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Playing US politics: Saudi Arabia targets Middle America

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Amid Washington chatter about the future of US-Saudi relations, the kingdom has launched an unprecedented public diplomacy campaign to marshal business and grassroots support beyond the Beltway to counter anti-Saudi sentiment in the Biden administration and Congress.

To do so, the Saudi embassy in Washington has hired a lobbying and public relations firm headquartered in the American heartland rather than the capital. Iowa-based Larson Shannahan Slifka Group (LS2 Group) was contracted for US$126,500 a month to reach out to local media,  business and women’s groups, and world affairs councils in far-flung states. “We are real people who tackle real issues,” LS2 Group says on its website.

Embassy spokesman Fahad Nazar told USA Today in an email that “we recognize that Americans outside Washington are interested in developments in Saudi Arabia and many, including the business community, academic institutions and various civil society groups, are keen on maintaining long-standing relations with the kingdom or cultivating new ones.”

Prince Abdul Rahman Bin Musai’d Al Saud, a grandson of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz, businessman and former head of one of Saudi Arabia’s foremost soccer clubs, framed US interests, particularly regarding human rights, in far blunter terms.

Saudi Arabia “carries significant economic weight and it influences the region. The world cannot do without Saudi moderation. Because of its economy, its moderation, and its cooperation in the war on terror… the truth is that you need us more than we need you,” Prince Abdul Rahman said.

To boost the Saudi public diplomacy effort, the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS) in Riyadh this month armed LS2 Group with a 32-page report, entitled ‘The US-Saudi Economic Relationship: More than Arms and Oil,’ that highlights the kingdom’s investments in the US, commercial dealings, gifts to universities, and purchase of US Treasury securities.

The report noted that US$24 billion in US exports to Saudi Arabia in 2019, $3.1 billion of which were arms sales, supported 165,000 jobs in the United States. US companies were working on Saudi projects worth $700 billion. The report said the kingdom held $134.4 billion in US Treasury securities and $12.8 billion in US stocks at the end of 2020 while US investment in Saudi Arabia in 2019 totaled $10.8 billion. It touted future investment opportunities in sectors such as entertainment where US companies have a competitive advantage.

In reaching out to the American heartland, Saudi Arabia hopes to garner empathy among segments of society that are less focused on foreign policy and/or the intricacies of the Middle East than politicians in Washington and the chattering classes on both coasts of the United States.

US President Joe Biden criticized Saudi Arabia during his election campaign in stark terms, calling the kingdom a “pariah.” Mr. Biden, since coming to office has halted the sale of offensive arms to Saudi Arabia that could be deployed in the six-year-old war in Yemen, released an intelligence report that pointed fingers at Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and said he would “recalibrate” relations with the Gulf state.

The Saudi public diplomacy campaign comes as Mr. Biden is under pressure from liberals and left-wing Democrats to sanction Prince Mohammed for the Khashoggi killing, define what he means by offensive arms sales, and potentially maneuver to prevent the crown prince from becoming king.

Prominent among the speakers LS2 Group rolls out is Saudi Arabia’s glamorous ambassador to the United States, Princess Reema bint Bandar, the kingdom’s first ever woman foreign envoy, a great granddaughter of its founder, and the US-raised daughter of Prince Bandar bin Sultan who was ambassador in Washington for 22 years.

Long active in the promotion of women’s sport, Princess Reema hopes to convince her interlocutors that Saudi Arabia as a pivotal global player is an asset to the United States that has embarked on far-reaching economic and social liberalization, including the institutionalization of women’s rights.

It is a message that is designed to put the kingdom’s best foot forward and distract from the kingdom’s abominable human rights record symbolized by the Khashoggi killing and the Yemen war.

Houthi rebels this week cold-shouldered a Saudi proposal for a ceasefire that would partially lift the kingdom’s blockade of the war-ravaged country.

If successful, the public diplomacy strategy could lead to grassroots organizations in Congressmen’s districts leaning on their political representatives in Washington to adopt more lenient attitudes towards the kingdom.

It would be a message that is aligned with positions adopted by the Israel lobby, various American Jewish organizations, and other pressure groups supportive of Saudi Arabia.

Going by Philadelphia World Affairs Council president Lauren Swartz and Alaska World Affairs Council president and CEO Lise Falskow, whose members are business leaders, students, educators, and other local residents interested in foreign affairs, the strategy is paying off.

“There was a huge message of change and progress. That is … not much reported in the newspapers here… (Princess Reema) had all her data points about Saudi Arabia’s impact, opportunity and connections to Pennsylvania” that include links to the state’s energy industry, Ms. Swartz said after the ambassador addressed her group on Zoom.

“Being an oil country and Alaska being an oil state, it’s interesting to hear their perspective on gas and world markets and living in the neighborhood they do – and her being a woman,” Ms. Falskow added.

A 10-page glossy booklet produced by the LS2 Group in advance of Princess Reema’s appearances emphasized the kingdom’s “great progress in the area of women and sports.”

Replete with pictures of women athletes, some with headscarves, some without, the publication highlights their achievements as well as significant policy changes and incorporation of women in sports management as part of Prince Mohammed’s reforms.

The public diplomacy strategy counts on Middle America being less tuned into other aspects of the crown prince’s rule.

This would likely include this week’s sentencing of Nassima Al-Sada, a prominent Shiite women’s rights activist, to five years in prison, two of which will be suspended, according to a allegedly Qatari-backed, London-based new outlet. The suspension means that Ms. Sada, one of 12 women campaigners who were arrested in 2018, could be released at the end of June.

The LS2 Group-arranged engagements outside of Washington contrast starkly with high-brow webinars hosted by Washington thinktanks in which a revolving number of former administration officials, scholars and analysts debate what US policy towards Saudi Arabia should be. They usually split down the middle on whether the United States can afford to be tough on Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed on issues such as human rights.

Even so, if public opinion polls in recent years are anything to go by, Saudi public diplomacy faces significant challenges. Gallup concluded last year that 65 percent of Americans viewed Saudi Arabia unfavorably as opposed to 34 percent favorably, a trend that was also evident in surveys by Business Insider and YouGov.

Recognizing the hurdles, Princess Reema appears to be following her instincts by focusing on a “comprehensive partnership” with business, culture, and education.

With US activists taking credit for mounting pressure that led to Congressional censoring of US support for the war in Yemen and Mr. Biden’s suspension of arms sales, Princess Reema appears to hope that Middle America will be her secret weapon.

In other words, Middle America may be the latest battlefield, but ultimately Washington politics will determine the kingdom’s image in the West and the future of US-Saudi relations.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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