Threats and Neighbors: A Conversation with F. Gregory Gause, III

Published: August 19, 2014

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Editor’s Note:

Saudi Arabia’s neighbors are permanently situated by its side. That’s what Prince Turki Al-Faisal, former Ambassador to the U.S., told students and faculty at the College of William and Mary in Virginia in March to drive home the point about Riyadh’s regional challenges. In those remarks, a tour d’horizon of the region, he noted:

“A look at our neighbors reveals significant challenges that fall under the rubric of my first over-ridding theme – change and no change. The unchanging factors are history and geography. Whatever occurred yesterday is unchangeable today and forever. The geographic location of Saudi Arabia is equally unchanging. Our neighbors are permanently situated by our side. We have to deal with them as they have to deal with us.”

In the few months since those observations the region has been rocked by renewed violence in Gaza between Israelis and Palestinians and the rapid expansion of Islamic radicals under the flag of ISIS and establishment of an Islamic State across much of Iraq and Syria. With the rapid change in the regional landscape and the increased complexity for Saudi and American strategic planners we wanted to bring you an updated tour d’horizon. To do that we asked Dr. Greg Gause to go around the horn, in American baseball parlance, circling the bases in the region to give you a brief on the crises and ongoing challenges encircling Riyadh.

gause-report3Dr. Gause generously shared his time with SUSRIS last week as he was getting settled into his new position as John H. Lindsey ’44 Chair, Professor of International Affairs and Head of the International Affairs Department at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University. This summer he completed almost 20 years at the University of Vermont.

In addition to his many articles, interviews, symposia appearances and other presentations on Gulf affairs — fortunately many archived on SUSRIS (links below) — he is the author of the recently completed report, “Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War” published by Brookings.

SUSRIS spoke with Dr. Gause by phone from his home in Texas on August 11th. Three days later Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki stepped down, so some of his remarks naturally did not reflect that transition.


Threats and Neighbors, Choosing Lesser and Greater Evils: A Conversation with F. Gregory Gause, III

[SUSRIS] You once wrote an article for Foreign Policy magazine on reform in Saudi Arabia that was presented as a memorandum to King Abdullah. Put on your memo writer’s hat again and share with us what you would be telling him and the Saudi leadership as they face off against challenges at every corner of their Kingdom.

[Dr. F. Gregory Gause] That was some time ago.

[SUSRIS] It was an efficient mechanism.

[Gause] I think the Saudis have to decide how to prioritize the threats they face. It’s clear they don’t like ISIS. They don’t like Bashar al-Assad. They don’t like Nouri al Malaki. They don’t like the Iranians. They don’t like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula down in Yemen. They don’t like Hezbollah. They’ve got problems with Hamas. One can understand all of these things but at some point the Saudis are going to have to choose the lesser of evils and the greater of evils it seems to me.

Gregory_GauseDr. F. Gregory Gause, III, John H. Lindsey ’44 Chair,
Professor of International Affairs and Head of the International Affairs Department
at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University

If I were in their shoes I would think that the surge by ISIS in Iraq and the potential victories that it gives to the Salafi jihadist movement are probably a much bigger threat to Saudi Arabia than Iran or Nouri al Malaki or the Houthis in Yemen these days.

So I think that the Saudis just have to decide where to concentrate their resources. They have to decide that, perhaps, yesterday’s enemy might be someone that you have to cooperate with to deal with today’s enemy. In this atmosphere of multiple threats it’s impossible for the Saudis to deal with all of the threats in an equal way.

[SUSRIS] Let’s start our trip around the horn north of the border with the emergence of the Islamic State. It is somewhat a bolt from the blue — clearly on the list of greater evils.

[Gause] Well I think that the most important consideration is that to the extent ISIS, or the Islamic State, consolidates itself in Iraq it becomes a very powerful pole of attraction for Saudis who don’t like their government and who are drawn to the Salafi jihadist message. To the extent that the Saudis have an internal threat — I don’t think it’s Shia, and I don’t think it’s unemployment, and I don’t think it’s the economy these days. I think that the most serious domestic security threat are Salafi jihadists, whether from the al Qaeda wing – and we saw them in the mid-2000s – who present serious security issues within the Kingdom, or now from ISIS.

These guys don’t like the Saudi government. They’re very clear about that and to the extent that they succeed in the north they’re not only a geopolitical issue but they’re also a domestic security issue for Saudi Arabia. One can understand why the Saudis don’t like Nouri al Malaki and they don’t want to see Iranian influence in the region increased, but I think their more immediate domestic security issue is the continuing success of Salafi jihadists.

[SUSRIS] How do Riyadh and Washington synchronize views about Iraq – the Sunni/Shia divide and the consequences of the Islamic State’s challenge to the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad? More prioritizing levels of evil in the eyes of the beholder?

