Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record briefing with Timothy Lenderking, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Peninsula Affairs in the Near East Bureau at the U.S. Department of State.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Lenderking will discuss U.S. policy in the Arabian Peninsula and the outcomes of recent strategic dialogues held with Bahrain, Kuwait, and other Gulf partners, and then take your questions.
We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic. We request that everyone keep this in mind and speak slowly.
I’ll now turn it over to Deputy Assistant Secretary Lenderking for his opening remarks. Sir, the floor is yours.
DAS Lenderking: Thank you very much, Sam, and good morning, good afternoon to all of you. It’s a pleasure to be back with you. We last had a similar conversation back in September. And I’ve just returned from a trip to Oman, Dubai, and Saudi Arabia. I was traveling with Assistant Secretary David Schenker, and we continued discussions that we’ve been having on ways to advance regional security, seek solutions for regional conflicts, and try to bolster our economic partnerships. And last month, David Schenker accompanied Secretary Pompeo on a visit to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia; they had very productive meetings there with the leadership of those countries. That was the Secretary’s third trip to the region since mid-September, when the UAE became the first country to normalize ties with Israel under the Abraham Accords. And then last week, the Secretary opened the first U.S. Strategic Dialogue with Bahrain, which will serve as a roadmap for our bilateral relationship in the years to come.
And in fact, I think it’s important to note the main reason for our call today is that we’ve made a lot of progress over the past three months with our relations with the Gulf and set a direction for our engagements going forward. I mentioned the U.S.-Bahrain Strategic Dialogue. That was actually the fifth strategic dialogue we’ve held since September. It followed the U.S.-Kuwait Strategic Dialogue, which we held over a two-week period last month. We were very glad that the new foreign minister was able to come to Washington in person. We had dialogues with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in October. We had the Saudi foreign minister here in person also. And then the first of our series, our dialogue with Qatar in September; we also had the Qatar foreign minister here in person for that dialogue.
I think that this activity underscores the importance that the United States places on our Gulf relationships, and it will continue because the Arabian Peninsula will always have strategic importance to us. I think when you look at our engagements across the Gulf, you will note similar, shared, and interlocking interests: security cooperation, trade and investment, human rights, people-to-people exchanges. I think we’ve been able to seize the opportunity for transformative change that’s been happening in the Gulf. And sparked, additionally, by the signing of the Abraham Accords, these strategic dialogues have helped us carry the momentum. They really provide an opportunity for us to coordinate policy among the interagency in Washington, so in all of these strategic dialogues we’ve had many U.S. Government agencies. We’ve had the Coast Guard, we’ve had the Department of Energy, Department of Education, the National Security Council, we’ve had our counterterrorism and law enforcement agencies participating, and getting everybody together focused on common messages and building on convergences that we have with each of these countries, and also identifying areas where things may diverge and when we need to work on closing – closing those gaps.
We’re proud of the defense cooperation we have across the Gulf, with Bahrain hosting the U.S. Navy Central Command and our Fifth Fleet’s headquarters. I was also out in Bahrain a month ago to convey our condolences to the – on the death of the Bahrain prime minister. Qatar is hosting, of course, U.S. forces at Al Udeid Air Base, and Kuwait hosts U.S. forces at Camp Arifjan and Ali Al Salem Air Base. So these relationships all remain vital.
Our Gulf partners have also made valuable contributions to the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Throughout the world, we’re closely involved with Gulf countries on initiatives to track and disrupt financial flows to terrorist groups and efforts to counter violent extremism. We’re working together to end regional conflicts such as our efforts to reach a political solution in Yemen, bring about a unified, peaceful, and prosperous future for that country.
We’re also working with the Gulf, needless to say, to try to stop Iran’s destabilizing actions around the region that put so many people at risk. You’ve seen Iran’s unprovoked attack – attacks against oil tankers, oil facilities, and similar targets. The Houthis in Yemen are clearly emboldened by Iran, which continues to smuggle weapons into Yemen in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. The Houthis continue very menacing drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, which threaten the safety of innocent civilians, including some 70- to 80,000 Americans who live in Saudi Arabia. It once again demonstrates that the Houthis are not interested in constructive engagement towards peace.
