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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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Afghanistan and Beginning of the Decline of American Power

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Has America’s disgraceful withdrawal from Afghanistan spoiled its global standing? The pictures of retreating American soldiers at Kabul International Airport have certainly reinforced the notion that the United States had lost control of the situation in Afghanistan. The Taliban takeover of the capital has also led many around the world to question America’s basic competence as a great military power.

At the end of the WW2 victory, the US became the dominant power in the international system. The new era was heralded as the harbinger of the ‘American Century’. The fall of communism in eastern Europe and the rest of the world allowed the West— and particularly its leaders, the United States, to go in any direction that it wanted.

After twenty years of war, the image, clout and confidence of the sole superpower go down in history, buried in the debris of destruction of Afghan war, which has lived up to its reputation as the ‘graveyard of empires’, Britain and Soviet Union were earlier in the 19th and 20th century.

The cost of Afghan war brings nothing for its future. Brown University’s cost of war report says that, “since invading Afghanistan in 2001, the United States has spent $ 2.313 trillion on the war, executing expenditure on life time care for American veterans of the war and future interest payments on money borrowed to fund the war”. CNBC writes, “yet it takes just nine days for the Taliban to seize every provincial capital, dissolve the army and overthrow the US backed government”.

Since the beginning of the 21th century, American’s contributions to global GDP have been decreased from 30% to 15% in 2020. A new power has emerged on the world stage to challenge American supremacy—China— with a weapon the Soviet Union never possessed.  The Formal Bilateral Influence Capacity (FBIC) index, a quantitative measure of multidimensional influence between pairs of states. Its report shows the erosion of US influence relative to Chinese influence across nearly every global region. Chinese influence outweighs US influence across much of Africa and Southeast Asia and has increased in former Soviet states. Chinese influence has also eroded the US advantages in South America, West Europe and East Asia.

 US has also become more inward-looking country. Biden has made clear that US foreign policy should serve only US interests. Even its military involvement will be scaled down even more.

The last two decade have brought significant shifts in global geopolitical dynamics. As Indian-American political commentator Fareed Zakariya argued in his 2008 book The Post-American World, “the fact that new powers are more strongly asserting their interests in the reality of the post-American world”.

As the US came to dominate the globe, the order it was morally underpinned by its belief in Manifested Destiny and economically underpinned by the US dollar as the reserve currency. The global order has unraveled mostly at the hands of the US itself. Its moral dimension started to come apart, when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, not only disregarding the UN but also propagating lies about Saddam Hussain regime possessing weapons of mass destruction. The credibility of the economic order was damaged by the great recession of 2008, when major US financial institutions collapsed one after the other.

All of this coincides with the resurgence of Asia and emergence of China as the global economic power house. The rise of Trump, the glowing racial injustice the triggered the Black Lives Matter Movement and the near collapse of the health system amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

America’s competitors like Russia and China now hold the space in Afghanistan. Another bar for the American influence in the region. The lost military credibility in Afghanistan has global ramifications for the U.S.

American intelligence agencies even could not assess the capability of Afghan National Army. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction 2016 report noted massive corruption and ‘ghost soldiers’ in Afghan army.

Back to the question: Does the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan represent the end of the American era? It can certainly be said that the international image of the United States has been damaged. The U.S. retreat from Afghanistan represents part of a larger inward turn, or the U.S. may soon reassert itself somewhere else to show the world that it still has muscle. Right now, it feels as if the American era isn’t quite over, but it isn’t what it once was, either.

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Early Elections in Canada: Will the Fourth Wave Get in the Way?

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On August 15, Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada and leader of the Liberal Party, announced an early parliamentary election and scheduled it for September 20, 2021. Canadian legislation allows the federal government to be in power up to 5 years, so normally, the elections should have been held in 2023. However, the government has the right to call early elections at any time. This year, there will be 36 days for the pre-election campaigns.

At the centre of the Liberals’ election campaign is the fight against the COVID-19 epidemic in Canada and the economic recovery. The coronavirus has also become a motivator for early elections. In his statement, Justin Trudeau emphasised that “Canadians need to choose how we finish the fight against COVID-19 and build back better. Canadians deserve their say, and that’s exactly what we are going to give them.” Thus, the main declared goal of the Liberals is to get a vote of confidence from the public for the continuation of the measures taken by the government.

The goal, which the prime minister did not voice, is the desire of the Liberal Party to win an absolute majority in the Parliament. In the 2019 elections, the Liberals won 157 seats, which allowed them to form a minority government, which is forced to seek the support of opposition parties when making decisions.

