Thomas Lippman / Dana Stroul / Gerald Feierstein
The following is an edited transcript of the ninety-seventh in a series of Capitol Hill Conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on July 19, 2019, in the Russell Senate Office Building with Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley moderating.
GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY, Vice Chairperson, Middle East Policy Council; Former U.S. Ambassador, Malta
Our topic today is the U.S.-Saudi Arabian relationship. Over the last 40 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 actors — 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.
THOMAS LIPPMAN, Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute; Former Middle East Bureau Chief, The Washington Post; Author of several books on the Middle East
It’s now 43 years since I first went to Saudi Arabia, in the days when the best hotel in Jeddah didn’t even have telephones in the rooms, before it was a fully developed country in a material sense. 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. So what I thought I would do is talk a bit about the relationship, which can be traced back to the 1940s.
In the 1930s, an American company got the first oil concession. 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. Under Truman, we sent in a team of specialists to create the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority. By that time, we had the peninsula blanketed, so to speak. Through all 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. Some of them are better known than others. They began, of course, when President Truman recognized Israel the moment it was created. Other Arab leaders wrote to King Abdulaziz and urged him to cancel the American concession. He declined to do so 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. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles didn’t want to choose between friends, so he didn’t, and the Saudis couldn’t understand that. In 1954, there 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 monopoly of the Saudi oil industry. Eisenhower personally gave the order to make sure that contract never went into effect. I know about this episode because it’s the subject of my most recent book — which, I’m happy to say, is excerpted in the current issue of Middle East Policy.
Then, of course, came the oil embargo of 1973-74. When you read Henry Kissinger’s telephone transcripts and cable traffic, you’ll see that he referred to the Arabs as a bunch of savages, which will give you an idea of his esteem. When he finally went to Saudi Arabia, Kissinger received a gift from the king: a bound copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion — not something I would give a Jew. In 1979, the Saudis made Jimmy Carter very unhappy not only not endorsing, but refusing to accept, the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. The last time I was in Baghdad was in the spring of 1979, when all the Arab foreign ministers got together and threw Egypt out of the Arab League. As much effort as Jimmy Carter had spent courting the Saudis, it wasn’t enough.
In 1988 came a peculiar episode: the United States discovered by accident that the Saudis had acquired nuclear-capable Chinese missiles that they would not let us inspect. The first thing that happened was that Richard Armitage, whom some of you may remember, told the Saudis they had managed to put themselves for the first time right at the top of Israel’s target list. That episode took some doing to unravel. Then, of course, there was 9/11. Please don’t ask me about 15 of the 19 hijackers being Saudi. I’ve answered that question every day for 15 years. In 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq over Saudi objections, there were the famous remarks in which King Abdullah referred to it as an illegal occupation. Then came the nuclear agreement with Iran, which made the Saudis very unhappy — not so much because of the content of the agreement itself, but because it spooked them. They thought we were trying to forge some kind of equitable relationship with the Iranians, which they could not understand. Then, of course, came the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
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 obsequiousness 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 pragmatists and centrists, holding their noses and continuing to do security business with Saudi Arabia. But it’s hard to imagine Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker or some of the others doing business as usual: endorsing the arms sales, inviting the Saudi princes to the White House. Security cooperation, I think, will continue regardless of what happens in this country. Otherwise, it’s possible, and maybe even likely, that there would be quite a change, especially in the visuals and atmospherics.
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. Very few people’s grandparents came from Saudi Arabia. There’s a reason why there is no congressional Saudi Caucus, though there’s an Azerbaijan Caucus. 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. Now you have a situation in which we don’t need the oil and we don’t have military bases there. So unless you have major defense contractors in your district, you have nothing to lose by coming out against the Saudis. I think now, for the first time 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.
DANA STROUL, Senior Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Former Senior Professional Staff Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
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 a little bit more broadly to 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 or elsewhere.
I just wrapped up several years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as the Middle East staffer, so I 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. I would characterize the current state of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as the most serious crisis in the relationship since 9/11. 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, and 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 current Minister of Defense Mohammad bin Salman decided to engage in military operations in Yemen, having given very little heads-up to Washington. That was in the Obama administration, not the current one.
If you had to give one sentence to describe the crux of the debate right now in Washington, I think it is this: Is the U.S.-Saudi relationship and is Saudi Arabia more destabilizing to the region and for U.S. interests? Can it be a force for stability? Is it recklessness or not? 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 create networks of alliances and 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.
Members of Congress, now and in the past, have probably taken more foreign-policy votes that somehow touch the U.S.-Saudi relationship than any other issue. More votes on Saudi Arabia than on Israel, BDS, Iran and so on. That is different from several Congresses ago, but now it’s about Saudi Arabia, like the vote for Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism (JASTA) four years ago. That was actually vetoed by President Obama and then overridden in the Senate, a very strong expression. 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 of 67, obviously.
There have been multiple resolutions of disapproval on weapons sales, both offensive and defensive. That’s also not new this year; it’s been going on for years. In both the House and the Senate there have been multiple votes on war-powers resolutions. There have been votes on amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), in both the House and the Senate, that specifically are about the U.S.-Saudi relationship, specifically weapons sales, and about U.S. support to Saudi-led military operations in Yemen.