As we aim to build a more secure Middle East, we are identifying new priorities that bring prosperity. Billions of dollars in goods and services are flowing between the U.S. and Gulf countries, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs for Americans. The UAE and Qatar, for example, have invested more than $56 billion in the United States. Our strategic dialogues have identified new opportunities to support the growth of diversified, innovative, and knowledge-based economies across the Gulf. We’re expanding cooperation in public health, biomedical research, renewable energy, agriculture, aviation, artificial intelligence, while opening opportunities to establish secure telecommunication networks and policies that attract trusted global telecoms and information technology companies.
Our strategic dialogues also feature the importance of people-to-people exchanges, which in many ways I’ve found are the bedrock of our relations with the Gulf, if you look at relations that we’ve had with Saudi Arabia for the last 80 years, and they emphasize the belief that we have more in common with each other than we do – than we do differences. We’re expanding the number and range of cultural and educational exchanges. We’ll look for opportunities for students across the region to study in the United States. We’re also really excited to make the Expo 2020 in Dubai – the World’s Fair – a success, and are collaborating with Emirati and other partners to deliver top-tier programs that showcase American culture, commerce, and innovation at the U.S. pavilion, and David Schenker and I were both really delighted to be at the American pavilion and Expo just last weekend and see the progress that’s been made.
Finally, our engagement on human rights in the Gulf has also become a prominent feature of our strategic dialogues. We like to acknowledge the progress made across the Gulf in combating trafficking in persons, labor reforms, and advancing freedom of religion or belief and inter-faith dialogue, and there are a couple of good examples that we can point to in that realm. But we also acknowledge the need to continue discussions on reforms that bring greater judicial transparency, commitment to the rule of law, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly across the Gulf. It’s our view that the American people expect that all of our strategic partnerships in the Gulf prioritize a shared commitment to the rule of law and respect for human rights.
We’ve noted the need for Gulf unity many times in the past months, and indeed, since the Gulf rift started in June of 2017. Now more than ever, in our view it’s imperative that the GCC unite against regional threats. The dispute serves our adversaries and harms our mutual interests. The Abraham Accords show that a step towards unity opens more opportunities for things like economic development and security cooperation. The same holds true for unity among Gulf countries.
Thank you and I’m very happy to take some of your questions.
Moderator: Thank you, Deputy Assistant Secretary Lenderking. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. For those on the English line asking questions, please state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing. Questions submitted in advance have been incorporated into the queue.
Our first question is a pre-submitted question from Tamam Abu Safi from Alayam Daily in Bahrain. Tamam asks about the reports of a solution to the Gulf crisis with Qatar and the latest developments on American efforts to find a solution. Over to you, Deputy Assistant Secretary.
DAS Lenderking: Well, thank you very much. I would highlight the very strong engagement that the United States has had on the Gulf rift since June 2017, as I mentioned. The President’s been engaged on this. The Secretary of State, myself, several envoys have traveled to the Gulf over the years, and we’ve floated a variety of ideas. The Kuwaitis have been the key mediator here and still continue to play that role, and which has been extremely helpful, I think. And we have – we have stressed very consistent messages throughout the Gulf rift. Number one, that this is bad for American interests in the region. Number two, that it opens up cracks in what is otherwise a pretty strong wall of opposition to Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region. And number three, really, that we see that the rift only gets worse the longer it goes on. We’ve seen the very vitriolic and personal attacks in social media from the various sides, and we’ve really been very concerned about the impact on the peoples of the countries as well.
So seeing renewed engagement by the Gulf countries here in the last couple of months, a lot of support from the United States and Kuwait, again, is very reassuring. And of course, what we hope for eventually is a re-establishment of diplomatic relations and opening of land and air borders, and so we do look forward to that so that the GCC can play the role that it traditionally has in serving as a united bloc and that we can look forward to more Gulf unity, which is, I think in our view, very important for regional stability.
Moderator: Great, thank you. Our next question is from the live queue and it goes to Muath Alamri from Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.
Question: Hello, good morning. This is Muath Alamri. My question is: The Saudi-led coalition has countered the missiles contained in Yemen; also, the U.S. has seized a huge number of those missiles who were shipped to Houthis by Iran and [inaudible]. We still see multiple attacks in different parts of Yemen and Saudi. How are the Houthis still getting those missiles? What did our coalition and the U.S. miss there? Thank you.
