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Archive for the ‘Saudi Arabia’ Category

Prince Sa’ud Al Faysal, who served as Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs for forty years, passed away on July 9, 2015.  On April 18, 1984, he met with me—a young scholar who had not yet turned thirty—in his office in Riyadh.  In remembrance of him, I am posting an adaptation from my travel narrative, Middle Eastern Sketches (1997), describing my meeting with him as well as how prophetic what he said to me then turned out to be.

Prince Sa’ud greeted me as I entered. He was a very tall man who spoke English perfectly. He, his assistant Khalid Jindan, and I were the only ones in the room.

Just recently, the new Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar, had had dinner with the Soviet ambassador, Anatoliy Dobrynin. There was much speculation that this presaged the imminent resumption of Saudi-Soviet diplomatic relations (there had been ties between them in the 1920s and 1930s, but not since then). I asked Prince Sa’ud if this was about to occur.

He shook his head and said, “We will only recognize Moscow if it meets certain conditions:

“First,” he began, “they must completely withdraw their armed forces from Afghanistan.” The Soviets had invaded that country in 1979 to prop up a Marxist regime there against its Muslim opponents.

“Second, they must end all hostile propaganda against Saudi Arabia.”

“Third, they must withdraw from Ethiopia and South Yemen.” Ethiopia was just across the Red Sea while South Yemen directly bordered on Saudi Arabia. Both had Marxist regimes and a large Soviet military presence.

“Fourth, there must be freedom for Muslims to practice their religion in the USSR.”

“But even if they meet all our conditions,” the prince added, “relations will not be restored automatically. There must also be the right psychological conditions. ”

When the prince said this in April 1984, it seemed as if he was setting conditions which he knew the Soviets would never meet. Saudi-Soviet relations, then, would never be re-established.

In September 1990, though, Prince Sa’ud went to Moscow and met with Eduard Shevardnadze (then the Soviet foreign minister). Saudi-Soviet relations were formally re-established.

By the time this happened, all the conditions which the prince told me that Moscow must meet either had been met or were just about to be. Moscow had long since ended its hostile propaganda against the kingdom. Soviet forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 1989. Moscow made no move to halt the self-liquidation of the Marxist regime in South Yemen and its merger under the leadership of non-Marxist North Yemen in May 1990. Moscow had considerably reduced its assistance to Marxist Ethiopia and would end it completely by January 1991 (the regime would be driven out of power a few months later).

In addition, by the time Prince Sa’ ud went to Moscow, Muslims were free to practice their religion in what was still the USSR. Much to Saudi dismay, Muslims in the USSR had become so free that a little later many of them would vigorously protest Soviet support for the American-led, UN-sponsored coalition formed to protect the kingdom and expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

And last but not least, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait apparently created the right “psychological conditions:” Riyadh was finally willing to restore diplomatic ties with the USSR in order to make sure Moscow voted its way on UN Security Council resolutions aimed at Iraq–which Moscow did.

Although it seemed impossible in 1984, the Soviets had fulfilled all the Saudi conditions for resuming relations by 1990.

After he listed these conditions back in 1984, I asked the prince whether he thought the Soviets would ever fulfill them.

He smiled and said, “It is in the hands of God.”

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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.

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Washington, DC (2002)

In what was then a rare public appearance for him, Prince Turki Al-Faisal bin Abd Al-Aziz Al-Saud, Director of General Intelligence in Saudi Arabia from 1977 to 2001, spoke to a large audience at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies on Sunday, February 3, 2002.  Prince Turki, who was an undergraduate at Georgetown in the mid-1960s, is a son of the late King Faisal (assassinated in 1975).  Prince Turki made his remarks at a time when Saudi-American relations appear under stress, and amidst persistent criticism that it was Saudi support for the Taliban and failure to take action against Osama bin Laden in the mid-1990s which led to the tragedy of September 11.

Osama bin Laden, Prince Turki noted, inherited money from his construction magnate father.  Like a number of other young Saudis during the 1980s, bin Laden went to Afghanistan to help the mujahideen fight against the Soviet forces occupying that country.  Also like most of those young Saudis, Prince Turki insisted, bin Laden was not a fighter, but played more of a supporting role instead.

