Despite Rumblings, US-Saudi Alliance Remains Firm

Despite Rumblings, US-Saudi Alliance Remains Firm

Former US president urged Zelenskyy to find common ground with Putin: Salman Al-Ansari

This special edition of Facing the Middle East looks at the impact of the Russia-Ukraine War, Saudi-US relations, the Iranian nuclear deal, and the cost of energy.

To explore these topics in depth, The Media Line’s Felice Friedson sat down with Saudi political researcher Salman Al-Ansari, who has been chosen as the most influential political analyst in the Middle East by Arab News in 2021 and is founder of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee, and with Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Schanzer is a former terrorism financial analyst at the US Department of Treasury and author of Gaza Conflict 2021: Hamas, Israel and Eleven Days of War.

The Media Line: Thank you so much for joining me on Facing the Middle East!

Al-Ansari: Thank you so much, Felice, for having me at The Media Line, and hi to Jonathan. I am super eager to get into the conversation with you both today.

TML: Delighted to have both of you with me. We begin with the US-Saudi relationship. The US-Saudi relationship has been one of strong cooperation politically, economically, and defensively. Saudi Arabia is America’s largest foreign military customer, and the US is Saudi Arabia’s second-largest trade partner. But relations between the two nations is widely seen as being in jeopardy. Is this an exaggeration or is there really something to it? Salman, let’s begin with you.

Al-Ansari: Sure. So, I personally believe in the importance of the US classical global role in the world, and that the US national security is an extension to global security, and that the US economic prosperity is an extension to global economic prosperity.

Your question kind of reminded me of a question I had before – whether I was worried about Saudi-US relations and its trajectory, and I said no. I’m not worried about Saudi-US relations. What I’m worried about the most is US-US relations: the polarization, exasperation, and complete mistrust between the two major US parties I think it has reached an unparalleled level in US modern history. And this will subsequently affect the whole global system, so that’s why I say the US ship is too big to fail but too divided to sail. And another thing, President Biden, his first slogan after winning the elections was “American is back.” I can say, yes, America is back but on the wrong track.

TML: Thank you! Jonathan, do you agree with the assessment that Salman has just expressed.

Schanzer: I do! Generally, I agree with what Salman has said, but with a couple of additional remarks. The first is that yes, undeniably the United States is divided within. It’s a huge problem. It’s a trend that we’ve seen now for the last five or six years, perhaps even more than that. One of the more troubling aspects of this is what I would describe as neo-isolationism. There are political figures and media figures in this country that would like to turn their backs on traditional American allies: people that want to pivot to Asia, people want to focus on great power competition, but by and large, we’re seeing some that would simply like to turn their backs on the Middle East.

Beyond that, we have another problem, and that is that there is a partisan divide specifically as it relates to Saudi Arabia. The Democratic Party has decided that it wants to downgrade its relationship with Saudi Arabia, at least for now. This is something that tracks back to the Khashoggi affair. It tracks back to the war in Yemen. It tracks back to concerns about the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

I believe that these decisions and these moves have been extremely hasty. They have been ill-advised. At the end of the day, we only have a handful of allies in the Middle East that we can rely upon. Saudi Arabia is one of them.

TML: If you look at the headlines today, and the last few days, you’re going to see that there is an absolute divide in the way that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is viewing the American president. There has been a bit of a snub, as some have called it. We can’t turn our backs to what’s being stated, so Salman how would you react to that. People are going to be very confused.

Al-Ansari: I think this is a little bit of an exaggeration to claim that the Saudi-US relations is going to somehow freeze, or break down, and the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman I believe personally that he is, that he can be considered the best ally and friend for all Western nations, specifically the United States. But they need to deal with him with respect, and they need to deal with him and his nation as a partner, not a follower.

And it’s basically very unfortunate that the current administration in the United States is copying the same exact mistakes of the Obama doctrine, and its one and only known legacy is turning friends into foes and turning foes into friends. And the US far-left ideology has caused a lot of concerns, not only in the Middle East but in the whole world, just even with their moral stances, etc. And I don’t think their ideology is compatible with human nature or common sense.