DAS Lenderking: Well, thank you. I mean, it’s a very important issue the whole conflict in Yemen. I think most of the regional countries are really determined to see this conflict end, and we’d like to do it, as I said in my opening remarks, in a way that leaves Yemen united and prosperous and neither a home for terrorists nor emanating or causing regional instability from Yemen. And we have viewed with a great deal of concern the ongoing attacks from the Houthis into Saudi Arabia targeting civilian structures like airports, which, as I mentioned, could kill many different nationalities of people and are obviously beyond the bounds of normal civilized warfare, and their attacks inside Yemen as well. And it’s very disconcerting, I think, from our point of view to see that Iran has continued to fuel the conflict by providing weapons, providing training in those weapons, and enabling the Houthis to conduct more sophisticated and more consistent attacks across the border.
So we really would like to see an end to the provision of such lethal support so that the Houthis can play their proper role in a political process, because at the end of the day there isn’t going to be a military solution to the conflict in Yemen. This is a – it’s very clear to us that neither side can defeat the other on the battlefield and that the more we perpetuate the military conflict, the more the Yemeni people themselves suffer. So we’d like to see the outside actors – all of whom participate in the conflict in one way or the other, but, as I say, we’re particularly troubled by the continued provision of lethal support from Iran to the Houthis, which only fuels the conflict.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question is a pre-submitted question from Mai Elsoukary from Al Qabas newspaper in Kuwait, and she asks about the latest update on the U.S.-Kuwait relationship, including Kuwait’s efforts to achieve Gulf reconciliation, and any comments from the U.S. on the results of the Kuwaiti parliamentary elections. Over to you.
DAS Lenderking: Well, thank you. Kuwait’s a very valuable partner for the United States, and I’ve had the pleasure of both serving there and visiting Kuwait twice, really, in the last few months. And obviously, we viewed with great sorrow and sadness the death of his highness the emir, who was such a great friend of the United States for so many decades and is a huge loss. At the same time, the new emir is somebody that we’ve worked with over the decades, we know very well, and is also a very strong partner. And as I mentioned, we started a strategic dialogue with Kuwait this fall and we had the Kuwait foreign minister here, who’s a very strong friend of the United States, in person. And if you look at that strategic dialogue and the communique that came out from that, you’ll see the sort of the depth and the scope of the issues that we talked about, whether improving access for Kuwaiti students to the United States, to building up our people-to-people ties and our security ties even further. There’s a lot of work that we can do on the counterterrorism front. We already do a significant amount of work with Kuwait on that score.
And so I think another area that we are – that we talk to the Kuwaitis a lot about what we can do together to partner with the other GCC countries to help bring Iraq back into the Arab fold and to ensure that Iraq is a proud and independent country, and not influenced strongly by Iran and its proxy forces. So a very, very important relationship, and we feel very strongly about the way forward and the work that we’ve been able to enshrine in that relationship through the strategic dialogue.
Moderator: Great, thank you. Our next question is from the live queue and goes to Ibrahim Badawi of Al-Raya newspaper in Qatar.
Question: Yes, good morning. Thank you for the opportunity. I have two questions, if I may. First, how do you see Qatar’s openness to solving the Gulf crisis? Second, how important is Qatar as a strategic partner to the U.S., especially in countering terrorism, and the role played by the air base in this fight? Thank you.
DAS Lenderking: Well, thank you very much. Qatar is a very strong ally of the United States, a friend, and you just look at the number of visits that the Secretary of State has made to Qatar recently, that our Acting Secretary of Defense was there for Thanksgiving, and Secretary Mnuchin of Treasury has been there multiple times as well. Secretary Pompeo’s visits have both touched on the bilateral issues that we have between us, but also on the Afghan peace process, and we’re very grateful for the role that the Qataris have played in bridging the gap on numerous occasions.
We’ve also found that throughout the conflict, the – sorry, the Gulf rift – that Qatar has been consistently open to resolving the rift. And we have found that to be a very helpful approach. Qatar has been open to proposals that we have made, has been open to and very receptive to Kuwait mediation. And so we view Qatar’s commitment here as very consistent and we’re very glad to see that.
