Saudi analyst Nawaf Obaid has an opinion piece in The Washington Post arguing that in the absence of a strong US policy toward the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is stepping in to fill the void. It will, of course, act in what it sees as its interests, but in forming alliances of like-minded countries, it is not acting solely in its own interests.
Just two months after the passing of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s extensive intervention in Yemen on Thursday should serve notice to the world that a major generational shift underway in the kingdom is sure to have far-reaching geopolitical ramifications.
The new Saudi leadership — centered on a cadre of youthful, dynamic royals and technocrats — is developing a foreign policy doctrine to address long-standing regional tensions. This doctrine is based on the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy and the centrality of the kingdom to the Muslim world. As the custodian of the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia is uniquely positioned to rise above the fray of the past decade and begin bridging the considerable gaps dividing the main Sunni nations. With almost 90 percent of Muslims identifying as Sunni, and the Saudis at the epicenter of the Sunni world, the Saudis believe they can meet an urgent need for a united Sunni front against Shiite Iran, as well as the terrorist movements tearing the Arab world apart.
Abdullah’s successor, King Salman, has inherited a disastrous situation in the region. With the Obama administration abandoning the United States’ historical responsibilities and, by extension, most of its prestige in the Middle East, the Saudis have no choice but to lead more forcefully, more coherently and, above all, more sustainably. This mantle is based on the kingdom’s conservative religious base and its unique Arab tribal inheritance. More tangibly, it is backed by $150 billion in spending to upgrade the Saudi military to allow it to engage enemies on two major fronts simultaneously, eliminating the need to rely on foreign assistance in defending the homeland.
Writing for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Anthony Cordesman presents a tour d’horizon of the issues that face the US and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Definitely worth reading in its entirety.
America, Saudi Arabia, and the Strategic Importance of Yemen
Anthony H. Cordesman
Yemen is a growing reminder of just how important the strategic U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia really is. It is one thing to talk about the war against ISIS, and quite another to realize that U.S. strategic interests require a broad level of stability in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula and one that is dependent on Saudi Arabia as a key strategic partner.
Saudi Arabia has already taken an important lead in Yemen that will need U.S. support. Saudi Arabia and allies are now conducting air strikes in Yemen to try to halt the advance of a Houthi militia, with strong ties to Iran, which is attempting to end President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s efforts to relocate Yemen’s elected government to Aden.
… To put Yemen in a broader strategic context, the crisis in Yemen is only part of the U.S.-Saudi strategic equation. U.S.- Saudi partnership and cooperation is critical in building some form of deterrence and strategic stability to contain Iran in the Gulf. Any nuclear agreement will not affect the need for close cooperation between the United States, Saudi Arabia and other key members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in dealing with the broader and active threat Iran poses in terms of conventional forces, asymmetric warfare, missiles, and strategic influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait play a key role in stabilizing Egypt and Jordan, and U.S., Saudi, and UAE cooperation in arms transfers – along with bases and the force of the other Gulf states – are creating military capabilities and interoperability that both reduce the need for future U.S. power projection and greatly enhances the capability of any forces the United States deploys.
At the same time, Yemen is of major strategic importance to the United States, as is the broader stability of Saudi Arabia all of the Arab Gulf states. For all of the talk of U.S. energy “independence,” the reality remains very different. The increase in petroleum and alternative fuels outside the Gulf has not changed its vital strategic importance to the global and U.S. economy.
Saudi Arabia has begun air operations against the Houthi militias who have taken over much of northern Yemen, including the capital Sana’a, and are moving on the southern city of Adan. The operation, called “Determination Storm” or “Al-Hazem Storm,” has so far received support from the GCC, some of whose members may also take part, as well as from the governments of the EU, UK, France, Turkey, Belgium, Morocco, Sudan, Pakistan, Jordan, and Egypt. Several of those have said that they are also willing to take part. Iran has called for a halt to the operation, not surprisingly.
The US government has offered intelligence and logistical support.
The Saudi Press Agency is running brief reports on every bit of support or encouragement being given, including from Saudi Arabia’s Senior Scholars and the Syrian opposition.
The English translation of the operation’s name seems to be a bit up in the air at the moment. Various media are reporting it as “Firm Storm” and “Decisive Storm.”
