FPI Conference Call: Upheaval on the Arabian Peninsula: Yemen and Saudi Arabia in Context

On January 30th, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) hosted a conference call on the recent developments in of both Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations, Nadwa Al-Dawsari of the Sheba Center for International Development, and Katherine Zimmerman from the American Enterprise Institute offered their perspectives on the developing situation.
 
In addition to the full audio of the event, FPI believes the following quotes will be helpful for policymakers, lawmakers, and the general public to understand the complex changes occurring on the Arabian Peninsula.
 

The Saudi Succession and Potential for Reform
 
“It’s unlikely to change – there’s nothing in King Salman’s past as governor of Riyadh for about forty years that suggests that he was particularly a reformer, not on the role of women, not on democratic development. There’s been a rumor in the last couple of days that he said to someone in an e-mail that he’s in favor of a constitutional monarchy, but I would be surprised if the level of repression started to go down … I think the kind of thing that we would view as significant reforms is unlikely.” – Elliott Abrams
 
"Oil policy, policy toward the United States, policy toward Iran, Bahrain, Yemen, very unlikely, I think, to see significant change. These policies were the policies that had a wide family consensus. The question I think would be if the king becomes sick, whether you have weak Saudi leadership in the Arab world and the Middle East rather than strong Saudi leadership, but I think the fundamental policies will continue, the ones we’re familiar with under King Abdullah." – Elliott Abrams
 
The Strength of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
 
“I would assess AQAP to still be fairly strong, and it will try to capitalize on current events with the Al-Houthis. It has lost territory over the past couple of years simply because local tribal populations and other areas have been able to push AQAP out, because they don’t buy into AQAP’s ideology, and security forces have returned. At the same time, some of the local populations don’t have the central government support necessary to keep AQAP out. When you look at the question of whether Al-Qaeda has been beaten in Yemen and whether it’s trying to attack the United States, we have to remember that AQAP is just a node in the Al-Qaeda network, and its leadership is cognizant of this. Right now, the Iraq/Syria front is the main effort and AQAP has been very strongly supportive of [Al-Qaeda in] Syria, and has directed people to go fight jihad in Syria.” – Katherine Zimmerman
 
Assessing the U.S Strategy in Yemen
 
“I think U.S. policy in Yemen didn’t succeed much in reducing Al Qaeda’s influence because the policy has been narrowly focused, security-centric. The U.S. government has tended to work with individuals, rather than building institutions. In the case of Yemen, the government partnered with dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has played everyone. He’s used Al Qaeda for political leverage and to keep support for his regime.” – Nadwa Al-Dawsari
 
“We are really treating the fight against Al-Qaeda–AQAP here, and Jabhat Al-Nusra in Syria (which we’re actually not dealing with), and ISIS in Iraq–as a counter terrorist fight and they’re all fighting insurgencies. That requires a different strategy than the one we’re pursuing today.” – Katherine Zimmerman 
 
“I think that the problem is that the U.S. government tends to work with [the] central government and in Yemen, the central government has always been, not weak, but extremely corrupt. … You cannot fight al Qaeda without the support of local populations and local tribes. This is key and very important.” – Nadwa Al-Dawsari
 
Iranian Influence in Yemen
 
"There is a lot of evidence that suggests that [the Houthis] are receiving a lot of support from Iran. I mean, Houthis have conducted a lot of operations over the past year and they couldn’t have done that without funding and that could have come from Iran." – Nadwa Al-Dawsari
 
“The relationship with Iran is murky and we’re still trying to hash out what is and what isn’t happening between the two. The Iran team at the Critical Threats Project here at AEI has pulled together increasing Iranian statements talking about Sana’a as the fourth Arab capital of the Islamic Iranian Revolution, and increasing messaging that they want to see the Houthis succeed.” – Katherine Zimmerman
 
"The Saudis and Emiratis blame all of this on Iran. I think they’d have to grant, that as has been said, that the Houthis are an internally generated movement in Yemen and the Saudis were supposed to be dealing with the Houthis, who started out in essence along their border. So one of the things that we’re seeing is a complete failure of Saudi policy toward Yemen over the past 10 years, but the Saudis totally believe that the reason the Houthis are able to succeed militarily is the amount of money, advice, and guns they are receiving from Iran." – Elliott Abrams
 
