Former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia visits campus

Patricia Dillon, Managing Editor

The former United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Robert Jordan, who was brought here by the Political Science Department, presented his view on the Middle East last Friday. Jordan was the ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2001 to 2003. He led U.S. efforts to secure the cooperation of Saudi Arabia following the attacks of 9/11 and promoted stronger U.S. and Saudi Arabia relations. He is currently serving as a Diplomat-in-Residence and adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University.

Jordan briefly discussed the instability in Yemen. “[It] is, on its best day, very close to a failed state,” Jordan stated. Men in Yemen are almost required to carry a dagger or knife in their belt and a rifle of some kind in the seat of their vehicle. People in Yemen also chew on quat, a plant that contains a high concentration of caffeine. According to Jordan, this means that there are many who are “high on the stuff they’ve been chewing” while carrying weapons around, which does not create a good environment for a stable government. With the country being in such a poor state, Jordan said, “Al-Qaeda could find many spots within Yemen to hide out and to launch attacks. And, in fact, the number of the attacks that we have seen in recent years have actually been planned by Al-Qaeda from within Yemen.”

In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah died in January and was succeeded by his half brother Prince Salman. King Salman appointed Prince Muhammad as the deputy prime minister. He is also the minister of interior. Prince Muhammad, shortly after 9/11, tried to figure put how to deal with terrorists and to see if they could be rehabilitated. Many terrorists are indoctrinated by rogue imams (religious teachers of Islam) who teach a “hate filled message of death and destruction,” according to Jordan. Prince Muhammad tried a program where he would reprogram terrorists by associating them with legit imams who preach a peaceful message. He claims an 80 percent success rate, but one of the supposed reprogrammed terrorists went to shake hands with Prince Muhammad and blew himself up in an attempt to kill the Prince. Muhammad was only slightly injured. Despite the attempt on his life, the American educated Prince decided to continue with the rehabilitation program.

Saudi Arabia currently has problems with an undereducated population. Some people call this “The Curse of Oil,” which means that “they have become so wealthy with their oil Petra dollars that they have had little incentive to educate their population for job related skills,” Jordan said. All of the government jobs to be had have been offered up and so students leaving college will not be able to obtain jobs.

“Why should we support Saudi Arabia?” Jordan asked the audience. “After all they treat women poorly. They behead people in public squares. They don’t have the same kind of values that a lot of us in the West have. And I think it’s a legitimate question.

For 65 years the U.S. and the Saudi’s have had some kind of a relationship, generally a pretty good one. Not based on common values because that’s not really accurate, but it is based on common interests. What are those interests? Well… we still have an interest in oil.”

America is not fully energy independent and even if it were it would still need to trade with other countries because oil is a fungible commodity that trades on the international market. “If there’s not a reliable supply of that oil from the rest of the world, the rest of the world will either have to pay higher prices, which means they can purchase fewer American goods, or we will have a collapse in the oil markets, which will also do no one any good at all,” Jordan said.

Secondly, people in Saudi Arabia have been a “reliable moderating force in the Muslim world,” Jordan said. They are the cradle of Islamic religion and having them as an ally is worth something.

Saudi Arabia also lies as a crossroads. In order to project force in many parts of the world the United States has to fly through Saudi Arabian airspace and it can only do so with their permission.

As ambassador, Robert Jordan helped push Saudi Arabia into the World Trade Organization which required the country to pass laws and regulations to meet higher standards. This opens them up for international commerce, makes it harder for businesses to highjack foreign investors, and provides more job opportunities for women. “If we cut the cord with Saudi Arabia, we lose our ability to influence decisions… we lose our ability to encourage this openness,” Jordan said.

In the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is the most populous city. It has a freewheeling, relatively open society and materialistic lifestyle. It houses the world’s tallest building and “it’s home to probably every regional headquarters of every Fortune 500 company,” Jordan said. By looking at Dubai, the potential for other emirates can be seen. The UAE is probably the strongest ally of the United States in the Middle East,” Jordan said. They have been critical of President Obama, especially when he threatened Syria if Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons and then failed to follow through on the threat when he did.

Egypt “had a very repressive ruler in Hosni Mubarak, military officer, and he over played his hand toward the end of his regime by suggesting that his son Gamal could take his place. This completely alienated the military in Egypt… who didn’t want to see another dynasty,” Jordan said. Students started demonstrating in the streets and a constitution was passed. An election was held and the Muslim Brotherhood won because they were the only organizational framework. They could not govern well and demonstrations erupted again. The leader in Egypt is now former general is Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who is heavily backed by the Saudi’s. The economy of Egypt is teetering and the United States has withheld much of its foreign aid because of the nondemocratic way in which el-Sisi came into office.

Chaos entered the Middle East when regimes toppled over and there were no adequate replacement regimes. In Syria there has been “terrible death and destruction, millions of refugees, and an awful, awful situation there,” Jordan said.

Jordan said, “[In Iraq] we were able to coopt many of the Sunni tribes into a force that would stabilize and resist Al-Queda and the other insurgent groups that were fighting. Once we left in 2011, there was no one for those Sunni tribes to work with and who came in and took their place? ISIS.”

“ISIS had its origins, frankly, in the aftermath of our invasion of Iraq,” Jordan said. In a matter of months after the invasion started the American military officer in charge of the occupation disbanded the Iraqi military. This left hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers without a paycheck, in control of weapons, and becoming more desperate. A dozen of the more senior officers from Saddam Hussein’s regime are the military directors of ISIS. “[They are] American trained, using American equipment that they have captured or stolen, and holding large swaths of territory,” Jordan said. “This is a very serious problem and has been made worse since our departure in 2011.”

“ISIS is sort of like Al-Queda on steroids,” Jordan said “but I would suggest to you that they are not really a terrorist organization. They are essentially a pseudo state. They are an army.”

ISIS is brash. They want to project their brutality and want to recruit people that are attracted to that brutality, and so they are “essentially recruiting all the psychopaths in the world,” Jordan said. ISIS offers its members women rather than making them wait for their rewards in the after life like Al-Queda does.

We cannot fight ISIS the way we fight Al-Queda with a counter insurgency program. The counter insurgency program clears out the immediate combatants, holds the territory they occupied, and then relies upon the local government to put something in its place that can care for a population, provide security, and develop a society. For the third part to work there must be a credible local government to build and this is what was and is lacking in Iraq.

“[ISIS is] about raw power and so for us to combat them we’re going to have to exercise raw power ourselves. You can’t deal with them diplomatically,” Jordan said.

We have to recruit the locals to stand up for themselves and offer a Sunni alternative to ISIS. They have to stop outsourcing their security needs to the United States and create their own local security to stand up to ISIS.

“When we look around the Middle East do we have cause for hope or is it just a basket case that we should walk away from?” Jordan said. “We really can’t afford to walk away from it. There’s too much at stake. We can’t simply say we’re energy independent so let them fight their own battles. I think we can be smart about it. We don’t have to have our soldiers dying every day, but we have to use diplomacy at its best in encouraging the neighbors to take charge of the neighborhood and give them the tools to do so and the support that we can. If we don’t, I’m afraid that it will not be a world much worth living in, particularly in the Middle East.”