think that the Saudis cannot carry on their military campaign without U.S. support. I think that’s absolutely false, that the Saudis – if you believe that you are facing an existential threat, you will continue your efforts regardless of what the larger international circumstance is.
But the final question – and I think, you know, Dana left a number of questions on the – on the table, as she – as she finished her remarks. And let me – let me leave another question on the table. The United States and Saudi Arabia have worked together, particularly since the 1950s, for the last 70 years or so, as two countries that shared basic – a basic perspective on the region, basic policy goals and objectives, basic national security views. And that both countries over the years have been primarily status quo forces. We have believed in protecting the security and stability of the region and to maintain the status quo. What we’ve seen over these last couple of years, with the rise of Mohammad Bin Salman – and Dana and Tom laid out many of the key elements – what we’ve seen over these last couple of years is that Saudi Arabia perhaps is no longer a status quo force in the region. That Mohammad Bin Salman, for whatever reason, has adopted a disruptive position vis-à-vis key elements of regional policy.
But the other aspect of that is that the United States also, under the Trump administration, has also become disruptive. It’s hard to argue that Trump policy is in support of regional security and stability. And so the question now is if both the United States and Saudi Arabia have become disruptive forces in the region, are we being disruptive in a way that allows us to work together or are we on a path that is going to take us on divergent paths over these coming years. So is the future of the United States and Saudi partnership sustainable? I’ll stop there. (Applause.)
MR. MATTAIR: First, thank you to the panel. I’ll start with one or two questions of mine, come to all the questions from the audience. We heard about disagreements that we’ve had with the Saudis over the decades. And we heard about a basic kind of security cooperation and economic cooperation over the decades as well. So I think the question that Dana left us with at the end really was about going forward, does the Saudi military cooperation with us, economic cooperation with us, and generally speaking trying to make sure that there is oil at a reasonable price available to everybody in the market, their counterterrorism cooperation with us, their intelligence cooperation with us – does it outweigh the current disagreements we have with them? And should we be going forward with them to deal with current strategic challenges that we have from Russia, China, Iran, and others?
Tom, you know, I could actually read something that you wrote some years ago and ask you if you still feel that way, and if everybody would basically agree. But I’d have to find it first. No, here it is: The overriding consideration with strategic and economic reasons, neither country wants a break with the other. You can have arguments and criticism, but the overriding need of the two countries for each other will require that those differences be managed, even if they continue to exist. Is that where we are? Is that – how do the three of you feel about that general proposition that we need to find a way to go forward with them to tackle the challenges that we face in the region?
MR. LIPPMAN: Well, if I may, I’ll respond to that. Every year in late February-early March the commander of CENTCOM, U.S. Central Command, a general who’s responsible for all U.S. military activities throughout the Middle East and South Asia, submits an extensive report to Congress on the strategic issues and arrangements and alliances throughout the region. And if you read that report, he does a general statement and a country-by-country assessment.
And it becomes clear that Saudi Arabia is not the most important country for the security interests and policies that the United States is pursuing in that region. That is to say, the Saudis are much more dependent on us. Their military capabilities remain questionable. And we don’t have big military commitments or presence in Saudi Arabia. The United States has troops everywhere from Incirlik to Diego Garcia, but really not in Saudi Arabia. The naval headquarters in Bahrain. We have big air base in Qatar. We have troops in Kuwait. We have troops in Djibouti, right?
And so if you combine the fact that we could conduct our strategic policies in the region – other than terrorism, it seems to me – without Saudi Arabia, and the fact that the energy picture has changed completely over the past 10 years, I think you could make a case that you could now deal with Saudi Arabia, let’s say, on an issue-by-issue basis, without having to pursue some kind of overall hand-holding framework of the kind that we’ve had in the past. Keep your eye on the issue of nuclear proliferation.
MR. MATTAIR: Dana, you raised the question at the end. Where do you stand on it?
MS. STROUL: Well, so I’m going to react to two things I just heard. One is, could we move away from the overall framework of holding hands – of holding the Saudis’ hands in terms of pursuit of our security interests? I would generally say that other than Israel, that is sort of how our relationships with countries in the Middle East work. We hold – if you go to a lot of these capitals, to these governments, and you ask them to articulate exactly how you get to a political settlement for Syria, exactly what does a power-sharing agreement in Sana’a look like, exactly how should we address the threat from Iran, it’s hard – it’s very challenging to get them to articulate a very specific policy, a strategy, and then the tools to get there.
In general, a lot of governments in the region are looking to others to articulate what that ends, ways, means is. And they can either listen to use, and then we can suggest ways in which they can plug into what our vision is, or they can listen to others – Moscow, for example. My view is it would be better for us to be leading and articulating that vision, and working with countries when our interests align, to achieve whatever that vision or strategy is. We don’t have relationships because they’re good for others. We have relationships because they’re good for us, because it’s in line with our interests. So if our interests are that we view Russian presence and activities in the region as inherently destabilizing, then we should probably be working on shoring up partners and allies that can work to limit that presence and those activities in the region. And that doesn’t mean that you have to agree on every issue. That means you can disagree on issues. You can raise the issues that are in our interest to raise, and at the same time work with our areas of cooperation.
And then the original question was – or one of the comments you made is neither country seems to want a break, a divorce. I would say, right now, there is no – the United States doesn’t have one policy. There’s a policy that is articulated by the Trump administration which, at least here on a bipartisan way on the Hill and in Washington, seems to be the perception that there’s no questioning, they’re no airing of grievances, there’s no expression of concerns about specific policies. We’re all in and we don’t question, and we don’t challenge. And here, there isn’t one unified American voice on what the future of the relationship is. There’s many different constituencies and there’s an active debate, and it’s taking place in public. And so everyone understands what the debate is here. And so when talking about the Saudi relationship, a lot of other partners and allies are looking at this debate and seeing that – questioning whether or not the United States is going to be there over the medium-to-long term in a fully strategically relevant way.
