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  • Author: Dennis Ross, Robert Satloff
  • Publication Date: 02-2021
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: A revamped approach to the alliance should stay focused on shared goals, from ensuring a stable oil market to promoting a more tolerant version of Islam at home and abroad. In the fourth in a series of TRANSITION 2021 memos examining the Middle East and North Africa, Dennis Ross and Robert Satloff discuss the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. Over the past four years, the Trump administration embraced Riyadh almost unconditionally, looking the other way even after outrages such as the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But now, the Biden administration has vowed to “reassess” the alliance, adopting a posture informed by American interests and values alike. A more balanced approach makes sense, the authors contend, recognizing the fundamental U.S. interest in the direction of social and economic reform underway in the kingdom. Such a policy should stay focused on shared goals, from ensuring a stable oil market to pushing back against Iran, promoting Arab-Israel normalization, preventing nuclear proliferation, countering terrorism, reducing or ending regional conflicts, and encouraging a more tolerant version of Islam at home and abroad. The authors add that “while there is a role for punitive steps in response to outrageous actions, measures implemented out of appropriate context or imposed in a way to cause public embarrassment have the potential to trigger a backlash within the kingdom that could diminish U.S. influence, slow the pace of reform, or both.” In the coming weeks, TRANSITION 2021 memos by Washington Institute experts will address the broad array of issues facing the Biden-Harris administration in the Middle East. These range from thematic issues, such as the region’s strategic position in the context of Great Power competition and how to most effectively elevate human rights and democracy in Middle East policy, to more discrete topics, from Arab-Israel peace diplomacy to Red Sea security to challenges and opportunities in northwest Africa. Taken as a whole, this series of memos will present a comprehensive approach for advancing U.S. interests in security and peace in this vital but volatile region.
  • Topic: Diplomacy, Oil, Alliance, Joe Biden
  • Political Geography: Saudi Arabia, North America, United States of America, Gulf Nations
  • Author: Elena DeLozier
  • Publication Date: 02-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Sultan Haitham will now be free to put his own stamp on the country's government and foreign policy, and a recent dust-up on the Yemeni border could provide the first indicator of his approach. On February 20, Oman will begin its next era in earnest. The new sultan, Haitham bin Tariq al-Said, was officially sworn in on January 11, but he has remained quiet and mostly out of sight during the forty-day mourning period that followed the death of his cousin, Sultan Qaboos. Now that this period is drawing to a close, he is free to put his stamp on Omani policy. Notably, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will lead the first international delegation to see Sultan Haitham in the post-mourning period. When the meeting was first scheduled, the secretary likely saw it as a chance to get to know the new leader, and also as a symbolic visit to make up for sending such a low-level delegation to offer condolences. Yet the two may have more to talk about now. Earlier this week, a flare-up occurred between Saudi forces and Omani-backed locals in the Yemeni border province of al-Mahra. The confrontation may be Sultan Haitham’s first regional test, and identifying the actors who help him get through it could help Washington discern future power centers within Oman’s often opaque government.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Diplomacy, Government
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Yemen, Oman, United States of America, Gulf Nations
  • Author: David Pollock
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: A host of crucial multilateral interests are baked into the U.S. presence, from keeping the Islamic State down, to protecting vulnerable regional allies, to preventing Iran from taking Iraq's oil revenues. The assassination of Qasem Soleimani has brought the tensions in U.S.-Iraqi relations to a boil, with militia factions strong-arming a parliamentary resolution on American troop withdrawal and various European allies contemplating departures of their own. Before they sign the divorce papers, however, officials in Baghdad and Washington should consider the many reasons why staying together is best for both them and the Middle East.
  • Topic: Oil, Bilateral Relations, Islamic State, Qassem Soleimani
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East, Israel, Jordan, United States of America, Gulf Nations
  • Author: Alex Almeida, Michael Knights
  • Publication Date: 03-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: To keep recent rebel victories from cascading into a wider military collapse, Washington must urge the Gulf coalition to firm up the government’s forces and move more quickly on peace talks. On March 2, Yemen’s Houthi rebels seized the capital of al-Jawf province in the latest phase of a forty-five-day campaign along multiple fronts. Stemming from shifts in the country’s increasingly fragile military balance since last fall, the offensives show that Saudi Arabia is providing insufficient frontline support to the internationally recognized government of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and its allies, while also failing to complete backchannel peace talks with the Houthis. Unless talks reach fruition or the Houthis are checked militarily, rebel forces will continue to use their ever-widening array of advanced Iranian weapons to exploit the government’s weakness with more offensives.
  • Topic: Conflict, Negotiation, Peace, Houthis
  • Political Geography: Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, United States of America, Gulf Nations
  • Author: Simon Henderson
  • Publication Date: 03-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: The latest crackdown appears to have targeted senior defense and interior officials, spurring speculation that they are linked to previously detained princes rumored to be plotting a coup. On March 15, Saudi Arabia announced that 298 individuals have been arrested for bribery, embezzlement, wasting public funds, and other corruption offenses. Although none of the detainees has been named, they reportedly include high-ranking officers in the Defense and Interior Ministries, adding to rumors that recent royal crackdowns may be related to a planned coup.