[Gause] Right. I think that we can overestimate the amount of Saudi influence in Iraq. The Saudis since 2003 have been stymied when it comes to Iraq. Undoubtedly there have been plenty of individual Saudis who’ve gone in and fought with Salafi jihadists there, but the Saudi government really hasn’t had that much influence. They consciously chose not to engage with the Malaki government. While the Saudis certainly have ties to tribal groups in western Iraq, it doesn’t seem to me like those groups have been able to consolidate as a single force in Iraqi politics. The Saudis were supportive of “Al Sawah,” the awakening back in the mid-2000s – ’05, ’06, ’07 – that the United States also supported under Petraeus, but the Saudis haven’t been able to encourage that movement to stay together as a single force in Iraqi politics.

So the Saudis are, frankly, without clients in Iraq. The Iranians have clear clients, the Salafi jihadists are doing pretty well, and the Kurds have their own organized force in the north. But it’s hard for me to see exactly where the Saudis have strong allies.

I think there’ve been plenty of signals that the Saudis are trying to use the contacts they have with Sunni tribes in the north and the west of Iraq to encourage those tribes not to join with the Islamic State, but these are not strong talks. So I think that the Saudis are frustrated, and I think that they have to reassess their engagement with the central government in Baghdad and maybe with the KRG in the north. If there’s a new prime minister in Iraq I think that would help things because the King in Saudi Arabia does seem to have a personal antipathy toward Malaki. In the end it seems to me the Saudis are going to have to decide that even though the central government in Baghdad is dominated by Shia that it is a lesser evil to them than a Salafi jihadist state in Iraq.

[Note: Nouri al-Malaki stepped down as Prime Minister of Iraq three days after our conversation with Dr. Gause.]

[SUSRIS] Is there cause for optimism that the next government in Iraq may pose an opening for Riyadh with Baghdad?

[Gause] That’s a possibility but there’s no certainty to that. Lots of people have been playing chicken in this crisis hoping to gain – including Malaki – hoping for individual gain while letting this big issue of ISIS fester. They have tried to push other people into acceding to their individual demands and the Saudis are not immune to that. Lots of people are running bluffs and playing chicken here. While I certainly think a prime minister and a new government in Iraq could give the Saudis the opportunity to reengage it’s not a certainty because that government in Iraq is going to be dominated by Shia Iraqis, it’s going to be close to Iran. There’s no question about that. If Malaki is pushed out in Baghdad it’s going to be because Tehran wanted him to be. So it’s a possibility, it’s an opening for Riyadh to reassess its relations with Baghdad, but there are no guarantees there.

txu-oclc-192062619-middle_east_pol_2008Click for larger map

[SUSRIS] Counterclockwise around the region. Syria, Lebanon. Saudi Arabia is demonstrating solid support for Lebanon and committed to opposition of Assad in Syria. Where do you see those equities playing out in the coming months?

[Gause] Yes, Saudi policy is to support the Lebanese government and I think that they’re pretty much set on that. It’s interesting that after quite a while of dealing with sub-state actors in Lebanon – militias and individuals and all – they’ve now seemingly made a choice to back the government in Lebanon. Now, the government in Lebanon is pretty weak. We’ll see what happens on that score. The Lebanese army is an imperfect fighting force. But the Saudis have made a choice to go with the stake in Lebanon.

Obviously in Syria they’ve made the other choice – to back rebels. I personally think that as just as the cause was for those Syrians who were opposing Bashar al-Assad’s government their political program has failed. To the extent that outsiders like the Qataris and the Turks and the Saudis and the Americans and the French were divided on whom to back and how to back them in the early days of this revolt it’s possible that maybe if different policies were pursued the rebellion would be stronger. Maybe the Salafi jihadist element of it would be weaker, but that’s not where we are now. Where we are now is that the Salafi jihadist element of the Syrian revolt, expressed in ISIS, expressed in Jabhat al Nusra is the most powerful element of the Syrian opposition. They’re holding territory in the east of Syria, and it seems to me that the Saudis have to decide do they want to continue the policy against Assad or put it in abeyance because they see a larger threat in the momentum that Salafi jihadism is achieving. Again, I don’t know if the Saudis will see it that way, but I think that that’s the choice they have in front of them.

[SUSRIS] Israel-Palestine. The novel aspect of this particular engagement in Gaza has been the relative quiet from Riyadh and other Arab capitals. How do you view what’s going on between Hamas and Israel, and what role Saudi Arabia is or is not playing in what’s happening in Gaza and the Israel-Palestine issue.

Greg Gause

[Gause] Right. I think that the Saudis are basically supporting what Cairo’s doing. I think that the relationship between Riyadh and the Sisi government in Cairo is a central part of Saudi regional policy right now, and so I think that what they’re going to do is basically follow Sisi’s lead here.

