DANIEL BENAIM, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, US Department of State
Just two weeks ago, from within the region in Jeddah, flanked by leaders of the GCC+3 [the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan], President Biden made clear the enduring strategic importance of the Middle East—and the Gulf in particular—to the United States. As the president put it, and as the last 18 months have borne out, it is clear “how closely interwoven America's interests are” with this region. And, I would add, how fundamental our partnerships and presence in this region are to how our country operates in the world.
We're approaching the one-year anniversary of the emergency evacuation of over 120,000 people, including many Americans, from Afghanistan. More than half came through the Gulf. When it counted most, we looked to our partners, and seemingly overnight five Gulf states opened their territories, saving countless lives. In Qatar and the UAE, that lifesaving effort continues. The Afghan evacuation drove home, for many of us, the intangible, sometimes unpredictable, ways that a network of strong US partnerships in the Gulf can advance US interests and values. One year later, President Biden came to the Gulf himself to articulate a vision for US engagement that aims to match this moment: the intensely competitive nature of great-power relations, which affect the region and our approach to it, the urgency of global challenges from the climate-driven transition to clean energy to a food crisis stoked by Russia's war of choice against Ukraine.
At the same time, there's also the newfound openness and experimentation of several countries working to reach across old rivalries and divides to explore what's possible. For this region at this moment, President Biden offered five pillars of a US approach: partnerships, deterrence, diplomacy, integration, and values. Let me just say a few words about each.
Our strategy starts with reinforcing America's longstanding partnerships. They are a comparative advantage that no competitor in the Middle East, near or far, can match in depth and strategic importance. Incidentally, preserving partnerships and the advantages that they bring starts with showing up and engaging forthrightly, as President Biden did. What you saw on President Biden's travels were partnerships being updated beyond the old mainstays of oil and military cooperation and counterterrorism.
Both sides want to capitalize on the Gulf's growing capability to help solve global problems, and growing ambitions to modernize its own societies. You can see it in the billions that were pledged for regional food security, energy transformation, and other strategic investments through the partnership for global investment and infrastructure, and a Saudi memorandum of understanding to deploy open radio access networks to give countries in the region and beyond a compelling alternative on 5G. In the enthusiasm for space exploration, [you can see that] these are evolving partnerships, looking forward. To be clear, a partnership doesn't mean always agreeing. Sometimes it means actually having difficult conversations. But it does rest on a shared understanding of mutual responsibility, a shared stake in each other's well-being and a shared willingness to act on it, and a shared stake in the international order we've worked to sustain.
Cooperation to help states defend themselves against external aggression remains foundational to our partnerships in this region, and President Biden also spoke about deterrence and his resolve to ensure that no country can dominate the region through military buildup, incursion, or threat, and to work together to secure the waterways of the region through new task forces, technological advances, and bilateral and multilateral cooperation. That commitment has been there from the beginning. Even as he took steps in his first weeks as president to end the Yemen war, President Biden also recommitted to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory. In Yemen, these last 17 weeks of truce have been among the most peaceful the country has had in years.
Our second pillar is diplomacy. My colleague Tim Lenderking is in the region now, working with the UN special envoy to extend and expand that truce to the benefit of the Yemeni people in the region. And, of course, we're working to find a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear challenge while ensuring that Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapon.
Backed by strong deterrence and defense cooperation, we are encouraging our partners’ attempts to seize a newfound spirit of cooperation and integration that has taken hold in some places in the region. This trip saw a significant step forward between Saudi Arabia and Israel, the opening of Saudi airspace to flights from all countries, including Israel, and a long-sought diplomatic path forward on Tiran Island. These steps pave the way for future progress, as President Biden made clear.
There are all kinds of new projects, groupings, and dialogues taking root at this moment in the region and, for the most part, we want to encourage that. We saw an agreement to connect Iraq's electricity grid to the Gulf; I2U2 [India, Israel, the UAE and the United States], knitting together America's Abrahamic partners and Indo-Pacific partners on food and energy innovation with lots of room to grow; and a Negev process building on a historic Arab-Israeli ministerial meeting in the desert of Israel spearheaded by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to carry forward the breakthrough of the Abraham Accords and build momentum through six working groups for enhanced regional cooperation and integration, and also for initiatives that benefit the Palestinian people.
Since the Al Ula Accords early last year, countries have gone further and faster down the road from rift to rapprochement than many of us had dared to hope. Even in Jeddah we saw the king of Bahrain meet the emir of Qatar for the first time since the rift, opening up travel between these two US partners. That spirit of de-escalation has its limits, to be sure, absent more fundamental choices from destabilizing actors in the region; but we are seeing that it can create new possibilities worth exploring.
The last pillar of President Biden's approach is values. It remains a pillar of our engagement. From the heart of the region, President Biden spoke his mind with his usual candor on the importance the United States places on human rights around the world and in the region, and on his view that championing these rights is a foundational part of the job of the president of the United States. I'm fortunate to work for Secretary of State Blinken, who so clearly shares that commitment, which I've seen faithfully reflected in so many of his engagements. Where we see progress, we hope to advance it. Where we see challenges—and we do—we forthrightly raise and seek to address them.
There's always more to say, but these five lines of effort that the president laid out—our partnerships, deterrence, diplomacy, integration, and values—capture the core of our efforts in the Gulf and the wider region, where, as President Biden said, we're here to stay. So I'm honored to be joined by genuine experts in trade, energy, and much else, and I look forward to hearing their presentations and your questions.
LAURA LOCHMAN, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Diplomacy, Bureau of Energy Resources, US Department of State
I'd like to highlight three areas we've been focused on in our work in the Gulf and the wider Middle East: global energy security, the clean-energy transition, and regional partnerships and integration. As the global economy was emerging from Covid-19, we started to see an increase in energy price volatility that threatened economic recovery, and not long after that, we had to confront further upheaval brought about by Russia's unprovoked war on Ukraine. The Biden administration's efforts to bolster energy security and reduce price volatility have included working with our fellow energy producers to ensure adequate supplies, and many of these producers are, of course, in the Gulf region, including those in OPEC Plus. Shortly before President Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia, OPEC Plus announced that it would increase production quotas by 648,000 barrels per day in July and August. This represents a 50 percent boost compared to the incremental increases we had been seeing in previous months. Of course, we welcome Saudi Arabia's role in achieving consensus among members of OPEC Plus to secure that increase. And the president, during his recent visit, said he anticipates seeing further steps in the coming months to help stabilize oil markets, depending on market-conditions analysis, including close to record-setting domestic production from the United States this year.
Second, as we work to ensure adequate oil and gas supplies and address short-term imbalances, it's imperative that we continue to reinforce the clean-energy transition. Energy-producing countries play a key role in that process, and indeed, the Gulf countries have announced and are pursuing deployments of renewables and clean-energy technologies on a massive scale. At the president's meetings in Jeddah, the United States and Saudi Arabia committed to work together as strategic partners on climate and energy transition initiatives. We finalized a partnership framework for advancing clean energy, which will include substantial investments in the clean-energy technologies of today and those still in development that will be required to achieve net-zero emissions economy-wide. Some areas the partnership will focus on include solar energy deployment, clean hydrogen, nuclear energy, and carbon-capture utilization and storage. As two of the world's biggest energy producers, we're excited to move forward with that partnership.
Saudi Arabia has a leading role in the global energy transition and has shown the will and the ability to lead on these issues through the Saudi Green Initiative and Middle East Green Initiative, its role in the Major Economies Forum, and its commitment to meet 50 percent of its power needs through renewable sources by 2030.