OK, I can actually say that they are kind of wanting the white [person] to be sorry for his color, and the black [person] to feel victimized, and the men to resent their masculinity, and the women to resent their femininity, and the little children to be indoctrinated with gender orientations, and the families to be deconstructed, and the faith to be mocked, and to twist the freedom of press, to be defined only by their moral absolutist understanding.

It is indeed [so] that the US worked hard to globalize the world, but it forgot to globalize itself, so I know these things are kind of internal for the United States, but these have repercussions across the world, and when it comes to US-Saudi relations, to answer your question, definitely the Saudi-US alliance is there to stay. There is no doubt about that.

The US needs Saudi Arabia, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia needs the US. Let’s not forget that we have an alliance for more than 75 years, and they have been cooperating on different issues. Let’s not forget that Saudi Arabia, at the time when it was not fashionable for any country to be with the US at the time of the Cold War, etc., Saudi Arabia stuck with the United States in the Middle East, and they worked hard on putting an end to the Soviet and Marxist ideology.

And also, after that, let’s also not forget that the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] has provided the US with cheap oil that has allowed it to be what it is right now. And let’s also not forget the fact that Saudi Arabia and its efforts in combating terrorism was essential, so that’s why I always say that Saudi Arabia always was and will remain to be the golden key for solving most of the problems in the Middle East, specifically the security ones. Specifically, also the economic aspects of trade, etc. Saudi Arabia is the biggest trading partner of the United States in the Middle East and North Africa. And let’s not also forget that Saudi Arabia is considered to be No. 12 for the United States in terms of trade volume.

Another thing is that yes, we would love the United States to rectify its trajectory. We would love for the United States for it to be back to its traditional policy, and to somehow find a way through which they can correct the mistakes that they have done because it’s unfortunate, as I have said, that we are seeing the current administration to be a copy with exactly the same exact mistakes of the former President Obama.

TML: So right now, the Biden Administration just assigned Michael Ratney, a well-respected career diplomat with much experience in the Middle East, to serve as ambassador in Riyadh. Do you think that this might ease some of the tension?

Al-Ansari: I hope so! Ambassador Michael Ratney is actually a very well-respected diplomat, and he has been working in Jerusalem. He’s been working the Gulf [region] before; I believe in Qatar. And he speaks fluent Arabic, which is actually a plus, and I suppose he knows the region well. And as far as the Saudi-US relations is concerned, the new US ambassador will have a big, challenging role in trying to warm up the US-Saudi relations and to rectify its trajectory.

Will he be able to do so? I personally hope so, but I can’t be over-optimistic about it for the time being.

TML: Jonathan, do you want to add anything?

Schanzer: No, I largely agree. I would say that it was overdue. It was important that an ambassador be assigned. It’s time that the United States takes this seriously. I think that some of this currently stems from the global crisis that we’re seeing emanating out of Ukraine and Russia, the need of the United States to engage further with Saudi Arabia to talk a little bit more seriously about energy, to talk a bit more about repairing alliances. The United States can ill afford to lose friends right now as it looks to build a coalition to stand up to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin. I think it took a crisis to get the Biden Administration to begin to realize that it does need Saudi Arabia and that it needs to work at this relationship.

I’m not sure that all the pieces will fall into place immediately. I think that the ambassador has his work cut out for him. I will say, though, that there is something that’s interesting about this appointment that I look forward to seeing, and that is that this is a man who knows Israel rather well. And of course, we’ve been hearing for several years now about the possibility of warming ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel. He could play an interesting role given that he has worked in Israel in the past. It will be interesting to see, but I think that the primary goal for this ambassador, at least for now, is just to try to begin to repair some of those ties that have been strained by far-left policies here in the United States.

TML: Briefly Salman, do you agree with that assessment?

Al-Ansari: I hope it is the case. When it comes to Saudi-Israeli normalization, I’m honestly not seeing it to happen in the next months or next three, four years. I think there must be some measures to be taken by the Israeli part before the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] can normalize its relations. And it’s very well known. The Saudi demands are very clear. All what they want is to have the Israelis to abide by the 242 [UN] Security Council resolution, and to give the Palestinians their right for [self-]determination and to have their own state; so basically, the two-state solution.