The latest series of showdowns is about attempts by Congress 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 by the Trump administration — which didn’t happen. Finally, the most recent showdown was when an emergency exception under the Arms Export Control Act (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.
Some of this is about Saudi Arabia and a very stark difference of opinion among members of Congress on 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. Members of Congress are not just taking votes on the U.S.-Saudi relationship; they are learning about weapons sales.
How do they work? What do members of Congress get to review? What are offensive systems and 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, policies, 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 and commercial engagement, et cetera.
Members of Congress are deeply familiar now, not just broadly with the U.S.-Saudi relationship; 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. 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 that they ascribe as coming out of Riyadh. There was a military intervention in Yemen in 2015 after years of diplomacy trying to avoid one. There was a blockade of Qatar, which was seen as Saudi-led. There was the detention and, for a while, resignation of the Lebanese prime minister. There were arrests and alleged torture at the Ritz Carlton of a broad cross-section of business executives and elites. 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 seen as driven by Saudi Arabia, at the same time that Congress was actively debating and taking votes on different kinds of legislation relating to all aspects of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Then there was the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and 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 this crisis point.
Where are we now? I think there’s no question that Saudi government officials and people in Riyadh and 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. There’s certainly an eagerness in Riyadh to find a way to move forward. So I think the question for policy makers — whether on the Hill, in the executive branch, or in the communities of interest around people taking votes and creating policies — is this: 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?
I’m going to briefly touch on the broader geopolitical context. We should be asking ourselves whether we accept the premise of the National Defense Strategy that, in the current U.S. strategic threat environment, there are near-peer revisionist powers like Russia and China challenging us on a broad spectrum of threats? Or do you still subscribe to the premise that the major threats facing the United States are terrorism, 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 the Asia-Pacific region.
The Obama administration tried to do their pivot, and there’s a lot of talk in this administration and on the Hill about disengagement or burden sharing in the Middle East. This basically means U.S. forces should get out, and we should shift the burden and have other people put in resources. But the bottom line, whether you subscribe to either of these world views or both, is, do you need partners and allies to address those threats? Would we prefer Saudi Arabia to be under the umbrella with us or not?
On Iran policy, regardless of your views on the JCPOA, there’s a potential for U.S.-Iran confrontation in the Middle East right now. If the blood of U.S. forces or personnel is spilled, and we are in a situation where we have to act militarily, do we want to be working with Saudi Arabia? Do we need them for air-space access, the basing of forces, maritime threats? On Israel, there’s a debate right now on the Hill — 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 the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, are expanding. Is it in our interest for these countries to be working together?
On Syria, the Trump administration cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in stabilization assistance to northeast Syria, but the Saudis have actually stepped in right now. So if it’s about burden sharing and about the U.S. government not always being the first to pay assistance dollars, do we want to be talking to Riyadh about where we can share the burden? On Iraq, one of the key premises of U.S. policy is this: if we don’t give the Iraqis options other than Iran, the Iraq-Iran relationship will just deepen. Despite everything I just laid out about all the troubling developments coming out of Riyadh, there has actually been an opening from the government of Saudi Arabia to Iraq and some efforts to integrate it into the Arab fold. That might be in the U.S. interest to continue to develop.
Finally, my bias — just to be clear — is that sustainable, meaningful change is incremental and not necessarily in the headlines, and certainly not the stuff of senior leader meetings or statements. 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.” The title was, “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.
Another point that I wanted to mention is 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, are 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 that the Muslim World League secretary general, Muhammed al-Issa, wrote an article in The Washington Post recently, “Why Muslims from Around the World Should Remember the Holocaust.” He is working on reforming the Saudi educational system.
While we are having a debate here about the future of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, there are changes taking place in Saudi Arabia. How much are we just going to punish the Saudis for what has happened? Can we take a step back and use some of the pressure and awareness to move this relationship in a different direction to open up new opportunities? I think there are many Saudi officials who are eager to have that conversation. There’s a new Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., eager to have that conversation. I think there’s a fundamental question here about whether we want to work on this relationship, whether it needs to be updated for twenty-first-century challenges. That’s a question that we can explore. The question is, do we want to explore it in cooperation or not?
GERALD FEIERSTEIN, 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
This is a conversation about the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and I want to begin by stressing that this is not about the U.S. relationship with Mohammad bin Salman. 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, based on shared interests, shared perspectives and shared policies. 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. We need to think about the broader relationship.
One of the narratives here in Washington that I have found really striking over almost a 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. perspectives on Saudi Arabia, of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia in ways that I think are unhelpful for the interests of both countries. Primarily, I think this conflation is particularly egregious when it comes to how this city and this Congress perceive the Saudi intervention in Yemen. As Tom said, the relationship with Saudi Arabia has had its ups and downs over the years. You could probably make the same point about almost every country in the world.
