Reports from Saudi
Arabia, Israel, and Capitol Hill: Middle East Policy Forecast for 2019
Barbara A. Leaf, Dana Stroul,
and Dennis Ross
The Washington Institute,
Policy Forum Report
February 4, 2019
2019 begins, three points bear mentioning about the current state of U.S. Middle
East policy. First, America is now two years into an experiment in which both of
its main political parties are arguing for a diminished role in the region, an
unprecedented situation in the post-World War II era. Second, the country is now
ten years into an experiment in which successive presidents from these parties
have argued for that approach. Third, Donald Trump is entering the third year of
his presidency, but he has yet to face a Middle East crisis—something U.S.
presidents almost inevitably have to face.
thing that strikes the repeat visitor to Saudi Arabia is the pace and depth of
social changes under way. Women are visible in public spaces and the workplace
in a way unimaginable only two or three years ago, often sitting in mixed groups
with men while leaving their faces uncovered. Yet these changes are having a
profound psychological effect on Saudis—even those who support them find them
Saudis in cities such as Dhahran, Riyadh, and Jeddah associate these changes
with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (aka MbS) and are convinced that they are
irreversible. Those who support social and economic reform argue that
demographics are on their side, and that the people who resist it are older and
increasingly marginal. Some of them also characterize MbS as the first person to
confront things head-on in Saudi society, arguing that he is willing to rock the
boat and take responsibility for the outcome rather than sugar-coat the need for
the same time, many Saudis are acutely aware of the international opprobrium
that has come the kingdom’s way due to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and the host
of jarring domestic and international moves by MbS. They tend to feel unsettled
and anxious about this criticism.
broadly, U.S. partners in the wider region expressed deepening concern, even
anxiety, about America’s commitment to the Middle East. Israel senses that it
is alone in countering Iran and the regime’s project to build a permanent
defense and intelligence platform in Syria. In some cases, partners are even
taking up policies and relationships that are clearly at odds with U.S. regional
interests, such as Gulf states reestablishing diplomatic relations with Bashar
al-Assad sans conditions.
Yemen, the situation is likely to unravel this year unless the Trump
administration becomes directly involved. The UN cannot do this alone,
notwithstanding a good start to a UN-led peace process.
Iraq, political dynamics may work against U.S. troops remaining there given
President Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw forces from Syria. If so, Iraqis
may see a repeat of the 2010-2011 scenario.
the numerous empty positions in American embassies and the constant turnover in
the cabinet and national security agencies is contributing to a paucity of
high-level, two-way engagement with friends and partners. The relationship with
Saudi Arabia is headed into a deep freeze in 2019 due in part to structural
problems with Washington’s approach. Allies have also been left baffled as to
who speaks for the administration. This came to a head in the past two months,
when different U.S. officials sent wholly contradictory messages on when and
under what conditions troops would be withdrawn from Syria.
control of the House and Republican control of the Senate will make it difficult
for legislators to fundamentally alter any Trump administration policies toward
the region. Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) is the new chairman of the Foreign Relations
Committee, while Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) is the new chairman of the Armed
Services Committee. The former committee has the potential to be active, but
this depends on how Chairman Risch decides to lead it. A committee is only as
good as its hearings and its members’ willingness to advance together on
meaningful legislation. Senator Risch has indicated that he has no intention of
holding hearings related to Middle East issues, and that any disagreements he
has with President Trump will be discussed in private.
meaningful foreign policy legislation on the Middle East requires
bipartisanship, which will be difficult to conjure if the current hyper-partisan
mood continues. In that scenario, most of the real legislating action will occur
not in the foreign affairs committees, but in the armed services and
appropriations committees responsible for moving “must pass” items such as
the National Defense Authorization Act. One telling example is the most recent
agreement on State Department appropriations. Although it has not yet become
law, this compromise bill withholds military training assistance from Saudi
Arabia and continues the pattern of conditioning certain assistance to Egypt.