But, let’s not forget the fact that the Abraham Accords and all of the positive things that have happened is actually a very good thing for the region. The Saudis have always been in support in dealing with all the nations around the kingdom with diplomacy to achieve peace, etc. But at the same time, let’s not forget that Saudi Arabia has constituencies of more than 1.7 billion people, so we are speaking of the country with the two holy mosques. It has a big responsibility with regards to how it is seen by the wider Moslem world, so I don’t think that Saudi Arabia will lightly take the decision of normalizing with Israel anytime soon, unless there is something on the table that the Israeli part can put.

TML: Well, I think that begs a much longer conversation, which I hope we’ll all have. I do want to talk to you, Jonathan, about building on the relationships with those around Saudi Arabia, and did the war help that? Do you see that Saudi Arabia actually engage with other nations because of the Russia-Ukraine war that might not have before[hand]?

Schanzer: Look, I think that the war in Ukraine has certainly sharpened the minds of leaders in the Middle East. Although I have to say that I’m not sure that it sharpened it in the right direction. Part of the problem is that the US lack of preparation and I would even say the slow response in terms of dealing with Vladimir Putin’s aggression, in terms of Russian aggression in Ukraine, I think probably raised some very challenging questions to leaders across the Middle East, and perhaps certain places around the world. I’m certainly thinking about the leadership in Taiwan, for example.

There are vulnerable nations now that are wondering whether the United States will come to their assistance in the face of aggression. And when we talk about the Middle East, when we talk about aggression, of course we’re talking about Iran. We have an Iran that seeks to foment unrest and violence across the Middle East by way of proxy, and this is all happening right now, this war in Ukraine is happening, while Iran continues to stoke unrest. And in fact, the United States is still trying to draw the Iranians into a nuclear deal that would yield them something like $130 billion in sanctions relief and ultimately give them a clear path to a nuclear weapon.

So, I think there are a lot of countries in the Middle East that are watching very nervously as this Russia-Ukraine war plays out; as the Iran deal plays out. I think they’re waiting to see the way some of these things end before they make final decisions, and that’s not great news for the United States. The time is now for the Biden Administration to demonstrate leadership and to push back on the aggressors in the Middle East and beyond.

TML: Salman, I don’t want to leave this aside. Russia, China, the warming of relations with Saudi Arabia because of the United States possibly during the war. Your thoughts? What do you think?

Al-Ansari: I think Saudi Arabia has the absolute sovereignty and absolute right to multiply its relations with everybody, but let’s not forget the fact that Saudi Arabia is still committed to its most important alliances, if I may say. But, with regards to Russia and what’s going on right now in Ukraine, it’s definitely very sad, but I think it’s very important to elaborate on how the region is viewing the whole thing.

In the Middle East, maybe people are not sharing the same kind of message or the same kind of narrative [as] in the United States and the West. And I remember [Council on Foreign Relations President] Richard Haass, like he said recently [Editor’s note: Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said this in an interview with Richard Haass], he said that Mexicans have a common phrase. It goes, “The US is our best friend, whether we like it or not.” And that, somehow, should be the case I believe, for any country that shares borders with a superpower, because it’s like sleeping with an elephant in the same bed. And you don’t know when will he turn over.

So, for the case of Russia and Ukraine, Ukraine to be honest, was poking the elephant, or in this case, the Russian bear, how they call it. The Russian invasion is not justifiable at all, but at the same time, no one can entertain the idea that Russia didn’t have serious security concerns. I see personally that the US to be somehow complicit in this issue, specifically the Left, the Democratic Party.

The US seems to be working hard on driving the Russians into the Ukrainian swamp, and to, as they say, fight Russia to the last Ukrainian. And if anyone asks what’s in it for the US, I will say a lot of things, specifically three major things. The target is not Russia per se, but to get the Europeans back to the US-fold and to slow their economic engagement with both Russia and China. The second thing is to have an inner energy deal between Europe and the US, primarily through LNG [liquified natural gas]. The third [thing] is to deter China and to give them a signal of what they should expect as consequences if they ever dare to invade Taiwan or go against the US interests in the South China Sea.