  • Topic: Corruption, Reform, Domestic politics, Monarchy
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Gulf Nations
  • Author: Simon Henderson
  • Publication Date: 06-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Qatar's break with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors remains unresolved, and rumors circulate of bids to replace Tamim bin Khalifa al-Thani, Qatar’s forty-year-old emir, with one of his historically marginalized rivals. The Washington Institute has been sponsoring a series of discussions about sudden succession in the Middle East. Each session focuses on scenarios that might unfold if a specific ruler or leader departed the scene tomorrow. Questions include these: Would the sudden change lead to different policies? Would it affect the stability of the respective countries involved, or the region as a whole? What would be the impact on U.S. interests? Would the manner of a leader's departure make a difference? The discussions also probe how the U.S. government might adjust to the new situation or influence outcomes. This essay, twelfth in the series, explores Qatar, known historically as a refuge for “banished leaders, fleeing criminals, exiled religious figures, and other waifs and strays.” But the Gulf nation’s neighbors have long bridled at its independent streak, as shown by the 2017 rift with Saudi Arabia and three other regional states. The break—spurred by a perception of Qatari support for terrorism, closeness to Iran, and a range of other complaints—remains unresolved today, and rumors circulate of bids to replace Tamim bin Khalifa al-Thani, Qatar’s forty-year-old emir, with one of his historically marginalized rivals.
  • Topic: International Relations, Foreign Policy, Regional Cooperation
  • Political Geography: Qatar, Gulf Nations
  • Author: Bilal Wahab, Barbara A. Leaf
  • Publication Date: 09-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Even as Baghdad works to rein in militias that invite outside attacks, Washington needs to be patient with the country’s contradictions in the near term and give space for it to exert sovereignty in the long term. As President Trump met with Iraqi president Barham Salih today on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, they were no doubt buoyed by their governments’ mutual conclusion that the recent attack on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq did not originate from Iraq. Initial concerns about that possibility were well founded—a previous attack on a major Saudi pipeline was carried out from Iraqi territory this May, and multiple Iraqi militia facilities have been struck since June, reportedly by Israel. Each of these developments was linked to Shia “special groups” with known ties to Iran. On July 1, Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdulmahdi ordered these and other militias to fold themselves under state authority, but so far he has been unable to impose order on them. The government has also failed to prevent them from threatening neighboring countries at Iran’s presumed behest—an especially dangerous lapse given that Iraqi authorities cannot protect the territory these militias hold from external retaliation. To keep other countries from turning Iraq into a proxy battleground, Baghdad needs to rein in the unruliest militias. This is a tall order because Tehran has spent fifteen years building them into a parallel force of its own. Given the willingness these “special groups” have shown when asked to attack U.S. troops, fight on the Assad regime’s behalf in Syria, or secure other Iranian interests, they risk implicating Iraq in Tehran’s regional confrontations with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and/or Israel.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Bilateral Relations, Non State Actors, Proxy War
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United States of America, Gulf Nations
  • Author: Simon Henderson
  • Publication Date: 12-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: The ailing Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, now seventy-nine years old, has no children and no announced successor, with only an ambiguous mechanism in place for the family council to choose one. This study considers the most likely candidates to succeed the sultan, Oman’s domestic economic challenges, and whether the country’s neutral foreign policy can survive Qaboos’s passing.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Economics, Domestic politics, Succession
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Oman, Gulf Nations
  • Author: Sarah Feuer
  • Publication Date: 11-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Throughout 2016 and 2017, statements from Riyadh suggested that Saudi Arabia might be on the verge of reorienting its decades-long promotion of Salafism around the world. Given the sheer scale of the kingdom’s support for Islamic institutions over the years, the ripple effects of such a shift would be profound. Saudi efforts to propagate its particular brand of Salafism have long been anchored in the Mecca-based Muslim World League, but the ascent of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has apparently shunted the MWL in a different direction. Recent initiatives suggest Riyadh has assigned the league a central role in its broader religious reform agenda, at least as it applies to the export of religious doctrine abroad. In this deeply researched Policy Focus, Sarah Feuer, an expert on Middle East religion and politics, explores the meanings of Saudi reforms, how they are playing out within the MWL, and the broader implications for the U.S.- Saudi relationship. She recommends that Washington expand reporting mechanisms in nations where the MWL is active, pursue avenues to engage directly with the league, and incorporate religious reform into the high-level U.S.-Saudi strategic dialogue, all toward promoting moderation and undermining extremism.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Islam, Politics, Religion, Bilateral Relations, Soft Power
  • Political Geography: Saudi Arabia, North America, United States of America, Gulf Nations
  • Author: Daniel Green
  • Publication Date: 09-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Recent U.S. attention in Yemen has focused largely on the war against the Iranian-backed Houthis, but another threat endures: al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. U.S. efforts to confront AQAP have historically relied on counterterrorism approaches such as air and drone strikes, direct-action raids, and partnerships with indigenous and coalition security forces. But the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda has shown impressive resiliency by adopting a "hearts and minds" and local governing strategy to secure support, making it difficult to defeat. Its continuing strength requires a rethinking of the U.S. approach, one that confronts the terrorist group’s political strategy as much as its military strategy. In this Policy Focus, Daniel Green, a former defense fellow at The Washington Institute, draws on extensive research and interviews with Yemeni officials and civil society leaders to propose a new framework for defeating AQAP. His recommendations call for a U.S. strategy that extends beyond using strictly counterterrorism approaches and encompasses governance reform, capacity building, and enlisting locals in their own defense. Only through the active participation of communities in their security and governing can AQAP truly be defeated.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Governance, Reform, Al Qaeda, Conflict
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Yemen, Gulf Nations