I think we can do both with the Saudis. I think we can elevate human rights concerns, reform concerns. We continue – we can continue to engage on the issues that are of concern to us. We can demand accountability and transparency for Khashoggi, for example. If you go back and read the transcripts of Secretary Pompeo’s interviews this week on the margins of the International Religious Freedom Forum, over and over and over he talks about freedoms – religious freedoms, political freedoms, et cetera. And not once do countries in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia get mentioned. But Iran got mentioned a lot. These are opportunities where American officials could say, hey, we’re going to be raising these issues, but we can still work with you to address concerns that are in your legitimate security interests and also in ours.
I don’t think the United States has an interest, or that we benefit, from having a Yemeni Hezbollah on Saudi’s border, especially when we have so many American citizens in Saudi Arabia and a lot of shared interests – whether it’s freedom of navigation, whether it’s the free flow of oil. Even if we’re a net exporter of oil, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have some dependency on what the global price of oil is. And when insurance rates or ships and tankers can’t go through the straits, that is a problem for us. So to me, loud and clear, there’s enough pressure and enough leverage here that an opportunity has presented itself and we can either walk away from that opportunity or engage to try to shift or make clear that certain behaviors will no longer be accepted.
MR. MATTAIR: Garry.
MR. FEIERSTEIN: Now, I’m going to give a very precise it-depends answer. (Laughter.) And I think it depends on a number of factors that I think that both Tom and Dana touched on. One is there is, again, a theory here in Washington, in the United States, that we no longer need energy supplies from the region, that somehow or other the United States is energy independent, and what happens in the Gulf, or Venezuela, or whatever has no impact on U.S. energy supplies. And this is wrong on a number of aspects. One, of course, is that the United States, even though it may be a net exporter of energy, in fact still imports about 5 million barrels of oil every day. And therefore, we are still in the energy markets. And even though gasoline that comes out of the pump and into your car all looks the same, the fact of the matter is that oil is not all the same. Oil is not fungible. And therefore, the kind of oil that comes out of the wells in Saudi Arabia is in fact critical for the U.S. and for the – for the world’s energy requirements.
So – and to go back to Dana’s very correct point – regardless of what U.S. requirements are, as long as we have some interest in and some obligation to maintaining global economic stability, the fact of the matter is that what happens in Saudi Arabia’s going to be critically important for the United States for many years to come. So the basic underpinnings of why we have this relationship with a country which is, in many ways, as divergent from U.S. traditions, U.S. perspectives, U.S. history as is humanly possible, nevertheless that is a relationship that has been critical for us for many years and will continue to be critical.
The other – but, having said all of that, the other – the other aspect of this is that, you know, Tom talked about the fact that there is no constituency in the United States for Saudi Arabia. This has always been true. It was true when I was working on these issues, even back in the 1990s. There has never been a wellspring of support for Saudi Arabia, either here on Capitol Hill or more broadly in American society. We have worked together because we’ve seen it in our interests, and not because we felt any emotional commitment.
What we’ve seen over these last couple of years is in fact the political aspect of relations between the United States and Saudi have become more intense than ever, in part because of the very open alignment of the Saudi leadership with the Trump administration in ways that Democrats have found to be very problematic. And so the Saudi-U.S. relationship has become a debating point here on Capitol Hill and more broadly in the society in a way that even in the bad days – even after 9/11, even after, you know, some of the other areas where we’ve diverged – is more intense, more difficult, more emotional.
And therefore, where you can see that perhaps in response, in reaction what people have perceived as the current relationship and the Trump administration’s unwillingness to challenge Saudi Arabia, unwillingness to raise some of these issues – this has become something that potentially down the road, particularly if there’s a change in administration in 2020, could be extremely problematic for the relationship and how you go forward. I think Tom also made the point that a number of the candidates on the Democratic side in this election will take a very contrary position on the U.S.-Saudi relationship, as compared to the Trump administration.
And then the last point that I would make is an awful lot of it depends on Mohammad Bin Salman and how we go forward. And, again, to go back to the point that I tried to make in the – in the beginning, and that is even though we have this broad-based relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is founded in shared economic, security, political interests – and has been for many years – the tendency right now is to look at it through the optic of Mohammad Bin Salman, and do we agree with Mohammad Bin Salman?
Do we think that Mohammad Bin Salman is a monster who has murdered Jamal Khashoggi and locked up people – innocent people, or maybe, you know, only semi-guilty people without trial, who imprisons civil rights – you know, civil society activists and civil libertarians, and others? Or is he someone who’s a modernizer that we can work with? Yes, he’s made his mistakes – I mean, this is the other side of the argument – he’s made some missteps, but he is – he’s someone that we can deal with? Or do you look at it more broadly, that this is a relationship that goes beyond simply the leadership? Do we just simply say, yes, Mohammad Bin Salman is a problem, but the nature of the relationship is more important than just the nature of the leader, and we can work around that in some way?
And those are questions I think that are going to be answered. My guess is that they’re going to be part of the presidential campaign over the next – over the next year. And I think that the answer is going to come out at the end of that campaign.
MR. MATTAIR: I think Tom had something to –
MR. LIPPMAN: I want to add something, as briefly as I can. Both of my colleagues here on the panel have made the point that Saudi Arabia remains a critical part of the global energy supply, even if we don’t import much oil from Saudi Arabia anymore. But the biggest single domestic management problem within Saudi Arabia, in fact, is a shortage of energy. The Saudis are consuming an ever-escalating amount of their oil they produce domestically to satisfy the insatiable demand for electricity in a growing country that desalinates all water for human consumption and household use.
