A Relationship Always Strong At Different Levels: A Conversation with Ford Fraker

Published: March 7, 2014

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Editor’s Note:

Ambassador Ford Fraker served as America’s top diplomat in Riyadh from 2007 to 2009 in the administrations of both President Bush and President Obama. Last fall he told the Arab-US Policymakers Conference in Washington about the complex set of elements that go into the generations-old ties between Saudi Arabia and the United States:

“When I arrived as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 2007, up to that point I’d been a banker in the Middle East for almost 35 years. So Saudi Arabia was a country I knew well. It allowed me to transition into the position relatively easily from a number of standpoints. But one of the things that surprised me when I came was I had no real understanding of the breadth and depth of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

“Obviously the high points – energy for security – all the basic issues that drive the relationship, yes I knew about them. But the number of programs that exist encompassing Departments of Commerce, Energy, Education – a whole raft of programs that extend throughout the relationship, not just broadly, but deeply as I said, I think has a lot to do with why this relationship is as strong and as fundamentally sound as it is.”

In December the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC) announced Ambassador Fraker as its new President. The Washington-based MEPC, which seeks to contribute to the understanding of the political, economic and cultural issues that affect U.S. interests in the Middle East, could have no better prepared leader to guide it into the future.

Today we are pleased to present our conversation with Ambassador Fraker in which we covered a wide range of issues of interest to those who follow the Saudi-US relationship and developments in the region. In addition to this conversation we also talked about the role of the MEPC and its future. That discussion will be provided in a separate post/email.

As someone who always has his finger on the pulse of developments in the Gulf and having made multiple visits to Saudi Arabia in recent months, we started by asking Ambassador Fraker the obvious question about the current health of the relationship.


A Relationship Always Strong At Different Levels: A Conversation with Ford Fraker

[SUSRIS] What’s your reading of the state of the Washington-Riyadh partnership?

People AUSPC 2013 Business Ford Fraker[Hon. Ford M. Fraker] This relationship is really like a strong marriage, founded on mutual principles of shared beliefs and values. You’ve heard me talk before about that being what keeps the relationship strong and that every good marriage goes through periods of ups and downs. I think we’re coming out of a down period. We should thank the herculean efforts of our current Secretary of State for some of the changes that have recently taken place.

The relationship is always strong at different levels. People have different views and they have different ideas of what should happen in certain situations. That will always be the case. But in terms of where the relationship grinds along day to day, overall it’s rock solid. So I don’t worry about that.

As you know I’ve been a banker in the region my whole career and the people that I talk to are business people and finance people. None of them are concerned about the relationship. Everybody’s focused on what are the business opportunities of the day.

Its strengths are something that people can lose sight of as there may be discussion about how the relationship at a point in time perhaps isn’t going all that well. People may criticize one another. That all happens at the political level.

To be frank, most people don’t pay much attention to that. Certainly nobody in Saudi Arabia believes that the relationship is threatened in any way. People are just trying to figure out what the right positions are for some tricky situations.

[SUSRIS] There has been a wide divergence between the critics in public and government officials in describing the bilateral tensions and policy disagreements. Has there been an element of “those who know aren’t talking and those who are talking don’t know” when it comes to the inside story?

[Fraker] Yes, I think that’s very much the case. What’s always important in any relationship is that the channels of information and the channels of discussion are open. Problems come when the channels close down. Some of the recent changes suggest no one should be worried that the lines of communication are not working the way they should be working. We hear that Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is going to play a stronger role, certainly as far as the Syria portfolio is concerned, along with Prince Miteb bin Abdullah. That’s all very positive.

[SUSRIS] How do you see personnel changes affecting policymaking and the relationship?

[Fraker] I think the changes are all for the better. I worked very closely with Mohammed bin Nayef on a range of issues. He’s a very safe pair of hands, very solid character. He understands our views and the Saudi views very well. You couldn’t have a better person involved in all of this. Of course, Saudi Arabia will tend to look at the Syrian issues very much as an internal security problem. There are potential problems for the Saudis, so it is appropriate that the Minister of the Interior be involved.