Following the president's meeting in Jeddah with UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the leaders asked their climate envoys to explore new opportunities to drive economic growth and sustainable development. Other countries in the Gulf region have shown similar commitments by joining global climate initiatives like the Global Methane Pledge, the founding of the Net-Zero Producers Forum, and support for the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment. We're working with our Gulf partners on addressing methane emissions. Methane is a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and rapid reductions in methane are critical to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. The United States and the EU lead the Global Methane Pledge. Participants joining the pledge agree to take voluntary actions to contribute to a collective effort to reduce global methane emissions by at least 30 percent from 2020 levels by 2030. If successful, this effort could eliminate over 0.2 degrees Celsius warming by 2050. I'm happy to say that all our Gulf partners have signed onto the Global Methane Pledge. The United States would like them to also join us in supporting the Global Methane Pledge Energy Pathway, a new initiative that focuses specifically on methane reductions in the fossil-fuel energy sector.
We're also working with partners on another important initiative, the Net-Zero Producers Forum, or NPF. Qatar and Saudi Arabia joined the United States, Canada, and Norway in launching the NPF and held the first NPF ministerial meeting in March of this year. The UAE was admitted as a full NPF partner in May. The Department of Energy leads on the NPF, which brings together major oil- and gas-producing nations to demonstrate leadership in developing pathways to net-zero emissions. The NPF provides a venue to share knowledge aimed at improving the design and implementation of net-zero plans, while supporting the sustainable and secure energy future. The NPF marked another key milestone when Canada hosted the first virtual working-group meeting on implementing commercial decarbonization technologies in May of this year. And at the G7 summit in June, President Biden unveiled the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment, or PGII, along with other G7 leaders.
After President Biden's meeting with the GCC in Jeddah, the United States was pleased to announce a significant commitment by GCC member countries in support of that partnership. Our GCC partners plan to invest a total of $3 billion in projects that align with PGII goals, including tackling the climate crisis and bolstering global energy security. And, of course, the next two UN Climate Change Conferences will take place in the Middle East: COP27 in Egypt and COP28 in the UAE. We're looking forward to these events as opportunities for the Middle East region to showcase global leadership on energy transition.
Finally, there are a number of new partnerships among Middle East countries that are advancing work to support important energy initiatives. The announcement of a major regional energy integration project was made at the GCC+3 meeting in Jeddah, a landmark agreement between Iraq and the GCC Interconnection Authority [GCCIA]. The agreement will advance construction of an interconnection linking Iraq's electricity grid to the grids in the GCC, thereby providing the Iraqi people with new and diversified sources of electricity over the coming decade.
While Iraq is a major energy producer, the country suffers from chronic electricity shortages. We think that's something the region can work together to change. The GCCIA interconnection agreement is a major step towards doing that. We're also supporting electricity interconnections between Iraq and its other neighbors, including Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Immediately before traveling to Saudi Arabia, President Biden participated in the first I2U2 leaders-level summit in Jerusalem. The I2U2 is a grouping of India, Israel, the UAE, and the United States that intends to take on some of the greatest challenges of our time with a focus on joint investments and new initiatives in water, energy, transportation, space, health, and food security. The initial projects highlighted in the first I2U2 leaders summit focused on food and energy security. We're excited to see a hybrid-renewable energy project in India as one of the first initiatives identified for the group's support.
We've also seen progress in Project Prosperity, a water and solar energy arrangement between Israel and Jordan with Emirati and US backing and investment. This type of effort can serve as a model for future partnerships in the region. We're looking forward as well to participating actively in the Negev Forum on regional cooperation, which held its inaugural steering committee meeting in Bahrain on June 27. The forum was created in the aftermath of the Negev Summit in March that brought together Secretary Blinken and foreign ministers from Israel, the UAE, Egypt, Morocco, and Bahrain. Clean energy is one of the six working groups in the forum, along with education, terrorism, security, health, and food and water.
Through all of these initiatives, bilateral and multilateral, the United States is engaging fully with the region on issues of energy security, energy transition, and regional integration.
KAREN YOUNG, Senior Fellow and Director of Program on Economics and Energy, Middle East Institute
Let me start with what I think should have been the four key headlines after President Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia earlier in July. There were some very important announcements, which Laura has just gone over, many of them on bilateral energy and infrastructure cooperation, which I think should center our forward-looking relationships, especially with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar.
As mentioned, I think the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment as part of the G7 communiqués will also now include some Saudi cooperation: the simple acknowledgment of where energy demand, especially for electricity, will be surging in the decade to come is in emerging markets. And the US and leading global economies have a stake in making sure that energy demand can be met, so people have the tools to build businesses, to go to work, to have access to high-speed telecommunications, and that the source of that energy can be lower, or zero, carbon emissions to meet our shared climate goals.
The projects that the US has facilitated so far are in Angola for solar power and in building undersea telecom cables from the Horn of Africa to Singapore. The Gulf states are also in these sectors and can be instrumental sources of investment and connectivity within the emerging markets of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. It's more in their interest, in some ways, and we should emphasize their shared goals and direct investment together.
Second, the Saudi-US Bilateral Framework on Clean Energy Cooperation should build on new markets sprouting up in the US and especially in the Gulf and Middle East for green and blue hydrogen, new gas opportunities, and solar. We can both compete in these sectors and learn from and invest in each other. The gas business is taking on a larger role here as well, as an intermediary energy source in a transition to net zero. For Qatar, this is widening relationships in Europe but also widening the landscape of competitors, including within the MENA region, but also with the United States.
Third, we should amplify and celebrate the I2U2 initiative, especially on solving collective food-security challenges and thinking about how models of US engagement with countries in Asia and the Middle East together build patterns of regional cooperation, problem solving, and solutions where the US is at the table but not necessarily at its head.
Fourth, we will continue to see more efforts to secure Israeli investment in the region, and vice versa, and co-investments as a result of the Abraham Accords. There's good potential here, especially on gas production and technology. Interestingly, I think the Abraham Accords have done more to bring Israel and Egypt together than they've done to bring Israel and Bahrain or Sudan together, which have so far seen very little economic benefit from the agreements. It's also true, of course, that oil markets have dominated our attention and the administration's focus on the Gulf. As much as there has been a focus on Saudi Arabia as a potential source of additional oil production that could perhaps ease tight markets and eventually gasoline prices in the US, that short-term view is unrealistic but may also become less pressing if we face a diminishment of global oil demand due to recession.
The global economy is showing signs of a major slowdown, and oil demand is expected by many analysts to drop sharply by year's end. There are some clear unknowns: first, on the degree of the downturn and how that slowdown affects oil demand; second, the threat to oil supply is now nearly all political, with sanctions on Russian oil production looming from the European Union and assumptions of rising insurance cost for its transport. Iran also looms large, with a conflict or direct attack on Iranian nuclear facilities now taking on a higher regional-risk calculation.
For Saudi Arabia, management of the oil market means keeping some spare capacity in place, which may make the difference in wild price extremes in this period of uncertainty. This also means that keeping Russia in the game, as a source of global oil production, should matter to both the United States and the other major oil producers. This is the complex nature of the business, in that it is competitive, especially in securing market share and long-term customers in Asia, but it also depends on some reliability and supply.
In recent publications, I've argued that the US and President Biden have an opportunity to take a long-term view with Saudi and the UAE on future energy-security needs, especially within emerging markets in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Reverting to a focus on security cooperation between the US and Gulf Arab states, though important, plays into an established comfort zone of US engagement in the Middle East. What we miss is an understanding of what the region has the capacity to do with its own economic resources and interests, which can be much more impactful and powerful for our global-security and economic-growth needs.
There's also the risk of outsourcing some framing of US-Gulf security cooperation to the influence of Israeli strategy, which would probably do more to increase militarization and arms races within the region. That trendline was already in process, and if it goes to military confrontation with Iran, our energy-market problems today will pale in comparison to what is to come.