Let’s not forget that the US has always maintained a conscious policy with regards to Ukraine. That all changed in 2014 when President Obama, based on the sum of the reports, engineered a coup in Kyiv to oust the Kremlin-favored president and then Russia definitely responded by annexing Crimea, etc. And then the US worked hard with the Ukrainian officials and intelligence community to curb all Russian influence in Ukraine. And that didn’t happen in, I would call it a halal or kosher way. That happened via the jailing of journalists, lawyers, and public servicemen who sympathized with Russia.

Subsequently, the US pushed the EU and Ukraine to keep discussing the joining of NATO and the EU. By the way, most of the European nations were not actually very supportive of these moves, and they consider them dangerous moves, but the US was pushing them, specifically the Democratic Party. If you can remember, the former president, President Trump, he was actually having a discussion with [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy in the White House, and he told him that he wished for Zelenskyy to find a way to solve his differences with Putin, so there was this kind of rational policy from the Republican Party to resolve the issues between Ukraine and Russia.

And to put things into context, let’s use a hypothetical example. Let’s imagine that Russia, or Russian policymakers, decided to infiltrate Mexico, for example, using intelligence, and then engineered a coup in Mexico City, and then built a Russian military base there with nuclear missiles directed at the US. How would the US react? I leave you to contemplate and answer this, and it’s the same exact thing with regards to Ukraine, and the Cuban missile crisis can somehow ring a bell with this.

TML: You survived, Salman, an assassination attempt by Iranian intelligence while you partaking in an Iranian opposition conference in Paris in 2018. Why were you targeted? And is this standard behavior for the [Iranian] regime?

Al-Ansari: OK, despite the targeting, it wasn’t only targeting me. It was targeting all the conference participants in Paris, and it was actually funny because before going to the event, I told, and I’ve said this story before, I told my mom that I’m actually going to France, to Paris, to participate in an opposition [conference] against the Iranian regime, etc. and she was actually warning me to not go.

So, she was kind of worried, because she felt like the Iranians might do something, and I was like nothing could happen, Mom. It’s Paris. It’s super safe, etc. And after I delivered my speech over there, everything went smooth, and while I was going back to the hotel I was scrolling down on my Twitter and I found out that the EU, like Belgium and other countries, and actually the French intelligence, foiled a terrorist attempt by the Iranian regime and they jailed an Iranian diplomat.

But anyhow, putting this aside, as we all know, the Iranian regime has been wreaking havoc in the region. The Iranian regime has destroyed Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. All the countries that have Iranian proxies became failed nations.

Schanzer: Don’t forget Gaza! Don’t forget Gaza, too!

Al-Ansari: Exactly! Exactly! And Tehran is still hosting [them]. Gaza is so dear to you because you had your book. What is it called? Eleven Days in Gaza?

Schanzer: The Gaza Conflict 2021.

Al-Ansari: So, Tehran is still hosting al-Qaida operation leaders such as Saif al-Adel, and others, according to the US Treasury Department, which I believe Jonathan has worked there at the US Treasury Department and he can confirm that. Iran is financing, arming, and directing Hizbullah, which, as someone explained, the granddaddy of all terrorist organizations, Houthis, and 75 Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, among them, militias that killed American soldiers and attacked US military bases just recently. And what did Biden do?

TML: Should a deal be struck, or not?

Al-Ansari: I think it all depends. Is that question for me or Jonathan?

TML: We’ll start with Jonathan.

Schanzer: Well, it should not be struck, and I think we’re actually watching potentially something that’s positive right now which is a White House that is afraid of taking the next step, and the next step as demanded by the Iranian regime is that we delist the IRGC, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as a foreign terrorist organization, which is a list maintained by the State Department.

The idea that we would delist the IRGC is, of course, insane. The IRGC is one of the world’s foremost and deadliest terrorist organizations, responsible for mayhem across the Middle East. And one of the things, I think, that is prompting the White House to pause, is that there are hundreds of Gold Star families. These are families of people that have either lost their loved ones or have had their loved ones injured on the battlefield in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, and they are owed a judgment by the Iranian regime because of a court case. And they are saying that there is no way that sanctions should be lifted on this organization while they are owed more than $60 billion.

