* The Death of a US Navy SEAL in Yemen Has Started a New Conversation About the Country
* President Trump’s Defense Secretary and CIA Chief Are Popular Within Their Agencies
* One of the biggest challenges is that there is a powerful segment in Saudi Arabia that doesn’t want to change
* This is a great opportunity for the US to broaden its engagement not only with the Saudi government but with its citizens
Washington: Mostafa El-Dessouki
Samantha Ravich served as Deputy National Security Advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, and served in the White House for more than five years as the Vice President’s representative on Asian and Middle East Affairs as well as Counter-Terrorism and Counter-Proliferation. She was the Republican Co-Chair of the Congressionally-mandated National Commission for Review of Research and Development Programs in the United States Intelligence Community, and remains a prominent American voice on international security, cyber, and the future of intelligence. In her interview with Majalla, she shared impressions of her recent visit to Saudi Arabia and meeting with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. She appraised the Kingdom’s “Vision 2030,” the geo-strategic states, and the role Americans can play in supporting it. She reflected on the limitations of American public discourse on the Middle East, and offered a readout on the emerging policies of the Trump Administration.
Q: What do you make of “Vision 2030” having met with its architects in Riyadh?
A: I went to Saudi Arabia at the end of August as part of a high-level bipartisan delegation. And while I had read Vision 2030 and understood the framework, the true importance and groundbreaking nature of this endeavor didn’t really sink in until I spent those hours with the Deputy Crown Prince, the Foreign Minister, and other ministers involved in it. The document itself is a policy document, and there’s a lot in there that, like any policy document, is word-smithing, grand gestures — but getting on the ground and looking these people in the eyes as they talk about the reasons for it, and the need for it, really underscored the criticality that economic, societal, and even political changes must be done—both to ensure the future of Saudi Arabia and the broader stability of the region.
I had just finished a project looking at the changing maps and borders of the Middle East, so I had studied the demographics of the Kingdom. I know the kind of challenges Saudi Arabia faces in terms of population, economics, and the need to give the next generation an opportunity. On all of those things the trends aren’t good unless they are consciously changed. Thinking through how to really change a country — a culture — is at the heart of Vision 2030. It’s a monumental task, but its time has come. Saudi Arabia is at a crossroads. They will either find a way to engage the next generation so that they want to stay in Saudi Arabia and make a life for themselves, have a family, add to the value of the country not just economically but socially, and have Saudi Arabia literally be the country that others in the region look to — or the challenges that already exist between different sectors and strata of the population will only get worse and undermine the country and its ruling elite. So this is a grand endeavor that must have both the leadership and the nation standing behind it for it to succeed. Now the question is, is the leadership going to be able to fulfill its side of the bargain and get the “Vision” accepted by the populace?
From my perspective — as a researcher who follows Saudi Arabia, with full knowledge that I’m an outsider — one of the biggest challenges is that there is a powerful segment in Saudi Arabia that doesn’t want to change. Why would it? It’s doing well the way it is. It’s doing well without a greater opening of the economy or the society. Any type of opening is going to lead to new power centers, which the old power centers will naturally see as a diminution of their power base. Who will win this heated battle? And it will get more heated as Vision 2030 gets further implemented. I think part of the key to success in this is having a significantly larger portion of the population see their future in Vision 2030 and be willing to lend their voice and their support to it, causing those who stand against it to be seen as the people who want to hold Saudi Arabia back and not give it the future it deserves.
If Saudi Arabia is able to successfully move forward with Vision 2030, it’s hard to imagine a stronger argument against the Iranian model — not just that, but a stronger argument to really open the eyes of the Iranian population. Can you imagine the conversations that could occur throughout Iran, if Saudi Arabia is able to post a number of “wins” in the “win column” on the Vision, in terms of opportunity, education, openness, modernization, economic liberalization, all of those things. Among the Iranian population, many would be saying, “Can you believe this? Saudi Arabia gets to have these things and we, the Persian people, don’t get to have these things because of our leadership?” Every real win that the Saudis can rack up in terms of solidifying Vision 2030 should be broadcast into Iran.
Q: You spent several hours with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. What did you make of him?
