Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, and the United States: Abizaid's Mission Possible?

By Anthony H. Cordesman

The appointment of General John Abizaid as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia comes at a time there are so many tensions over Khashoggi and Yemen that it may seem like mission impossible. Nevertheless, Ambassador Abizaid may well be the right man for the worst time, and may still be able to heal a strategic partnership at a critical time. He is one of the few Americans with the status and experience needed to deal with a key partner at time of crisis, and his military background can be a key asset in giving him credibility in dealing with the most critical issues the U.S. must now address.

Abizaid can only hope to be effective, however, if he is given the right priorities and the right missions. This requires at least five critical changes in the behavior of America's Arab strategic partners. It also requires an equal number of key shifts in behavior of the United States. The key to success in each case will be changes in U.S. and Saudi relations, and much will depend on the support Abizaid gets from Washington. Abizaid will need the backing of the President and a divided Congress in making such changes, and a level of consistency in U.S. policy that has been lacking for far too long.

Dealing with Arab Failures: Giving Khashoggi's Death Meaning

The most difficult immediate issue is the aftermath of the Khashoggi killing. The U.S. has taken a clear stand about the murder, and has sanctioned Saudi officials. It must continue to react to any new evidence that surfaces over time. Nevertheless, the U.S. already to look beyond the current focus on responsibility for that murder – an effort that now comes far too close to supporting a Turkish-led effort to hold a diplomatic and media trial of the Saudi Crown Prince that is designed to serve Turkey's strategic interests in ways that ignore its own guilt for equal or greater abuses.

Events have already held Mohammed Bin Salman to account to the extent a de facto head of state can be held in an account in a region where most regimes – including that of Turkey's Erdogan –are equally guilty. He will never fully escape the doubts about his role, and his every future action will be judged internationally in context of Khashoggi's death.

The U.S. goal in dealing with Saudi Arabia should now be to give Khashoggi's death purpose and meaning. The U.S. should now focus is on levering Khashoggi's death to pressure Saudi Arabia to make the kind of improvements in Saudi security and counterterrorism efforts that protect human rights and the rule of law, and do not abuse legitimate political opposition.

Hopefully, Mohammed Bin Salman will have learned how stupidly pointless suppressing and killing the voices of peaceful dissent can really be. Serious and consistent U.S. official pressure for steady reform can have an effect. Letting Erdogan trap the U.S. into a one country, one victim focus on one regional leader that serves the goals of an even more abusive Turkey at the expense of broader U.S. interests and efforts to improve human rights will nothing to aid the causes Khashoggi advocated and can only compound his tragedy.

Dealing with Arab Failures: Ending the Region's Childish Game of Thrones

Another step forward in this direction -- and one that would serve both the broader regional need for reform – and the strategic interests of both the United States and all the Arab Gulf states – would be for the President, and Secretaries of State and Defense to support Ambassador Abizaid in putting an end to the Saudi-UAE-Bahraini boycott of Qatar.

This is an essential step in finding the right compromises that will ensures no Gulf state tolerates links to terrorism or violent extremism, but counterterrorism does not take the form of treating a broad movement like the Muslim Brotherhood as if every element was extreme, or treating irritating and biased media like Al Jazeera as a critical threat.

Qatar has already made some needed reforms as a result of the boycott, and probably needs to make more. It has been just as petty and childish in attacking key Saudis as they have been in attacking Saudi Arabia. The boycott is gross overkill, however, and threatening to dig a canal to cut Qatar off from the Arabian Peninsula is simply absurd. Saudi Arabia needs to accept the fact that legitimate dissent and criticism may often be unfairly critical and biased, and have a questionable ideological base, but they are also essential political and social relief valves and alternatives to extremism and violence.

Abizaid will need to support of serious U.S. pressure on all the countries concerned to end the boycott and create some form of real unity within the Arab Gulf states – a unity that ends the current Saudi-UAE Bahrain vs. Qatar and Oman split and partial isolation of Kuwait – is a critical step if Abizaid is to perform his most critical security mission. The U.S. needs effective security partners in dealing with both Iran and violent extremism, and this requires effective and unifying Saudi leadership that respects the needs of the other states.

