I attended the “Gulf and the Globe” forum co-sponsored by the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s Institute of Diplomatic Studies and the Gulf Research Center that took place in Riyadh on December 4-5, 2011. Here is a selection from the notes I took during the conference (or more accurately, those that I can manage to decipher from my execrable handwriting) as well as my own parenthetical comments:
The tone of the forum was set during the opening session by Dr. Abdulaziz Sager, chairman and founder of the Gulf Research Center, who made the following points: Iran is interfering in the internal affairs of the Gulf Cooperation Council states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman); Iran is becoming a nuclear threat; American power in the region is declining due to the contradictions in U.S. policy due to its failure to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian, Iraqi, and Afghan conflicts; the global economic crisis complicates the challenge faced by the GCC; in response to the Arab Spring, the GCC is undergoing a wave of reform (in order, I presume, to forestall it); the GCC must secure its internal front by dealing with poverty and unemployment; the GCC will not permit external interference in its internal affairs; America, the EU, and NATO must adopt clear policies; and India and China must become more involved.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal was supposed to give the keynote address, but since he was not there, it was given for him by Prince Turki bin Mohammed bin Saud Al Kabir (Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs for Multilateral Relations). He noted that the Arab Spring had given rise to instability. The GCC must protect the states within it as well as their territorial integrity, but must also respond to legitimate demands. While the Kingdom values international and regional cooperation, Iran behaves in a manner that disregards these. Iran interferes in the internal affairs of other nations and poses a nuclear threat. Iran can acquire atomic energy, but should do so in accordance with international norms. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, seeks a WMD free zone in the Middle East. Prince Turki also criticized Israel both for its nuclear weapons policy as well as its policy toward the Palestinians. Prince Turki praised the GCC for its development orientation and cooperation with the international community. He also praised GCC diplomacy for helping bring about the recent agreement between Yemeni President Saleh and his opponents to bring about a peaceful political transition in Yemen. All Yemenis, the Prince noted, welcomed this (which, of course, is not quite true). The GCC, he stated, was neither expansionist nor interfered in the internal affairs of others, but would act to protect itself. He noted that the GCC was experiencing economic growth despite the global recession. He foresees 8% annual economic growth for the GCC.
After these opening addresses, Session 1 was on the role of the GCC states in changing in the changing international landscape. The two announced speakers were the UAE Foreign Minister (Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahayan) and the GCC Secretary General (Abdul Latif Rashid Al-Zayani), but neither of them showed up. Speaking for the former was UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash. He began by praising the joint GCC response to the “problems” in Bahrain (where both Saudi and UAE troops intervened to crush the Arab Spring movement there), and called for GCC coordination to continue. He praised the EU for the level of internal coordination that it has developed, and noted the importance of this model for the GCC. (I couldn’t help but wonder if this wasn’t a subtle call for Saudi Arabia—by far the most powerful country within the GCC—to consult more with the smaller members.) He further noted that the ongoing Arab revolutions can result in a change in Arab foreign policies, including toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue, terrorism, Iran, and the West—but all this was still vague. He described the GCC as a moderate bloc, and that development and stability were the main GCC interests. Egyptian foreign policy, he predicted, would change—and that Syrian policy probably would too (suggesting, to me anyway, that he expects the Assad regime might fall). The future Egyptian-Iranian relationship will be especially significant (especially, I inferred, if they became friendly). The GCC must take a broader view, and not just a regional one. He recommended a GCC opening to China, India, Japan, and other Asian countries. Asia is already playing an important role in many issues of concern to the GCC. The GCC needs to coordinate with Japan, South Korea, China, and Australia as well as build relations with other Asian states—in order, I inferred, to compensate for the impending decline of American power.