We're also seeing strains within the Gulf Arab states on approaches to dealing with a more obstructionist Iran. The UAE firmly pushed back on the more direct proposals for shared defense cooperation, though at the same time the UAE has asked for US commitments to defense. The GCC states have traditionally had very different foreign-policy approaches to Iran and have preferred an outside guarantor of individual support rather than a regional security organization. That seems to still be the case. What has changed is that the Gulf states would both expect this US security umbrella to remain but exercise very independent foreign and economic policies that can run counter to US interests, whether towards Russia or China or even Iran. Part of the friction in our bilateral relationships now is this growing interventionist trend from Gulf foreign policies and their respective demands to be treated as equals on the international stage. That's a fair demand. Some American acknowledgment of the reach and ambition of the Gulf states as individual actors will be essential to our own expectations and planning for confronting our own adversaries.
Here's the opportunity, as I see it, that the US can start preparing for. Strategically we can look to three trends in energy security affecting the Middle East and our global economy. Now is the moment to engage and reflect on the role of the Gulf states and a shared global energy-security challenge.
The first is that oil and gas producers will become more disaggregated within the region in terms of their access to capital, their fiscal space for social support, and their ability to direct hydrocarbon revenues to invest in domestic climate goals. The wealthier ones will be called upon to seed a green development transition in the weaker ones. The regional political dynamics will change with a growing role for the dominant Gulf Arab states of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar.
Second, gas markets will boost the importance and international profile of producers in the eastern Mediterranean and shift the interregional dynamics among producers and their regional investment partners. For Israel, this has security-partnership implications as well. For Europe and the US, competition, innovation, and investment cycles will reshape how the West sees the Middle East and how the gas producers within MENA engage with each other. It may be gas, more than oil, that defines how US foreign policy sees the Middle East in future security partnerships.
Third, the aid, investment, and development agenda of the Middle East will become more global in its reach and outlook, driven by the Gulf states and their individual transformations as they seek new markets for their energy products: oil and gas, but also hydrogen and petrochemicals.
Lastly, let me say a word about future fragility as a result of energy insecurity. Looking forward at global debt burdens, especially across emerging markets and in the MENA region, in high population-growth areas that are also high in the growth of energy demand, it is the Gulf states that are positioned to lend and to create leverage with energy supply. Global debt is a new burden. Now private debt amounts to about 250 percent of global GDP, and government debt is over 100 percent of GDP. Private-sector debt levels are similar to what we saw during the global financial crisis, but government debt has increased more than 50 percent since 2009.
This debt burden and the ways that governments will have to solve it has enormous consequences for political influence, for emerging regional or ideational blocs, and especially in transferring models of economic development. Gulf states don't lend so much, in the ways China has, but they do regularly commit to rescue packages and they do buy cheap and distressed assets and realign their foreign policies conveniently to do so. Take Turkey and Egypt, for example, and Sudan and Pakistan.
This is what my forthcoming book, The Economic Statecraft of the Gulf States, is about: the transferability of a Gulf political economy to a wider area of influence. What sectors do they promote, do they invest in, do they buy outright? And what are the results in job creation, in social mobility, in regulatory shares? This is about a trendline of deglobalization and alternative models of economic development, but not from the point of view of the West. This is the strongest case I can make for continued US engagement with the Gulf states, to consider their place and ability to intervene as development and financial actors in a very complex global energy and security environment.
CHAS W. FREEMAN JR., Senior Fellow, Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs; Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia; Board Member, Middle East Policy Council
In June 1974, cornered by Watergate, Richard Nixon set off on a quick tour of the Middle East. This is something presidents seem to do when they're in trouble back home. In no foreign region is US statecraft so inseparable from domestic politics. The unpalatable realities in the Middle East have made it an unchallenged center for diplomatic hypocrisy and double standards. It's where the values-based foreign policy that our domestic politics demand goes to die.
Pledging allegiance to Israel—regardless of its gross violations of Palestinian rights and neighbor states’ sovereignty—pries manna from heaven in the form of campaign donations from American Zionists and their fellow travelers. Similarly, given the American addiction to cheap energy, a quixotic desire for Saudi intervention to lower the price of gas at the pump springs eternal. Domestic political calculations, not the strategic pursuit of national interests, have just led President Biden to affirm his fidelity to Zionism with a trip to Israel, the only country in the world where Donald Trump is more popular than he is.
From Israel, the president traveled to Saudi Arabia, hat and emergency gas can in hand, to dine on symbolic crow as a guest of Prince Mohammed bin Salman [MBS], whom, to much domestic American applause, he had loudly denounced and pledged to make a pariah. But no one should be surprised that he didn't condemn the Saudi government for the murder of my friend Jamal Khashoggi. Neither he, nor any other president, has ever held the Israeli government accountable for murdering Americans, like Shireen Abu Akleh, Rachel Corrie, or the crew of the USS Liberty. Get real! Why should the president be more concerned about a dead citizen of Saudi Arabia than about dead Americans?
In Jeddah, the president bumped fists with MBS and made Israel's case for a normalized relationship with its Arab neighbors, despite its continuing cruelty to the Palestinian Arabs it oppresses. It doesn't get much more demeaning than this. When interests and pretenses collide, interests prevail. When foreign and domestic interests are in conflict, domestic interests come first. Nothing unusual about that; let's hear it for AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] and cheap gas. If it's obvious why President Biden needed Israel and Saudi Arabia at this moment, it's less clear why they needed him.
America has lost its grip on West Asia, which is now not its nor any other great power's fiefdom. Diminished leverage in the region makes Washington a less compelling partner than it once was. The United States no longer attempts to achieve peace for the Palestinians. Is cozying up to Iran's enemy, refusing to deal with Iran itself, and continuing to trash the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal] a strategy or just a posture, dictated by domestic politics? It's far from clear that shared fear of Iranian power and weaponry can sustain American influence in the region, as the so-called peace process and shared dread of godless Soviet communism once did.
Regardless of doubts about Washington's reliability as a protector, however, Israel, the Arab participants in the eruption of realpolitik known as the Abraham Accords, and Saudi Arabia all recognize that they have no real alternative to a US security umbrella. No other great power is able to assume, or indeed has any desire, to take up American defense burdens in the region. But what's in it for Americans to soldier on? There are, in fact, serious matters at stake for the United States in West Asia beyond the sole reason the president gave: to exclude Chinese and Russian influence there.
Many factors dictate a sound American relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries. The United States may no longer need Saudi oil, but everyone else does. Saudi Arabia supplies one-sixth of the world's exported oil. Other Gulf Arab states close to Riyadh supply another eighth. The kingdom leads OPEC, which exports almost 50 percent of world petroleum. OPEC plus Russia supplies just a bit under three-fifths. It's the balance of supply and demand in the global market, not political pandering to angry American consumers, that determines energy prices, supports or undermines global prosperity, and helps determine rates of inflation. If you're concerned about energy prices, you better be on speaking terms with Riyadh. Moscow, too.
Washington has set aside reliance on diplomatic persuasion in favor of coercive policies based on dollar sovereignty. The United States now imposes sanctions on any and all countries that defy our policies. This practice and the lawless confiscation of a growing number of countries’ dollar reserves, have put America at odds with much of the world. The dollar ceased to be convertible to gold in 1971. Since then, its centrality to global trade settlement and finance has been sustained by a Saudi commitment, which OPEC grudgingly follows, to price energy in dollars. Should the Saudis decide to accept other currencies for their oil or gas, markets for other commodities would do the same. This would collapse the dollar and the exorbitant privilege it affords the United States and terminate US global primacy.
This is not a small matter. To get from Asia to Europe, or vice versa, you need permission to transit Saudi air space. So, yes, US global strategic mobility is hostage to the kingdom's goodwill. The geopolitical cost of an unfriendly and uncooperative relationship with Riyadh would be immense. The most extreme Islamist movements bracket the United States and Saudi Arabia as enemies. Intelligence from the kingdom remains essential to effective US defense against terrorist attack by them. Saudi custody of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina gives it worldwide soft power. Saudi Islam has shown that it has the potential to be either a font of Muslim extremism and anti-Americanism, or its most effective antidote.
After supporting religious intolerance for decades, Saudi Arabia now actively combats Islamist causes. And this cannot be taken for granted. Saudi Arabia is the largest single foreign purchaser of both American and British defense equipment and services. Many production lines in the US and the UK would shut down if the kingdom bought elsewhere. Lots of jobs would be lost.