We have, over the years, found reasons to work very closely with the Saudis. A number of us were involved in the intervention in the 1980s in Afghanistan, where Saudi Arabia was a critical partner in helping to implement the U.S. policy objective of driving out the former Soviet Union. They were principal funders, financiers of a great many of the activities. They helped facilitate, through their intelligence agencies, through Prince Turki Al Faisal and his organization, working very closely with the U.S. intelligence community to achieve what was perceived at the time to be a critical U.S. national-security objective.
We have worked together on Iran since 1979 and, again, largely share the same objectives in terms of Iranian behavior in the region and 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 relationships with the Saudis over the years. And I think the Yemenis often have observed, not always positively, that the United States has tended to see our interests in Yemen largely through Saudi perceptions, through Saudi eyes. That’s not a wrong position. 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 the rule of the Al Saud in Saudi Arabia, as well as the other Gulf monarchies, than support for the imamate — the 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 — the United States providing military support to the North Yemen military that was paid for by the Saudi government. That was primarily because of concerns about the threat to Saudi stability posed by the people’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, South Yemen, at that time. That continued for a number of years. We provided F-5s and other kinds of military support, until the Saudis and the Yemenis broke relations in 1990-91 over Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. And then Saudi Arabia and the United States broke also. We supported the Saudi decision to expel Yemeni workers in 1990-91 and cut off assistance. But when South Yemen tried to break off again and form another government in 1994, the United States and Saudi Arabia, having merged North and South Yemen in 1990, found themselves on different sides of the issue. The United States supported Ali Abdullah Saleh and the government in the north. The Saudis provided assistance to the south and supported the resumption of separate North and South Yemen governments.
After a period of years, though, we came back together again in 2011 and 2012. The United States and Saudi Arabia worked very closely as part of a larger international coalition — including all of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the GCC and a number of European governments — to work on a political-transition document that eventually became the GCC transition agreement. 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.
Let me just make the point that, 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. We probably would have ended up in the civil conflict that we’re experiencing now in Yemen several years before it actually broke out. After the agreement was signed and President Hadi was 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 a democratic transition in Yemen. It was not something they were familiar with.
So the United States and our Western partners took the lead. But the Saudis continued to play an important part in providing economic assistance and development assistance, working very closely with the World Bank, the IMF and the West on ways of ensuring that development assistance in Yemen continued to flow and to meet the requirements of development in that country. This was the status 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 mutual concerns as we saw some of the issues within Yemen: the dysfunctionality of the transition government, the efforts of Ali Abdullah Saleh to undermine the transition, and some of the unrest that the Houthis were manifesting in the north. As those issues continued to emerge, the United States and Saudi Arabia maintained a very close and positive dialogue.
This reached a peak in late 2014 and 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 the Saudis did inform us. This was 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 Gulf allies and partners. As the perception developed that the U.S. interest in the region was fading — partly because of the negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal, partly because of statements by President Obama as well as the policies of President Trump — they saw a decline in U.S. interest and came to the conclusion, not incorrectly, that they needed to take more responsibility for protecting their own interests and pursuing their own objectives.
Prior to their decision to intervene, the Saudis did come to Washington. They talked to the White House and the State Department and others, to inform them of their thinking, rather than to request permission to intervene in Yemen. At the time they made the decision, they didn’t anticipate — and we certainly didn’t — that the situation would drag on for four years. Secondly, their intent was to stabilize the situation. They believed at the time that they were going to secure the stability of the Hadi government and perhaps relocate it to Aden because of the Houthi occupation of Sanaa. But it was not their intent to go beyond what was already agreed to in the transition agreement; their intention was to stabilize the situation and allow the political transition to reach its conclusion. It obviously hasn’t worked out that way.
Here’s another point on which I have some disagreement with the way the narrative plays out in Washington. There is an inclination in Washington to look at the conflict in Yemen as a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Yemen and to see the Houthis as the element defending Yemeni sovereignty against Saudi aggression. This is absolutely incorrect. What’s happening in Yemen is a civil conflict. Its roots go back 40 or 50 years. It’s a conflict that has erupted in violence periodically throughout that period. 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.
Another point is that one needs to distinguish between the issues that drove the Saudi decision to intervene versus the implementation of that decision. Here, again, while I believe the Saudi decision to intervene was based on real and legitimate concerns, this is not to suggest that their implementation is not a fit subject for criticism. It absolutely is. Some of the Saudi efforts have been abominable and completely incompetent and incoherent. It’s not to say that because we understand why the Saudis intervened, therefore we must accept how they intervened. That’s not the case.
In my view, the Saudis have three legitimate concerns about the nature of the conflict. One is, as we’ve seen increasingly over these past months, the security of their southern border. The Saudis see an existential threat from a Houthi presence on their southern border, much as they perceive the Israelis facing a threat from Hezbollah on their northern border. That is something completely unacceptable to Saudi Arabia.
The second is the presence of the IRGC and Hezbollah in Yemen supporting the Houthis. Again, I need to clarify a point, because sometimes you’ll see the argument that the Iranian intervention and the IRGC presence are responses to the Saudi intervention. Even when I was still in Sanaa 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 and to receive Houthi elements in Iran. Not only for military training, but also for proselytizing in Shia Islam.