I have seen projections by economists and consultants that show that the trajectory between Saudi export capacity and Saudi domestic demand will cross as soon as 2035. Now, when that happens, then you ask yourself – and that’s, like, you know, like the day after tomorrow in strategic terms. Then what happens to this picture? This is what is propelling the Saudis in their quest for nuclear energy. And we will have tough decisions to make about whether to meet that demand, because it could change the whole rest of this picture.
MR. MATTAIR: I mean, right now, the Saudis consume about 3 million barrels a day of their own oil and export about 7 million barrels a day. They prefer to export because it’s revenue.
MR. LIPPMAN: Of course.
MR. MATTAIR: They’d like to have a different alternative for their own domestic needs, so I’m sure they’re going to bring some technology to resolve that issue. But – nuclear will be one of them.
Now I’ve got one more question, then I’m going to go to the audience. It’s we have – we have talked about the way we see the relationship, the way we might need their cooperation, and the way we have objections to certain behaviors of theirs. But to flip it over just for a minute – and, Tom, you went through a list of some disagreements – I mean, I could start with the Arab-Israel – or, the Egypt-Israel peace agreement, because they had hoped that Carter was going to succeed in getting something more comprehensive that would resolve the Palestinian issue. And in fact it led to a lot more settlement in the West Bank.
You could – let’s skip over some things and come to 2003, when King Abdullah asked us not to invade Iraq, that it was going to destabilize the region. We invaded Iraq anyway, and it let Iran into Iraq, which changed the geostrategic landscape for Saudi Arabia. It brought an adversary right into its northern border. They wanted us to intervene more strenuously in Syria because, as in the case of Yemen, Iran was already in Syria early in the civil war, before Saudi Arabia ever intervened. And they wanted our assistance, and the Obama administration was too reticent to get involved and, again, you have much more Iranian influence in Syria now than you did before. You already know how much they have in Lebanon. And then Gerry pointed out that Iran was supporting the Houthis years before Saudis intervened in this late March 2015 campaign, which has gone badly for them.
If – and then someone asked, are they still a status quo power or are they a disruptor? What I’ve heard there, that they don’t know whether or not they can rely on us anymore to make good judgements about the policy – about our policies in the region, and to help them contain and even roll back Iran. So how do we factor that into our decision-making about going forward with them? I mean, is it possible that a debacle in Yemen is, in part, because we have – we have called them free riders, we have told them to take matters into their own hands, we have said we’re going to pivot to Asia, and they decided they needed to take matters into their own hands? And if, let’s say, we were to reduce our engagement and our support for them in Yemen, who would benefit from that? How would that affect the outcome of what’s going on in Yemen?
And that leads into a lot – let’s get there, because then that leads into a lot of questions about how do we work with them going forward – and those are from the audience. But what have we done that has led to this situation? Anybody can go first.
MR. FEIERSTEIN: Well, if I go first, I mean, you know, thanks, Tom, you’ve led us down the rabbit hole. You know, those are – those are all good questions. And I would say that there are two aspects. I mean, there’s no doubt that in both Riyadh and in Abu Dhabi you have leadership today that has made a decision that they are going to be more assertive, that they are going to do more to pursue what their goals and objectives are, that they will coordinate and cooperate with the United States as possible, but that – but that the United States will not have a veto over their decisions. And I think that that is an attribute of several factors, not just one.
I think on one level, it’s a fact that you have younger leadership in both of those capitals who believe that their – that their fathers, their predecessors were too beholden to the United States, were too willing to accept U.S. leadership without necessarily achieving some of their own objectives. I think it’s not only about the United States. I think that it also is an aspect of the way they operate within the Arab world, in the Arab League for example, where they’re less likely to accept Egyptian leadership in setting foreign policy for the Arab world, and more inclined to assert their own leadership.
I think that, you know, you can’t – you can’t question the fact that they can read the same magazine articles that we can read. And when the president of the United States is giving an interview in The Atlantic in which he’s talking about – when he’s talking about these countries as free riders, when he’s saying quite explicitly that they need to learn how to share the region with Iran, when he’s saying other things that are quite contrary to what their own analysis of their interest is, they’re going to – they’re going to make decisions based on that understanding. And so all of these things have added up.
And, you know, talked about the desire to pivot to Asia. All of these aspects have contributed to a decision on their part that they are going to pursue their agendas themselves. And, again, I mean, if you look at the position of the Trump administration, as I think several of us have made the point, the Trump administration has not changed its position that in fact these governments, these countries need to take on more of the responsibility themselves. And that means – you know, for us, it means that we won’t always like what the decisions are that they make. We may disagree with them.
But if you tell people to – you know, to grow up and, you know, be adults, well, you know, adults make decisions that are based on their own perspective. And therefore, you know, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t expect that these governments are going to follow our leadership without question, and at the same time tell them that they need to take the responsibility themselves. And that’s the situation that we’re in, and I don’t see it changing.
MR. MATTAIR: Now, since all three panelists are to my left, please, Rich – Ambassador Schmierer, Ambassador Winstanley, whenever you have a comment please let me know. Let me know. (Laughs.) I’m sort of looking this way.
Tom, do you want to say something, or Dana?
MS. STROUL: I want to make a few comments in reaction to what was laid out. First of all, in terms of how Riyadh might be looking at the United States and our own reliability, think about how they might view us, and the serious swings in the pendulum of foreign policy across the last several administrations, from the invasion of Iraq, to the debates about foreign policy and the U.S. role in the Middle East under the Obama administration, and not just comments in the Atlantic but the negotiation of the nuclear agreement, the decisions surrounding Syria, how Washington reacted to Arab Spring developments in multiple different countries, to this administration – foreign policy by tweet, right?