The US relationship with Saudi Arabia is, of course, not the only challenge to US strategic interests in the region. Consider these other issues: Current US policies toward Iran invite it to emulate North Korea, which responded to maximum pressure by developing a nuclear deterrent to attack from the United States, thus creating a previously nonexistent threat to the American homeland. The 40-year-old Gulf Cooperation Council in which Saudi Arabia is primus inter pares is on the mend but, frankly, just as feckless as ever. US forces have illegally invaded Syria and are engaged there in dangerous maneuvers against Russian, Turkish, Iranian, and Lebanese as well as Syrian forces. These confrontations risk wider wars, and not just in the region.
The post-Saddam order, the assembled battalions of the blob unilaterally imposed on Iraq early this century, is unstable and crumbling. Iraq's future alignments are in doubt. The Biden administration doesn't appear to have an answer to this. Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE, among others, are attempting to dilute their strategic overdependence on the United States. They don't share Washington's global obsessions, are alarmed by its erratic politics, resent its efforts to coerce them into placing dubious US interests above their own, and will not downgrade relations with China and Russia to please America.
Israel continues to terrorize and dispossess its captive Arab populations and to violate the sovereignty of neighboring states. The Zionist state is increasingly dismissive of US advice to restrain its violent behavior. It appears to believe that it has a blank check from America. Maybe it does. Others in the region want the US to make them safe from Israel, not Israel safe from them.
It is a truism that failure provides more lessons than success. West Asia is a region in which abundant policy failures offer a veritable cornucopia of insights into warfare and diplomacy. Few of these would come as a surprise to classical Arab, British, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mongol, Persian, Portuguese, Roman, Russian, Spanish, or Turkish students of statecraft. But the United States no longer teaches geography or foreign history in its schools, has ever-fewer foreign correspondents, glorifies war, and seems to view diplomacy as nothing more than the foreplay preceding a military assault.
Our habit of plotting foreign policies as vectors of ill-informed popular perceptions and passions belies reality. By reality, I mean what's out there, whether Americans perceive it and believe in it or not. Not bothering to figure out how foreigners see things enables Washington to avoid having to ponder how they might react to its decisions. Americans now feel free to indulge solipsistic fantasies that justify foreign policy so out of line with trends and events abroad that they gain more blowback than traction.
We're now in the post-post-World War II, post-post-Bretton Woods, and post-post-Cold War periods. Let's call this the new world disorder. Neither the world nor the United States is what it was in the formative years of our leaders’ and their key subordinates’ experience. They and we need to come to grips with radically altered realities. Acting as if nothing much has changed is the equivalent of playing chess blindfolded with your ears blocked. It's a sure path to geopolitical checkmate, or worse.
The Biden trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia is proof that passionate attachments and moral outrage directed at foreigners may be freebies on the campaign trail but can be a serious challenge and embarrassment to anyone who actually gets elected, takes office, and has to govern. Venomous denunciations of foreign leaders now have consequences. A bit of rhetorical restraint seems to be in order. About 20 years ago, I was present when a well-meaning visitor asked then-Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to provide Israelis with useful private advice on how to make peace with others in the region. Abdullah replied: Tell them if they want to be loved they should do something loveable. That was good advice for Israel then, and it's good advice for the United States and others now.
JIM MORAN, Senior Policy Advisor, Nelson Mullins; Former Congressman (D-VA); Board Member, Middle East Policy Council
Let me start by referring to a breakfast meeting I had this morning with a Sudanese gentleman who I find to be brilliant. He made the comment that the real conflict in the United States is between its values and its interests. And too often, both sides lose. We can think of any number of examples where that was the case. Going into Iraq was certainly one. How do people think of that Iraq War? They think of it as a blunder. Abu Ghraib comes to mind, the massacring of civilians. And from a pragmatic standpoint, the cost of about $2 trillion. People ask, what did we get for it? What did we achieve? Did we define ourselves as a nation? We got rid of Saddam Hussein. We don't have a stable government. We do have some government. And, frankly, we have some good people heading that government. Maybe Iraq will in the long run be benefited by our intrusion. But it was a very costly one, and it was largely done out of ignorance.
When you look at our other interventions, you have to wonder: have we really seized the opportunity that the rest of the world wants us to assume? They want us to be that shining beacon on a hill that they can look to for inspiration, for guidance, as well as for protection, particularly for hope in the future. Now, our learned, terrific people working in the State Department, as well as Ms. Young, gave us a number of facts, all of them accurate. They're impressive, but nobody knows them, and nobody cares.
I don't see that trip to the Middle East as particularly productive; after 35 years in elected office, I tend to see things through a prism. And from that political prism, I think it was largely a failure. I hate to say that; I admire and am very fond of our president. And what a vast improvement from our previous leadership. But perception has its own reality. The perception is that President Biden is weak and that the United States is weak. The rest of the world is looking for leadership and not finding it where they need it.
It's not going to come from Europe. In many ways, the European economies and societies are kind of calcified. They look to the United States as well. So what is the point of this country at this time in history? It seems to me it's to guide the arc of history so that it does, in fact, lean toward progress. And what progress was achieved by this visit, other than the statistics the State Department can recite to people who are willing to listen, who are very few? MBS got a fist-bump. Israel got the right to fly over Saudi Arabia's air space.
But there are almost 600 million people in the Middle East and North Africa, and the people we deal with are a thin veneer, sort of like the atmosphere that protects this planet. There's this thin little atmosphere of people we deal with that, purportedly, represent and run these countries. But the reality is that those 600 million have very little to do with the leadership of their governments. They want democracy. They want human rights. They want the rule of law. Did we advance any of those defining values of the United States on this trip? The fact is that Shireen Abu Akleh, as Ambassador Freeman noted, was an American. She had a press vest on. She was deliberately murdered, shot in the head.
There's no question. The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, you name it—the United Nations—have all done investigations, which we have not, and they reached a conclusion that we, the United States, are not willing to accept, certainly not when President Biden is going to Israel to achieve his political bona fides, which, as Chas has alluded to, is imperative from the standpoint of domestic politics. We stood strong and tall in our outrage at the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi. We vowed that we won't forget it. The Washington Post has, certainly, been insistent that we not forget it. Completely contrary to all our values.
Yet, our interests trumped our values on this trip, and it sends a message not just to leadership but to the population of all of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. We don't have a democracy. In the entire region, only Israel is a true democracy. But Israel was working against any of its neighbors’ achieving democracy. We thought maybe Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, would be a democracy. We now have one person who's written his own constitution who's going to run the whole country, for better or worse. The reality is, it's not a democracy.
We have our allies that are friends, and I have enormous respect for them. But our ally the United Arab Emirates has been doing everything it can to secure General Khalifa Haftar's control over Libya. It's been doing everything it can to shore up Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria, despite the fact that the US Congress passed a law with consequences, the Caesar Act, for helping the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But we look the other way.
While this is going on, we are not living in a static world. Russia is embedded in a number of these militaries, which makes it problematic to be providing our most sophisticated weaponry to countries where the Wagner Group, particularly, is embedded. China, likewise, is investing considerable amounts in achieving the kind of role that the population of the Middle East and North Africa would like the United States to play, because we don't insist upon the management of these projects being American. We want to train them. We want to be able to turn over these infrastructure projects. We want the end result to be an educated, informed, peaceful society and a prosperous economy that we can trade with. China's ambitions are not consistent with that.
So I worry about where we are today. Consider the fact that a country like Egypt is 86 percent dependent upon grain from Ukraine, as are most of the other North African countries, and they are not going to get that grain because of something that we have had to sit by and allow to happen. We know Putin's aim was to landlock Ukraine, to control its ports, to not just starve Ukraine but to wreak havoc throughout the rest of the world that has been dependent upon Ukraine's agricultural production.