The somewhat risky move of the Liberals can be explained. The Liberals decided to take advantage of the high ratings of the ruling party and the prime minister at the moment, associated with a fairly successful anti-COVID policy, hoping that a high level of vaccination (according to official data, 71% of the Canadian population, who have no contraindications, are fully vaccinated and the emerging post-pandemic economic recovery will help it win a parliamentary majority.

Opinion polls show that the majority of Canadians approve Trudeau’s strategy to overcome the coronavirus pandemic. Between the 2019 elections and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trudeau’s government was unpopular, with ratings below 30%. Unlike Donald Trump, Trudeau’s approval rating soared after the outbreak of the pandemic to 55%. During the election campaign, the rating of the Liberal Party decreased and was 31.6% on September 16, which reduces the chances of a landslide victory.

Trudeau left unanswered the question of whether he’d resign if his party fails to win an absolute majority in the elections.

Leaders of opposition parties—the Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party, Bloc Québécois, and the Green Party—criticised Trudeau’s decision to call early elections, considering the decision inappropriate for the timing and situation with regard to the risk of the fourth wave of the coronavirus epidemic. They stressed that the government’s primary task should be taking measures to combat the pandemic and restore the economy, rather than trying to hold onto power.

The on-going pandemic will change the electoral process. In the event of a fourth wave, priority will be given to postal voting. Liberal analysts are concerned that the registration process to submit ballots by mail could stop their supporters from voting, thereby undermining Trudeau’s drive to reclaim a majority government. However, postal voting is the least popular among voters of the Conservative Party, and slightly more popular among voters of the Liberal and New Democratic parties. The timeframe for vote-counting will be increased. While ballots are usually counted on the morning after election day, it can take up to five days for postal voting.

One of the key and most attractive campaign messages of the Liberal Party is the reduction of the average cost of childcare services. Liberals have promised to resolve this issue for many years, but no active action has been taken. Justin Trudeau noted that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of this issue.

As in the 2019 elections, the Liberal Party’s key rival will be the Conservative Party, led by new leader Erin O’Toole. The Conservative Party’s rating a five days before the election was 31.3%. Conservatives suggest a different approach to childcare—providing a refundable child tax subsidy that covers up to 75% of the cost of kindergarten for low-income families. Trudeau has been harshly criticised by the Conservatives in connection with the scale of spending under his leadership, especially during the pandemic, and because of billion-dollar promises. In general, the race will not be easy for the conservative O’Toole. This is the first time he is running for the post of prime minister, in contrast to Justin Trudeau. Moreover, the Conservative Party of Canada is split from within, and the candidate is faced with the task of consolidating the party. The Conservative will have to argue against the billion-dollar promises which were made by the ruling Liberals before the elections.

The leaders of the other parties have chances to increase their seats in Parliament compared to the results of the 2019 elections, but they can hardly expect to receive the necessary number of votes to form a government. At the same time, the personal popularity of Jagmeet Singh, the candidate from the New Democratic Party, is growing, especially among young people. The level of his popularity at the end of August was 19.8%. Singh intends to do everything possible to steal progressive voters from the Liberal Party and prevent the formation of a Liberal-majority government. Singh will emphasise the significant role of the NDP under the minority government in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and highlight that it was the New Democratic Party that was able to influence government decisions and measures to support the population during the pandemic.

Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet, whose popularity level was 6.6%, intends to increase the Bloc’s presence in Parliament and prevent the loss of votes in the province of Quebec in favour of the Liberal Party. According to him, it is fundamentally important to protect the French language and the ideas of secularism. The Bloc Québécois is also not interested in the formation of a majority government by the Liberals.

Green Party leader Annamie Paul is in a difficult position due to internal party battles. Moreover, her rating is low: 3.5%. Higher party officials have even tried to pass a no-confidence vote against her. Annamie Paul’s goal is, in principle, to get a seat in Parliament in order to be able to take part in voting on important political issues. The Greens are focused on climate change problems, the principles of social justice, assistance to the most needy segments of the population, and the fight against various types of discrimination.

Traditionally, foreign policy remains a peripheral topic of the election campaign in Canada. This year, the focus will be on combating the COVID-19 epidemic, developing the social sphere, and economic recovery, which will push foreign policy issues aside even further.

The outcome of the elections will not have a significant impact on Russian-Canadian relations. An all-party anti-Russian consensus has developed in Canada; none of the parties have expressed any intention of developing a dialogue with Russia.

From our partner RIAC

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Interpreting the Biden Doctrine: The View From Moscow

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Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe

It is the success or failure of remaking America, not Afghanistan, that will determine not just the legacy of the Biden administration, but the future of the United States itself.