So, there is an interesting moment where the [Biden] administration is at least pausing. They were trying to get a deal done almost at any cost, and it looked like they were willing to give up just about any concession that the Iranians were requesting. That appears to be paused, at least for now, but the deal should not be signed. It will pave the way for a richer regime. A regime that is able to finance terrorist activity, and I think, also, very worryingly for the rest of the region, we are seeing the possibility of a nuclear Iran in just a few short years because the restrictions on the deal would begin to fade away.

So, lots of concerns. Pause now, but we’ll see what happens after that.

TML: Salman, are you dittoing what Jonathan is saying, or do you feel that there is another element that we are missing here?

Al-Ansari: No, I think I totally agree with Jonathan. He has mentioned some very good points about this, and this is the thing: For the region, the Middle East, they are not only speaking about the danger of a nuclear Iran. They also speak about the danger of Iran, that is, it is really not imminent, but it is actually happening right now, with regards to their support of their militias.

But to be honest, and I don’t want to sound crazy, but I kind of feel that there is some sort of hidden and sometimes obvious love relation between the far-left Democratic Party and the mullahs. Appeasement policy with terrorists will embolden them. That’s a fact! And that’s what the US administration can’t see. Or, perhaps they know, and their ultimate goal is to weaken the US interests in the Middle East and around the world.

So, that may seem like an exaggeration, but the Left’s policies since 2009 indicate nothing but that. That the far-left Democratic Party’s issues are not with any country, but with the US itself. That’s the problem.

TML: Jonathan, you wrote in March that no one believes that Biden has a red line in Ukraine following Obama’s Syria debacle. Do you agree with those who opine the administration’s perceived weakness that has opened the door to Putin’s charge?

Schanzer: Look, weakness may be a strong word, because at the end of the day the United States still has a very capable military that has had recent battle experience in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps not with the outcomes we are looking for, but it is a very capable military.

I believe that the problem here was that this administration is completely predictable. That we knew, I think, going in that the first thing this administration would do would be to impose sanctions, although not the strongest form of sanctions. From there, we would see a strongly worded letter coming out of the United Nations which of course is feckless and has been without direction for many, many years. The international system as it was designed is deeply broken.

There is, I think, a strong trend within the Democratic Party not to threaten with the credible threat of military force, and of course, we still see that right now. Now, that all said, I do believe that the Biden Administration has responded positively to what’s going on. It appears that weapons are flowing to the Ukraine. It appears that the Ukrainian military is able to weaken and stymie the Russian military. Some of those sanctions are, of course, biting, and the West has unified to some extent or another.

The problem though, again, is that is administration was very, very predictable, and I believe that Putin looks at this current White House and says I know these guys, I know what they do, they’re not going to stand up to bullies, so perhaps this is my moment. And I believe that is exactly why he pounced.

TML: To both of you, what’s the end game? What is President Putin trying to accomplish?

Al-Ansari: I will go first if Jonathan allows me.

Schanzer: Please!

Al-Ansari: Yeah, I think, OK… Believe it or not, I am more in line with the French or German position than the US [position] when it comes to the Russian-Ukrainian issue. I think right now after [French President] Macron has succeeded on his re-election he will somehow be free from any kind of pressure for the re-election, etc. And I saw that he was actually very interested to strike a deal with Russia of some sort, but he was bashed by the UK and the US primarily, and their media headlines were “Macron was played out by Putin,” etc.

Right now, he is free and doesn’t have a lot to lose in terms of the presidency, etc. He will somehow try to find a way through which he can actually become the EU leader and strike a deal of some sort with the Russians, because we don’t want to have a zero-sum approach in this matter. The gloves are off, you can tell, between DC and Moscow. So it’s not about Ukraine, it’s about the West – specifically the United States – and Russia.

So, what we need is we need de-escalation, we need to see the real security concerns of the Russians. I know this may not say according or not based on the principles of the discussions in the mainstream media right now because the whole narrative right now is getting crazy. So, when we need is de-escalation, and we need the Europeans to find a way through which they can actually get a deal of any type with the Russian government. As I said, everyone was complicit. The Minsk agreement hasn’t been applied – Minsk I and Minsk II.