[SUSRIS] Prince Mohammed was recently in Washington for meetings. The wide array of U.S. officials he met with suggested to some that the discussions were broader than his portfolio would indicate.

[Fraker] A year ago I attended a dinner in Washington that was hosted by Saudi Ambassador Adel al Jubeir when Prince Mohammed bin Nayef first came over as Minister of the Interior. You had the same high-level turnout at that dinner. There were a number of very senior officials, including people like Zbigniew Brzezinski and Colin Powell, people who understand the importance of the Saudi relationship and how pivotal the Minister of Interior is to that whole relationship.

People Prince Mohammed bin Nayef Washington Homeland Johnson Scowcroft

To be sure the Administration made sure all the right people turned out this time but it was basically the same lineup that it was a year ago. So I don’t place any particular emphasis on that. It’s just a continuation of how the position is viewed and how much regard everybody has for Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

[SUSRIS] You know people are always interested in a sort of Kremlinology when it comes to personnel changes at the top in Riyadh. It’s a lot like deciphering who was up, who was down during the days of the Cold War — who is in what position among the leadership. What’s your reading on any movements among the top spots?

[Fraker] Yes it is a little bit like studying the old Kremlin. Everybody spends an enormous amount of time speculating on what potential moves might be in the offing. So there’s probably not a scenario that you can think of that I haven’t heard somebody talk about.

You know, the one thing I would say about succession issues in Saudi Arabia is that this is the same family that’s been running the place for 75 years. They’ve figured out how to do this. So I don’t worry that there will be any succession issues that will cause any problems. Of course with this generation growing older everybody’s looking at the next generation. How are they being positioned? What positions of authority are being given to some of the younger generation as indications of who may or may not succeed up the ladder? As far as I’m concerned most of it is just speculation.

[SUSRIS] The prospect of a so-called Washington-Tehran rapprochement is getting a lot of attention from Saudi critics of U.S. policy, especially since the interim nuclear agreement was signed in Geneva. With a different trajectory being provided by Iranian President Rouhani since last summer do you see any increased concern in Riyadh and is it warranted?

[Fraker] The nuclear question in Iran clearly is a real issue. The way I’ve described it to some of my Saudi friends who get particularly emotional on the subject is to think about it as a business transaction. Fundamentally the Iranians don’t trust us and we don’t trust them given the history between the two countries. What exists today is the opportunity for a deal, for a transaction, and if you think about it in business terms, if the transaction or deal makes sense for both sides then it will happen. If it doesn’t make sense for both sides then it won’t happen. The Secretary of State has been very clear to say that if it’s a bad deal we won’t sign it, the U.S. will not agree to it. You have to take it on that basis.

Would the world be a safer place if Iranian nuclear weapons, or the potential for Iranian nuclear weapons, is taken off the table? Yes, it would. The devil is always in the details in these situations, so it really comes down to what kind of a deal it is. I think the Saudis feel that as well. However, their principle concern isn’t so much the nuclear issue. They will view that through one prism. Equally as important to them, if not more important to them, has been Iranian behavior in the region. They’re concerned about the spread of Iranian influence in a negative way in countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and obviously Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf. The Saudis are very concerned and sensitive about that. So Iranian behavior in the region is equally as important to them as the nuclear issue.

[SUSRIS] How do you reassure the Saudis about that separate piece of the relationship with Iran – its behavior abroad – when it seems that Washington’s focus is primarily the nuclear question?

[Fraker] I’m sure that will be front and center in the discussions that the President has with the King at the end of March. I’m sure they will spend a lot of time on those issues because the Saudis want to know what the U.S. policy will be. To many of them it’s not clear at the moment. These discussions are important and that’s why – going back to what I said earlier – lines of communication need to be open and clear.

[SUSRIS] America’s Gulf allies have expressed concerns about U.S. commitments and interests in the region. How do you answer questions from Saudis who are concerned that the so-called Asia pivot, the changing energy landscape, troop reductions, budget constraints, American’s war wariness, and other factors add up to mean the Gulf Arabs will not be able to depend on the U.S. as a full partner, especially in the defense arena?