Dealing with Arab Failures: Pressing for Real Unity in Arab Gulf Efforts to Deter Iran and Check Extremism

Abizaid will also need full backing from the White House, Departments of State and Defense, and USCENTCOM in pressing for the kind of progress in Gulf security cooperation that is critical to meeting both Arab Gulf and U.S. strategic interests. The Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC – which includes ever Arab Gulf state except Iraq – has been the hollow, dysfunctional shell of an effective military alliance since its founding. Moreover, it now faces critical new challenges like creating effective, integrated missile defense and aid, countering Iran's mix of threats to shipping in and near the Gulf, and developing and far more integrated approaches to counterterrorism.

Such a revamping of the Arab Gulf alliance, however, means that Abizaid must help Saudi Arabia to change its approach to the GCC and Gulf security cooperation. Saudi Arabia – as the most powerful Arab state – must lead and persuade, not try to command and attempt to punish. It means that Saudi Arabia must recognize that its role as the custodian of Islam's holy places does not mean it can exclude other interpretations of Sunni practices or other sects like Shi'ites.

It means that the Kingdom must recognize that focusing on its ties to the UAE, rather than all the Arab Gulf states, do as much to isolate the Kingdom as strengthen it. It must accept the fact that patience, the ability to listen, and a keen attention to the interests of its allies, are all the cost of meaningful alliances and partnerships. These are all areas where a strong, experienced U.S. ambassador can play a critical role in talking to the Saudi leadership, but only with the full support of the President and Secretaries of State and Defense.

If Ambassador Abizaid and the country team in Saudi Arabia have this support, they can work with USCENTCOM and key centers of U.S. power projection like the 5th fleet in Bahrain and the U.S. air base at Al Udaid in Qatar to serve a range of vital American interests in the region as well as those of each Arab strategic partner.

Dealing with Arab Failures: Creating a Unified Arab Gulf Approach to Deterring and Containing Iran

Another key challenge that Abizaid faces is to find ways to work with the Saudi leadership to bring the Arab Gulf states together in dealing with Iran, and to stop offering Iran one opportunity after another to expand its interests in the region. While Iran is often accused of being aggressive in expanding its role and interests through the region, virtually every such Iran action simply exploited some Arab act of self-destructiveness, dysfunctional behavior, and lack of unity. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, and the boycott of Qatar are all cases in point. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, committing suicide is not an effective deterrent to being murdered.

There now are no easy ways to check Iranian influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, but unified U.S. and Arab Gulf action – where Saudi Arabia plays a lead role – could take the form of conditional aid plans to Syria and Yemen, a strong Saudi-led outreach to Iraq, Arab Gulf cooperation with Egypt and Jordan, unified pressure to limit Russian influence, and the steady emergence of an effective GCC-wide effort to deter and contain Iran.

This level of Arab cooperation will take years of effort to be effective, but it could accomplish a great deal over time. It would also allow the U.S. to properly support its Arab partners. The current divided Gulf Arab efforts to play the "game of thrones" make it impossible for the U.S. to implement a coherent U.S. regional strategy.

Dealing with Arab Failures: Using Gulf Arab Unity and Civil Aid, Not Arms Alone, as Leverage in Dealing with Other Arab States

Ambassador Abizaid’s military background can give him added credibility in getting Saudi Arabia to take the lead in dealing with another key set of challenges. The U.S. military has made it clear in case after case that there is no purely military solution to dealing with the threat of extremism and the civil tensions and conflicts within regional states. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar has the resources to provide a major set of aid incentives for outside Arab states to move forward in dealing with these problems.

One such step would be a GCC-wide offer of conditional aid to Iraq in both recovering from the impact of along chain of wars and in developing a more modern and diverse economy. It is pointless to demand that Iraq remain an Arab state if does not have a meaningful Arab alternative. Saudi Arabia has already taken some steps to reach out to Iraq and create this alternative, but a coordinated Gulf Arab aid plan – linked with U.S. and World Bank efforts – could be critical in allowing Iraq's new government to succeed, and recreating Iraq as a strong independent state and counterbalance to Iran.

A similar aid effort for Yemen – tied to clear conditions that require any new government to check internal conflict and ties to Iran – could help play a similar role. So, could Arab Gulf unity in supporting some meaningful peace plan and some form of government that bridges across Yemen's many current divisions.

Creating some form of credible government, redefining the role of the Houthis, and creating security along the Saudi border are critical issues but no ceasefire or "peace" can work that leaves Yemen's economy in a steadily deteriorating crisis. The "peace" can last that offers no real incentives for unity, and lacks any real effort to bring Shiites and Sunnis, north and south, and divided tribes together. As is the case with Iraq, and with the Sunni-Shi'ite divisions in Bahrain, any effort to rely on security solutions without matching civil solutions can only end in failure.