The newly unveiled Biden doctrine, which renounces the United States’ post-9/11 policies of remaking other societies and building nations abroad, is a foreign policy landmark. Coming on the heels of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, it exudes credibility. Indeed, President Biden’s moves essentially formalize and finalize processes that have been under way for over a decade. It was Barack Obama who first pledged to end America’s twin wars—in Iraq and Afghanistan—started under George W. Bush. It was Donald Trump who reached an agreement with the Taliban on a full U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Both Obama and Trump also sought, albeit in strikingly different ways, to redirect Washington’s attention to shoring up the home base.

It is important for the rest of the world to treat the change in U.S. foreign policy correctly. Leaving Afghanistan was the correct strategic decision, if grossly overdue and bungled in the final phases of its implementation. Afghanistan certainly does not mean the end of the United States as a global superpower; it simply continues to be in relative and slow decline. Nor does it spell the demise of American alliances and partnerships. Events in Afghanistan are unlikely to produce a political earthquake within the United States that would topple President Biden. No soul searching of the kind that Americans experienced during the Vietnam War is likely to emerge. Rather, Washington is busy recalibrating its global involvement. It is focusing even more on strengthening the home base. Overseas, the United States is moving from a global crusade in the name of democracy to an active defense of liberal values at home and Western positions abroad.

Afghanistan has been the most vivid in a long series of arguments that persuaded Biden’s White House that a global triumph of liberal democracy is not achievable in the foreseeable future. Thus, remaking problematic countries—“draining the swamp” that breeds terrorism, in the language of the Bush administration—is futile. U.S. military force is a potent weapon, but no longer the means of first resort. The war on terror as an effort to keep the United States safe has been won: in the last twenty years, no major terrorist attacks occurred on U.S. soil. Meantime, the geopolitical, geoeconomic, ideological, and strategic focus of U.S. foreign policy has shifted. China is the main—some say, existential—challenger, and Russia the principal disrupter. Iran, North Korea, and an assortment of radical or extremist groups complete the list of adversaries. Climate change and the pandemic have risen to the top of U.S. security concerns. Hence, the most important foreign policy task is to strengthen the collective West under strong U.S. leadership.

The global economic recession that originated in the United States in 2007 dealt a blow to the U.S.-created economic and financial model; the severe domestic political crisis of 2016–2021 undermined confidence in the U.S. political system and its underlying values; and the COVID-19 disaster that hit the United States particularly hard have all exposed serious political, economic, and cultural issues and fissures within American society and polity. Neglecting the home base while engaging in costly nation-building exercises abroad came at a price. Now the Biden administration has set out to correct that with huge infrastructure development projects and support for the American middle class.

America’s domestic crises, some of the similar problems in European countries, and the growing gap between the United States and its allies during the Trump presidency have produced widespread fears that China and Russia could exploit those issues to finally end U.S. dominance and even undermine the United States and other Western societies from within. This perception is behind the strategy reversal from spreading democracy as far and wide as Russia and China to defending the U.S.-led global system and the political regimes around the West, including in the United States, from Beijing and Moscow.

That said, what are the implications of the Biden doctrine? The United States remains a superpower with enormous resources which is now trying to use those resources to make itself stronger. America has reinvented itself before and may well be able to do so again. In foreign policy, Washington has stepped back from styling itself as the world’s benign hegemon to assume the combat posture of the leader of the West under attack.

Within the collective West, U.S. dominance is not in danger. None of the Western countries are capable of going it alone or forming a bloc with others to present an alternative to U.S. leadership. Western and associated elites remain fully beholden to the United States. What they desire is firm U.S. leadership; what they fear is the United States withdrawing into itself. As for Washington’s partners in the regions that are not deemed vital to U.S. interests, they should know that American support is conditional on those interests and various circumstances. Nothing new there, really: just ask some leaders in the Middle East. For now, however, Washington vows to support and assist exposed partners like Ukraine and Taiwan.

Embracing isolationism is not on the cards in the United States. For all the focus on domestic issues, global dominance or at least primacy has firmly become an integral part of U.S. national identity. Nor will liberal and democratic ideology be retired as a major driver of U.S. foreign policy. The United States will not become a “normal” country that only follows the rules of realpolitik. Rather, Washington will use values as a glue to further consolidate its allies and as a weapon to attack its adversaries. It helps the White House that China and Russia are viewed as malign both across the U.S. political spectrum and among U.S. allies and partners, most of whom have fears or grudges against either Moscow or Beijing.

In sum, the Biden doctrine does away with engagements that are no longer considered promising or even sustainable by Washington; funnels more resources to address pressing domestic issues; seeks to consolidate the collective West around the United States; and sharpens the focus on China and Russia as America’s main adversaries. Of all these, the most important element is domestic. It is the success or failure of remaking America, not Afghanistan, that will determine not just the legacy of the Biden administration, but the future of the United States itself.

From our partner RIAC

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