Speaking in place of the GCC Secretary General was Assistant Secretary General Saad bin Abdurahman Al-Ammar. He began by observing that the GCC was playing a vital role in international change, and was reacting wisely to change. The GCC has dealt with many crises since its inception thirty years ago. Just this year, the GCC aided Bahrain and Oman to “get rid of difficulties” there. (While it is well known that Bahrain experienced unrest this past year, there has been much less publicity about the situation in Oman. Al-Ammar was one of several speakers both to refer to problems in Oman, but also not to elaborate on them.) The GCC approved the solution to the Libyan problem and helped to resolve the Yemeni situation (which, of course, remains unsettled). GCC involvement in these issues, he asserted, is accepted by many parties. He also stated that the GCC has acted transparently in them.
Session 2 was on regional security dynamics. Happily, the two advertised speakers were present. The first of these was Prince Moqren bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Chief of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence organization. Prince Moqren began by noting that the GCC has oil which the rest of the world needs. He also noted that the world economy affects the GCC. The GCC also faces security problems, including the Arab Spring. “We’d ask for God’s help,” if this spring came to the Gulf, he said. And what, he asked rhetorically, will the Arab Summer be like after the Arab Spring? Without security, he observed, there can be no development. The GCC was undertaking reform efforts, and there is good coordination within the GCC. He noted that a new GCC early warning system had just been agreed to (but did not describe how this worked). He expressed special concern about the Iranian nuclear file. While Iran can develop peaceful nuclear power, it is not clear that Tehran is just interested in electricity production. He expressed fear about a regional nuclear arms race in the region and the effect of this on development. He noted the tendency of expensive weapons systems to rapidly turn into junk. He ended his remarks by calling on Iran to allow for International Atomic Energy (IAEA) inspections so that these problems could be avoided.
The second speaker in this session was Naser Al Ani, Chief of Staff for Iraq’s Presidency Council. (Unlike Iraq’s Shi’a Prime Minister Maleki, Iraq’s Presidency Council is not especially powerful. According to one knowledgeable conference participant, Al Ani is a Sunni Arab.) Al Ani seemed to take a more positive view of the Arab Spring than previous speakers. With the West in a serious financial crisis, he saw the GCC as in a better position to help guide it in a positive direction as well as help defuse international and regional conflicts. The GCC could also act to secure the flow of energy and boost investment in the region. Problems the region faced included nuclear proliferation, the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate (which he described as underlying many problems in the region), and the security problems posed by the aftermath of the Arab Spring. He also noted that global power shifts were occurring, with the rise of China, India, Latin America, and Turkey—all with booming economies. Since energy is a world priority, Iraq must be helped to restore its oil production. Iraq especially needed help from its Arab brothers. The Saddam Hussein system, he claimed, can never happen again. There is a new system now, and Iraq will play a constructive role in the region. Iraq, though, will need GCC help in deterring interference from regional and international forces (he didn’t specifically mention Iran, but it was clear this was what he meant). U.S. forces were about to leave Iraq, so Iraqi forces must be ready. While they are very good, help is needed. He ended by calling for “distinctive relations” between Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
In the Q&A for this session, Prince Moqren noted that since Russia was a good friend of Iran’s, Russia should persuade Iran to cooperate on the nuclear issue. He also noted that “the best defense is offense,” but did not elaborate on what he meant by this. In response to a question from an Egyptian professor, Prince Moqren expressed concern about Israeli nuclear weapons. It was clear from his remarks, though, that he was far more worried about a potential Iranian nuclear capability than the actual Israeli one. In response to a question about whether he was worried about the electoral victory of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Prince Moqren responded that Saudi Arabia will respect internal choices made by the Egyptian people. Asked about the possibility of political change in Saudi Arabia, Prince Moqren noted that the Koran is the source of Saudi law, that there is justice in the Kingdom, and that the King himself receives Saudi citizens. The Saudi leadership is not isolated from them (unlike, he seemed to imply, the situation in other Arab countries). In response to a question as to why Saudi Arabia and Oman were not cooperating with NATO as much as the other four GCC states, the Prince replied that the Chief of General Intelligence could not be expected to reveal everything he knew, but that there was quiet cooperation taking place. He expressed hope that the GCC transition plan for Yemen would be implemented, but admitted that it was not clear whether it would be. He ended by noting that the U.S. presence in Iraq did not eliminate terrorism or instability there. Instead, the U.S. presence justified interference by others. Without the U.S. presence there, by contrast, intervention by others would be less legitimate.