Similarly, U.S. Congressional efforts to cut off U.S. arms sales to pressure Saudi Arabia into halting the fighting – or just reduce civilian casualties – borders on the absurd. What happens next in a divided, violent, war shattered state that was an economic disaster area even before the fighting began? Even if such efforts could limit the killing zone, they now could not even have the "benefits" of turning Yemen into a quiet graveyard.

Progress in Syria will be a different kind of challenge. The U.S. and Arab Gulf must now find a civil way to win a war they have already effectively lost on the battlefield. However, a major Arab Gulf aid offer could offer an incentive for meaningful change, while being conditional enough to make it clear that Syria will receive no major post-civil war development or humanitarian aid from an Arab Gulf state or the U.S. as long as it is ruled with Assad's level of violence and repression, has a major Russian military presence, and is tied to Iran.

In Syria's case, the U.S. and Arab Gulf do need to cooperate in using "sticks" as well as offering "carrots." Peace negotiations are necessary, but no one in the U.S. or Arab Gulf can afford to forget the fact that the Assad of 2018 is even worse than the Assad of 2011-2012.

Correcting America's Mistakes: Making America’s Continuing Commitment to its Strategic Partners Clear

At the same time, the problems in the Arab Gulf's approach to reform and security cooperation are only one of the causes of the region's problems. Ambassador Abizaid must also play a critical role in helping to correct five equally critical mistakes the United States makes in dealing with the Saudi Arabia and the region.

One key mistake, and one so serious that it affects every aspect of American’s strategic partnerships in the region, is its failure to demonstrate its continuing commitment to the Arab Gulf and other regional strategic partners. President Trumps hints that the U.S. should withdraw from the region and recent U.S. force cuts are only part of the story.

The lack of any clear U.S. plan to deal with the aftermath of Saddam’s fall when it invaded in 2003, and its blunders in dealing with Iraq, Syria, and Yemen under both President George W. Bush and President Obama has led many in the region to doubt America capability to lead, to support its Arab partners, and willingness to stay. The failure of both its new National Security Strategy and National Defense Plan to define any specific role for U.S. forces in the region have compounded the doubts of Arab governments, research centers, and media – as has the U.S. failure to response effectively to the growth of Russia’s role in Syria and China’s increasing economic influence.

Someone in the NSC, State, and OSD needs to have the courage to make it clear to the President that threats to leave do not increase U.S. leverage, and doubt increase allied doubts. Equally important, the U.S needs to define its future role in the Gulf region and in dealing with Iran in terms of specific commitments and force plans. It needs to make it clear that the U.S. will provide the forces necessary to force a real partnership and help its Gulf partners develop effective deterrent and defense capabilities. It needs to make it clear that its strategic interest still tie it firmly to its partners, that increases in U.S. power projection capabilities more than offset its post-IISS force reduction in the region, and that it is in the Gulf region stay.

This requires continuing Presidential leadership, clear plans and statement in the U.S. FY2020 budget submission of USCENTCOM testimony and statements, and continuing assurances from the Secretaries of State and Defense. It also requires the U.S. to actively consult with its Arab partners, and make it clear that it is willing to listen as well as to speak.

Correcting America's Mistakes: Focusing on the Civil Side of Arab Gulf Security and Stability

Another key mistake is the U.S. failure to pay attention to the fact that the progress in the civil side of reform and stability operations in the Arab Gulf states is at least as critical as progress in the security and military side. The Saudi civil and economic "2030" reform plan is a key example. It is overambitious, oversimplified, undercosted, and sets unrealistic timelines. But, this has probably been true of every meaningful reform plan in history.

Success in creating jobs, modernizing and diversifying the economy, and making critical social reforms is absolutely critical to long term Saudi stability. Many aspects of the plan may be unrealistic, but there is nothing unrealistic about the problems it is intended to address. The failure to deal with them has been a key cause of the unrest throughout the MENA region since 2011, and has since fed the civil conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen.

Counterterrorism alone can never defeat extremism, and repression and effective security forces can never bring true stability. The U.S. needs to look beyond its current emphasis of military and counterterrorism forces, do everything possible to help Saudi Arabia make its reform plan work. This includes its call for real social reform, where success will be the best possible memorial to Khashoggi.