There were issues on the borders, Donbas, etc. There are issues with regards to joining the EU, issues with regards to joining NATO. And let’s be very … like the world is not an ideal world, so we have to find a way through which we can have real de-escalation, and I’m actually happy that the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] has offered its mediation as an option for both Zelenskyy and Putin, because the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has talked with both. And we’ll see how it goes.

TML: Well, many other countries haven’t joined on that same bandwagon, but having said that, Jonathan, we’d like to close out with your thoughts on the endgame.

Schanzer: Sure! Look, I think the endgame for Vladimir Putin is to try to overturn the US-led world order, nothing short of that. Putin would like to try to reset the clock back to the end of the Cold War, and to take things in a different direction. There is no reset in his eyes. The goal is really to start to change the map.

First, I think, to change the map for Russia, so that means the acquisition of new territory. It’s about reclaiming territory that was once part of the Soviet Empire. That is what we are seeing specifically with regard to Ukraine, but I also think that there is an attempt to woo former allies back into the fold. There is certainly an attempt right now to regain the hearts and minds of the Middle East. We see it in places like Syria, Iran, an attempt to kind of reclaim a position of leadership there.

So, we are looking at a very dangerous time in world history where there are revisionist powers, specifically with Russia and with China. They are looking to see and poke and prod to determine whether the US is weakening; whether there is an opportunity to reclaim territory lost over the years. This is the game, and the time now is for the United States to get back into closer, better, more coordinated alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, with countries like Israel, and others across the Middle East, and Europe and Asia. This will be important.

Now, it’s a test for the United States, and as Salman said up front, we are a house divided, so we are having a hard time determining what that foreign policy will be. But ultimately it will be up to this White House for the next three years, perhaps with a different Congress, that may help push things in a more balanced direction.

TML: We raised so many issues, and there are so many more to cover. Hopefully, we’ll do so on another program. I would suggest if I could ask what is the most important key pivotal topic, amongst the ones that we’ve discussed today, that you think that people should be watching.

Schanzer: Well, I would say that right now an intersection of interests right now all lead us back to energy. That we’re seeing as a result of the war in Ukraine, and with Russia being a major energy provider, we’re looking at a United States that is fearful of rising energy prices. They’re looking at Saudi Arabia as an ally that can help solve that problem.

And by the way, we’ve got solutions here in the United States that can also help alleviate these challenges, but we need to get back on that same page politically which has been a challenge, as Salman noted. So, I think energy is a crucial intersection of many of the topics that we’ve talked about today.

TML: Salman, do you agree the house divided might actually come together on that issue?

Al-Ansari: Yes, but at the same time we have to remember that when it comes to energy, one of the first decisions that President Biden has taken on his executive orders was to limit the shale industry, so I think primarily the US is to be blamed for the rise of energy prices. Let’s not forget that … the US, the United States, is the biggest producer of oil, and they could have been actually producing 30 to 40% even more. But because of Biden’s policies, that actually stopped it. But also, the Secretary-General of OPEC Mohammed Barkindo said that there was no immediate solution to that rise in oil prices.

And I also want to speak about what the Saudi minister of energy said, I think to CNBC, and he said that oil and OPEC+ specifically, because some people were attacking Saudi in the media about why they aren’t kicking Russia out, etc., so he said that we were at the receiving end of Iranian missiles that are sent to Saudi Arabia and the UAE via its proxies, and Saudi Arabia didn’t kick Iran out of OPEC.

So, I think now that the current US administration unfortunately is working hard to give the Iranian regime all sorts of comprises to get back to the failing, weak, and disastrous Iranian nuclear deal. They hope this will help ease the oil prices high prices issue, and meanwhile, they are warming up their relations with Venezuela for the same reason.

So, the US energy policy problem is a self-made issue, as I said earlier, and it’s so sad seeing the US, instead of being self-dependent and to be completely independent, they are right now trying to reach out to Iran and Venezuela to cover up for the biggest policy failure when it comes to US energy.

TML: I want to thank Jonathan Schanzer, and I want to thank Salman Al-Ansari for joining me here on Facing the Middle East. Many tough topics, lots to learn. I appreciate your time.

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