 
Perceptions of U.S. Policy in the Region
 
“[T]he Arab states and Israel… believe that we have an overall strategic plan. They believe that our overall strategic plan is a rapprochement with Iran–that we’re cooperating with Iran, fighting ISIS in Iraq. [That] we’ve given up on trying to get rid of Asaad in Syria and are more or less accepting some kind of political negotiation that leaves Asaad there for quite a while. They believe we are trying to do a deal in the nuclear talks that will allow Iran to move forward and won’t eliminate their nuclear weapons program.” – Elliott Abrams
 
“The U.S. tends to view the Middle East region and all of its problems in different spheres, whereas the Arab countries and Iran see what we’re doing as a comprehensive strategy. … We need to be aware of how the partnered governments are reading U.S. policy and action and I think that’s some of the reason why we’re seeing so much confusion and distrust of what the U.S. is willing and able to do.” –Katherine Zimmerman

Speaker Biographies

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington, DC.  He served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor in the administration of President George W. Bush, where he supervised U.S. policy in the Middle East for the White House.  After serving on the staffs of Sens. Henry M. Jackson and Daniel P. Moynihan, he was an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration and received the secretary of state's Distinguished Service Award from Secretary George P. Shultz.  In 2012, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy gave him its Scholar-Statesman Award.  Mr. Abrams was president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, from 1996 until joining the White House staff.  He was a member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2001 and chairman of the commission in the latter year, and in 2012 was reappointed to membership for another term.  Mr. Abrams is also a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which directs the activities of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.  He teaches U.S. foreign policy at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.  He is the author of four books, Undue Process (1993), Security and Sacrifice (1995), Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America (1997), and Tested by Zion: the Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (2013).  Mr. Abrams was educated at Harvard College, the London School of Economics, and Harvard Law School.

Nadwa Al-Dawsari is a conflict specialist and civil society leader with over 15 years of experience working in the field of conflict and change management, civil society development, women and youth empowerment, and elections monitoring.  She is a leading Yemeni specialist on tribes, tribal conflict resolution systems, and a pioneer in designing and implementing innovative, cultural specific conflict-sensitive programs.  Since 2005, Nadwa has led the implementation of programs in remote tribal areas while working directly with tribal leaders, religious leaders, civil society organizations, women, youth groups, and local authorities to help promote the culture of conflict management and conflict-sensitive development in Yemen.  Nadwa is co-founder of the Sheba Center for International Development.  She is a member of the Institute of Inclusive Security’s Women Waging Peace Network.  She holds a Master’s degree in Development Studies from the University of Leeds.

Katherine Zimmerman is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the lead analyst on al Qaeda for AEI’s Critical Threats Project.  Her work is focused on the al Qaeda network, particularly al Qaeda’s affiliates in the Gulf of Aden region, and other associated groups in western and northern Africa.  She specializes in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based al Qaeda faction, and in al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia.  Zimmerman has testified before Congress about the national security threats emanating from al Qaeda and its network and has briefed members of Congress, their staff, and members of the defense community.  She has been published in outlets such as CNN.com, The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.  You can follow her on twitter at @KatieZimmerman. Zimmerman graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in political science and modern Middle East studies.
 
Dr. David Adesnik is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Initiative, where he focuses on defense and strategy issues. Previously, David was a visiting fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. For two years, he served as deputy director for Joint Data Support at the U.S. Department of Defense, where he focused on the modeling and simulation of irregular warfare and counterinsurgency. David also spent several years as research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Council on Foreign Relations, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Harvard University, and the University of Virginia. His work has been published in Foreign Policy, The Weekly Standard, The National Review, The Washington Free Beacon, The Washington Quarterly, Forbes.com, FoxNews.com and The Daily Caller. David holds a doctorate and master’s degree in international relations from Oxford University, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar.  David received a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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