They have no love particularly for Hamas because of the Muslim Brotherhood element, because of past Hamas ties to Iran. On the other hand I think that there’s been some overly optimistic talk from Israelis about the possibility of an alliance with Saudi Arabia — common enemies with Iran and the like. But I just don’t think the Saudis have any interest in that.

What they’re doing is following Sisi, and the salience of the Palestinian issue in Gaza – it’s there for Arab public opinion, but it’s not nearly what it has been in past crises because we have all these other things going on. Iraq, Syria — are distracting the view of I think Arab publics from Palestine to these other crises, and so the public opinion element in the Arab world and in Saudi Arabia itself that would push the government in Riyadh to take a more active stance in favor of Hamas is not nearly as strong as it’s been in the past.

[SUSRIS] Egypt. We’re clearly deep into another phase of the evolution of modern Egypt. What should we know about Sisi and the Cairo-Riyadh relationship?

[Gause] Well in the short term it’s working out fine. The Saudis are getting an ally in Cairo, somebody who wants to cooperate with them. I think historically the Saudis have felt more comfortable when they’ve had a close relationship with Egypt than when Egypt was in the other camp. The longer term issue though is does Sisi have the answers to maintain a stable regime in Egypt. He’s relying quite a bit on money from the Gulf. I’m not sure that the states in the Gulf are going to be willing to supply the level of funding that they’ve supplied to him so far in perpetuity. That’s the longer term issue, but in the short term from the Saudi perspective Sisi is an excellent ally.

[SUSRIS] Yemen. The Houthis, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, instability in the country, border concerns – what’s the view to the south from Riyadh?

[Gause] The Saudis have always seen themselves as the exclusive outside power in Yemen and to that extent they worry about the Houthis because they see the Houthis as an extension of Iranian influence.

Now, I think they tend to exaggerate the role of Iran in Yemen, but it’s their perspective not my perspective that’s going to drive their policy. The Saudis remain the most important outside player in Yemen, but what they have never been able to do, and really never even tried to do, is to support a strong central government in Yemen. For many, many years they actually tried to weaken the central government in Yemen by maintaining ties with tribal figures and regional politicians and the like.

I think in recent years much as in Lebanon Riyadh has changed its perspective and said we’ve got to support a stronger central government because these regional actors like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are a threat to us. But they don’t have much raw material to work with in Yemen. The central government has always been weak and the events of the Arab Spring weakened it even further. What you have in Yemen right now is a very fractious situation, not just with the Houthis but with the southern movement, with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, with infighting between the remnants of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime and with the new government.

In that sense I think it’s a question for the Saudis to just try to keep the lid on in Yemen. I don’t see any real positive movement toward a more stable and unified Yemen in the near future.

[SUSRIS] Around to the Gulf. The Qatar-Saudi rivalry?

[Gause] I think it’s probably among the least important of the issues facing the Saudis right now. However, the Saudis clearly want to pull the Gulf countries together in a common front on these other problems and the Qataris, although less independent than they were under the previous Emir, are not willing to just follow the Saudi line. To some extent we’re going to continue to see tensions in that bilateral relationship. I don’t see the Saudis and the Qataris being on the same page any time soon.

[SUSRIS] Iran. A lot to work with there. Nuclear program talks extended to a November deadline. What’s the current state of play between Tehran and Riyadh and what are we likely to see in the bilateral relationship in the coming months?

People Geneva P5+1 Iran Nuclear Hague Zarif Ashton Kerry LavrovP5+1/Iranian Negotiators Announced an Interim Agreement in November 2013

[Gause] Right. I think that for Riyadh the growth of Iranian power in the region is still the biggest geopolitical issue that they have in front of them. It’s difficult for the Saudis to consider positions that might be cooperative or at least parallel with Iranian positions and that of course brings us back to Iraq. It’s difficult for the Saudis to swallow those kinds of policies because they do see the growth of Iranian power as their biggest geopolitical threat. To the extent that they consider the Iranian threat over the Salafi jihadist threat, they’re going to be paralyzed in Iraq because they’re not going to find allies.

In a larger sense I think their willingness to deal with Iran will depend on a couple of things. One – it will depend on Iranian policy in Iraq. If the Iranians actually do get rid of Malaki and put in a government that the Saudis think they can deal with that will present the possibility of an opening, indirectly, if the Saudis open up to the government in Baghdad. The more important, longer-term issue will be the Iranian-American relationship. If the Iranians and the Americans can come to a nuclear deal by November that will open up the possibility of other kinds of cooperation between the U.S. and Iran. I think although the Saudis will be very nervous about that they won’t want to be left out. On the other hand, if the U.S. and the Iranians don’t come to an agreement in the negotiations we return to a position of American-Iranian hostility, and I think the Saudis will fall into that on the American side.