Prince Turki said that he did have contact with bin Laden during these years—mainly at receptions.  At the time, bin Laden seemed like a pleasant but shy individual who did not talk much.  Bin Laden remained in Afghanistan following the completion of the Soviet withdrawal in early 1989, but returned to Saudi Arabia the following year after becoming disillusioned with the mujahideen for fighting with one another.

Back home, bin Laden appeared to be searching for a new cause.  One that he sought support for, Prince Turki noted, was the liberation of Marxist South Yemen, which bordered the Kingdom.  Prince Turki turned him down, as did other senior princes.  (Marxist South Yemen would disappear in May 1990 when it merged with the more powerful and populous non-Marxist North Yemen.)

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait later that year provided bin Laden with another cause.  He argued against allowing American forces into the Kingdom, claiming that he and other Arabs who had served in Afghanistan could defeat the Iraqis.  As is well known, the Saudi government turned down his offer (which was hardly credible) and invited American as well as other foreign armed forces onto Saudi territory.

It was at this point, Prince Turki said, that bin Laden turned against the Saudi government.  He left the Kingdom, going first to Afghanistan, but leaving there relatively soon thereafter for Sudan.  During the early 1990s, the revolutionary regime in Sudan actively pursued anti-Western and anti-Saudi aims, and so welcomed bin Laden.  By 1996, though, Sudan sought to improve its relations with the Kingdom and offered to return bin Laden to it.

It has been reportedly recently in the Western press that the Saudi government turned down this offer from Sudan, thus allowing bin Laden to go to Afghanistan and plot a series of attacks against the U.S.  According to Prince Turki, however, the Sudanese offer was made only on the condition that the Saudis promise not to put bin Laden on trial.  Riyadh refused to do this, and so the Sudanese let him go to Afghanistan in 1996, where he linked up with the Taliban shortly before their capture of Kabul.

Saudi Arabia not only recognized the Taliban as the government soon thereafter, but provided it with aid as well.  The Kingdom did so, Prince Turki stated, for three reasons:  1) the Taliban did indeed rule most of the country; 2) it established a degree of peace where there had previously been fighting and chaos; and 3) the Saudis hoped to influence the new government.

The presence of bin Laden in Afghanistan, Prince Turki reported, was one of the subjects that he and other Saudi officials talked about with the new government.  The Taliban promised that they would not allow bin Laden to work against Saudi or American interests from Afghanistan.  In 1997, however, bin Laden gave an interview to a Western reporter in which he threatened to attack both countries.  Saudi officials immediately complained to the Taliban about this, reminding them of their promise.  The Taliban assured Riyadh that they would not allow bin Laden to make any further threatening statements or actions.  In 1998, however, bin Laden granted another interview to a Western journalist in which he again threatened both Saudi Arabia and the United States.

In June 1998, Prince Turki went to Kandahar to discuss the extradition of bin Laden with Taliban leader, Mullah Omar.  According to Prince Turki, Omar was willing to negotiate on this.  Riyadh received word from the Taliban the following month that his extradition was in the works, but it did not occur.  (What occurred instead was the bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August—apparently the work of bin Laden.)

Prince Turki returned to Kandahar in September.  This time, however, Mullah Omar described bin Laden as a pious Muslim, accused the Saudi government of acting on behalf of the United States in seeking his extradition, and insulted the Saudi royal family.  Prince Turki then broke off the meeting, telling Mullah Omar that he would regret this.  Riyadh cut off its financial assistance to the Taliban and expelled the Taliban’s ambassador from Riyadh.  However, Riyadh did not break off diplomatic relations completely, he said, because it hoped to revive some sort of dialogue with the Taliban.  But this never occurred.

At the end of his talk, Prince Turki described how he had visited Ground Zero in New York on Thursday, January 31, 2002.  Becoming emotional, he said that he felt the grief of all those who had lost relatives in the World Trade Center, and that he knew how intense the grief they felt was because he had experienced it himself after the assassination of his father, the King.  He stated that Saudi Arabia had suffered too, and that the Saudi people felt America’s pain.  Whatever their differences, both countries must work together to combat terrorism.