[Fraker] Well, I understand the concerns, but again I think you have to look deeper. Nobody’s talking about cutting back the U.S. presence in Bahrain, the Fifth Fleet is alive and well at its base in Bahrain. It’s going to stay there. We’ve got a whole host of military commitments up and down the Gulf that nobody’s going to pull back from. So I don’t worry about that.

There are bigger conversations about whether or not the U.S. military is too big and about budget cuts and about what effects they will have. Those are issues people use to draw implications which aren’t necessarily there.

Again, Secretary Kerry in Davos reacted very strongly, very forcefully to this notion that the United States was disengaging from the region. He made a good point that in the last ten years everyone has equated U.S. commitment to the region to boots on the ground. What the United States is doing now is going back to the period before that when there was huge engagement but it was quiet, under the surface, behind closed doors. That will continue but there’s a problem in perception here. I don’t worry about the U.S. turning it’s back on the Middle East and heading off to Asia. That’s absolutely not going to happen.People John Kerry King Abdullah Jan 5, 2014

[SUSRIS] One element of the conversation on America’s commitment is about the energy revolution in North America, particularly the U.S. energy boom. There’s talk that less dependence on foreign oil and gas resources will remove the energy piece from America’s Middle East interests equation. How will that affect the relationship with Saudi Arabia?

[Fraker] You know, top line, I don’t think it will affect it very much. There have been many ill-informed Senators and Congressmen who, for political reasons, rant about the U.S. reliance on foreign oil and particularly Middle Eastern oil. As you know the United States gets a relatively small percentage of oil we import from the Middle East. So I don’t see it as a game changer in terms of the world oil markets.

As you know I’m a senior advisor to Bank of America/Merrill Lynch. I recently had a chance to travel with some of their economists who specialize in oil and no one is predicting a collapse in oil prices because of the shale oil and gas finds in North America. You still have strong demand from economies like China and India. Yes, they are slowing down but nobody’s looking at oil prices much under $100 a barrel for the next four or five years.

You’re going to have the U.S. economy recovering and as we know the U.S. economy is the engine that drives the global economy. That suggests that demand will pick up as well. I think it’s a position of stasis if you will. You’ll have increased supply coming on through this shale oil and gas but you also have increased demand moving forward. Remember, most of the finds are gas. We’re talking about shale gas and gas is pretty cheap anyway.

Even if you want to look at the percentage of proven oil reserves, I remind people, Saudi Arabia has shale oil and gas as well. Historically, Saudi Arabia has had about 25 percent of the world’s proven reserves – I think it’s 260 billion barrels of oil – roughly a trillion worldwide. So that number will pick up, but as I said Saudi Arabia has shale oil and gas too, so presumably their percentage will stay pretty much the same. They will remain a pivotal market.

People say why worry about it. Most of the oil coming out of Saudi Arabia, when it goes through Strait of Hormuz, is now turning left, going to Asia as opposed to turning right, going to Europe and the U.S. The oil market is the oil market. It’s fungible. If you want to get into security issues the Saudi imperative as a security ally remains the same if you want to ensure the steady supply of oil to the world markets. The concern of course is that if there are any military issues that cause the Strait of Hormuz to be closed the price of oil shoots up overnight and the economic recovery stalls and the implications for the world recovery is really extreme. So I don’t see the U.S. pulling back from its security commitments in the Gulf at all, even if just for that reason.

[SUSRIS] The spate of business conferences in the last year or two have touted trade and investment opportunities at over a trillion dollars, on the back of a broad expansion of the Saudi economy, a second “boom.” What do you tell fellow businesspeople when they ask you what’s going on in Saudi Arabia?

[Fraker] My message has been pretty consistent from when I was the ambassador there. And I firmly believe that a big part of the job of being an ambassador is selling the United States and trying to persuade U.S. companies to go over and do business. That’s certainly the case as far as Saudi and the Gulf is concerned.