[SUSRIS] The U.S.-Saudi relationship. There’s been a lot of drama in the last twelve months. Last fall there was a jolt when Saudi Arabia declined a seat on the Security Council and there was some talk that it came from Riyadh’s disdain for Washington’s flip flops on Syria. Secretary Kerry made a number of visits and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was in Washington in the runup to President Obama’s Riyadh trip in March. What’s your assessment of the Washington-Riyadh axis’ health?

[Gause] It’s pretty obvious Riyadh is distrustful of the Obama Administration. They distrust it and its openings toward Iran. They worry about what they perceive as its withdrawal from the region, its unwillingness to play a larger role in the region. I think that they exaggerate the American desire to get out of the Middle East. We’re seeing in the last couple of days that even an Administration as reluctant as the Obama Administration to engage militarily in the Middle East is not leaving, not abandoning Iraq, not abandoning the Gulf in any way. But that’s the fear in Riyadh. I think that it’s real and I don’t think there’s much you can do about it.

The elements of the relationship that are sustaining it right now are the intelligence cooperation which continues, military to military cooperation, arms sales, training, things like that which continue, but I don’t think that there’s a whole lot of strategic coordination at the top level between Riyadh and Washington these days.

[SUSRIS] Let’s talk about Riyadh’s position in the Arab world and the wider global community. We witnessed, even before the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia becoming more assertive on the international stage. It has been less reliant on following the Washington’s lead. It has widened openings to Russia, China, India, and elsewhere and shown more leadership in the Arab world. How would you describe the current level of assuredness in foreign policy?

[Gause] Well I think that their relations with China are driven largely by economic interests. It doesn’t seem to me like the Chinese are going to be able to play a geopolitical role that would be helpful to the Saudis in the problems that they have in the Arab world.

Relations with Russia are strained over Moscow’s support for Assad. The Saudis and the Russians have some common interest in energy markets but also some competing interests in energy markets.

I think that the Saudi assertiveness in the Arab world is going to continue, but on a path of a Saudi-Egyptian-Emirati alliance against the Muslim Brotherhood, given what’s going on in Iraq, given what’s going on in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon. It’s very difficult to get a common Arab position on anything. The Saudis have made their choice here in the strong backing of Sisi in Egypt. Their policy is aimed at containing Iranian influence, containing the Muslim Brotherhood, and containing Salafi jihadism. Can they do all three of those things simultaneously or do they have to prioritize among those threats. That is the big question they have to face.

[SUSRIS] Any final comments on what’s going on in Riyadh these days?

[Gause] Well, the upshot of all of this regional turmoil has unfortunately been closing down some of the very small window of political openness that King Abdullah encouraged back in the 2000s. In the post-9/11 period there was a small but appreciable increase in the level of permissible public speech in Saudi Arabia. Real issues were brought up. A national dialogue was created by the King himself. Some of the important issues facing the country domestically – you were able to talk about them and to argue about them in public.

King Abdullah

I think that the events since 2011 have frightened the Saudi leadership and have led to a closing down of some of that openness, which is unfortunate. That’s probably the most serious domestic consequence — aside from the activation of Salafi jihadist sentiment with the success of ISIS in Iraq — that’s come from events in the last few years.

Economically the Saudis are in pretty good shape. There’s plenty of money, efforts to diversify the economy are moving – slowly, but they’re moving. Efforts to deal with the unemployment issue are moving – again slowly, but they’re moving. It’s not a fiscal issue, there’s plenty of money, but the Saudi government’s reaction to the upheavals of the last couple of years has been to close that small window of opportunity for people to talk about the big issues in the country, and that’s a shame.

[SUSRIS] Greg, thank you very much for that tour of the Saudi neighborhood. Congratulations again on your new position at Texas A&M. We wish you the best there.


Gregory_GauseF. Gregory Gause, III is the John H. Lindsey ’44 Chair, professor of international affairs and head of the International Affairs Department at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University. He also is a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf. He was previously on the faculties of the University of Vermont (1995-2014) and Columbia University (1987-1995) and was Fellow for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York (1993-1994). During the 2009-10 academic year he was Kuwait Foundation Visiting Professor of International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. In spring 2009 he was a Fulbright Scholar at the American University in Kuwait. In spring 2010 he was a research fellow at the King Faisal Center for Islamic Studies and Research in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

His research focuses on the international politics of the Middle East, particularly the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf. He has published three books, most recently The International Relations of the Persian Gulf (Cambridge University Press, 2010). His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Middle East Journal, Security Studies, Washington Quarterly, National Interest, and in other journals and edited volumes. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University in 1987 and his B.A. (summa cum laude) from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia in 1980. He studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo (1982-83) and Middlebury College (1984).



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