Revised version published by Eurasianet.org, February 13, 2002, under the title, “Former Saudi Intelligence Official Defends Country’s Dealings with the Taliban.”  This Eurasianet article, though, appears to have been subsequently pulled from the Eurasianet.org website.

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The Gulf and the Globe

Riyadh (2011)

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!

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Riyadh (2001)

I visited the Kingdom in May 2001 and had long conversations about the future of Saudi Arabia with several individuals.  All of them were men.  All of them were highly educated.  All of them insisted on anonymity.  Each of them also insisted that his view was not representative of Saudi public opinion anyway.  Ironically, though, their views were remarkably similar to one another’s.  But whether representative or not of society as a whole, or just of highly educated men, their views were interesting, intelligent, and very much worth considering—especially in light of the crisis that has developed since September 11.

What’s Wrong?

I asked each person I interviewed to assess the Kingdom’s economic and political prospects.  In general, they were quite pessimistic.  They described the Kingdom as suffering from several serious problems—none of which are being resolved and all of which are growing worse.  First and foremost of these is unemployment.  In the Kingdom, male unemployment rate is estimated to be as high as 25-30%.         This problem appears set to grow worse due to the population boom that the Kingdom is experiencing.  It appears that the Saudi population is increasing at about 3% a year, though the exact figure is uncertain.  What is clear is that Saudi high schools and universities are graduating large numbers of young people for whom there are no “suitable” jobs.

My interlocutors also noted that Saudi women have become increasingly dissatisfied.  Educated young Saudi women want to work.  The country’s economic contraction is impelling them to work.  But there are few jobs available to Saudi women due to the Kingdom’s well-known restrictions on women, and gender segregation in the workplace.  Indeed, the only professions in which large numbers of Saudi women have found work are nursing and teaching.  But since most educated Saudi women reside in the Kingdom’s major cities, jobs in these two fields have become increasingly difficult to come by in them.  Job openings for women in these two fields, then, are now mainly available farther and farther away from the main cities.  And since women are not allowed to drive in the Kingdom, they have to be chauffeured to and from work either by a driver (who must be paid) or by their husbands.  Even with a driver, the men I spoke to complain that women who work far from Riyadh spend so much time away from home that men must devote more and more of their time (including work time) to household tasks.  In short, the increasing desire of educated Saudi women to work combined with the restrictions that Saudi society places on women have resulted in making life increasingly difficult for both men and women in the Kingdom.

While the Saudi men I spoke to all favor lifting the restrictions on women, they all insisted that they are very much in the minority.  Most Saudi men, they said, do not want to allow Saudi women to freely enter the work force both out of religious conviction and, perhaps more tellingly, the fear that increased Saudi female employment would come at the cost of increased Saudi male unemployment.

One of the negative consequences arising from widespread unemployment and low expectations for employment among young Saudis has been increased drug use and the crime associated with it.  Nor has the harsh nature of Saudi criminal punishment proven to be a deterrent to this growing problem.

Another problem resulting from difficult times, some of my interlocutors noted, is the revival of tribal and regional identification.  The inability of the government to provide employment and other benefits combined with a sense that Riyadh favors one group (the Najdis) over all others has led people to rely increasingly on their tribal or regional kin.  While not threatening at present, some of my interlocutors fear the impact that the growth of this trend could have for the unity of the Kingdom.

Why Haven’t These Problems Been Solved?

Why has the Saudi government been unable to deal with these problems?  Because, I was told, it is corrupt, inefficient, and has the wrong priorities.

Everyone I spoke to claimed that corruption is pervasive throughout the Saudi government, especially its upper echelons.  Far more weapons than are needed are purchased for the Saudi armed forces so that powerful figures can obtain commissions from these deals.  Many officials have private companies on the side which sell goods and services (often in partnership with foreign firms) to their own ministries.  The entourages surrounding many of the senior princes routinely use their positions to benefit their own relatives and friends.  Bribery or connections are necessary to get almost anything done.