A: August was the first time I had met the Deputy Crown Prince. I didn’t know what to expect other than what I’d read in the open press and impressions of others. He reminded me a lot of a number of young, dynamic leaders of younger countries that I’ve met — it’s interesting and a little ironic, because Saudi Arabia is itself a relatively young country but also an old established area. His clear commitment is that 2030 has to be the way of the future if it is going to succeed and survive as a working, dynamic country in this unsettled region. It was clear that this guy is firmly committed to making this a success. The other thing that was striking was his expansive knowledge of a whole host of geopolitical topics. It was a two-hour meeting, and it ranged from the internal challenges and opportunities in Saudi Arabia, to the demographics, the economic challenges, and the societal challenges. He was equipped with the facts, figures, and numbers. But he also spoke at great length about foreign policy. We had a long conversation about Iran and the threats, and about potential new areas of partnerships with other countries in the region. We had a long conversation about what he sees Russia as trying to achieve in the region and about China and its new base in Djibouti. He was not a one-trick pony who was going to talk to the Americans about only one thing. This is a leader who understands that Saudi Arabia is actually much more than just a Gulf nation. He understands and is able to convey its importance to the broader region and well beyond. That came clearly through as he spoke about great power politics and transnational trends such as proliferation and terrorism.
Q: Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies are in the throes of a grueling conflict in Yemen. How do Americans perceive it?
A: Regarding Yemen, most Americans don’t know anything about that country, its history, or the Houthis and Iranian involvement. When most Americans think about the Middle East, they’re thinking about Iraq, Israel, Iran, now Syria. But Yemen, really for most Americans it seems like it’s somebody else’s problem and should stay somebody else’s problem. I think that mindset, like it or not, is much more prevalent now. President Trump got elected on the basis that the US is not going to get further embroiled in complicated conflicts we don’t understand that don’t have a clear path of resolution and should be on somebody else’s plate. Whether or not that mindset will be educated and potentially evolve is yet to be seen. But the recent death of a Navy SEAL in Yemen certainly started the conversation. All of a sudden on the front pages of newspapers is the word Yemen. And I’m sure there’s a lot of newspapers throughout the US — from Ohio to Louisiana to Oregon — that have to show a map and show where Yemen is located. It’s going to be worrisome for a lot of people that the first time they’re hearing about Yemen is with the death of a Navy SEAL.
The American people and the Administration they just elected are tired of the complications in the Middle East. And Yemen is a perfect example of it. It is messy and violent, with constantly shifting internal alliances and no obvious path towards a more peaceful future. The role for America is not clearly defined. What might be easier for Americans to understand is that Saudi Arabia is confronted by an outside power agitating against it in the country right next door. It would make more sense to Americans that no country wants a strong insurgency backed by the Iranians on its border, which would use that territory as a launching base to expand throughout the region. But again, tying that to vital American interests is not clearly apparent for many people, and it will be a lift for a US policymaker to want to educate an electorate about another problem area in the Middle East. So there’s going to have to be a much more significant educational effort undertaken to explain why this is important to US interests. It will have to be backed up with hard facts, and shown how stability in Yemen is important to the stability of the region and of Saudi Arabia, and that that is critical for US interests in the region. And even with that, it is not a given that the end of that process will yield more people in the administration saying, “We get it, there needs to be greater US involvement in Yemen.”
The new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, knows Yemen very well. He had a Yemen portfolio at Exxon. I don’t know where he comes down on Yemen and its importance to the region and US in terms of regional stability, but I assume he will have a significant say in how the US government thinks about this issue.
Q: You recently carried out some research on the future of national borders in the Middle East. Kindly share some of the highlights.
A: The general nature of the research was to imagine what the borders would look like if certain actors in the region could redraw Sykes-Picot. If you can imagine what the goals and desires are of the state and non-state actors are, you can have a better idea of possible future flashpoints as well as places that need to be better protected. For instance, if you gave Iran a blank map of the area, how would it draw its borders? What would it say are the reasons for these expanded borders? What would ISIS say and do, if they could? We posited that if Iran could draw its borders, it would draw the entire Persian empire. It would say, “This is historically ours. We’re an expansionist power. We made it clear in our founding documents in 1979 that we’re a revolutionary power, and that we intend to reclaim our lost territory.” We looked at the use of Iranian proxies to undertake this plan. Clearly the Houthis, for example, are part of that network. By contrast, from our standpoint, Saudi Arabia was never an expansionist power. And in this respect, it is very, very different from Iran. But we pondered what the Kingdom might need to do to preserve its borders when there are other hostile states that want to make inroads. There is a rationale for strategic defense in-depth: To protect your own borders, you need to secure areas outside of your current configuration, but that’s very different than the behavior of an expansionist power.