The third element of Saudi concern, of course, is the nature of the government. That the Saudis want to see a government in Sanaa that they can work with. This does not mean they are opposed to a Houthi presence in the government. 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.
This war has dragged on for several years. We, of course, like the Saudis and the other coalition partners, have supported the idea of a UN-negotiated resolution. It’s not clear that we’ve come any closer to that resolution, 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 it’s been defeated. Neither side feels as though momentum has shifted to the other. Therefore, neither side feels compelled to find a political solution.
I would make just a couple of final points. First, of course, what we’re seeing now is the decision on the part of the Emirates to withdraw their military forces from the aspect of their presence related to the Houthi campaign, keeping in mind that the Emirates have two separate objectives in the region. One is to support the Saudis and their coalition activities. The other is a counterterrorism mission, which the Emiratis have been clear in saying that they intend to continue. It’s only in relation to the Houthis that they’re withdrawing. They believe they have trained a sufficient number of Yemeni personnel to take on the resistance against the Houthis without Emirati intervention. There are also several thousand Sudanese troops in Yemen who are participating in that military campaign. The second point that they make is that, given the rise in tension with Iran, they believe they need their forces back in the UAE, particularly their Patriot air-defense systems.
This has serious implications for the Saudis, of course; the Emiratis have been leading the ground campaign over these past several years. The Saudis have been primarily involved in the air campaign. Whether the Saudis will be able to fill the vacuum left by an Emirati withdrawal remains to be seen. But because of what I see as a Saudi perception of an existential threat from Yemen, I believe they will carry on their campaign regardless of what the Emiratis do — or, frankly speaking, what the U.S. government does. There are many people who think the Saudis cannot carry on their military campaign without U.S. support. I think that’s absolutely false. If you believe you are facing an existential threat, you will continue your efforts regardless of what the larger international circumstances are.
But I will leave the final question on the table. The United States and Saudi Arabia have worked together for the last 70 years or so, as two countries that shared a basic perspective on the region, basic policy goals and objectives, basic national-security views. And both countries over the years have been primarily status-quo forces, believing in protecting the security and stability of the region. What we’ve seen over these last couple of years, with the rise of Mohammad bin Salman, is that Saudi Arabia is perhaps no longer a status-quo force, that Mohammad bin Salman, for whatever reason, has adopted a disruptive position vis-à-vis key elements of regional policy.
But the United States has also, under the Trump administration, become disruptive. It’s hard to argue that Trump policy is in support of regional security and stability. So the question now is, are we being disruptive in a way that allows us to work together, or are we going to take divergent paths over the coming years? Is the future of the U.S.-Saudi partnership sustainable?
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
We heard about disagreements that we’ve had with the Saudis over the decades and about a basic kind of security and economic cooperation as well. The question that Dana left us with at the end was about going forward. Does the Saudi military and economic cooperation with us, and the effort to make sure there is oil at a reasonable price available to everybody in the market, counterterrorism cooperation and intelligence cooperation with us — do these outweigh the current disagreements we have with them?
Tom, you had written some years ago that the main consideration is with strategic and economic factors. “Neither country wants a breach 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.” What do the three of you think about the 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: Every year in late February or 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 strategic issues and arrangements and alliances throughout the region. He does a general statement and a country-by-country assessment. 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. The Saudis are much more dependent on us. Their military capabilities remain questionable, and we don’t have big military commitments or a presence in Saudi Arabia. The United States has troops everywhere from Incirlik to Diego Garcia, but not in Saudi Arabia. The naval headquarters is in Bahrain. We have a big air base in Qatar. We have troops in Kuwait. We have troops in Djibouti.
If you combine the fact that we could conduct our strategic policies in the region — other than counterterrorism, 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 on an issue-by-issue basis, without having to pursue some kind of overall hand-holding framework of the kind we’ve had in the past. Keep your eye on the issue of nuclear proliferation.
DR. MATTAIR: Dana, you raised the question at the end. Where do you stand on it?
MS. STROUL: I’m going to react to two things I just heard. Could we move away from the overall framework 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. If you go to a lot of these governments and ask them to articulate exactly how you might get to a political settlement for Syria or exactly what a power-sharing agreement in Sanaa might look like or how should we address the threat from Iran, it’s very challenging to get them to articulate a specific policy or strategy and the tools to get there. In general, a lot of governments in the region are looking to others to articulate what those ends, ways and means are. And they can either listen to us, and we can suggest ways 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, in line with our interests. If we view Russian presence and activities in the region as inherently destabilizing, we should probably be working on shoring up partners and allies that can work to limit that presence and those activities. That doesn’t mean you have to agree on every issue. It means you can disagree on issues. You can raise the issues that are in our interest to raise, and at the same time work on areas of cooperation.
One of the comments you made is that neither country seems to want a divorce. I would say, right now, the United States doesn’t have one policy. There’s a policy articulated by the Trump administration which, at least in a bipartisan way on the Hill and in Washington, seems to be that there’s no questioning, no airing of grievances, no expression of concerns about specific policies. We’re all in; we don’t question, and we don’t challenge. There isn’t one unified American voice on what the future of the relationship is. There are many different constituencies and there’s an active debate taking place in public. So everyone understands what the debate is here. When talking about the Saudi relationship, a lot of other partners and allies are looking at this debate and questioning whether or not the United States is going to be there over the medium-to-long term in a strategically relevant way.