Session 3 was entitled, “Global Power Shifts and the Role of Traditional Powers.” From the tone of the previous speakers, “traditional powers” was meant as a synonym for “declining powers.” Discussed in this session were the United States, Europe, and Russia. The Russians, of course, very much think of their country as a rising power. The conference organizers apparently thought otherwise. The first speaker—Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC—noted that even many Americans saw the U.S. as being in decline, but this is not the first time that things haven’t gone America’s way in the Middle East. She also noted that America is still indispensible to Gulf security, and would remain so as long as there was a potential Iranian nuclear threat.
The second speaker in this session was Vitaly Naumkin, Director of the Russian Academy of Science’s Oriental Institute. He stated that while the Middle East as a whole is no longer a priority for Russian foreign policy, the Arabian Peninsula is. He differentiated between the Russian and Western approaches to the Arab Spring. Russia has sought dialogue with the Syrian government, while the West has not. Moscow, he observed, was acting responsibly (thus implying that the West was not). The third speaker, Nicola De Santis (head of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue) made clear that NATO did not have—or seek—a direct role in the affairs of the Gulf.
In the Q&A for this session, Naumkin observed that “Russia does not care for” the idea of “leading from behind” as President Obama described his administration as having successfully done in Libya. By contrast, Naumkin argued, Russian foreign policy is “straightforward.” (This led to a lot of raised eyebrows since, as anyone familiar with it well knows, Russian foreign policy is often much less than straightforward.) He also pushed back against the idea that Russia is a declining power, noting that its being a permanent member of the UN Security Council makes it important for achieving the goal of a WMD free zone in the Middle East. He noted that Russia is important for the GCC, and vice versa. But in my view, if the conference organizers hoped to show in this session that the “traditional powers” were no longer as important as they used to be for the Gulf, they appeared to achieve this goal.
The second day of the conference began with Session 4 on “Global Power Shifts and the Role of Rising Powers.” The speakers on it were Shivshankar Menon (India’s National Security Advisor), Bilahari Kauskikan (Permanent Secretary, Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Ambassador Sun Shuzhong (Chinese Foreign Ministry), and Bulant Aras (Chairman, Center for Strategic Research, Turkey). If some in the audience expected the representatives of the “rising powers”—especially China and India—to replace the departing “traditional powers” in the Gulf, they were sorely disappointed. Indeed, Shiv Menon even raised doubts in his speech about whether they even were rising powers when he said, “Many of these so called emerging countries are…better described as rapidly developing countries rather than as rising powers.” Singaporean diplomat B. Kauskikan noted that while there was imperative to accept it, American leadership is irreplaceable. He also said that the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) were more regional powers than global ones. The Chinese ambassador gave a speech describing how China is on the path of peaceful development, is working for a harmonious world, and is cooperating with the GCC—and saying very little else. The Turkish scholar noted how the declining role of the hegemon (i.e., the U.S.) in the Middle East meant that regional actors (i.e., Turkey) were now more important there. But except for Turkey’s positive view of the Arab Spring and negative view of the Assad regime in Syria, he didn’t discuss the specifics of how Turkey or any other regional power—either singly or in concert—would replace the U.S. or keep order in the Middle East.
All the speakers assiduously avoided making any pronouncements (much less siding with the GCC) on Iranian-GCC differences. In the one and only question that I was able to pose during the conference, I pointed out that none of the speakers had pronounced on Israeli-Palestinian differences either, and invited them to do so. None of them did. Although Turkey’s relations with it have deteriorated recently, China, India, and Singapore all have close, cooperative relations with Israel that they are not going to give up in order to please the Arabs. Furthermore: the speakers on this panel made clear that the rising Asian powers are not yet ready to replace the traditional Western powers in the Gulf.