Congress cannot come together on legislation beyond the “must pass” variety,
individual members may assert themselves in other ways, such as passing
resolutions of disapproval on weapon sales, imposing conditionality on
assistance during the appropriations process, or using the nomination process as
a lever to conduct oversight. In the Senate, Democrats may pursue alternative
means if blocked from working through the regular committee process, such as
issuing reports and holding shadow hearings.
now, the Senate is debating the “Strengthening America’s Security in the
Middle East Act.” In the House, Foreign Affairs chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY)
has announced that his committee’s first hearing will focus on U.S. policy in
the Arabian Peninsula.
issues bear close watching. Regarding Israel, various aspects of the
relationship have been particularly divisive in the Democratic caucus. On Iran,
strengthening punitive measures against the regime has historically been a
bipartisan issue, but the center dissipated in the aftermath of Washington’s
unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Members of Congress may attempt to
restore bipartisan consensus based on Tehran’s terrorism sponsorship,
ballistic missile program, and human rights record, but even this will be very
difficult given the stark difference in views on the nuclear file. On Syria, the
right and left sides of the foreign policy establishment have been largely
unified in opposing the administration’s military withdrawal announcement.
the past four years, Congress has voted on issues related to Saudi Arabia and
Yemen more than any other Middle East foreign policy issue. The
administration’s handling of the Qatar dispute in 2017 and Khashoggi’s
murder last year led members on both sides of the aisle to take aggressive
stances as a way of expressing their concern.
when Congress passed the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions
Act” in 2017, it laid out clear, mandatory sanctions for regional governments
that purchase weapons or sign commercial or intelligence agreements with Russia.
As America takes apparent steps toward reducing its role in the region, many
countries are looking to Moscow to fill the void. The Trump administration may
have to decide whether or not to impose sanctions on these countries—some of
them U.S. partners—if they pursue deeper agreements with Russia.
boost his legitimacy, MbS is trying to replace Wahhabism with nationalism. In
light of this shift, it is no shock that the kingdom has greeted international
condemnation of the Khashoggi incident with nationalist backlash. Recent
meetings with Saudis revealed a strong sense that their country is being singled
out unfairly given the human rights abuses seen in other regional states,
Saudi opinion on the crown prince’s handling of the Khashoggi situation vary,
he is almost universally perceived to be the center of change in the kingdom.
Many Saudi officials and citizens believe that without him, “dark forces”
would try to reverse recent reforms and trigger great turmoil.
another sign of change, the standing committee to overhaul the educational
system includes Muslim World League secretary-general Mohammad Al-Issa, who is
breaking new ground on dealing with other faiths. Moreover, Saudi “guardian
rules” are being eased, with women no longer needing male approval to apply
for jobs or loans.
Trump administration should take several steps to put the relationship with
Riyadh on better footing, especially given the angry mood on Capitol Hill. It
should push for transparency in the Khashoggi trials, suggesting that MbS assume
responsibility for a policy that went wrong and show how he is changing the
government’s approach toward dissidents. U.S. officials should also encourage
him to return to his former path as a reformer, though this will be a difficult
sell at a time when women activists are still being jailed.
the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, Riyadh needs to change the narrative. MbS
has been demonized for that situation, but the reality is that the Houthi rebels
continue to play a major role in perpetuating it. The Saudis should offer a
time-limited, unilateral ceasefire—one that can be extended indefinitely if
the Houthis respond while putting the onus on them if they do not. Although the
Houthis have repeatedly violated the limited ceasefire in Hodeida, a Saudi offer
to widen it could still have the benefit of affecting perceptions and reality in
Israel, security officials have felt largely on their own for some time when
dealing with the Iranian threat in Syria, and President Trump’s withdrawal
announcement only deepened this sense. Israel and Iran now appear to be feeling
each other out regarding what the ground rules will be in Syria after U.S.
withdrawal. For months, the Israeli Defense Forces had limited their operations
in the country due to Russian pressure, but they carried out two strikes after
Trump’s declaration. In response, Iran launched a heavy-payload missile from a
Syrian base that was intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. The
potential for escalation is therefore quite high—Tehran seems determined to
create a precision missile presence in Syria and Lebanon, while Jerusalem is
equally determined to prevent it. If a new conflict results in tens of thousands
of rockets and missiles launched at Israel, the IDF would feel obligated to
attack Iran. To convince Russia that it needs to do more to limit Iran’s
deployment of precision weapons, Washington should signal Moscow that U.S.
forces could be drawn back into Syria if such a conflict erupts.