From Al Arabiya TV:
From Asharq Alawsat:
From Saudi Gazette:
From Arab News:
The American Embassy and Consulates are back to work following their closure on security concerns over the past week. Arab News reports:
US missions resume consular services
RIYADH: GHAZANFAR ALI KHAN
The US diplomatic missions in Saudi Arabia will resume full consular services on Sunday, following a weeklong closure amid reports of “heightened security concerns” against Western targets.
The opening of the US Embassy and its consulates in Jeddah and Dhahran was confirmed by Stewart Wight, a spokesman of the US Embassy, on Saturday.
Speaking to Arab News, Wight said: “The US Embassy and its consulates will offer regular consular services as of March 22.”
The embassy has announced that the consular section will resume services for American citizens and will be functioning as usual for both Americans and non-Americans.
Saudi Arabia repeats its warning that if Iran moves toward the acquisition of nuclear arms, Saudi Arabia will as well. Former head of Saudi Intelligence and ambassador to the US and UK, Turki Al-Faisal says that any “deal” that the P5+1 nations offer to Iran will be assumed to apply to Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners.
RIYADH (Reuters): Any terms that world powers grant Iran under a nuclear deal will be sought by Saudi Arabia and other countries, risking wider proliferation of atomic technology, Prince Turki Al-Faisal warned on Monday in a BBC interview.
“I’ve always said whatever comes out of these talks, we will want the same,” said Prince Turki, who has previously served as head of Saudi intelligence and Riyadh’s ambassador to Washington and London.
Saudi Arabia, its Gulf neighbors and other Mideastern countries fear an atomic deal would leave the door open to Tehran gaining a nuclear weapon, or would ease political pressure on it, giving it more space to interfere in regional affairs.
Iran and six world powers known as the P5+1 group are holding talks to reach a deal aimed at assuaging their fears that Tehran is using the fuel enrichment process of its atomic power program to secretly develop a nuclear weapon.
International and Saudi media report that the US government is seeing an increased threat to its personnel in Saudi Arabia and, in consequence, is closing its embassy and consulates for most activities. Earlier, it issued warnings to American citizens working in the oil industry in the Eastern Province.
There are no reports on exactly what threat was perceived, nor who was seen to be threatening.
(Reuters) – U.S. citizens are urged to take precautions in Saudia Arabaia and U.S. consular services in the country have been canceled for Sunday and Monday due to heightened security concerns, the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh said on Saturday.
In a statement on its website, the embassy said consular services in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dhahran would be canceled and it urged all U.S. citizens to take extra precautions when traveling in Saudi Arabia. The statement did not indicate the nature of the threat.
Fox News, citing an intelligence source, said the threat is serious enough that the facilities will have only essential staff over the next two days.
In an op-ed for Al-Arabiya TV, Hisham Melhem, the station’s Washington bureau chief, offers a critique of Pres. Obama’s penchant for vague language when it comes to dealing with terrorism committed in the name of Islam. In seeking to avoid any possible offense with his language, the President and his administration end up using wishy-washy terms devoid of any actual meaning.
Arab and Muslim societies, Melhem writes, do have a problem and it’s one that’s largely self-created. Too many leaders have used religion as a tool of manipulation. Too many have created shadows on the wall to demonize the West. Too many have allowed absurd “religious” inspirations to deflect attention from very real problems created by those leaders.
Failing to acknowledge what the problem is — and it’s not a “lack of jobs,” contrary to what a State Dept. spokeswoman claimed from her pulpit — cannot lead to a solution to the problem. The main burden is on Arab and Muslim society and those who govern them. Pretending it is not will not and cannot lead to a solution.
Violent extremism vs Islamist extremism
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”
President Obama is a wordsmith. His relatively short political life has been chiseled and shaped by the possibilities and the limits of his language. He bursts on the national stage when he delivered a memorable keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In fact, he defined his campaigns and his presidency by few pivotal speeches that tried to explain his vision of America, domestic decisions, and how he sees the world. Obama the wordsmith struggled with his language the way Obama the president struggled with his decisions. And just as his leadership style and some of his decisions were characterized by tentativeness, excessive caution and deliberation, his language can also oscillate between that which is inspirational and that which is deliberately ambiguous, deceptive and downright Orwellian. His framing of the Syrian conflict and his claims that his options were the extremes of doing nothing or invade Syria are a case in point.