So in terms of reliability and how we may be viewed in the region, if I were staffing any of the – of the governments of the region I’d say: Don’t rely on the Americans because they’re not consistent and they change their policy with every administration. And so it is in our interests to cooperate with them when we can, but we also need to hedge our bets. And we see that hedging behavior right now. We see all sorts of both military, security, economic, trade, and energy agreements being concluded with a lot of other governments. A lot of those governments we would describe, two in particular, as adversaries.
Secondly, how to understand Saudi actions, particularly in Yemen. So we need to see how they have executed their operations in Yemen, contextualize it in decades of security cooperation, professional military education, military training exercises that we’ve been conducting with them, both in huge regional contexts, Gulf Cooperation Council training. We have tried for decades across administrations consistently – Republican and Democratic administrations. In the Clinton administration, they were called the Strategic Cooperation Forum, Gulf Cooperation Council, shared early warning, counterterrorism, ballistic missile defense, et cetera, et cetera.
In the Obama administration – in the Bush administration we had the Gulf security dialogues. In the Obama administration, it was the Camp David summits, right? And now we have the Middle East Security Alliance – all versions of the same notion that we can work with these militaries and then beyond the military realm to coordinate, to address shared interests. We – so this is part of burden sharing. And while everyone references the Obama interview in The Atlantic, think about the much more crude way in which this is discussed in the current administration, right? These guys are made of money, they’ll just pay for everything. Why should we be paying for everything? So when we’re feeling nice we call it burden sharing. And then there’s some other much more crude ways of talking about what burden sharing really is. We’ve paid enough. Americans are done. Somebody else should pay.
The region’s very aware of the debate that we’re having here in the United States about what the U.S. role in the world should be. And in that debate, the far right and the far left actually sound pretty similar, right? Authorization of the use of force, why should U.S. forces be doing this? Why should the American taxpayer be paying for these things? I don’t understand what our engagement in the world gets us. And it’s a public debate. They can read it in our tweets. They can read it in our magazines, in our Foreign Affairs articles, in what will be published of this discussion. So they’re listening and watching us.
In terms of Syria and cooperation and what might have been, I think we need to understand how the Obama administration was thinking about the various conflicts that arose in the Middle East during their administration as very much in the experience of the Iraq War. Did we pick the right partners? Can we really shape a political outcome based on serious military investment? And the conclusion of the Obama administration was no, so we have to be very humble in our approach to these conflicts and what we can realistically achieve. And now the Saudis are having a very similar experience in Yemen. All the military force in the world won’t buy you a political settlement. And it’s very hard to get these disparate groups to the table to negotiate anything that could potentially be stabilizing or sustainable over the long term.
But if we want to talk about burden sharing, and if we want to continue training and shaping these militaries to behave in a way that is more consistent with our values and norms about how military operations should be prosecuted. Again, burden sharing doesn’t mean we train you, go ahead and go. It means continual engagement. And that, again, I think is the choice that the United States has to make. Is we may not disagree on everything, militaries make mistakes, there’s serious challenges in the prosecution of the Saudi military campaign in Yemen, but are our interests better served by walking away or trying to engage and shape going forward?
MR. LIPPMAN: Chas Freeman has said many times that when he arrived in Saudi Arabia as the U.S. ambassador in 1989, he found that the relationship has sort of stagnated or atrophied, to a great extent because we, Americans, took it for granted. Saudi Arabia had been the most stable country in the Middle East for 80 years. It was always there, in spite of all the differences that we had. And we could count on certain aspects of the Saudi community, of Saudi Arabia as an entity, to respond in certain ways to thinks that would happen, right?
I’m not confident that we know that about Saudi Arabia today, right? By all accounts. I mean, here’s where I different a little bit from you, Gerry, in saying that this is not about the relationship with Mohammad Bin Salman. He’s all there is. It used to be that there were multiple what they call, what, marakiz alqua – centers of power – in Saudi Arabia, where you could get to the king through this prince, or that prince. And there was always Prince Bandar. Now, by all accounts, Mohammad Bin Salman has neutralized every other center of power in Saudi Arabia.
And so what I want to – in addition to wanting to know who’s going to be the next president of the United States, I want to know what happens next year, or the year after that, or the day after tomorrow when King Salman dies and Mohammad Bin Salman becomes the king of Saudi Arabia, which will happen. Tell me who’s his crown prince? Tell me what he does to assuage the grievances of every other branch of the family that he has inflicted on them over the past three or four years, and then let’s see what kind of country it is that we’re working with now, and how it’s different from the country that we worked with for all these decades.
MR. FEIERSTEIN: And if I could just add to that very quickly, I think that you just put your finger on the critical issue which is, yes, when people are looking at – trying to analyze the direction that the Saudis are headed in right now, you use this effort on the part of Mohammad Bin Salman to eliminate any discordant voices, to basically put all of the strings of policy and power into his hands. And his brother is the deputy defense minister. He’s eliminated many of the potential adversaries in the senior ranks of the family. But the question is, and I think that this is going to be perhaps determinative in terms of the U.S.-Saudi relationship going forward, is that sustainable over time? Or is the family going to assert some greater control and some greater leverage? And my guess is that you’re not going to know the answer to that question until the day comes where he is trying to become the king. And I think that that’s when this is going to sort out.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, some of the questions from the audience are – maybe I could combine one or two. A few of them have to do with how important is the military-to-military relationship with the Saudis in terms of deterring, containing, or rolling back Iran in the region? How should we be encouraging the Saudi-Israeli relationship as part of an effort to deal with Iran? I would add to that, how can we use our military and economic and political relationship with them, and our leverage with them, to help resolve the conflict in Yemen? What is the – what is the way out there that we can help them with? And then finally, to come to a different question from the audience, it is basically how do we use our relationship with them to encourage change inside the kingdom?
MR. LIPPMAN: All right, how many days do we have? (Laughter.)
