I attended the “Arabian Gulf and Regional Challenges” conference that took place September 16-17, 2014, in Riyadh. The conference was sponsored by the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s Institute of Diplomatic Studies, and co-organized by the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. I am not going to summarize all the presentations that were made (many are already available on the web), but highlight what I saw as the principal points being conveyed by the Saudi and other Gulf speakers. These were:
ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is not the only threat that the region faces. There are several others, including the threat from Iran, the actions of the Assad regime in Syria, Shi’a extremism in Iraq and elsewhere, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the deteriorating situation in Yemen. The importance of these last two was underlined in presentations by Dr. Saeb Erekat (Palestinian Chief Negotiator), and Jamal Al Salal (Yemeni Foreign Minister).
While the West focuses on Sunni extremists (such as ISIS), Shi’a extremism is also a major threat. Shi’a extremists whom Saudi and Gulf speakers regard as especially threatening include the Shi’a militias in Iraq, elements within Iraq’s Shi’a-dominated government, the Assad regime in Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen. Standing behind them all, Saudi and other Gulf speakers emphasized, is the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Effectively battling ISIS requires an understanding of the root causes of its current strength. This, in the view of the Saudi and other Gulf speakers, resulted from 1) the American-led invasion of Iraq; 2) the American withdrawal from Iraq; and 3) the failure of the Obama Administration to follow through on its declared intention of launching an attack on the Assad regime in Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons against its own people. Since this last development in particular, Damascus has focused on targeting the more moderate Syrian opposition and not ISIS. As American actions (or non-actions) are primarily responsible for allowing ISIS to grow strong, it is America that is primarily responsible for combating it.
Military means alone will not defeat ISIS and other jihadist movements. Too many Sunnis have become convinced that ISIS is either their champion or is less worse than its Shi’a opponents. They need to be persuaded that jihadism is not the right way to solve their problems. America and the West cannot do this effectively. This battle for Sunni hearts and minds must be undertaken by Sunnis themselves, including Muslim authorities in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
Iran cannot be considered a true partner in the battle against ISIS. This is because although Tehran genuinely fears ISIS, it wants to combat it through strengthening the Assad regime in Syria and Shi’a forces in Iraq—whose aim is to suppress the Sunnis in general in these two countries. Fear was expressed that the Obama Administration, through prioritizing negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue, is overlooking the ongoing Iranian and Shi’a threat to Sunnis, and Sunni governments, in the region. On the sidelines of the conference, there were Saudis and others from the Gulf who even expressed fear of the rise of an Iranian lobby in Washington.
The rise of ISIS and other regional challenges underlines the importance of pressing ahead with the “Gulf Union” project. At this conference, the proposal was supported not just by Saudi speakers, but also by the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash and Kuwait’s former Minister of Information Saad bin Tefla Al Ajmi. It was emphasized that the Gulf Union would not involve the loss of sovereignty of the six projected members (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman), but would have a federal structure instead. The Gulf Union, though, would establish common foreign and defense policies for the six members.
In addition to the above points which were made by Saudi and other Gulf speakers, there were several specific statements made during the conference that were noteworthy:
In the second session (on Gulf Security and the Impact of Regional Political Transformations), Prof. Mostafa Elwi of Egypt indicated that he saw Syria’s Assad regime as a partner in the coalition fighting ISIS. This seems to be the position of the Egyptian government also, but is not that of the Saudi, UAE, or Kuwaiti governments.
In the sixth session (on Gulf Security and the Role of Rising Powers), Ambassador Rajiv Sikri made what I thought was an especially interesting proposal. ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) sponsors a regional forum that includes ASEAN members, neighboring states, and external actors with an interest in the region. Indeed, the ASEAN Regional Forum includes governments that are hostile to one another: North Korea on the one hand and the U.S. and South Korea on the other. Just as the ASEAN Regional Forum gives these governments an opportunity to talk to each other, a Gulf regional forum that included all states in the region as well as external actors active in it would provide an opportunity for discussions among Arab governments, Iran, and Israel.
Also in the sixth session, the Chinese Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Li Chengwen, gave a speech—in Arabic—on Chinese policy toward the region. In the Q&A session afterward, a Saudi female journalist was highly critical of China. While China claims to be a rising power, she noted, it does not play much of a role in the region. While China is also threatened by the rise of ISIS, China has just been a “free rider” while others act to combat it. She also raised the question of the status of Muslims in China—an obvious reference to Beijing’s policy of suppressing Muslims in Xinjiang.
In the seventh session (on Future Perspectives), Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Abdulaziz of the Saudi Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources gave a highly detailed speech challenging the increasingly popular view that the “shale revolution” in North America will reduce the economic and security importance of the Gulf to the West. He questioned whether the shale revolution will really allow the U.S. to satisfy its own energy needs. Even if it does, he argued, many other countries (including those allied to the U.S.) will remain dependent on Gulf oil, and that the ability of the Gulf to continue supplying oil to the world market will have a major impact on petroleum prices everywhere. Gulf security, then, should remain a priority for American foreign policy even if the U.S. imports no oil itself from the region.
This conference was especially interesting due both to the high quality of the presentations and to the spirited Q&A sessions afterwards. Especially noteworthy was the vigorous participation of women from the Gulf region in these Q&A sessions. This, in my view, was a highly positive development in a region where there are all too many negative ones.