Geo-Political Dynamics of Arabia and the Gulf

[This is a summary of a panel discussion chaired by Dr. Abdullah Baabood, Waseda University on the second day of the 29th National Council on US-Arab Relations Conference held on November 18, 2020. These notes summarize my impression of highlights of the presentation and are not an attempted transcription.]

H.E. Dr. Mohamed Al Hassan, Sultanate of Oman Ambassador to the United Nations; former Oman Ministry of Foreign Affairs Acting Undersecretary for Diplomatic Affairs; former Ambassador of Oman to Russia.

Recent normalization of relationships between certain Arab states and Israel is not a substitute for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. We in Oman believe in a two-state solution that takes into account the aspirations of both Palestinians and Israelis. How can we get out of the currently unpromising dilemma? It requires recognition of certain facts including the importance of acting within international law, the necessity of taking into account the rights of the other side, the recognition that we hold the future in our own hands and the avoidance of blaming others, to acknowledge the tools available to resolve differences, and most importantly to heed the voices of youth. It would be wrong to exclude Iran or Iraq or Yemen from any future security or economic arrangements. Isolating Iran is a doomed policy. Peace is sustained only by giving everyone a stake in it, and not by the sound of guns. What is important is to stop the war in Yemen immediately and to give the Palestinians some light at the end of the tunnel.

Mr. Timothy Lenderking, U.S. Department of State Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Gulf Affairs; former U.S. Department of State Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

If we are ever to diffuse the tensions with Iran, we must negotiate in a broader spectrum of issues than prisoner releases (as important as that is). We cannot stand by and watch the situation of the Yemeni people continue to deteriorate, but we need to see outside parties wind down their presence, including Iran. Americans must be sympathetic with the marginalization of the Houtis, but we cannot be sympathetic to the attacks on civilians nor on the burgeoning relationship with the IRGC. We are pleased at the normalization of Israel’s relationship with some Arab parties, but it cannot be on the back of the Palestinians. How is it that Arab states can more easily make peace with Israel than resolve their issues with Qatar? Gulf countries do not benefit in the long run from a rift among Arab countries, nor does the United States. Separate countries will of course have differences, but this kind of rift impedes progress on a variety of matters including Iran, COVID, and economic issues. Our advice is to maintain strong American engagement as partners. Our engagement with Saudi Arabia will have to remain strong and our relationships with other Gulf states can and should be strengthened.

Dr. John Duke Anthony, NCUSAR founding president and CEO.

Despite my focus on the region, I bring the perspective of an outsider. The region is preoccupied with two kinds of oil: turmoil and the other kind. Stability, security and peace are necessary objectives. It is noteworthy that the cease fire that ended the Iran-Iraq War, accepted immediately by Saddam Hussein, took 13 months to be approved by Iran. Oman chaired the UNSC during the time of that conflict. Omanis fought in Qatari uniforms in defense of Kuwait against Saddam’s invasion. To my knowledge, Iran is the only country in the world to have in its constitution the necessity of exporting its revolution. The US has free trade agreements with Oman and Bahrain. The dialog between the US and the GCC needs to peopled by the best diplomats on both sides. Look at what we have accomplished in the past. No one can say we cannot do it again.

Dr. Abdullah Al Shayji, Kuwait University Professor of International Relations and Post Graduate Political Science Program Director; Author, The GCC Crises: The Root Causes, The Mediation Efforts, and the Future of the GCC Alliance. 

After the collapse of the Arab Spring the GCCC was thought to be the de facto leader of the “Arab political system,” but it has been weak and ineffective. There is a “trust deficit” between the U.S. and its Arab allies at a critical time that has the Arab states wondering, “How much we can rely on the U.S. if push comes to shove?” Trump did nothing when the Iranians attacked the ARAAMCO installations. We have seen a lack of comprehensive policy. We need a functional GCCC and US leadership.

The day after Robert O’Brien called for a resolution of the Qatari issue, the UAE ambassador in Washington said this was not a priority. How can the incoming Biden administration reassure us on the engagement issue? In 2015 Obama started an annual US-GCCC summit, but this has not been held since Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017. If there is to be a JCPOA 2.0, there should be GCCC involvement.  Why has the US not classified the Houtis as a terrorist organization? The normalization of relations with Israel is splitting the GCCC. Normalization absent resolution of the Palestinian problem is capitulation to the Netanyahu. Biden will be too distracted with domestic issues (COVID, the economy, and the legitimacy of his own election) to be able to address this issue. 

Ambassador (Ret.) Susan L. Ziadeh, Georgetown University Adjunct Professor; former United States Department of State Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs; former United States Ambassador to Qatar.

We have 30-35,000 troops deployed in the region and that shall remain under the Biden administration. First and foremost there is the issue of Iran. We know that relationships with our allies have been shaken by the withdrawal from the JCPOA. We know the Iranian presidential elections are coming up.  Who will have charge of the JCPOA file? Will there be a unified view within the GCCC on a resurrected JCPOA? Will sunset clauses be on the table?  What WILL be on the table? Reuters has reported rumors of discussions between Saudi Arabia and the Houti movement that the Saudis would accept a cease fire if the Houtis agreed to a buffer zone along the border. Even if that came to pass, what would it mean for the situation within Yemen? Any drawdown or peace negotiation in Yemen would require a unified GCCC position. If the Houtis are designated as a Foreign Terorist Organization, nonprofits would be prevented from distributing humanitarian aid in Houti controlled areas, even when the locals are not supportive of the Houtis. The US relationship with Saudi Arabia will continue under a Biden administration, but the Saudis could be helpful if they would help cool tensions with Qatar. There will be concerns in Congress over UAE possession of F-35 technology and trade relations with certain countries.

Amb. Ziadeh. European alliances will be the first U.S. foreign policy priority.  Scrutiny of China (trade relations, etc.) and Russian expansion (including the ME, but also Europe). After those Yemen, Iran, and military involvement.  I do not think the Palestinian-Israeli issue will be high in the near term, but it will come up eventually.

Dr. Al Shayji. Russia, China, NATO, and when it comes to our region Iran will be at the top of the agenda, then GCCC. I think Trump is trying to box in Biden before he even comes into office, and designating Houtis as terrorists may be a tactic he uses to that end.

Dr. Anthony. Can we not move beyond this tactic of shunning people as if they possess some horrible contagious ideological disease?  You must have a communication line to the people who started or are sustaining the conflict.  The US pushed and pushed Hanoi and the Viet Cong to recognize the South Vietnamese government and they failed.  But once we began to speak with them in Paris, although it took a while, the killing came to an end. Same for the French in Algeria and the demands that the French be exempt from Algerian national government. It goes back to America’s emergence as a national entity. It was only when Britain accepted America’s national ambitions that the fighting stopped. Let us stop treating those whose ideological inclinations we find distasteful, or even dangerous, as lepers.

Dr. Mohamed Al Hassan. The U.S. and other countries including new partners like China and India have a role to play, but ultimately the future of the Gulf states lies in their own hands. Putting political groups on a terrorist list has catastrophic results.

Mr. Lenderking. The designation of the Houtis as terrorists is a raging debate.  If the Houtis would lessen ties with the Iranian regime it would be very helpful in demonstrating that they are a Yemini organization devoted to Yemenis.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

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