MR. MATTAIR: How important is the military relationship? Can we use it to resolve some of the problems that we have, and that Washington is concerned about, such as Yemen? And can we use our relationship to bring about change that we would like to see in the kingdom? Yeah, I mean, is that important? Is that something we should encourage – the Saudi-Israeli relationship?
MR. LIPPMAN: I’d like to address that one particularly. If I may, imagine yourself locked in a worldwide struggle with a rival power for supremacy in Islam – which is how the Saudis see themselves with those Shia infidels who are running Iran. I don’t believe you win that struggle and ingratiate yourself with the Muslim masses by getting into bed with Israel. And it may well be that there are aspects of semi-clandestine cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel based on mutual perceptions of certain threats. But the idea that we would encourage the Saudis to enter into any kind of overt friendship or partnership with Israel, I think is out of the question.
MR. MATTAIR: I think the king is with you on that.
MS. STROUL: So I don’t think anybody is encouraging an overt Saudi-Israel relationship, but there’s no question that under the table there’s all sorts of contacts across multiple sectors. Some of this started out as a shared threat perception that Iran is the main driver of instability in the region, and the Israelis and the Saudis agree on that. Look at the Bahrain economic conference for an economic vision for the West Bank, and maybe Gaza. Regardless of views on how effective that conference was, it took place in Bahrain. And I can’t imagine that it would have taken place there without Saudi consent or a nod, right?
There’s all sorts of public reporting about various tools for monitoring social media contacts between Saudi officials and Israeli officials, which actually may not be in the U.S. interest and we should probably be looking at that – staffers here for members of Congress. But the bottom line is: It’s happening. It is already happening. And if you actually talk to certain Israelis, they say the most exciting – the most exciting developments taking place in the Middle East are in the Gulf. That the young people in the Gulf are dynamic, and entrepreneurial, and interesting, and we need to be paying attention to it. So it’s happening.
How to encourage change in the kingdom? Well, I think the lesson of the United States is if we point fingers at a government in the Middle East and say, you should take this kind of change, and this kind of plan, because it’s in your interests, it doesn’t work, right? So first of all, acknowledging the changes that are already underway and taking place, and figuring out how we can be most effective in encouraging that. And a lot of that is actually using what we have here. So they’re – do you know the size of the King Salman – or, scholarship program? We bring 10,000 –
MR. MATTAIR: King Abdullah scholarship program.
MS. STROUL: Is it more than 10,000 students?
MR. MATTAIR: I’d say 50,000 or more.
MS. STROUL: Fifty thousand students a year are coming to U.S. universities. They’re getting exposed to American-style education. I mean, that – they go back home. That’s a way of encouraging change. So it doesn’t have to be articulating a specific program for reform and saying: This is what you should do. But my point, also when I mentioned that soap opera that was shown in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan, there is change already underway, right? And we need to – and it’s not necessarily making the headlines, and that’s OK. So – and secondly, we – if there are firm views about specific things taking place that are antithetical to our interests, or we see as destabilizing, we should raise it. And so a good example is the detained civil rights activists. We should raise it and be very direct. We think these people should be immediately let out of prison.
The mil-mil relationship. Well, it’s not just how important is it, it’s how important is it for what we want to accomplish. So for example, the global coalition to defeat ISIS, we created the architecture and militaries like the Saudi military plug into it, and then we can say that we have a regional coalition who’s united with us in addressing a shared threat. I think there’s utility in it not just being the United States going after ISIS in the region. There’s other examples like that – counterpiracy, maritime coalitions in international waterways, where working with partners navies, working – this is in our interest for it to be internationalized, regionalized, globalize. And in that, I think the military relationship is important.
If we care about Israel’s qualitative military edge, Russia doesn’t care and China doesn’t care when they sell weapons to the Saudis. So I think that’s another question for us, do we have an interest in finding a way to continue making sure that Saudi – the Saudi military is buying U.S., and not others. Not just for defense industry. There’s a whole host of strategic reasons why. So those are a couple of examples, I think, of why the mil-mil relationship remains important. And I’m going to leave the Yemen resolution to Gerry.
MR. FEIERSTEIN: Yeah. I think – yeah, I think that we’ve checked the box on the Saudi-Israel thing. There’s no reason to talk about it. You know, on the mil-mil thing I think nobody has mentioned, but one of the interesting developments of the last few days is the announcement by the administration that they’ve sent 500 U.S. military personnel to Saudi Arabia. And if I am not mistaken, that’s the first time we’ve had ground forces in Saudi Arabia since the first Gulf War – since, you know, shortly thereafter, when we withdrew everybody. So I think that that’s quite significant.
And the reality is, again, if the United States remains committed to providing security and defense in the Gulf region, if we continue to see Iran as a principal adversary – potential adversary in the region, then you cannot achieve your military objectives without support from Saudi Arabia. And, you know, either in terms of access to their facilities. You made several points earlier on about air space, about some of these other things. And the reality is that without Saudi Arabia, the other GCC states will be extremely reluctant to go forward. They look at Saudi Arabia as the anchor for security in the region. And they will take their cues from the position that the Saudis take.
So the mil-mil relationship is important. It’s going to continue to be important. And I think in terms of the question about the – you know, the way forward on Yemen, it’s hard. And I agree – I think Dana and I agree on this point. And that is that there’s no utility in our using our military support for Saudi Arabia as a stick to beat the Yemeni – to beat the Saudis, and to somehow think that this is going to compel them to make decisions about the conflict in Yemen that they’re not willing to make. It won’t. What it will do is undermine our mil-mil relationship with them. It will introduce a new component of the – of conflict – of friction between our societies, without accomplishing anything in particular.