Q: There appears to be considerable political volatility in the U.S., with visceral opposition to President Trump from a sizable proportion of the population. What impact would domestic polarization be likely to have on the implementation of a coherent American foreign policy?
A: As to whether the new US Administration will be able to implement its foreign policy agenda given the divided US electorate, I think that much of the anger among those who opposed Trump will focus on US domestic issues. The Supreme Court battle, for example, is going to suck up a lot of the “battle space.” Beyond the Supreme Court there are banking and financial reforms, Obamacare, environmental laws, immigration, and so on. The more complicated foreign policy issues, unless there’s a major disruption, will take a little more of the backseat. So in answer to your question, I don’t think the domestic polarization will tie President Trump’s hands on his overseas engagements that much. I think he’ll be strong in terms of his convictions of what he wants to do and he will get it done. And he is aided in this by the incredibly talented, confident, and popular new agency heads he has appointed.
Defense Secretary Mattis is winning rave reviews at the Department of Defense. The military
is eager to hear how he wants to move out on certain issues important to them. The CIA is very comfortable with their newly appointed director, Mike Pompeo. All signs point to him, in turn, appointing his upper management from a cadre of seasoned professionals, people the rank and file will be very happy with. After a number of years of demoralization, they’re excited about the new leadership. In the Department of Homeland Security, General John Kelly is regarded as a “rock star.” That agency is very forward-leaning on international issues, so having someone of Kelly’s experience and stature is a big plus. The newly confirmed Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson will be, I think, tremendously important to make the State Department function better. Here is a man who led a company, Exxon, that was many times larger in scale and scope and budget than the State Department. He knows the complications of the world, and how to make deals. Think about it: He has negotiated everything from drilling rights to trade routes to international finance. He has lived and breathed big geopolitical issues. This is also a man who was front and center in the Middle East during the time when Iran hacked Saudi ARAMCO. Tillerson understands cyber-enabled economic warfare – that is, an adversary’s use of cyber-technology to attack an economy in order to weaken it militarily. And I think that the Secretary of State, as well as other agency heads and even the White House, are greatly concerned about such cyber-enabled economic warfare, and are looking for new partnerships to help deter and defeat this threat.
Q: Returning briefly to “Vision 2030,” the plan calls implicitly for deepening cooperation with the U.S. beyond the realm of government. What opportunities do you see for new forms of engagement between the two countries?
A: First, more people in the United States must realize that the US will benefit from a successful implementation of Vision 2030: We need Saudi Arabia to be a stable country that progresses throughout the 21st century, because a stagnant, backwards-looking Saudi Arabia – one that will arise if Vision 2030 fails — is more brittle and fragile, and that’s not good for the US. The US should think about lending its expertise to Saudi Arabia for Vision 2030 on a number of fronts. Yes, there are the financial capacities to play an important role in the Aramco IPO. But also in terms of helping Saudi Arabia create a much more efficient, effective economy that can fund entrepreneurs at the startup level, we have some of the best expertise. That kind of startup culture is the way you get the younger generation excited about the future. You have a good idea, this is how you can get funding for it, this is how you get assistance to make the idea into a reality, into a prosperous enterprise. This is a great opportunity for the US to broaden its engagement not only with the Saudi government but with its citizens.
Saudi Arabia is an extremely fascinating country. Only a tiny number of people in the US know anything about it — what it looks like, the history of it, its geography, its people. The lack of more in-depth—and personal—understanding by America for Saudi Arabia is, in some ways, odd, given the depth of the government-to-government relationship. But I think it’s critical that the Saudis find a way to expand people-to-people engagement with Americans. Especially at the present time, when a great many Americans who had never voted before have found their voice and are newly empowered.