I think we can do both with the Saudis, elevate human rights and reform concerns. We can continue to engage on the issues 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, he talks over and over about freedoms — religious, political, et cetera. 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, 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 Arabia’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 or 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 is. And when insurance rates rise 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. We can either walk away from that opportunity or engage to try to make clear that certain behaviors will no longer be accepted.
MR. FEIERSTEIN: It depends on a number of factors that both Tom and Dana touched on. There is, again, a theory here 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 wherever has no impact on U.S. energy supplies. This is wrong in a number of aspects. The United States, even though it may be a net exporter of energy, still imports about 5 million barrels of oil every day. Therefore, we are still in the energy markets. And even though gasoline that comes out of the pump all looks the same, oil is not all the same. Oil is not fungible. Therefore, the kind of oil that comes out of the wells in Saudi Arabia is in fact critical for the United States and for the world’s energy requirements.
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, what happens in Saudi Arabia is going to be critically important for the United States for many years to come. So are the basic underpinnings of why we have this relationship with a country that is, in many ways, as divergent from U.S. traditions, perspectives and history as is humanly possible. It is a relationship that has been critical for us for many years and will continue to be.
Tom talked about the fact that there is no constituency in the United States for Saudi Arabia. This has always been true, even when I was working on these issues 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, not because we felt any emotional commitment.
What we’ve seen over these last couple of years is that 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. So the Saudi-U.S. relationship has become a debating point here on Capitol Hill and in the society in a way that it didn’t, even in the bad days after 9/11 and some of the other times when we’ve diverged. It is more intense, more difficult and more emotional.
Therefore, what people have perceived as the current relationship and the Trump administration’s unwillingness to challenge Saudi Arabia or raise some of these issues 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 to go forward. Tom also made the point that a number of the candidates on the Democratic side in this election will take a position on the U.S.-Saudi relationship contrary to that of the Trump administration.
The last point I would make is that a lot of it depends on Mohammad bin Salman. To go back to the point that I tried to make in the beginning, even though we have this long and broad-based relationship with Saudi Arabia, founded on shared economic, security and political interests, the tendency right now is to look at it through the optic of Mohammad bin Salman, and whether we agree with him.
Do we think that Mohammad Bin Salman is a monster who murdered Jamal Khashoggi and locked up innocent people or semi-guilty people without trial, who imprisons civil-society activists and civil libertarians and others? Or is he a modernizer we can work with? Yes, he’s made mistakes — this is the other side of the argument — but is he someone we can deal with? Or do you look at it more broadly: that this is a relationship that goes beyond the leadership? Do we say, yes, Mohammad bin Salman is a problem, but the nature of the relationship is more important than the leader, and we can work around that in some way?
Those are questions that are going to be answered, as part of the presidential campaign over the next year. And I think the answer is going to come out at the end of that campaign.
MR. LIPPMAN: Both of my colleagues 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 them 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 the 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 showing that the trajectory between Saudi export capacity and Saudi domestic demand will cross as soon as 2035. When that happens — and it’s like the day after tomorrow in strategic terms — what happens to this picture? This is what is propelling the Saudis in their quest for nuclear energy. We will have tough decisions to make about whether to meet that demand, because it could change the whole situation.
DR. MATTAIR: 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. They’d like to have an alternative for their own domestic needs, so I’m sure they’re going to bring in some technology to resolve that issue, such as nuclear.
We have talked about how we see the relationship with the Saudis, that we might need their cooperation, and our objections to certain behaviors of theirs. But to flip it over, I could start with the Egypt-Israel peace agreement. They had hoped Carter was going to succeed in getting something more comprehensive that would resolve the Palestinian issue. In fact, it led to a lot more Israeli settlement in the West Bank. And in 2003, King Abdullah asked us not to invade Iraq, as it would destabilize the region. We invaded anyway, and it let Iran into Iraq, which changed the geostrategic landscape for Saudi Arabia. It brought an adversary right onto 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. The Obama administration was too reticent to get involved and now you have much more Iranian influence in Syria than you did before. You already know how much they have in Lebanon. And Jerry pointed out that Iran was supporting the Houthis years before the Saudis intervened in late March 2015 in a campaign that has gone badly for them.
Then someone asked, is Saudi Arabia still a status quo power or a disrupter? What I’ve heard there is that they don’t know whether they can rely on us anymore to make good judgments about our policies in the region, and to help them contain and even roll back Iran. How do we factor that into our decision making going forward? Is it possible that the debacle in Yemen was caused, in part, because we called them free riders, told them to take matters into their own hands, said we’re going to pivot to Asia — and so they decided to take matters into their own hands? If, let’s say, we were to reduce our support for them in Yemen, who would benefit from that? How would that affect the outcome of what’s going on in Yemen?