And I would point out that when you talk about – I mean, Dana, again, made the good point that the Saudis and the other Gulf states are hedging their bets in the region right now, looking at the lack of certainty in terms of what U.S. policy is. If you want to talk about the S-400 system that the Turks have just acquired, Saudi Arabia has also negotiated with Russia about the possible purchase of S-400, even though they already have the Patriot system. So if – you know, if we – if we continue to signal unreliability in terms of our military relationship with them, then the Saudis certainly have the resources to look elsewhere. And there are plenty of other governments that are willing to provide – to provide that support.
Now, does that mean – does that translate into some ability on our part to help influence the direction of a resolution in Yemen? But I go back to the point that I made earlier on, and that is: The principal reason that we don’t have a political resolution of the conflict in Yemen, which I believe that the Saudis, and the Emiratis, and all of the other coalition partners would welcome, is not because the Saudis are unwilling to pursue that or to empower the U.N. to pursue it. It’s because neither partner – domestic party inside of Yemen – has yet come to the decision that they’re better off making a deal than they are continuing this conflict.
And there are a lot of reasons for that, both in terms of their vision of, you know, the potential for a military victory. You’ve got a war economy where you have an awful lot of people who are making an awful lot of money by allowing this conflict to continue. The conflict is really not binary. It’s multipolar. You’ve got a number of different elements. And trying to get everybody on the same page in order to resolve this thing is tough. And so, again, my own sense is that the solution to the problem is not between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It’s within Yemen. And it’s going to be on Martin Griffiths to try to figure out how to get all the Yemenis together. If that happens, then my expectation is that the Saudis will welcome it and cooperate.
MR. MATTAIR: What about Iran? OK, yes.
MS. ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: I’m going to be a little contrary, Gerry, on Yemen, because in fact I think it’s really important, the statement that members of Congress, not only Democratic, have been making about our participation, our support for the prosecution of the conflict in Yemen is important, and can have an impact on getting people to the table. I think it certainly was taken into account with the UAE decision to change the nature of their engagement. I think the point that you made earlier about that balance, getting people to the table, lack of support from the United States – military support – changes that balance. Certainly there are many who’ve argued that we gave them support in that conflict to balance their distress with us having an agreement with Iran. So when we pulled out of the agreement with Iran, there was an opportunity to reduce or eliminate that support as well. Bu we are still there.
They are adults, as you said. They make their own decisions about what their existential challenges are, what their priorities are. But that does not mean that they are existential priorities for us. And so we have to think of it in that way. Is the cost of the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, the possible war crimes in Yemen that we have a connection to at this point, the incompetent or poor prosecution of the conflict from the Saudi side, worth it to us, as the United States? And I think our voices need to continue a very lively debate on this issue. I think us coming out in a different place, sooner rather than later, is a reasonable thing for the United States to do. And I do not think, as you say, if it’s an existential challenge for the Saudis, their border, that is not going to materially change the nature of our relationship.
Dana, you mentioned change within Saudi Arabia coming. I will say, having been there from the early 2000s, that there were really interesting, challenging Ramadan serials, one “Tash Ma Tash” – boil, off the boil – when they talked about 9/11 and the nature of Saudi Arabia, and a wonderful episode has a 7-year-old boy driving his mother to the hospital. And so a discussion about women driving was happening in 2002 and 2003 and 2004. And we are in 2019, finally. But my profound belief and understanding from my time in Saudi Arabia with regard to change reaching fundamental rights is not an issue of driving or having access to public events where men and women can be together. Absolutely important, of course.
I would argue further that it is a matter of access to the justice system for women in Saudi Arabia. The issue of having to use an agent, a wakil, for carrying out your business, carrying out your public life, that these issues are still yet to be sufficiently addressed, and that those are the things that are going to make a difference in women’s lives and in Saudi lives. And I’ll leave it at that.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, yeah. These dovetail with questions from the audience. And, again, one of the things that is causing so much consternation in the United States is the way the war in Yemen is being prosecuted unsuccessfully and with collateral damage. So is there something we can do to help them improve this performance and avoid that, and get a satisfactory outcome there? I mean, I will – I will provide an anecdote from a trip that I took there in 2016 – early 2016, with our late President Ford Fraker, who as a former ambassador there. And we had a meeting with about eight Saudi generals. And they said: We need more precision-guided weapons to avoid killing civilians. He didn’t say, we want to kill civilians. He said, we need more precision-guided munitions to avoid killing civilians. So that leads back to a question I asked earlier. Does it help us to reduce our assistance to them? And can we use our relationship with them to improve their performance and get a better outcome in Yemen?
MR. FEIERSTEIN: You know, let me just say, again, I think – you know, part of the problem – and I think that you and Gina have touched on it – I mean, part of the problem that I have with the way this debate is carried out here in Washington is that there is this tendency to look at this as a Saudi aggression against Yemen. It is not a Saudi aggression against Yemen . Saudi Arabia did not begin this war. Saudi Arabia is not responsible for this war. It is a civil war. It is – Saudi Arabia has been engaged because of what they consider to be – and I agree with them – what they consider to a direct threat to their national security.
You cannot talk about how to stop this conflict as long as you’re only willing to talk about the actions of one side. And, again, it is not the side that started this conflict. So unless you’re going to talk about the Houthis, unless you’re going to talk about Iran – that are equally responsible for the tragedy that has – that many Yemenis have witnessed over these past three years – you’re not talking about real solutions to the conflict. And singling out the Saudis and saying, well, if we stop selling them weapons that will force them to the table. But, again, that’s a presumption on your part that the reason that there isn’t a political solution is because the Saudis somehow are preventing it. And that, again, is something that I would take issue with.