What I used to say to them was, “If you have aspirations for being an international business and you’re not looking at the Gulf then you’re missing an opportunity of the decade, if not the next three or four decades.” I think that has been the case and that was a message that certainly I put out. [Ambassador] Jim Smith followed and did a terrific job developing U.S. business and trade off the back of that.

People Amb James Smith Ford Fraker

So there’s huge momentum going forward. I don’t change that message. If you look around the region whether it’s North Africa, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and elsewhere, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf look really good in comparison in terms of government stability, ease of doing business, and just huge opportunities. The Gulf countries are spending billions and billions of dollars on new projects and it’s a terrific opportunity to be a part of that. So I haven’t toned down that message at all.

[SUSRIS] Several recent Obama Administration nominees have drawn attention to the issue of political appointees versus career diplomats for ambassadorial posts. The ambassadors sent to Saudi Arabia over time have been both, but in the last 20 years they’ve been political appointees. What makes a good candidate to fill the spot in Riyadh?

[Fraker] I came in as ambassador from a unique perspective as it were, having done business in the region for over 30 years. So I had a pretty good understanding of the culture and the people. I had my own networks and friends there. That was enormously helpful to me in terms of doing the job because the post in Riyadh is very policy oriented.

Unlike many ambassadorships around the world the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia really is the pivot point for all the major policy issues that engage the two countries. So to be effective in that role I think it’s important to have a good background and understanding of the region and the people.

As my wife said to me when I went out as ambassador, “What you don’t want on your tombstone is that ‘He was a good administrator’.” In a number of situations when ambassadors get to posts where they’re not that comfortable with the culture or the people their default position is to run the embassy, or try to run the embassy. That certainly isn’t the job in Saudi. You have to be out there with senior members of the Royal Family and the ministers. The U.S. ambassador is the focal point for the policy issues and programs that the two countries are working on. So, that makes it a unique position.

People Obama Saudi Visit King Abdullah

[SUSRIS] What should President Obama expect from his upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia?

[Fraker] I think the recent announcements out of Riyadh — assuming that they are happening and I think they probably are — sets a positive tone for the President’s visit. Following the visit you’ll hear warmer statements about the two countries working more closely together on regional problems, Syria in particular, but also Iraq and Yemen.

I expect it will be upbeat and positive. I wasn’t so sure that was going to be the case a few weeks ago. I thought it might be more of a pro forma visit. But I think recent steps will put a more positive framework on it.

[SUSRIS] Is it fair to say that the early headline of this being a fence-mending trip is less the case and it’s now two partners moving forward together?

[Fraker] I think it’s a bit of both. I still think it’s a bit of both.

NEXT: SUSRIS talks with Ambassador Ford Fraker about his new job as President of the Middle East Policy Council.


About Ford Fraker
President Middle East Policy Council

People Ambassador Ford FrakerAmbassador Fraker has over 35 years of Middle East experience at the intersection of finance and international diplomacy. He served as U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from April 2007 to April 2009, spanning both the George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama administrations. From 2009 to 2013, he was a Senior Advisor to Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co (KKR), Chairman KKR Middle East and North Africa, and CEO KKR Saudi Ltd. He is now the Senior Advisor in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to Bank of America Merrill Lynch. As U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, he promoted American national interests at the highest levels of the Saudi monarchy on a wide range of bilateral economic and security issues, as well as managing the strategic relationship in the region. He continues to advise senior administration officials on Middle East policy, with particular focus on the U.S. relationship with its Gulf allies. He worked at Chemical Bank 1972-1979 in Lebanon, the UAE and Bahrain, including Regional Manager for the bank’s Bahrain office. He was with Saudi International Bank 1979-1991. In 1991 he founded Fraker & Co, and in 1993 he joined MeesPierson Investment Finance (UK) Limited, where he was responsible for placing U.S. and European investment products with European and Middle Eastern institutional and private investors. In 1997 he co-founded Trinity Group Limited.

Source: MEPC.org


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