While corruption is hardly a new problem in the Kingdom, inefficiency in government is something that has become increasingly noticeable.  Several of my interlocutors attribute this to a vicious dynamic.  Although Saudi government ministries and agencies may have thousands of employees, those at the very top refuse to delegate decision-making, but guard it jealously to themselves.  What this means is that virtually all decisions, no matter how trivial, must either be made or approved at the very highest levels. The senior princes and their staffs are often up all through the night deciding matters that would be dealt with by mid-level bureaucrats in other countries.  The more time they have to spend reacting to immediate problems clearly leaves them with less time to develop strategies for dealing with the chronic, root problems which plague Saudi society—assuming they are actually interested in doing this.

But, according to most of my interlocutors, this is not the top priority for the Saudi leadership.  Instead of Saudi society’s problems, the top priority for the royal family is its own problems.  And these are very serious.

Despite its wealth, the Saudi government does not have the money to subsidize the swollen ranks of the royal family to the extent that it did in the heyday of high oil prices.  Furthermore, my interlocutors claim, many of the seven odd thousand princes have become so indebted trying to keep up the ostentatious lifestyle they believe themselves entitled to that they cannot pay their bills.  One source claimed that as many as 90% of the princes fall into this category.

While people in such circumstances would be forced into bankruptcy in other countries, he noted, the Saudi royal family protects its own from this indignity—as well as from the inconvenience of paying off creditors.  As a consequence, nobody who knows which royals don’t pay their bills will extend additional credit to them.  The situation has gotten so bad that Saudi businesses try to avoid accepting checks written by impecunious members of the royal family due to the high probability that they will bounce.

The royal family is reported to be focusing much of its attention on finding “suitable” positions for its younger members.  There is, however, a scarcity of the former and an abundance of the latter.  Both the armed forces and the government are so saturated with princes that vacancies for positions with any real authority are few and far between.  And giving them positions with no authority is one more unneeded drain on the government’s budget.

The solution to this dilemma the royal family has reached, I was told, is to cajole or pressure profitable Saudi businesses run by non-royals to hire these young princes.  The problem with this, the two Saudis I spoke to with close connections to the business world indicated, is that few of these young princes appear to have much talent for business. Despite this, Saudi businesses cannot really refuse when asked to hire them for fear that doing so will negatively affect their relations with what is usually their most important client—the Saudi government.  And since princes must clearly be paid princely salaries, no matter how little talent for business they may have, Saudi businesses which have hired them have consequently experienced declining profitability.  My friends indicated that this is a very serious and growing problem since there is a constant supply of young princes needing jobs, and because no Saudi business would dare try to get rid of a prince no matter how much of a liability he proves to be after being hired.

What Does the Future Hold?

The Saudi government’s growing corruption, inefficiency, and misplaced priorities have resulted in its being unable to prevent Saudi society’s problems from getting steadily worse.  The group I spoke to all fear that if things keep going the way they are, an increasingly paralyzed Saudi government will simply be unable to deal with more and more intractable problems, not the least of which is the inability to reform itself.

In addition, all this is coming about at the same time that Saudi society has become more connected to the rest of the world than it ever has before.  With access to relatively independent news sources such as Al-Jazeera and Sky TV—plus access to the internet—Saudi citizens now can readily compare the circumstances of their lives with those of people in other countries.  A strong sense of relative deprivation as well as resentment has consequently developed among younger Saudis over the restricted lifestyle they lead compared to people in both the West and even neighboring Middle Eastern countries, including Iran.

Everybody I spoke to expressed the belief that things cannot go on like this much longer.  To the extent that the government cannot deliver what people feel it owes them, then opposition is likely to arise.  This in itself would not necessarily amount to anything, but if the Saudi government cannot solve its other problems, will it be able to suppress opposition to it?  The main concern of the royal family vis-à-vis the Saudi armed forces, according to my interlocutors, has been to render it incapable of mounting a coup.  They have clearly succeeded at this.  But will they be able to get Saudi soldiers to fire upon their fellow citizens “if necessary,” especially if they share the same grievances?  It is when armies won’t do this, several noted, that the governments they are supposed to protect fall apart.