I don’t think that the Saudis are preventing a solution. I think, again, that the – that the issues are domestic issues inside of Yemen, and that the reasons that there’s not been a solution is because neither side feels compelled to achieve a solution. And that applies to the Houthis as well as to the government. And I would also point out that, you know, UNSCR 2216, which the United States supported and which was – the United States was one of the original sponsors of – says very clearly that the – that the position of the international community, that includes us, is support for the legitimate government of Yemen. And that is the Hadi government. Whether we agree with it or disagree with it now, that is what the United Nations Security Council said, which we voted for, and that is still the official position of the United States – I believe correctly.
We should continue to support a resolution negotiated by the United Nations that would allow for the resumption of the GCC transition document that was signed and agreed in 2011, and that would bring everybody back to a political process inside of Yemen. But, you know, but beating on the Saudis isn’t going to get you there. And I think that, you know, in order to achieve, in order to sort of represent a correct way forward, we need at least to look at the reality of the situation and not simply to pursue, you know, shadows in Plato’s cave.
MR. LIPPMAN: Well, if I may say –
MR. MATTAIR: We don’t have too much more time, and there are other topics, so can you make that fast?
MR. LIPPMAN: In the – in the two and a half years after the Saudis began to intervene – actively intervene in Yemen, I heard five different senior Saudi officials, including Adel al-Jubeir and the military advisor to Mohammad Bin Salman, articulate five different strategic objectives to the campaign in Yemen. Enforce the U.N. resolution. Restore the legitimate government. Prevent the existence of an anarchic state, like Libya, on Saudi Arabia’s border. I would submit, Gerry, that if you cannot articulate the strategic reason for waging the war, you can’t define victory. And that’s part of their problem. They don’t know what they’re fighting for.
MR. FEIERSTEIN: But I would – but I would – I would take issue with that, Tom. I mean, because none of those – none of those points that you just made is contradictory. Yes, all of those elements are there. U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216 has all of those elements in it. So, yes, they might articulate them differently, but they’re all of the same piece.
MR. MATTAIR: All right. So the second batch of questions from the audience, you know, comes back to the whole question of how do we use our relationship to bring about positive change in Saudi Arabia? I already brought that up once, but we should come back to it. There are a few questions here about whether Salman and MBS can use their relationship with Bandar bin Sultan and Reema Bint Bandar wing of the house to improve our relations and to encourage positive change inside the kingdom on questions like male guardianship, and women who are detained, and how to get accountability over the Jamal Khashoggi matter. You’ve talked a little about – you know, too much about Yemen, but how do we now use our relationship to get the change we’d like to see inside the kingdom? And has anybody seen evidence that inside the kingdom there’s a willingness to talk to us about this, and a willingness to listen and work with us on these issues?
Rich would like to say something.
MR. LIPPMAN: During the –
MR. MATTAIR: Hold on a second. Just Rich –
RICHARD J. SCHMIERER: Let him, but then I want to make a point.
MR. MATTAIR: OK. All right.
MR. LIPPMAN: During the Truman administration, the State Department circulated to all diplomatic posts in Arab countries a long statement about our policy in Saudi Arabia. And it said that we are not there to tell them how to run their country. We are there for economic and strategic reasons that are important to us. We’re not there to tell them they shouldn’t behead people or that women should be allowed to go uncovered or anything. It’s none of our business. I believe that that policy recognized the fact that the Saudis are not amenable to tutelage from us on the subject, the question of how they organize their society or run their country. They don’t have school shootings and fentanyl overdoses, and they don’t want to hear about that stuff from us. And our policy is – has served us well. It’s not our business the way the Saudis organize and run their country. And we should not attempt to use our influence on that, because it only gets their backs up – as President Bush and Condi Rice found out with their Democracy Initiative.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, then Rich wanted to comment.
MR. SCHMIERER: Yeah, I think one point that we haven’t really delved into, which I think is important for the topic at hand today is that we do have a new Saudi ambassador in Washington. Our topic today is the U.S.-Saudi Arabian relationship. And it comes in the context of having a recent very disruptive event affect that relationship, which was the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which has reverberated very strongly here in Washington. As an optimist, and someone who spent eight years living in Saudi Arabia and six years as a diplomat there, I’m optimistic that this – the new ambassador, who the Middle East Policy Council had the opportunity to host at an event last year, who’s very articulate. She was speaking about youth developments in Saudi Arabia. I think she will come – has come with good advance on how to turn the – kind of the rhetoric that we saw in the immediate post period following the murder of Khashoggi.
So I would like to think that what we’ll see from her is an understanding that the U.S. does expect of its partners, like Saudi Arabia, that they will abide by certain kinds of behaviors, which I think was not understood previously. I think we’ll see a toning down of the rhetoric that we had seen from some of the post-Khashoggi period. And the opportunity for diplomats – and Gina, as I, have served as diplomats in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has very good diplomats of a certain tier. So I think it’s important to keep in mind that the relationship does need to be repaired to a certain extent. And I think we’re fortunate to have a new ambassador who I think has come well-prepared and has the right temperament to help repair that relationship.
So I wanted to make sure that that point was made in the – you know, in addition to all the policy discussion that we’ve had. I think the diplomatic and the government-to-government relationship needs to be improved. And I’m optimistic that with the arrival of a new ambassador, we’re going to see improvement in that relationship.
MS. STROUL: So I’m going to take the countervailing view to Tom here, which is it’s not – it’s not about the United States dictating to other countries what they do inside their countries. But if events or decisions made inside a country affects the United States, then we do need to raise it. So I don’t think it’s in our interest for Saudi Arabia to be in a – in a group of countries that assassinate dissidents abroad. The other governments that do that are Russia and North Korea. It’s not in our interest. So there is a reason to raise it. And if you then extent that out and say, well, it’s not the business of the United States what takes place in other countries, then what kind of jungle rules are we talking about? I mean, we’re having a debate right now in our own country about whether or not the system of alliances and normative behavior is in our interest to reinforce, right?