Arab News reports on a meeting of the military chiefs of 22 countries now taking place in Riyadh. The purpose is to come up with a unified approach to dealing with ISIS. The article notes that Bahrain is now stepping in, sending aircraft to Jordan to support ongoing operations.
Anti-IS coalition chalks out strategy in Riyadh
RIYADH: GHAZANFAR ALI KHAN
Military chiefs from more than 22 countries battling the Islamic State (IS) group began talks here Wednesday to assess the coalition’s current strategy and map out a plan to tackle other terrorist groups operating in the Middle East.
A formal reception was hosted for the military chiefs of the foreign countries at a local hotel on Wednesday night, a diplomatic source, who requested anonymity, said.
This led to an informal round of discussions, but the main talks are scheduled for Thursday, he said. This high-powered military meeting is significant because of the growing threat posed by IS.
The meeting also coincides with the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, which started in the US Wednesday.
The Gulf Cooperation Council is not planning to address the change in government in Yemen with military force, Asharq Alawsat reports. Even though the Shi’ite Houthis (identified as a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia and others) has taken control of Yemen’s government, the GCC does not believe that military reaction is called for at this time.
Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has no plans to take military steps to safeguard its interests in neighboring Yemen following the Houthi takeover of power, a senior Gulf official told Asharq Al-Awsat.
The oil-rich organization strongly condemned what it described as a “blatant coup” by the Houthi rebels against the legitimate government of outgoing president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, warning that it undermined the peaceful transition of power and showed a disregard toward national stability.
The Houthi movement has emerged as the de facto ruler of Yemen, forcing Hadi to resign and announcing a controversial “constitutional declaration” last week that dissolved parliament and tightened the Houthis’ grip on power.
The GCC has called on the UN Security Council to act swiftly to put an end to the coup before Yemen descends into further chaos.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, a senior GCC official said that coordination among the six member states was underway to formulate a firm stance towards the situation in Yemen.
In an op-ed, Tariq Alhomayed calls for Arab troops to directly address the problem of ISIS. In the face of US reluctance to get involved on the ground, it’s up to Arabs to take the initiative.
We need Arab boots on the ground to defeat ISIS
After the burning alive of Jordanian fighter pilot Moaz Al-Kasasbeh by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a strong response—international in nature, but Arab at its core—is needed, not as retaliation for this abominable crime, but to finally defeat ISIS and rein in the other evil forces wreaking havoc in Syria and Iraq, namely Bashar Al-Assad and Iran.
Months ago I wrote in this paper that the fight against ISIS was at heart a Sunni one, and I believe recent events now prove this to be true. There are a number of reasons as to why I conceive this as a Sunni battle. One is that the lack of a prominent Sunni presence fighting ISIS will leave the door open for Iran and sect-based militias to fill the vacuum in Syria and Iraq. This will seriously threaten the unity of these countries, helping Assad to turn Syria into a country of militias, or bringing about more Nuri Al-Maliki-style sectarian politics in Iraq—or a scenario in either country along the lines of the Houthi takeover of Yemen.
The international anti-ISIS coalition now needs to shift gear and put Arab boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq, bolstering these forces with aerial bombardment. This is the only way to contain and eventually destroy ISIS. Today we have before us a US president who has adopted a policy of “strategic patience” in dealing with a phenomenon like ISIS, a policy he plans to practice until the end of his term in 2016. I’m not bringing this up just to lambast Obama; the man has had more than his fair share of criticism recently. The point of mentioning all this is that our region simply does not have the luxury of Obama’s indolence. For this reason, a full-scale but balanced Arab military mobilization is needed right now.
The Washington Post runs an analysis of human rights issues in Saudi Arabia. The piece notes that the Kingdom receives low marks on whatever metric is being used to measure liberty interests, including women’s rights, free speech, and religious freedom. The quandary is that most Saudis are not calling for changes in the way things work and, what’s more, it has been the government at the forefront of change and liberalization.
The US government, the article notes, is not eager to get involved in pushing for reform when there’s no popular support for reform. It would rather leave it to the Saudi government to implement changes at a pace acceptable to Saudi society.
The article also points to the question marks hanging over the changes in government following the ascension of King Salman, not noted as a reformer himself.