Some I spoke with said this was irrelevant since American armed forces would protect the Saudi monarchy against its internal opponents, just like it did against Saddam Hussein in 1990-91.  Others insisted that while the U.S. government could be expected to intervene militarily to defend the Kingdom from external attack, Congress and the American public would not permit American intervention to defend the Saudi monarchy against its internal opponents.  All agreed that if the U.S. did intervene, the monarchy would lose all legitimacy and would be weaker and more vulnerable than ever.  The monarchy would inevitably fall after this, though perhaps not quite as quickly if the U.S. refused to intervene in the face of rising domestic opposition.

And what would come afterward?  Most thought that it was likely to be something so virulently anti-Western, anti-democratic, and Islamic fundamentalist that it would make Ayatollah Khomeini himself look tame by comparison.  Indeed, the new regime might even try to spread its brand of Islamic revolution to Iran, as well as other neighboring countries.  Whether it tried this or not, it would certainly expel the Americans and destroy both the royal family and all those connected with them.  Like the Taliban, it would bring misery to the country for many, many years.  This is not a prospect that the group I spoke to was happy about at all.

Is There Any Hope?

Can this fate be avoided?  Nobody in the group thought that democratization was the answer.  They insisted that their society was simply not ready for it.  If elections were held in the Kingdom, they believe that most Saudis would vote for authoritarian forces, probably of the Islamist variety, at this point in time.  Any external pressure on the Kingdom to democratize would only be seen as a plot to somehow increase American and Western domination over the country.  The Saudi royal family has no intention of allowing any sort of elections anyway.

A few even went so far as to say that the appointment of the majlis al-shura, touted by some in the West for being the beginning of democratization or even the embodiment of “desert democracy,” was actually intended by the Saudi royal family as a clever means of discrediting democracy.  In the view of all my interlocutors, most members of the majlis are distinguished only for being especially incompetent and inept.  Some believe that by appointing them, the royal family sought to inculcate the idea that non-royals cannot govern effectively, and so ordinary citizens need the royal family to protect them from one another.  None expect these appointed members of the majlis to push for democratization.

So if salvation through democratization is unlikely, then what does the future hold?  Some in the group have no hope at all.  They believe that the Saudi monarchy will fall, and that what comes after it will be far worse.  One even said that many people were preparing for this by sending as much money out of the country as they can while there is still the opportunity to do so.

Others, though, believe that there may be a way out of the mess that the country has gotten into:  Although the royal family as a whole is not held in high regard, some members of it are.  Some in the group felt that the then Crown Prince, Abdallah  (who is now King), is a reformer.  Others, though, think that while his heart may be in the right place, Abdallah will not be able to overcome the pervasive corruption that has become so firmly entrenched in the government—including, they all said, in his own entourage.  And even with the best will in the world, it will be extremely difficult for him to sack the incompetent and inept among his own brothers.

A decade later, the Saudi royal family remains firmly in charge of the Kingdom.  But the problems described above remain as well.

previously unpublished

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Riyadh (1988)

During my second visit to Saudi Arabia in March 1988, two U.S. Embassy officers and I were invited to visit the home of one of the princes attached to the suite of then Crown Prince (now King) Abdallah. 

The Prince’s home was surrounded by high walls.  One of his servants recognized the embassy car and opened the tall gate so we could park in the driveway.  The Prince’s place was a two-story California Arabesque complete with turrets on the roof corners.  On top of the roof was a mass of equipment including a satellite dish, antennae, and other objects I did not recognize.

We were met at the door by a servant.  He ushered us into a lavishly decorated sitting room.  The chairs and couch were European-style and looked very expensive.  These were arranged around an enormous, intricately designed brass table which had been polished brightly.  The walls were literally covered with paintings in ornate frames.  There were also exquisite oriental rugs on the floor.

Another servant came in the room bearing a tray with crystal goblets containing “Saudi cocktails”–a delicious mixture of various fruit juices.

After about ten minutes, the Prince himself entered the room.  The three of us stood up to meet him.  He graciously asked us to sit.  He was in a jovial, expansive mood.

We asked him about the paintings.  He told us where they were all from:  England, France, Italy.  Mostly nineteenth century, he said, but a few seventeenth and eighteenth.  They would have made a fine addition to any museum, I thought.

All during our conversation, more servants came in the room with trays of fruit, sweets, coffee, tea.