When people start starving and their economies start imploding, there's a real threat of a recession, because of a number of other things happening. If only we had listened to Nouriel Roubini's list of them all. There's a perfect storm of negative things that are happening at the same time. We could go into a worldwide depression. It's more conceivable than it has been, certainly, in my lifetime. I wish it were shorter, but it's a long lifetime that has made me pessimistic, frankly.
I've seen us lose too many opportunities and make too many mistakes, and I think what is playing out right now is a mistake. So it's not sufficient to get these agreements with our alleged allies and to make a trip and come back without any controversy. That's not sufficient. That can't be the goal. The goal is to lead, to make statements, to do things that are going to unite the rest of the world behind the values that they need us to define by our words and, particularly, by our actions.
I think the Middle East and North Africa is in a very tenuous situation that is probably going to get worse before it gets better. We have some benign monarchies that we've been able to work with that want to be helpful. Some are less benign, obviously. But all of them share something in common: the vast majority of the people within those countries are not really being represented by the people we deal with. That's why they, particularly, need to be able to look to the United States for the kind of moral leadership that would give us and them more purpose.
BASSIMA ALGHUSSEIN, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
Our first question is for Dr. Young. One of the main reasons that President Biden took his trip and one of the main domestic concerns is, clearly, related to the price at the pump. Could you briefly explain what the administration's role is in determining the price versus OPEC and Saudi Arabia's role in determining the price, and the effect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on domestic gas prices?
DR. YOUNG: Let me say one thing quickly to Congressman Moran's remarks. Just because the world doesn't look the way we might want it to, and the United States might not have the leverage that you expect it to have, doesn't mean that it's going to hell in a handbasket. I would be a little more optimistic. In these areas of cooperation that we have, even with the Gulf states, it's important to look forward, and I think that's the point I was making and that people from within the State Department were making. We don't get to choose the way every other country behaves, and maybe we don't want to. That's not the deglobalization, the multipolarity, that everyone is looking forward to in terms of trend lines.
This relates to the way that energy markets are functioning now. So it's actually very related to your question, Bassima. The reason we have seen such a spike in domestic gasoline prices is that we're in a sort of disjointed economic moment coming out of the Covid pandemic. We were not really sure that we would be rebounding as quickly as we had been. There's been this sort of lack of investment in oil and gas markets. But the real problem has been not in crude-oil production but in the refining of crude oil into gasoline and especially diesel. That's where we see these large price differentials.
So, what could the president have achieved from Saudi Arabia in this visit? Honestly, not very much, and the OPEC Plus agreement has been in place since December 2016. They were planning to make these increases in production. They have been following the plan, and I think that we'll see in their meeting on August 3 they will stick to the plan and increase production a bit more. They will be a bit cautious because there are headwinds in terms of global recession—particularly these question marks over Russian ability to get oil to market. I think we all have an interest in making sure that still continues to happen despite our not wanting to put money in Putin's treasury.
So the issue is, right now, could we build three more refineries in Port Arthur, Texas, and make a big difference? Maybe. But that takes years. So we're going to continue to see these dislocations and price volatility. That's going to be with us for some time. The good news is, we have this new clean-energy bill that's coming through Congress to give people incentives to buy electric vehicles. That will start easing the way so that we can get through this period and, hopefully, use our transport systems differently. But that's not going to happen in 2023 or in 2024. It's going to take some time.
The Strategic Petroleum Reserve releases have made a dent in domestic gasoline prices. The US Treasury Department estimates that at about 40 cents per gallon. Those reserve releases stop in October, which is somewhat convenient for the midterm elections. But don't expect this problem to be over. But as we reduce our demand, the prices will go down.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: My next question is for Deputy Assistant Secretary Lochman. As you stated, OPEC has already announced a 50 percent boost in barrel production since President Biden's trip. Can we expect gas prices to continue to drop?
MS. LOCHMAN: We have seen a drop in prices at the pump. I think what Dr. Young was just saying is absolutely true. We should expect there will be continued volatility. Our fundamental issue here is that we are having issues around energy security because there's imbalance between supply and demand. In some cases, it's a matter of crude oil. In some cases, it's a matter of refined products, as Dr. Young pointed out. But I think we would expect to see continued volatility.
Having said that, the administration has been trying to do everything it can to get those markets back in balance, and you mentioned the Strategic Petroleum Reserve releases that we've coordinated with numerous partners around the world. That has helped increasing production where possible. The US is able to slightly increase production of crude oil over the coming period. Right now, it's about 11.6 million barrels per day. It was at that level in the first half of 2022, and we would expect by 2023 to get to 12.8 million barrels. There will be incremental increases from elsewhere. As we've pointed out, OPEC Plus will make the decisions they make going forward.
But we believe the trajectory is to incrementally increase production. So decreasing demand, as pointed out, is a considerable part of this as well, which is partly why, in addition to addressing climate change, it's important to reduce our reliance on oil and, eventually, natural gas as well. This is why the administration has been pushing so hard and working internationally as well to try to advance the transition to lower-emissions technologies that we'll need to rely on in the future.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: Deputy Assistant Secretary Benaim, both you and Ms. Lochman spoke to the importance of partnerships, and my question is, as the US continues to strengthen its cooperation and various Gulf states strengthen their relationships with Israel, do you see those new strategic alliances replacing the significance of the GCC in the region, especially given there's still tension between Qatar and the UAE?
MR. BENAIM: I can't match the sweeping tour d'horizon of some of my fellow panelists or their trenchant critique, but in terms of the trip what I saw was President Biden out promoting regional peace, positioning us for the future of the region, bringing together the countries of the region, and pursuing regional integration in the ways that Karen and Laura have laid out, shoring up partnerships to be ready and poised to deal with Russia and China, and providing a forthright defense of our values.
I think when it comes to the various avenues of partnership that you're describing, it's a “yes, and”: We really want and need to do both. The Abraham Accords, I believe, provide compelling opportunities for the United States and the region to get our partners to work more closely together, to drive innovation and collaboration, to solve problems in third countries, to help stitch together and reinvigorate earlier peace agreements, to tackle climate change, terrorism, and other issues, and, hopefully, also to demonstrate that, while doing them, you can deliver benefits to the Palestinians.
I think that's a large set of ambitions. But there's a promising avenue to pursue them now through the Negev process, through I2U2, bilaterally and multilaterally. At the same time, that's in no way a substitute for the work we need to do to reinvigorate our bilateral and multilateral work within the Gulf, where you have countries pursuing relations with Israel at very different speeds and to very different extents or, in some cases, not at all. We would like to see every country in the Gulf eventually make its own choice to take that path. That's one interest we pursue with our Gulf partners. We want to see them working together to lower tensions.
I mentioned in my earlier remarks that the spirit of Al Ula continues and that you continue to see the unfolding of steps to ease the Gulf rift. We've tried to lean into that kind of multilateral cooperation, both with the GCC and with the Gulf states writ large. That was evident in the president's decision to convene a multilateral grouping of the leaders of the region. He saw the secretary of state pursue a GCC meeting in the fall. We've had a series of working groups with the GCC, bringing European states together to talk about Iran, to talk about trade, to talk about terrorism.
And while that avenue is also open, thanks to the easing of the Gulf rift, we really want to explore what's possible multilaterally across the board, whether it's about securing the important waterways or working together on economic development and modernization. So there's room for improvement, and there's effort behind it to do what we can to help Gulf states to deliver that kind of multilateral regional cooperation that's consistent with the spirit of this moment—even as we also pursue efforts with states in the region to normalize relations with Israel.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: And a follow-up question: How do you see the Abraham Accords potentially benefitting the Palestinian people, if at all?