Session 5 was on “Outlining Future Prospects in Global Energy.” One of the speakers was supposed to have been Ali Ibrahim Al-Naimi, the Saudi Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources. He too, however, did not make it to the conference. And that’s about all I can say about this session since jet lag had caught up with me by then. There were two speakers. They presented a lot of detailed facts and figures. The subject is an important one. But I just couldn’t focus on what they were saying. Sorry!
I was wide awake, though, for the sixth and final session (“Outlook and Future Perspectives”) when Prince Turki Al Faisal dropped something of a bombshell. Prince Turki was Chief of General Intelligence for many years, served briefly as Saudi Ambassador first to the U.K. and then to the U.S., and is now the Chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. Apparently having anticipated that the “traditional powers” are going to be less involved in the Gulf and that the “rising powers” are neither willing nor able to replace them yet, Prince Turki proposed two—rather dramatic—initiatives for the GCC to better safeguard its interests, especially vis-à-vis Iran.
One of these was to raise the possibility that Saudi Arabia and the GCC might acquire WMD: “We are committed to the Middle East Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destructions, but if our efforts and the efforts of the world community fail to bring about the dismantling of the Israeli arsenals of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the prevention of Iran acquiring the same by failing to construct such a Zone, then why shouldn’t we at least, and as a duty towards our nations and our peoples, study, seriously, all of the available options, including acquiring WMDs so that future generations will not blame us for neglecting any courses of action that will keep looming dangers away from us?”
His other initiative was an even more dramatic call for a unified Arabian Peninsula with an elected Majlis Al-Shura “for a unified country,” unified armed forces and armaments industry, unified currency, etc., etc.
These two proposals gave rise to considerable discussion both during this final session and afterward. Some thought that this was the first time that a senior prince called for the Saudi acquisition of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (during the Q&A, Prince Turki reminded us to remember that he had only called for this to be considered). The Prince responded affirmatively to a question about whether Yemen would be part of this new, unified Arabian Peninsula. I wanted to ask him whether the unified Arabian Peninsula was to have a unified executive branch, whether this would be elected, and whether the elected Majlis would have powers similar to a Western democratic legislature, but did not get called upon. Right as the session was ending, a very agitated woman from Pakistan complained bitterly about how America has treated her country and seemed to demand that Saudi Arabia do something about it. Someone speculated afterward that what she was really upset about was that while the rising powers session had speakers from India, China, Turkey, and even Singapore, there was no speaker from Pakistan on it or any other panel—thus implying that the conference organizers did not consider Pakistan to be as important as India, China, Turkey, or even Singapore. (Prince Turki left the room without responding to her.)
Just after this session, someone I spoke with from one of the smaller GCC countries was highly critical of Prince Turki’s two proposals. He said that the people in the smaller Gulf states were simply not ready for the dangers associated with possessing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. And Prince Turki’s proposal for a unified Arabian Peninsula appeared to be a revival of Saudi expansionist efforts in the 19th and 20th century to bring the small coastal states of the Arabian Peninsula under Saudi rule. And according to him, the smaller Gulf states were not so afraid of Iran or internal opposition that they would willingly sacrifice their independence to a union that the Saudis would dominate.
If Prince Turki’s two proposals could be achieved, a unified Arabian Peninsula with its enormous petroleum wealth that also possessed nuclear weapons would definitely be a “rising power” in its own right. Implementing his vision, though, may require more internal reform than the conservative Gulf monarchies are willing to undertake, especially if this leads to increased democratization in which their power and influence diminish. Nor do the supposedly “rising states” of Asia appear willing or able at present to take over the role of protecting the Arab Gulf states from Iranian and other threats that the U.S. has undertaken since the departure of the British from the region in the late 1960s-early 1970s. Indeed, they seem to want the U.S. to continue protecting the Gulf—and their ability to buy its oil and gas—for them. For better or for worse, the U.S. and the GCC appear to be stuck with each other in an increasingly complicated and changing world. Instead of trying to find alternatives that do not exist (or, at least, don’t exist yet), perhaps the next Gulf Forum should focus on how to improve the all too difficult, “can’t live with you or without you” U.S.-GCC relationship. And hopefully, they’ll invite me back for that!