After awhile, the Prince sat up slightly in his chair, signaling that the preliminaries were over and he was now ready to get down to serious conversation.  We sat up too.

The Prince turned to me and said, “The trouble with the Americans is that they are so…” 

He could not think of the word at first, but then it came to him:  “Materialistic!  Not at all like we Saudis.”

previously unpublished

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Washington and Riyadh (1982-84)

I met him at a reception.  I told him that I was about to take my first trip to the Middle East, visiting Egypt, Oman, and Yemen.  He asked me why I wasn’t visiting his country, Saudi Arabia.

I explained that although I am not Jewish, my last name is and therefore I didn’t think the Saudis would let me in.  He said that this was nonsense.  He told me I could be allowed in even if I was Jewish.  He also said that he would not only get me a visa for the Kingdom, but would arrange for me to meet with several ministers.  He could do this, he said, because he himself was a minister’s son.

He was as good as his word:  I did indeed go to the Kingdom, although it took my friend eighteen months to arrange the visit.  In the meantime, I got to know this young Saudi.  Like all other Arabs I have known, he opposed Israeli occupation of Arab territories.  But unlike most others, he was interested both in Judaism and in Israel.  After I knew him awhile, he admitted that he was actually taking private lessons in Hebrew.

He was also writing a Ph.D. dissertation.  In his program, he had to have two professors approve of his thesis.  He had chosen a prominent Arab scholar as his primary reader, but had also selected a well-known Israeli scholar as the second member of his committee.  This was the first time I had ever heard of a Saudi seeking out a Jew to work with on a dissertation, and I was impressed at my friend’s broadmindedness.

Shortly before I left for the Kingdom, I noticed that my friend’s Israeli professor had published a blistering op-ed piece in the New York Times declaring that Saudi Arabia was not a reliable ally for America.  I was even more impressed that my friend had chosen to work with someone with whom he obviously had something of an adversarial relationship.

The visit my friend had arranged was nothing short of spectacular.  I met the foreign minister, the development minister, the chief of intelligence, and several other senior officials.  The last person I met before leaving the Kingdom was my friend’s father.

When I entered his office, there was only one piece of paper on the minister’s desk:  a copy of the anti-Saudi op-ed piece by his son’s Israeli professor.  Upon seeing this, I immediately told the minister how much I respected his son for having this man on his dissertation committee.  Many Saudi graduate students had the reputation for picking universities and professors who would not demand very much of them.  His son was quite obviously an exception.

The minister’s smile changed into a frown.  “Do you mean to tell me that this man is my son’s professor?” he asked, pointing at the article.  I suddenly realized that I had let the cat out of the bag.

“How could my son do this?” he cried.  “This man has no respect whatsoever for our country.

“If you are really my son’s friend,” he continued, “you will tell him that he will not have much of a career in the Kingdom if he has this man on his committee.”

“But he also has a distinguished Arab scholar as the chair of his committee,” I pointed out.

“That doesn’t matter,” the father insisted.  “You tell him what I said.”

I felt miserable.  My friend had worked hard to get me into the Kingdom as well as arrange my meetings with various high level officials.  And in return I got him in trouble with his father.  But I had no way of knowing that he hadn’t told his father about which professors he was working with.

Shortly after returning to Washington, I called my friend to thank him for all his hard work.  He was in a happy mood, but I soon changed that.  “Have you spoken to your father recently?” I asked.

“No,” he responded warily.  “Why?”

“I think you had better talk to him.”

“Is something wrong?” he asked.

“I think you should give him a call.”

“I’ll call him immediately,” said my friend.

An hour later, my friend called me back.  The first thing he said was, “Why did you tell him?”  He was not happy.

“I’m sorry,” I replied, “but I thought he already knew.”

“Well, he does now.  I’ve only just finished talking with him.  He yelled at me the entire time.”

“So what was the outcome?” I asked.

“We reached our usual compromise:  I gave in completely.”

My friend never did write his dissertation.  But he did become an important official in Saudi Arabia.  He has not, however, offered to arrange another visit to the Kingdom for me.

Edited version published as “My Saudi Friend’s Israeli Prof., Unfortunately,” Washington Jewish Week, December 19, 1996.

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