So if you take that –extend that logic out, should we not attempt to prevent Bashar al-Assad from gassing his own people, or dropping barrel bombs on his own people? Should we not work with other countries to raise concerns when there’s mass imprisonment of political dissidents – which inherently makes those countries more unstable, opens the door to more malign actors, which makes our ability to be partners with those countries more difficult, because they’re laying the groundwork for perpetual state of instability? So I think in terms of the ability of the United States to make Saudi Arabia change, no, that’s not what we’re talking about. But there there’s change already happening that I think is areas for cooperation, we can find ways to partner and foster that.
And I do want to go back to the question of is there any way for us to make the Saudis better in Yemen. So the core – the crux of the issue here in Congress has been intentionality versus capability. Are the Saudis intentionally destroying civilian infrastructure and exacerbating the world’s worse humanitarian crisis? Or is it a matter of not knowing how to use their precision-guided munitions effectively, right? And based on where you come out on that debate determines whether or not you think there’s still an opportunity for us to work with them.
The question is, is the Saudi military a learning organization? So our military is a learning organization. We have civilian blood on our hands in many of the battles and military conflicts we’re engaged in, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. But we have a system of accountability. We have congressional oversight. And our military’s a learning organization. And by no means is the American military perfect either. The question is, is there – is there leadership within Saudi Arabia that wants to improve the conduct of their military operations? And are the Americans going to shape that?
And so right now I think there’s still an open question here in Congress as to whether they are a learning organization, and whether or not it’s a question of intentionality versus capability. And then finally, we’ve been working for years with them to improve their operations. And I think the frustration you’re hearing and the crisis in the relationship here in Congress is, after all of these years of seeking to improve the operations of the Saudi military, it doesn’t appear here that there’s been improvement.
MR. MATTAIR: We have about one minute. Is there anyone who has a final comment? Well, you’ll find the vide of this event on our website by the end of the day, if you want to watch it. You’ll find the transcript in the next issue of the journal at the end of September. And I think it will be on the C-SPAN archives as well, so you can revisit this discussion. And I’m sure we will too. Thank you very much to the panel and thank you to everyone for coming. (Applause.)
Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute
Former Middle East Bureau Chief, The Washington Post
Senior Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Former Senior Professional Staff Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Senior Vice President and Director of the Gulf Affairs Program,
Middle East Institute
Former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State
Former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen
The Middle East Policy Council convened its 97th Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, July 19th: “The United States – Saudi Arabian Relationship.” The conference was designed to present diverse perspectives on recent developments in this historic U.S. relationship and what the future shape of relations might look like. Representatives from more than 25 Congressional offices attended, underlining the growing interest in this relationship on Capitol Hill. The event was also broadcast live on C-SPAN. Access the full video from the event by clicking here.
Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley (former U.S. Ambassador to Malta; Vice Chair of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event; Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) contributed to the event; and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists were Thomas Lippman (Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute; former Middle East Bureau Chief The Washington Post); Dana Stroul (Senior Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Former Staff Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee); and Gerald Feierstein (Senior Vice President and Director of Gulf Affairs, Middle East Institute; Former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of State; and former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen).
Mr. Lippman stressed how the U.S. – Saudi relationship has always been beset by tensions, from President Truman’s 1947 recognition of the state of Israel, to the 1973-74 oil embargo, to the 9/11 attacks on September 11th, 2001 and the subsequent 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. But these tensions never disrupted the core economic and security relationship. However, he believes we may be entering a new phase where Saudi Arabia starts being treated like any other U.S. partner on most matters except for counterterrorism, where there is little chance that the status quo will be significantly disrupted. Mr. Lippman cited a variety of factors contributing to this new phase: greater U.S. energy independence, the lack of a U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and, politically, the absence of a Saudi domestic constituency in the United States with Congressional clout. He thinks that while these factors are unlikely to change, there also remain political uncertainties that could greatly impact the direction of the future United States – Saudi Arabian relationship, including the result of the 2020 U.S. presidential election and the ability of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman to manage the different branches of the Saudi royal family.
Ms. Stroul shared insights from her prior work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explaining how attitudes and understanding of Saudi Arabia have evolved in the U.S. Congress. In her view, the United States – Saudi Arabian relationship is in its most serious crisis since 9/11, fueled by the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the boycott and embargo of Qatar, the detention of the Lebanese prime minister, and the treatment of dissent and human-rights issues within the Kingdom. While words like “reckless” are increasingly used to describe Saudi behavior, she pointed out that U.S. foreign policy between the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations has varied considerably, justifying the view from Saudi Arabia that the United States is not a completely reliable partner. In light of such tensions on both sides, Ms. Stroul believes U.S. policymakers must assess whether the Saudi relationship helps or hurts core U.S. foreign policy objectives in the greater Middle East, including the conflict with Iran, the relationship with Israel, and financial support for Syria and Iraq. In her view Saudi Arabia’s youthful population, technological needs and the goals of Vision 2030 could open new opportunities for cooperation.
Amb. Feierstein focused on the Saudi role in the conflict in Yemen, challenging two narratives he often hears within Washington policy circles. First, he explained that the war in Yemen is not new; rather, it reflects decades-long conflict among various domestic factions. Second, he stressed the importance of distinguishing between Saudi Arabia’s justifiable motivation for intervention in Yemen, and its poor implementation, for which the Saudis should be held accountable. He noted that Saudi Arabia entered the Yemen conflict to secure its southern border, to confront the presence of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah in Yemen, and to promote a new central government there that the Saudis can work with (which could include Houthi political representation). Moving forward on resolving the Yemen war and the broader United States – Saudi Arabian relationship, Mr. Feierstein suggested that both countries appear to be evolving into “disruptive” actors in the region after decades of prioritizing the status quo. Whether or not the two countries can continue to work together while their actions become less predictable and harmonized will determine the sustainability of the relationship.
The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email [email protected].