For almost 70 years, Saudi Arabia has been a vital U.S. ally in the Middle East. The relationship, which famously opened in a meeting on the Suez Canal between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the first Saudi king, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, is based around shared concerns about regional security and crude oil supplies. It has proved remarkably durable, despite a rapidly changing world.
Over the past few months, however, something seems to have shifted. Americans and other Westerners seem to have grown more and more skeptical about the true nature of their ally. In particular, an unusual set of circumstances — including the fearsome rise of the Islamic State, the death of Saudi King Abdullah and renewed concerns about Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks — has led to a significant public debate about Saudi Arabia’s true values.
One particular source of concern has been the state of human rights in the country, highlighted by a spate of public executions and the high profile punishment of liberal blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam” last year.
Al Arabiya TV reports on The Washington Post‘s retraction of stories that questioned the health of Saudi Arabia’s new king, Salman. The withdrawal (which I cannot find online at the Post‘s site) of the reporting is said to be because there was no supporting information on the allegation. Given that high-level USG officials met with the King (and others with his advisors and those of the former king), I’d expect some sort of comment on his health if it were detected.
The Washington Post has retracted and published a correction relating to claims it made regarding Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdelaziz suffering of dementia, a false claim which the paper later described as “too speculative and unsubstantiated.”
The Post said it retracted the statement because it did not meet its “standards for publication.”
The Post responded to Al Arabiya News’s request for clarification explaining that as the Editor’ Note has previously indicated the claims were “too speculative and unsubstantiated to meet The Post’s standards for publication. (These assertions were variously attributed to “said to be” (May 27, 2014), “reportedly” (Jan. 23) and “widely believed” (Jan. 24). The only specific attribution came in the Jan. 24 piece, which quoted The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Simon Henderson, which The Post claims is “an authority on Saudi Arabia and succession issues.”
Arab News runs an article that introduces the newest members of King Salman’s Cabinet:
The new Cabinet announced by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman on Thursday has several appointees who are accomplished administrators with vast experience and expertise in their fields.
Azzam Al-Dakhil, the new minister of education, is also chief executive officer of the Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Charity Foundation (MISK). This is an organization founded by Prince Mohammed, who chairs its board of directors.
The organization works to enhance intellectual capital in Saudi Arabia, to help build a creative, knowledgeable society that nurtures young and talented leaders through developmental, educational and cultural projects.
An American think-tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sent out a newsletter remarking on cabinet changes. It notes the demotion of Pr. Bandar bin Sultan and others, as well as the shuttering of the National Security Council, the Supreme Petroleum Policy Council, and other advisory bodies. The newsletter’s general tone is that we’re seeing a shift toward the conservative end of the political spectrum and that political relations with the US are going to need some work to re-establish connections.
Princely Personalities Sidelined in Saudi Arabia
The latest shakeup among Saudi decisionmakers will require Washington to work on new relationships in Riyadh and perhaps reconfirm understandings reached at Tuesday’s summit.
Just two days after President Obama’s visit to Riyadh, King Salman has sacked several of the princes who met with the U.S. delegation. According to U.S. and Saudi reporting of the January 27 summit, talks between the two leaders were dominated by national security topics, including Iran, the “Islamic State”/ISIS, and Yemen. It is therefore surprising that the most senior departure is Prince Khaled bin Bandar, the head of Saudi intelligence, who sat near the king during the discussion. Although Khaled has been retained as an “advisor” to the king, this is usually thought of as an irrelevant position. He has been replaced by Khaled bin Ali bin Abdullah al-Humaidan, a nonroyal former general who was already a senior intelligence official.
Also out is Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the secretary-general of the Saudi National Security Council, former ambassador to Washington, and former intelligence chief who was viewed as one of the late King Abdullah’s closest confidants. The NSC has now been abolished, along with the Supreme Petroleum Council and other top advisory bodies. Another casualty is King Abdullah’s son Prince Turki, the sacked governor of Riyadh province who had greeted President Obama at the airport and bid him farewell upon his departure. Prince Mansour bin Mitab bin Abdulaziz — the minister of municipalities and rural affairs who was in the welcoming line for the president — was also demoted to “advisor,” even though Salman had confirmed all current cabinet members only a week before. Mansour and his father before him had run the ministry for thirty-five years.