MR. BENAIM: This is something we're hoping to achieve going forward. The wellbeing of the Palestinian people is a priority for the Biden administration. I cover the Gulf, so I'll speak to it from the Gulf side. I think you saw an incremental but important development when four Gulf states—Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait—each pledged $25 million, along with our $100 million, toward the East Jerusalem Hospital Network to help shore up health care for Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. That was an important step forward in an area where we needed to make some progress. And we'll continue to look to make progress in providing support for the Palestinians and using these avenues of multilateral cooperation to deliver advances that benefit the Palestinians. Work lies ahead, and we hope to achieve it.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: Deputy Assistant Secretary Lochman, during your remarks, you spoke about the clean-energy transition and various ways the United States is supporting that. One of our underlying concerns at the Middle East Policy Council is how we can expand energy—whether that be clean energy or traditional fossil-fuel sources—to underserved areas of the Middle East. For example, you mentioned unreliable electricity in Iraq. Obviously, the same is true in Lebanon and Palestine. As we focus on this clean-energy transition, are there specific steps the administration is taking to ensure access for marginalized areas?
MS. LOCHMAN: Yes. Energy access is one of the key pillars of our efforts in my bureau, the Bureau of Energy Resources, at the State Department. Access is a huge issue in several parts of the world: in the Middle East in some cases, and certainly in Africa and others, as well. So the efforts of our energy diplomacy and of our programs and assistance also, in addition to energy transition and energy security, relate to access. In some parts of the world, as you know, there are not a lot of good options.
In some cases, the only viable option may be fossil fuel related. And our administration's energy-engagement guidance allows for that to be something the US government supports. For example, in parts of the Middle East or of Africa it may just be the case that a fossil fuel, for example natural gas, would be the only viable way of providing access to unserved or underserved communities. So that may be something we support in the short term. In other cases, it's an opportunity to do things differently and to build out cleaner energy infrastructure as you expand that access.
Certainly, in the Gulf there's been a concerted effort on behalf of those governments to lean in hard on the clean energy commitments and action in that regard. Building out that infrastructure, we've talked about solar. There are also the different colors of hydrogen that we've spoken of. And in addition to carbon capture and storage and utilization, where you have sources of fossil fuels that you need to be using, you can at least abate where it's not possible to completely switch. The State Department and the US government will continue to work with the Gulf countries and others to expand access in ways that make environmental and economic sense.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: Ambassador Freeman, during your remarks you mentioned the decline in US influence in the Gulf, which I think was, in part, exacerbated by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. What do you think the implications are for the Gulf relationships with Russia and China?
AMB. FREEMAN: This has been a long-term process. It didn't begin with the debacle of the Afghan withdrawal, although that certainly capped it. It began at the beginning of this century, perhaps with 9/11, the rise of Islamophobia in the United States, the sense on the part of the region that the United States was not just turning away from it, but in some respects was actively hostile. The glee with which many Americans greeted the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt led to the sense on the part of people in the region that the American commitment to support the status quo was neither sincere nor realizable.
Indeed, there had been a sense that the United States is trying to defend the status quo but wants to keep the quo while the status is already gone. That's the problem. And the countries in the region have been quite assiduously, for the last 20 years, trying to find alternatives to the United States. Not that there is one, but that they can hedge their bets, they can broaden their sources of support by reaching out to other countries, whether in Europe, or China, India, Russia. All of these countries have become much more involved in the Gulf than they were.
I want to make a couple of comments, if I may, on the energy topic which has dominated this discussion. First, I think it's great that we finally passed a bill that will support some of the positive efforts against climate change, that it will. But I think this needs to be put in perspective. First of all, on electric vehicles, for example, we're talking about an evolution that's at least half a decade, maybe a full decade, in duration. Meanwhile, I would point out that Chinese sales of EVs are more than double—I think they're about five times—those in the United States. And the horse may have left the barn already on this technology.
The same is true of semiconductors. The United States used to produce 40 percent of the world's semiconductors; we now produce 12. China used to produce 2 percent; it now produces 15 percent. We've just approved $52 billion to support the recreation of the semiconductor industry in the United States. That's good. I think $39 billion of that is actually subsidies to companies and $11 billion is research. But the Chinese are spending $150 billion. And they're doing it in renminbi, where the purchasing power basically increases the value by about 50 percent. So we're talking about a $225 billion program in China versus $54 billion here.
The final comment I'd make is on shifting patterns of trade in oil and gas. These are the product of sanctions. Sanctions are government interference in markets, and they have various effects. One of them is, they create new markets, which create new vested interests in their continuation. Second, they make previous markets unprofitable. And what we're seeing is a lot of arbitrage. So Russian gas, which was exported to Germany under a long-term contract with a set price, is now being re-exported: bought by Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania, among others, at a huge discount from what they would have to pay if they bought it directly from Russia.
Similarly, as Laura mentioned, you have a crunch in the refinery area, where countries like India are making out like bandits importing Russian oil, refining it, and re-exporting it as a refined product. The same is true of China, by the way. And we're seeing a major restructuring of the global energy markets as a result of sanctions. But it's not a planned restructuring because we didn't intend these results. So I think we're talking about something in this area that's fairly fundamental.
And to go back to your original question, the countries in the region are now assertively independent. They make up their own minds. They see their own interests as they do. They don't feel any obligation to follow the leader abroad, whoever that might be. And I think this was encapsulated by the remark—I don't know who it was, whether it was my friend Abdulaziz, the son of the king, oil minister in Saudi Arabia—the Saudis said after the Biden visit: Look, we respond to demand. If there's more demand for oil, we'll produce more oil. We're looking for the balance, as they always have. So I'm not sure there's any reason to disagree at all with Karen's statement that there wasn't much on the energy side to gain from this particular visit. Having said that, all of the interests I enumerated suggest that it was high time the president went to the region.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: With regard to Deputy Assistant Secretary Benaim's remarks, you spoke about the importance of diplomacy as one of the pillars of President Biden's trip. And within that, of course, we have the ongoing goal to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. In terms of the Gulf, what role do you think Qatar could play in negotiating or helping to advance an Iran deal, given their fairly stable diplomatic relations with Iran?
MR. BENAIM: It's a good question. We have a process under way to address the nuclear negotiation. And we look to all of our Gulf partners as appropriate, based on their own relations to reinforce that message: the fundamental urgency to find a way to diplomatically resolve this issue. Qatar's certainly no exception and has played a constructive role.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: The next question is for Ambassador Freeman and Congressman Moran. In your remarks, you both discussed the tension between pursuing US values and US interests in the region and touched on some of the conflicts that plague this administration and our country at this time. Given your very long careers in government, do you think that this tension we're seeing play out now is more controversial than at any point in the past? Or is it consistent with US policy towards the region, making our values be second to our interests?
REP. MORAN: I don't think we are acting any differently than we have historically, frankly. There have been differences in approach. I think President George H.W. Bush actually had a very thoughtful approach toward the situation in the Middle East. His son [George W. Bush], not so much. But his son didn't have the experience the father did.
There are a couple of things I've learned by choosing to be in politics for most of my life. One, what drives people are stories, not statistics. They need to identify with the telling of human tales they can relate to and can get emotionally engaged in. A second thing I've learned is that everyone wants to be part of something greater than themselves. I think the American people want from their leadership something more than it's doing its best to make their lives comfortable. Yet, that seems to be our objective. Let's keep the economy going, keep inflation down, suppress any kind of extremism. And let's just stay go the course.
But the rest of the world needs us to do something more than that. And here I'm speaking from that political prism, because President Biden, for all the great stuff he's doing, and it was particularly well articulated by those who are working for him in the State Department, it's not catching on. I don't think he's projecting what people are looking for in American leadership. They want him to engage in a way that makes them feel that being part of the United States makes them part of something that is greater than themselves collectively, and that is making a difference in the world, that is providing direction, guidance and, particularly, hope.
The Middle East and North Africa desperately need that kind of leadership, and they're not getting it. They're looking to the United States. Now, the Palestinians have largely been thrown under the bus. And I don't know what's going to happen. I'm certain the two-state solution, even though we mouth that, is no longer possible. That train has left the station. It was real when Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Rabin was in charge, but certainly, once Netanyahu got in, it was over. There are human-rights issues that keep coming up.