Above all, the United States needs to focus on helping Saudi Arabia create the economy it really needs, and not on increasing U.S. exports. It also needs to closely examine how the Saudi model or other models of reform can help bring stability to other Arab and MENA states. When it comes to lasting solutions, civil reform will be the key weapon against terrorism and extremism throughout the region.

Correcting America's Mistakes: Setting the Right Goals for an Arab Gulf Security Partnership

The need to give priority to civil reform in the Arab Gulf also means, however, that Ambassador Abizaid must take the lead in helping President Trump deal with another key U.S. mistake. Someone needs to take the lead in showing the President just how badly his staff has informed him about the true nature of Saudi and other Gulf Arab burdensharing and arms sales.

First, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iraq, and Oman are all reported to be spending something like 10% of their GPD on national security. This is five times the goal NATO sets for its member countries to eventually reach, and some three times the comparable exiting percentage figure for the U.S. It is also a level that the Arab Gulf states cannot afford to sustain, and that sharply restricts the money that they can spend on development and reform.

The Arab Gulf burden sharing problem is not that Gulf states are spending too little on security forces, it is that they are spending far too much. This is another key reason to cooperate in creating a Gulf Cooperation Council with high levels of interoperability and integration, and one where its forces are shaped to take advantage of U.S. British, and French power projection capabilities. The present nation-by-nation Arab Gulf force development efforts are grossly inefficient and focus far too much on prestige and high technology toys.

Correcting America's Mistakes: The Current High Levels of Arms Sales Do More Strategic Harm than Good

Another area where Ambassador must deal with U.S. mistakes and problems is the recent U.S. emphasis on the sheer volume of U.S. arms sales to the Gulf. A strong U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia can be a key voice in persuading the President that focusing on high levels of U.S. arms sales does not really U.S. strategic interests. More U.S. arms sales often mean less in terms of regional stability and security.

What the U.S. needs from its Arab Gulf security partners is far more effective, interoperable, and integrated forces that can perform the right missions in deterring and defending against Iran and counterterrorism – not more revenues from selling them arms.

As noted earlier, the key immediate security priorities in the Arab Gulf are integrated missile/air defense, effective counterterrorism forces, and counters to Iran's steadily more capable mix of naval-missile-air threats to shipping in the Gulf, nearby waters, and the Red Sea. At present, each state tends to spend far more on poorly coordinated showpiece efforts than it would cost to fund a proper share of the forces that are really needed.

Even seen from the most selfish American perspective, the U.S. benefits far more from sound increases in Arab partner security forces, and being able to limit the forces it forward deploys, than it gains from selling arms the Arab Gulf states do not need. The cost-benefits to both the U.S. and its allies rise by an order of magnitude if more effective Arab Gulf forces deter even a relatively low-level conflict between the U.S. and Iran.

Correcting America's Mistakes: Looking Beyond “Sticks” and Focusing on “Carrots:” Giving Iran Clear Incentives to Change

Finally, the United States and its Arab strategic partners are generally all too current in pointing out the threat caused by Iran’s growing strategic influence, the growth in its military forces and asymmetric threat, and the challenges created by the hardline elements in its regime. The fact that paranoids have real enemies does not, however, mean they have intelligent responses in dealing with them.

It is not enough for the U.S. to issue statements saying it is only trying to punish the Iranian regime and not the Iran people, and the rigid hostility of some Gulf Arab responses to Iran’s challenges are worse. The U.S does need to worth closely with its Arab partners to deter and defend against Iraq.

At the same time, leading figures like Ambassador Abizaid should be able to point to clear U.S. statements about what Iran needs to do to recue its military and security threats, and work with Arab partners to make it clear that if a future Iranian government actually complies, there will be a well-defined set of incentives the will allow its economy to develop, and plans to provide a far more stable security structure that will allow all sides to reduce their forces and security spending.

Such options may not create the pressures that will moderate Iran’s regime and change it conduct, put it is clear that rigid hardline positions – that have no clear options – so far reinforce Iran’s hardliners as well as make it hard to have any kind of productive regional dialogue and U.S.-Arab efforts that offer a clear alternative to those hardliners.

For a detailed analysis of Gulf security spending, burden sharing, arms transfers, and problems in military modernization, see Iran: Military Spending, Modernization, and the Shifting Military Balance in the Gulf, September 4, 2018,

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.