MR. FEIERSTEIN: Thanks, Tom, you’ve led us down the rabbit hole. There’s no doubt that in both Riyadh and in Abu Dhabi, you have leadership today that has made a decision to be more assertive, to do more to pursue their goals and objectives, to coordinate and cooperate with the United States as possible, but that the United States will not have a veto over their decisions. On one level, it’s a fact that you have younger leadership in both of those capitals who believe that their predecessors were too beholden to the United States, too willing to accept U.S. leadership without necessarily achieving some of their own objectives. But it’s not only about the United States. 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.
They can read the same magazine articles that we can read. And when the president of the United States [Obama] is giving an interview in The Atlantic in which he’s talking about these countries as free riders, 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 make decisions based on that understanding. And Obama 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 the Trump administration has not changed its position that these countries need to take on more of the responsibility themselves. For us, that means we won’t always like what the decisions are that they make. We may disagree with them. But if you tell people to grow up and be adults, adults make decisions based on their own perspective. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t expect these governments to follow our leadership without question and at the same time tell them that they need to take the responsibility themselves. That’s the situation we’re in, and I don’t see it changing.
MS. STROUL: 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 — 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 different countries, to this administration and foreign policy by tweet.
In terms of reliability and how we may be viewed in the region, if I were staffing any of the governments of the region I’d say: Don’t rely on the Americans. They’re not consistent and they change policy with every administration. It is in our interest to cooperate with them when we can, but we also need to hedge our bets. We see that behavior right now. We see all sorts of military, security, economic, trade and energy agreements being concluded with a lot of other governments, two of which we would describe as adversaries.
Secondly, on how to understand Saudi actions, particularly in Yemen, we need to see how they have executed their operations, contextualize it in decades of security cooperation, professional military education, military training exercises we’ve been conducting with them in huge regional contexts, Gulf Cooperation Council training. We have tried for decades across administrations — Republican and Democratic. In the Clinton administration, they were called the Strategic Cooperation Forum, Gulf Cooperation Council, shared early warning, counterterrorism, ballistic-missile defense et cetera.
In the Bush administration, we had the Gulf Security Dialogues. In the Obama administration, it was the Camp David summits. 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 and address shared interests. 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. These guys are made of money so they’ll just pay for everything. Why should we be paying for everything? When we’re feeling nice, we call it burden sharing. Then there are 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 we’re having in the United States about what the U.S. role in the world should be. In that debate, the far right and the far left actually sound pretty similar. 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 what the Obama administration was thinking about the various conflicts that arose in the Middle East during their administration and 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? 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. 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.
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, burden sharing doesn’t mean we train you so go ahead and go. It means continual engagement. That is the choice the United States has to make. We may not agree on everything, militaries make mistakes, there are 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 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 had sort of stagnated or atrophied, to a great extent because we, Americans, took it for granted. Saudi Arabia has been the most stable country in the Middle East for 80 years. It was always there, in spite of all our differences. And we could count on certain aspects of the Saudi community, of Saudi Arabia as an entity, to respond in certain ways to things that would happen.
I’m not confident that we know that about Saudi Arabia today, by all accounts. Here’s where I differ a little bit from you, Jerry, 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 marakz al-quwwa (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.
So 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 provoked 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 different it is from the country we worked with for all these decades.
MR. FEIERSTEIN: I think you just put your finger on the critical issue. When people are 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. His brother is the deputy defense minister. MBS has eliminated many of the potential adversaries in the senior ranks of the family. But the question is, and I think this is going to be determinative in the U.S.-Saudi relationship going forward, is this sustainable over time? Or is the family going to assert some greater control and leverage? My guess is you’re not going to know the answer until the day comes when he is trying to become the king.
DR. MATTAIR: Here are some questions from the audience. How important is the military-to-military relationship with the Saudis in terms of deterring, containing or rolling back Iran in the region? Should we be encouraging the Saudi-Israeli relationship as part of an effort to deal with Iran? How can we use our military, economic and political relationship and our leverage with them to help resolve the conflict in Yemen? What is the way out of there that we can help them with? Finally, how do we use our relationship with them to encourage change inside the kingdom?
MR. LIPPMAN: 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.
MS. STROUL: I don’t think anybody is encouraging an overt Saudi-Israel relationship, but there’s no question that under the table there are 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. The Israelis and the Saudis agree on that. Look at the Bahrain 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. There is 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. We should probably be looking at that, staffers here for members of Congress. But the bottom line is, it is already happening. If you talk to certain Israelis, they say that the most exciting developments taking place in the Middle East are in the Gulf. The young people are dynamic, entrepreneurial and interesting, and we need to be paying attention to them. So it’s happening.
How to encourage change in the kingdom? 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. First of all, acknowledge the changes that are already underway and figure out how we can be most effective in encouraging that. A lot of that is actually using what we have here. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Scholarship Program brings in 50,000 students a year to U.S. universities. They’re getting exposed to American-style education. And they go back home. That’s a way of encouraging change. It doesn’t have to be articulating a specific program for reform and saying: This is what you should do. When I mentioned that soap opera that was shown in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan, there is change already underway. It’s not necessarily making the headlines, and that’s OK. Secondly, if there are firm views about specific things taking place that are antithetical to our interests, or we see as destabilizing, we should raise questions. A good example is the detained civil-rights activists. We should be very direct: We think these people should be immediately let out of prison.