The lawyer who represented Jamal Khashoggi, was in the organization Democracy for the Arab World Now, was arrested, thrown into prison in the Emirates for money laundering. He was convicted in absentia, didn't even know it, and now he's in prison. He contracted Covid in prison, and his health is fast deteriorating. The only reason you can deduce for why he's in prison is because he was representing Jamal Khashoggi. I don't know another reason, whatever the stated reason is. And then, of course, the Emirates said it was the United States that wanted us to do it. The US said no. We just have these stories one after another that I think are opportunities for the United States to stand up, as a few members of the Congress have, and say: This is what we stand for, world. We're going to continue to stand for it, even if it requires some sacrifice. We don't ask the American people to sacrifice much. So when they sacrifice, they blame the government because they believe they're not supposed to sacrifice anything for these values.
There has to be a vision, a world vision. Without that, as is often said, countries will perish. That's what worries me. So when you ask, just par for the course, the way it always has been? Yes. But it can't continue that way. Things are going to have to change. I think we may have a perfect storm accumulating because China and Russia are going about what they think is in their best interest—particularly China. And I don't think that we are developing a sufficient counterweight to the influence China has been able to create throughout the world. They go about it in a different way, but unless we do our thing, they're going to do their thing, and they're going to be successful. I love this country for what it can and must be. And I don't necessarily think we're measuring up to that consistently.
AMB. FREEMAN: Let me add just a very brief addendum. I think of interests as the fundamental guidelines for any foreign policy. But they are charged with fervor by vision and values. If your interests have no values connected to them, you will not be able to sustain the effort to preserve them. Conversely, if you do something only for values and there are no interests involved, as was the case in the US intervention in Somalia, you fold when you're under pressure. So I think this is a fundamental question in our foreign policy and has been for a long time.
I think we've gone through three periods. In the Cold War, it was very clear that interest took precedence over values. And it was easy for them to do so: We had a strategic and an ideological competition going with the Soviet Union. It was a values competition as much as it was geopolitical. And anything that happened anywhere in the world could easily be linked to that bipolar competition. In our unipolar moment after the defeat of the Soviet Union, we for a brief time felt we were omnipotent as well as omniscient. And we pursued essentially a foreign policy largely based on values, and that didn't work. It didn't work at all. Democratization—hit-and-run democratization—in the Middle East is one of the main examples of a failure of a values-based foreign policy.
Now we're in a different period, in which the values we profess are being undermined at home. We are vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. We talk about others doing things that we ourselves don't do. But more important, our power has waned. We're no longer omnipotent. We no longer have the automatic following internationally that we once did. We're not number two; we're still number one, but we do need to try harder. And trying harder is what I think Mr. Biden did in the Middle East. I don't think he produced much, but at least he made the effort. So I give him plaudits for that. And hope that something good does finally come of this trip.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: Deputy Assistant Secretary Benaim, how do you interpret some of the comments made by the Gulf countries shortly after President Biden's visit—specifically with regard to the UAE's expressing willingness to return its ambassador to Iran, and Saudi Arabia's walking back talk of normalization? Is there a disconnect between the US statements on regional integration, particularly on joint defense, and where US Gulf allies are willing to go?
MR. BENAIM: I think you saw on this trip the incredibly close cooperation with each of these Gulf states and their governments, and with the UAE on defense and security cooperation, notwithstanding some of these statements. One of the pillars of the policy was deterrence, but another was diplomacy and de-escalation. Where countries have opportunities to lower tensions that are consistent with our larger approach to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, they can explore those options to lower regional tensions. I think you saw the UAE closely partnered with the United States on security matters, but also seeing if there are opportunities available to them to de-escalate tensions.
Regarding Saudi Arabia's walking back talks of normalization with Iran, and just generally the disconnect between US statements on regional integration, particularly in relation to defense, I think regional integration is a process. You saw important steps in terms of overflights and resolving some of the enduring challenges around Tiran Island. These are steps in the right direction. I think that's consistent with our hopes, as President Biden said, that they pave the way for further steps in that direction. I think we just have to see how that process unfolds.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: Deputy Assistant Secretary Lochman, you discussed the I2U2 agreement that took place in Jerusalem recently. Could you speak to the energy element of the I2U2 agreement?
MS. LOCHMAN: Yes, that was for a solar/wind facility in India. Obviously, India is a huge piece of the energy puzzle, globally speaking. And the need to move forward there on energy transition is even more acute than in many places because of energy-access issues and emissions. To be able to bring these four countries together to focus on that particular issue, and bring capital as well as know-how to it, is really what we were attempting to do.
As I mentioned earlier, the UAE is collaborating in other ways, too, on renewable and sustainable projects related to other parts of the Middle East. And their company, Masdar, has been a key investor in renewable projects in other places, including the Caspian. So what we want to do in the I2U2 grouping, as well as others, is to work with Gulf states to bring the capital needed in areas where it's not flowing under normal market conditions, to help spur some of the development of these new technologies.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: On the food-crisis issues and food security, Ambassador Freeman, do you have some comments?
AMB. FREEMAN: I think there's a lot of confusion about this. The food-export crisis began when Ukraine, very sensibly, mined its harbors to prevent the Russian Navy from entering them. The minute they did that, the insurance companies canceled all insurance for shipping. So there was no way to get the grain out of the harbors. It's very simplistic to say that the Russians have been blockading the harbors. Even if the Russians stopped, if indeed they are, that's not going to solve the problem.
The second point I'd like to make is a very good illustration of the way in which the region now works. The agreement reached between Russia and Ukraine was brokered by Turkey. The United States is not part of it. In fact, we played no role whatsoever in that agreement. And so we're seeing countries in the region take their destiny into their own hands and act on their own in ways that sometimes are helpful, as in this case, and sometimes are not. I think that's the pattern of the future.
I really would like to echo what Karen has said. We need to learn to respect the independent sovereign decisions of the countries in the region. They all make their own decisions now. Israel always has. The Gulf Arabs now are doing so, as are the Turks and others. This is the pattern that's emerging, and we need to be aware of it and adjust to it.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: Mr. Benaim, you mentioned in your remarks that Yemen has enjoyed 17 weeks of peace. My question for you is: What is the United States doing to continue to encourage Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to de-escalate of violence in the region?
MR. BENAIM: As I said, I think after about a year and a half of incredibly hard work by US and UN diplomats, and others working to get the parties to the conflict to stop fighting and call a truce, we finally got there about 17 weeks ago. And we've since seen that truce roll over. The next rollover date is August 2. And Tim Lenderking, all of us at State, and the UN and regional partners are working to get the parties to the conflict to extend and expand that truce. Special Envoy Lenderking's in the region now doing that work. It was a key component of the president's trip out to the region, to press upon those that he spoke with and those that the secretary spoke with, which included the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council, to work together to extend this.
But of course, the Houthis have to be part of that, as well, and need to be brought along to reach the same conclusion, that the price of return to conflict is too high. The benefits of continuing this truce deliver so much for the Yemeni people. Thousands of them have been able to leave the country for the first time under peace conditions in these 17 weeks. We've also been working with Saudi Arabia and the UAE to encourage them to deliver and now to expedite the $2 billion of economic and development support that they've pledged for the Yemeni people. We've made our own large contributions to the humanitarian situation in Yemen. I think you see that this remains a priority. It was part of the very first foreign-policy speech that President Biden gave at the State Department two weeks into the administration. And it's a priority now.
Ultimately, the Yemeni parties themselves have to agree and extend and expand this truce, with all of its near-term benefits, into a really durable peace process that takes those benefits and the stakes that Yemenis have in extending them and turns them into a process to achieve a durable peace, as opposed to a cessation of fighting. But for now, we're trying to extend the former and trying to achieve the latter.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: Also, in your remarks you spoke about the importance of President Biden's highlighting our values in the Middle East, which is, obviously, very relevant to the points that Congressman Moran and Ambassador Freeman brought up. Could you please clarify what the human-rights priorities are for the Biden administration in the region, or specifically the Gulf?