You mentioned the counterterrorism issue. I mean, we have a fundamental pillar of our strategic dialogue with Qatar is the counterterrorism piece, and our senior counterterrorism officials have been over to Qatar this fall to coordinate on various counterterrorism challenges and measures. So we all feel very strongly that Qatar is a strong partner in counterterrorism with the United States.
Moderator: Great, thank you. Our next question is also from the live queue and goes to Ariel from the Israel Hayom news outlet in Israel.
Question: Yes, hello. Thanks for making this briefing. My question is about – my question goes to U.S.-Qatar ties, and that is actually related to Jordan as well. [Inaudible] little bit more, a convicted terrorist named Nizar Tamimi was expelled from Jordan to Qatar, and his wife is requested to a trial in the U.S. She lives in Jordan now; her name is Ahlam Tamimi. So my question is whether in your conversations in Qatar you raised this issue, and actually, maybe through Qatar, these couple of terrorists would be sent from Jordan to the United States.
DAS Lenderking: Thank you for the question. As I mentioned, Qatar has a very strong relationship with us on counterterrorism. So does Jordan. So does Israel. And when we run into individuals that may have been responsible for killing Americans or other civilians, obviously it becomes a matter or urgence. And I won’t comment further, really, on this particular case.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question is from the live queue and it’s from Joyce Karam with The National newspaper.
Question: Yes, hi, good morning. Good to hear you, DAS Lenderking. My question is a follow-up on the Qatar talks. Do you anticipate any kind of movement perhaps at the GCC summit at end of the year or at least more steps from the boycotting countries? And then, there is a lot of uncertainty – I don’t know if you felt it – in the Gulf from the transition from Trump to the Biden administration. What do you have to say to these countries who have anxieties about a change in policy actually on Iran?
DAS Lenderking: Sure. Thank you, Joyce. On the first one, I’ve seen various press reports about announcements here and announcements there and GCC summits and things like that. I would leave it to the parties to describe what they’re going to announce when. If anything, this has really been a – we’ve always felt that if the dispute is to be resolved, it’s going to take serious engagement by the parties themselves. We can do – we can help, and we have helped, I think, and Kuwait can help as a mediator. They have also helped. But at the end of the day, the parties will have to figure out their own way forward. So I guess I would leave it to them to describe any sort of rapprochement that might emerge in the future. I can only say that we’ve been very supportive of a rapprochement for the reasons I’ve outlined – that we have long argued that it’s not in the interests of the region itself, not only American interests, not in the region of itself to perpetuate such a rift.
Regarding President-elect Biden, and this is a conversation that does arise when one travels in the region, I do think that there’s a certain consistency to American policy toward the region. And that’s not to say that things can’t change with different administrations, but I’m quite sure that the Biden administration will also grasp the strategic importance of these bilateral relationships, and President-elect Biden is no stranger to these countries themselves. So I’m very confident and I think that we will go forward with very strong relations with all of these countries.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question is from the live queue and goes to Jonathan Lessware from Arab News.
Question: Hi, good afternoon. And this really just follows on from Joyce’s last question there. How important do you think it is that the progress that’s been made under the maximum pressure campaign on Iran is something that continues with the next administration, and that whatever happens in terms of revisiting deals or whatever is – that the sanctions and, as I say, the pressure put on Iran continues and continues to shape that policy?
DAS Lenderking: Yeah, thank you. I mean, we’ve had – we’ve had, I think, a pretty clear approach with regard to Iran under this administration, and I think that the – I mean, I can’t really speculate about how the new administration will approach the Iran problem. But I can say that there are certain consistencies. One is – or common features. The goal of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign has not been to destroy Iran or to bring down the leadership. It has been to try and force a change in behavior, and that’s – I think any American administration would want to see different behavior out of Iran because so much of what we see is very concerning when you look at their support for various conflicts. I mentioned Yemen, but one could look at Syria, their support for proxy forces in Iraq. I mean, all of these areas where Iranian influence has been brought to bear is destabilizing for – to our interests and also to the region’s.
So I think if you look at progress made in the Abraham Accords with Arab countries breaking down barriers with Israel and vice versa and starting to cooperate on a full spectrum of areas, signing MOUs, establishing personal relationships, traveling as tourists, as government delegations, I think all of this is for the – really helps stability in the region. It also puts a certain amount of pressure on Iran, and we’ve seen that Iran has reacted very, very critically to these breakthroughs in normalization.