As for the military-to-military relationship, it’s not just how important it is; it is how important is it for what we want to accomplish. For example, in the global coalition to defeat ISIS, we created the architecture, for militaries like the Saudi military to plug into it. Then we can say that we have a regional coalition united with us in addressing a shared threat. There’s utility in its not just being the United States going after ISIS in the region. There are other examples — counterpiracy, maritime coalitions in international waterways, where working with partner navies is in our interest for this to be internationalized, regionalized, globalized. 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 the Saudi military is buying U.S. weapons and not others? Not just for the defense industry. There are a host of strategic reasons why.
MR. FEIERSTEIN: On the military-to-military matter, 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. If I am not mistaken, that’s the first time we’ve had ground forces in Saudi Arabia since the first Gulf War or shortly thereafter, when we withdrew everybody. 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 potential adversary in the region, you cannot achieve your military objectives without support from Saudi Arabia. You made several points earlier on about air space and some of these other things. 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.
The mil-mil relationship is going to continue to be important. And the way forward on Yemen is hard. I think Dana and I agree on this point. There’s no utility in our using our military support for Saudi Arabia as a stick 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 friction between our societies without accomplishing anything in particular.
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 about what U.S. policy is. As to the S-400 system that the Turks have just acquired, Saudi Arabia has also negotiated with Russia about the possible purchase of the S-400, even though they already have the Patriot system. If we continue to signal unreliability in terms of our military relationship with them, the Saudis certainly have the resources to look elsewhere. There are plenty of other governments that are willing to provide that support.
Does that translate into some ability on our part to help influence the direction of a resolution in Yemen? I go back to the point I made earlier: The principal reason that we don’t have a political resolution of the conflict in Yemen — which I believe the Saudis, the Emiratis and all of the other coalition partners would welcome — is not because the Saudis are unwilling to pursue one or to empower the United Nations to do so. It’s because neither 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. There are a lot of reasons for that, besides their vision of the potential for a military victory. You’ve got a war economy in which an awful lot of people are making an awful lot of money by allowing this conflict to continue. And the conflict is really not binary; it’s multipolar, with a number of different elements. Trying to get everybody on the same page in order to resolve this thing is tough. My own sense is that the solution is not between Saudi Arabia and Yemen; it’s within Yemen. It’s going to be on Martin Griffiths to try to figure out how to get all the Yemenis together. If that happens, my expectation is that the Saudis will welcome it and cooperate.
AMB. ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: I’m going to be a little contrary, Jerry, on Yemen. I think the statements that members of Congress, and not only Democrats, have been making about our support for the prosecution of the conflict in Yemen is important and can have an impact on getting people to the table. It certainly was taken into account by the UAE in deciding to change the nature of their engagement. The point that you made earlier about balance — getting people to the table, the lack of military support from the United States — changes that balance. Certainly, there are many who’ve argued that we gave them support in that conflict to balance their distress about our having an agreement with Iran. So when we pulled out of that agreement, there was an opportunity to reduce or eliminate that support as well. But we are still there.
They are adults, as you said. They make their own decisions about what their existential challenges and priorities are. But that does not mean these are existential priorities for us. Is the cost of the humanitarian disaster, 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, the United States? I think our voices need to continue a very lively debate on this issue. I think our 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, that if it’s an existential challenge for the Saudis on their border, that is not going to materially change the nature of our relationship.
Dana, you mentioned that change within Saudi Arabia is coming. I will say, having been there from the early 2000s, that there were really challenging Ramadan serials on TV. In “Tash Ma Tash” (boil, off the boil), they talked about 9/11 and the nature of Saudi Arabia. There was a wonderful episode with a seven-year-old boy driving his mother to the hospital. So a discussion about women driving was happening in 2002, 2003 and 2004. But my profound belief and understanding from my time in Saudi Arabia with regard to change on fundamental rights is not an issue of driving or having access to public events where men and women can be together, though these are absolutely important, of course. I would argue that it is a matter of access to the justice system for women in Saudi Arabia. Issues like having to use an agent, a wakil, for carrying out your business and your public life, have yet to be sufficiently addressed. Those are the things that are going to make a difference in women’s lives and in Saudi lives.
DR. MATTAIR: One of the things causing much consternation in the United States is the way the war in Yemen is being prosecuted unsuccessfully and with collateral damage. Is there something we can do to avoid that and get a satisfactory outcome there? I will provide an anecdote from a trip that I took there in early 2016, with the Council’s late president, Ford Fraker, a former ambassador there. We had a meeting with about eight Saudi generals, who said, we need more precision-guided weapons to avoid killing civilians. They didn’t say, we want to kill civilians. Does it help us to reduce our assistance to them? Can we use our relationship with them to improve their performance and get a better outcome in Yemen?