MR. BENAIM: In terms of priorities, we're always concerned about the detention of Americans, but we're also concerned about the ongoing detention of human-rights defenders around the region. And we're engaged robustly with regional states, including Saudi Arabia, as well as others, on both of those issues.
We're also looking beyond those individual cases, which are vitally important, at systemic changes in a variety of areas. I mean, certainly freedom of expression and advocacy for human rights, but also trafficking in persons, opening a space for diverse religious practice in different societies, a variety of other kinds of rights and freedoms, the treatment of workers in various countries. I would say that these are all important priorities that come up alongside these high-profile cases in our engagements across the region and beyond. I've seen it as a hallmark of Secretary Blinken's and President Biden's leadership again and again. I've noted in my own travels with President Biden that he has a characteristic candor and openness in speaking about these issues in private, in his bilateral meetings, and then again in public. Not from the safe distance of Washington, but within the region, having important and difficult conversations. I wouldn't underrate the value and importance of that.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: The next question is for the entire panel. As everyone is probably well aware, in Washington there have been very robust discussions on assigning conditions to military assistance, whether that be to Israel or Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. And there is a lot of pushback on that. So my question to all of you is: If the United States continues to not apply conditions to military assistance with our partners in the region, what other leverage does the United States have to advance our values or human rights?
REP. MORAN: Allow me to take a crack at that, Bassima. We are not an arms dealer. No arms sales should be made without some conditions. One of those conditions should be that our technology not be shared with the Wagner Group, or Russia, or China, or any adversary. How stupid that would be. And yet, we're seriously considering doing that. I remember when we were providing assistance to Pakistan, and all they were doing was using it to keep the war with India inflamed, which was not in our interest. And they were furious when we applied conditions.
Of course there should be conditions on all of our foreign military sales. Largely that happens, but there's a good deal of pressure to just sell as we were doing under the Trump administration, to some extent, regardless of the consequences. These weapons are not being used for storage and to put in a museum. They're being used to kill people. We should make sure that they're not being used to kill the people who are our allies. Weapons sales should be part of our foreign policy. And so it should be an unequivocal answer. Of course there have to be conditions.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: What other leverage might we have with these countries to advance our values in human rights that is not putting conditions on foreign military sales?
MR. BENAIM: If I could just say a word about conditions: I appreciate all the points that Congressman Moran made. I have yet to see a sale go through that doesn't have rigorous conditions and standards attached to it, attached to the term of sale, to address issues like tech security and end-use and other elements. That's an incredibly important part of what we do. And I very much respect the role of Congress in overseeing and approving those sales and making sure that they're consistent with US foreign policy in just the way that Congressman Moran described.
I think what you're talking about are very specific political conditions to meet certain specific objectives beyond a kind of rigorous and thorough process of evaluating arms sales that I would hope is a part of regular order and a part of our interchange with Congress, and also how our Bureau of Political-Military Affairs actually evaluates sales. When it comes to the role of Congress, I think it's vital. I also have seen from the region the importance of delivering defensive sales to make sure that countries that face a very real threat from Iran and other militia groups are able to defend their territory and, not incidentally, the Americans who live there. And I've heard from them that the US timelines can be a challenge, and that other people are trying to undercut those timelines, and competitors are trying to get there faster and cheaper. So I think figuring out how to make sure we can deliver for our partners what we think legitimately advances our security and theirs is vitally important and part of our work each day.
But as far as other leverage, I think you really have to start with showing up and engaging at a very high level in the conversation and articulating very clearly what matters to you in these areas. I think you saw the president do that. And I think weapons-sales conditionality is maybe a blunt instrument, but it's part of a much larger prioritization for the United States. And as we make clear what matters to us and what really matters, there are plenty of opportunities to engage on those things and to make them part of the overall balance of our bilateral relationships in ways that can achieve results.
AMB. FREEMAN: As a former assistant secretary of defense, I find myself in agreement once again with Congressman Moran. Weapons sales are leverage and we should be using leverage as part of our foreign policy. The question really is whether restrictions on weapons sales of one sort of another, either on their retransfer or the sharing of secret technology or, more particularly, on their use, in fact can have a positive effect on human rights. And I think the answer is, clearly, no.
But the opposite can be true: Human-rights policy can do grave damage in the security field. If I may, I'll just relate an anecdote. I was ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the 1990–91 Gulf War, during which the American population in Saudi Arabia, about 30,000 people, were deathly concerned about the possibility of Iraq's using either chemical weapons or a nuclear weapon. I didn't think they would do either, but that didn't matter. Everybody was very concerned. I asked for gas masks and other equipment to protect the American citizens in the kingdom who were vital to the war effort. Many of them were working for defense contractors maintaining equipment. Now, the human-rights bureau at the Department of State turned down that request—which the Saudis had told me they were prepared to pay for, by the way—on the grounds that the Ministry of Interior, which was going to pay for the gas masks, was a human-rights violator. That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. So I think this is a case where Talleyrand's famous suggestion, “Surtout pas trop de zèle,” applies: Don't go overboard on something.
A final comment on this is that the best way to advance human rights is not to stand on the other side of the world and give the nations you disapprove of the finger; it is, as Daniel said, to engage them, to have the courage of your convictions, to set a good example at home, to be the shining city on the hill that we aspired to be when we were formed as a country in the beginning, and to use inducements and help. There are two instances in which our human-rights democratization has been triumphantly successful. One is Taiwan. The other is the Republic of Korea. In both cases, we quietly objected to human-rights malpractice, but we publicly offered support in the form of training for judges and lawyers, reframing of laws, cooperation, the training of people in the United States, and we had an open attitude to the possibility of change. I think the policies that we've fallen into are basically political cheap shots. We condemn people, but we don't give them any way or any incentive to improve the behavior to which we object.
So I don't think arms sales are a successful or useful tool in this context. They're very useful in other contexts. But we do have an arsenal we can bring to bear on the issue of human rights if we choose to do so.
Final observation: Congress should not pass laws that it will not wish to see enforced. There are all sorts of restrictions on the use of American weapons that apparently are suspended with no discussion in the case of, for example, Israeli attacks on Gaza. “Don't pass laws that you don't want to have apply universally” ought to be a basic maxim of our government.
MS. ALGHUSSEIN: We have just a few minutes left, so I'd like to ask one final question of the entire panel. Clearly, this is a very dynamic time for US-Gulf relations, with implications geopolitically. What do you think are the most important next steps to continue to advance US interests and also to strengthen US-Gulf relations?
MR. BENAIM: I think part of what happens when you have a presidential trip like this is you have a fierce amount of hard work that goes into the trip to reach a certain point of being able to announce deliverables, and make real headway and real achievements, and get political buy-in to pursue a range of projects. And then there's a sort of afterglow where it's vitally important to take those projects and run with them. And that's what we're doing. That's what we seek to do: Take the engagement from episodic to institutional, so that you take the opportunities created by the president in deciding to use his finite time to take a trip like this and have these engagements and pursue these agreements, and really implement them to the fullest, whether in clean energy, in technology, in health, in space, in regional integration and cooperation; whether it's the visits that were discussed in the course of the trip, the follow-on meetings and contacts. It's a bit workmanlike compared to the heights of summitry, but it's very important to the interests and values of the United States. And I think that needs to continue.
AMB. FREEMAN: I think Daniel's absolutely correct. Trip-driven diplomacy is useful. It does clarify the bureaucratic mind. It forces decisions that wouldn't otherwise occur. But the key, really, is the follow-up, and that's done by the worker bees, many at the Department of State. And this is why we need a strong Department of State and a strong Foreign Service. It's not enough to do things at the top. There has to be follow-up by all of the government.
The following is an edited transcript of the 109th in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The event took place on July 29, 2022, via Zoom, with Council Executive Director Bassima Alghussein moderating.
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