I do think that the amount of pressure that Iran has felt has maybe helped create common – sort of common perceptions among some of the Arab countries and Israel. So I anticipate that that will continue.
Moderator: Great. Our next question goes to Steven Kalin from The Wall Street Journal.
Question: Hi, Tim. Thanks for doing this. I wanted to ask about something that the Secretary mentioned after the Saudi strategic dialogue with Prince Faisal back in Washington. He had asked for a travel ban on Walid Fitaihi, the U.S. citizen, to be lifted. But instead, this week Mr. Fitaihi was sentenced to six years in prison and six more years of travel ban. His charges include holding U.S. citizenship and insulting foreign leaders. So I’m wondering if the Secretary raised this case when he was in Saudi Arabia most recently, if he raised the other cases of U.S. citizens currently detained, and if you expect there might be any consequences to the bilateral relationship from these sorts of detentions.
DAS Lenderking: Hey, thanks, Steve. The Secretary, as you noted, in his public remarks after the strategic dialogue did mention the Fitaihi case in particular, and he’s been a strong advocate for Walid Fitaihi and other American citizens who are detained – obviously, not only in Saudi Arabia but in other countries such as Iran, whether it’s been through kidnapping as well. Yes. I mean, we will – we were disappointed, obviously, with the results. We know that there is an appeals process coming up. We’ve talked to the Saudis about our concerns. And we’re also in the process of sort of reading through the court documents that are available to us and fully understanding what the sentencing means. And I mean, I can assure you that human rights remains a very strong element of our engagement with the kingdom, and it will continue to be so.
Moderator: We have time for one last question, and the last question goes to Jonathan Landay from Reuters.
Question: Hi, Mr. Secretary. Thank you so much for doing this. On Saturday, the Omani foreign minister said that your boss, David Schenker, discussed – and I think it was on the trip that you were on – the possibility of Washington designating the Houthi movement as a terrorist group, and he expressed opposition to this, concerned about the impact it would have on any negotiations to end the war in Yemen. The secretary-general of the UN has expressed concern about this because of the impact that a designation would have on humanitarian deliveries to Yemen. Europeans have expressed concern and the humanitarian groups that deliver aid have also expressed concern about the impact of such a designation when Yemen is facing another famine. I’m wondering if you can talk about, please, where the United States is on this process and whether or not a designation is going to go forward.
DAS Lenderking: Well, thank you very much, Jonathan. I won’t comment on the internal deliberations on this particular issue, but I would say that the reason that this arises is because the Houthis do things that are akin to behavior of a terrorist organization. They target civilians, as I mentioned, and civilian infrastructure. They use kidnapping as a tool of war. And they – if anything, they seem to be deepening their relationship with the IRGC, which, from our point of view, is a designated terrorist organization. So it’s really those three areas that drive this – that drive this debate. If those things weren’t happening, there would be no debate about this issue and there would be no need for it.
The other things that the Houthis do that we find distasteful – the use of child soldiers, the barring of access to the Safer tanker for the United Nations, which could lead to a maritime catastrophe, and their obstruction of aid inside Yemen – are also highly distasteful activities, but they’re not specifically terrorist in their formation.
So it’s really those three issues that I pointed out at the top. The fact that the Houthis continue to do this seems to have two results. One, it undermines the Houthis’ own standing in the world community. Number two, it calls into question their commitment to peace in Yemen. So if they are to play the role that we all would like to see them play as a legitimate political actor inside Yemen, we would see that these activities would have to stop.
Moderator: And now, Deputy Assistant Secretary, if you have any closing remarks, I’ll turn it back over to you.
DAS Lenderking: No. Thank you all very much for joining. I just want to sort of emphasize that the engagement that we continue to have with the Gulf countries remains consistent and, if anything, it’s only increased I would say in the least year, and that’s partly because we, I think, all feel very strongly that we have very important equities in these relationships. They feel the same way. And I think part of the challenge going forward is to continue to build on those while identifying areas where we don’t see completely eye to eye and trying to work with these countries to minimize those gaps, because I think that that will be beneficial to both American security and the regional security. Thank you very much.
Moderator: That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank Deputy Assistant Secretary Lenderking for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at DubaiMediaHub@state.gov. Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you and have a good day.
# # # #