MR. FEIERSTEIN: Part of the problem that I have with the way this debate is carried out here in Washington is that there is a tendency to look at this as Saudi aggression against Yemen. It is not. Saudi Arabia did not begin this war and is not responsible for this war. It is a civil war. Saudi Arabia has been engaged because of what they consider to be — and I agree with them — 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. Unless you’re going to talk about the Houthis and Iran, which are equally responsible for the tragedy that many Yemenis have witnessed over these past three years, you’re not talking about real solutions to the conflict. Singling out the Saudis and saying, if we stop selling them weapons, that will force them to the table, is a presumption on your part that the reason there isn’t a political solution is because the Saudis somehow are preventing it. That, again, is something that I would take issue with.
I don’t think that the Saudis are preventing a solution. I think the issues are domestic ones inside of Yemen, and that the reason there’s not been a solution is because neither side feels compelled to achieve one. That applies to the Houthis as well as to the government. I would also point out that UNSCR 2216 — which the United States supported and was one of the original sponsors of — says very clearly that the position of the international community, including us, is support for the legitimate government of Yemen. That is the Hadi government. Whether we agree or disagree with it now, that is what the UN Security Council said and we voted for, and it 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 signed and agreed in 2011, which would bring everybody back to a political process inside of Yemen. But beating on the Saudis isn’t going to get us there. I think that in order to represent a correct way forward, we need at least to look at the reality of the situation and not simply pursue shadows in Plato’s cave.
MR. LIPPMAN: In the two and a half years after the Saudis began to actively intervene in Yemen, I heard five different senior Saudi officials, including Adel al-Jubeir and the military adviser to Mohammad bin Salman, articulate five different strategic objectives to the campaign in Yemen: enforce the UN resolution, restore the legitimate government, prevent the existence of an anarchic state like Libya on Saudi Arabia’s border. I would submit that if you cannot articulate the strategic reason for waging a war, you can’t define victory. That’s part of their problem; they don’t know what they’re fighting for.
MR. FEIERSTEIN: I would take issue with that, Tom. None of those points you just made are contradictory. Yes, UN Security Council Resolution 2216 has all of those elements in it. They might articulate them differently, but they’re all of the same piece.
DR. MATTAIR: The second batch of questions from the audience comes back to this question: how do we use our relationship to bring about positive change in Saudi Arabia? There are a few questions here about whether King Salman and MBS can use their relationship with the Bandar bin Sultan and Reema Bint Bandar wing of the House of Saud to improve our relations and encourage positive change inside the kingdom on issues like male guardianship, women who are detained, and how to get accountability on the Jamal Khashoggi matter. How do we now use our relationship to get the change we’d like to see inside the kingdom? Has anybody seen evidence that inside the kingdom there’s a willingness to talk to us about this, to listen and work with us on these issues?
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. 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 policy recognized the fact that the Saudis are not amenable to tutelage from us on 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. Our policy 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. It only gets their backs up, as President Bush and Condi Rice found out with their democracy initiative.
RICHARD J. SCHMIERER, Chairman and President, Middle East Policy Council; Former Ambassador, Sultanate of Oman
One point we haven’t really delved into, which I think is important for the topic at hand today, is that we 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: the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which has reverberated very strongly here in Washington. As someone who spent eight years living in Saudi Arabia and six years as a diplomat there, I’m optimistic about the new ambassador. The Middle East Policy Council had the opportunity to host her at an event last year and she is very articulate. She was speaking about developments among the youth in Saudi Arabia. I think she has come with good advice on how to tone down the rhetoric that we heard in the immediate period following the murder of Khashoggi. I would like to think that what we’ll see from her is an understanding that the United States expects its partners, like Saudi Arabia, to abide by certain kinds of behavior, which I think was not understood previously. I think we’ll see a toning down of the rhetoric that we heard from some in the post-Khashoggi period. Like Gina, I have served as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has very good diplomats. So it’s important to keep in mind that the relationship does need to be repaired to a certain extent. And we’re fortunate to have a new ambassador who, I think, has come well-prepared and has the right temperament to help repair the relationship. 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 that happen.
MS. STROUL: I’m going to take the countervailing view to Lippman. It’s not about the United States dictating to other countries what they do inside their borders. But if events or decisions made inside a country affect the United States, then we do need to raise this. I don’t think it’s in our interest for Saudi Arabia to be 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; there is a reason to raise it. If you then extend that out and say, it’s not the business of the United States what takes place in other countries, what kind of jungle rules are we talking about? 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.
If you extend that logic, should we not attempt to prevent Bashar al-Assad from gassing 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 and 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 instability? In terms of the ability of the United States to make Saudi Arabia change, that’s not what we’re talking about. But if there’s change already happening that I think offers areas for cooperation, we can find ways to partner and foster that.
I want to go back to the question of whether there is any way for us to make the Saudis better in Yemen. 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 worst humanitarian crisis? Or is it a matter of not knowing how to use their precision-guided munitions effectively? 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? 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, though by no means perfect either. The question is, is there leadership within Saudi Arabia that wants to improve the conduct of their military operations? And are the Americans going to shape that? I think there’s still an open question here in Congress as to whether they are a learning organization, and whether it’s a question of intentionality or capability. We’ve been working for years with them to improve their operations. And I think the frustration you’re hearing here in Congress is because, after all these years of seeking to improve the operations of the Saudi military, it doesn’t appear here that there’s been improvement.