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© 2022 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
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Before the 9/11 tragedy struck American soil, U.S. facilities in the Persian Gulf region were placed on a heightened state   of   alert , as U.S. authorities were informed that “American citizens abroad may be targeted by extremist groups with links to bin Laden’s organisation, Al-Qaeda.” The threats of terrorism were already evident in the years prior, including the suicide attacks in 2000 targeting the USS Cole as it refuelled in Aden, and the 1996 Khobar Towers explosions in Saudi Arabia aimed at U.S. troops deployed under Operation Southern Watch. During the summer of 2001, the Pew Research Center found that terrorism was perceived as a greater   threat by the American public than China’s emergence as a world power or Saddam Hussein’s continued rule in Iraq. Fast-forward to twenty years after 9/11. The Biden administration completed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. More recently, President Biden declared   that “justice has been delivered” after taking out Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose demise comes eleven years after his predecessor, Osama Bin Laden. The president’s words were crafted as if to signal a form of closure, earning him a winning   narrative given the wider context of the war in Ukraine, spiking inflation, and competition with China. The reconfigured landscape of global affairs means that terrorism—as an existential threat—has fallen down the pecking order, at least for the U.S. public. The same Pew Research Center conducted a survey   for   U.S.   adults   in   early 2021 and found that: (1) protecting American jobs should be given top priority (at 75 percent), followed by (2) reducing the spread of diseases (at 71 percent). While “measures to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks” comes in third, the share who believe countering China should take precedence in foreign policy has “increased from about a third to roughly half since 2018.” Where do the Gulf Arab states stand then and now? The narrative of violent Islam, which became synonymous with the Arab-Muslim world, was compounded by the backgrounds of the 19 9/11 hijackers, who hailed from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Egypt. In the immediate post-9/11 era, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, as explained by Rory Miller, a Professor of Government at Georgetown University-Qatar, moved to deal with the regional terror threat with “three distinct but overlapping approaches”: (1) statements and declarations that set the parameters for counter-terror cooperation; (2) practical actions that restricted the transnational nature of terror acts; and (3) practical agreements that expanded cross-border intelligence cooperation. 1 In more recent times, the U.S. Committee on Foreign Affairs in 2016 asserted that, in analytical terms, the individuals who live in Saudi Arabia and financially support terrorism should be separated from the kingdom’s government, which has “adopted strict laws prohibiting terrorist finance.” The same committee hearing shared concerns about Saudi charities funding terrorist groups and foreign fighters. Yet, under the kingdom’s de-facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, analysts have indicated that such a funding tap has now dried up. On the whole, the GCC states have, besides military efforts, addressed extremism within   their   borders by means of rehabilitation and reintegration, religious leader engagement, and countering the finance of terrorism. Tackling terrorism is but one of many priorities for the Gulf states, where their recalibration of foreign policy mirrors the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy. “Hedging” is the buzzword best used to describe the Gulf states’ geopolitical strategy amid U.S.-China rivalry and references the cultivation of ties with different states without disrupting an advantageous status quo. As Washington’s attention shifts towards China—as well as Russia—the Gulf states have made similar adjustments, with the understanding that their longstanding national security ensured by the United States is no longer as reliable as it once was. Washington’s preference to downgrade its involvement in the Middle East continues from the Obama   administration when the president said “there is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa.” If words were insufficient as proof, the more recent Afghanistan withdrawal debacle had certainly left a bitter taste in the Gulf states’ mouths as they rode to America’s rescue by helping to facilitate evacuation efforts. Then came the Russia-Ukraine crisis which brought the energy security—both at the global level and for Europe—into focus. Suddenly, the Gulf states have taken center stage again. President Biden’s climbdown in his stance toward Saudi Arabia (after the Khashoggi affair and labeling the kingdom a “pariah” state), encapsulated by his 2022 visit to Jeddah, is testament to the fact that neither Riyadh nor the rest of the Gulf states should be ignored in global affairs. Returning to the rhetoric of the “war on terror,” Emman   El-Badawy , the Head of Research at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, writes that “with the habit of viewing the Middle East through the lens of intractable conflict, it is easy to miss the opportunities for constructing a new doctrine for Western engagement.” Even without the terrorism paradigm, rhetoric remains constructed, framed, and employed as the user deems fit. Iran’s indirect cooperation with the U.S. military after 9/11, for instance, helped topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and stabilize a new government in Kabul, but Tehran later found itself part of an “Axis of Evil” in President Bush’s State   of   the   Union   address in 2002. Barbara Slavin, Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, lamented this as a failure to “distinguish properly between those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and other US adversaries.” Reneging on a promise bears an uncanny resemblance to President Trump’s pull-out from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), after it had taken the P5+1+EU rounds of arduous negotiations to reach an agreement. The ghosts of both the distant and recent pasts will serve as a reminder to the Gulf states that the U.S. has, then and now, acted in a way that mirrors its own national interests. So too can the Gulf states reorganize their own priorities according to what is usually termed “sovereign decisions.” Although anti-terrorism rhetoric and associated operations persist, this paradigm has been superseded by other immediate concerns, notably a perceived diminishing of U.S. interest in the region. Two decades ago, anti-terrorism rhetoric and ideology compelled the Gulf states to pick sides when President Bush famously   declared , “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Today, the Gulf states are picking from multiple “baskets” of partnerships. Strategic hedging is now the name of the game.
Source: Saudi Press Agency
How the Sands Have Shifted: Reflections on 9/11 as a Chapter in U.S.-Gulf Relations
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© 2022 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
Source: Saudi Press Agency
Before the 9/11 tragedy struck American soil, U.S. facilities in the Persian Gulf region were placed on a heightened    state    of    alert , as U.S. authorities were informed that “American citizens abroad may be targeted by extremist groups with links to bin Laden’s organisation, Al- Qaeda.” The threats of terrorism were already evident in the years prior, including the suicide attacks in 2000 targeting the USS Cole as it refuelled in Aden, and the 1996 Khobar Towers explosions in Saudi Arabia aimed at U.S. troops deployed under Operation Southern Watch. During the summer of 2001, the Pew Research Center found that terrorism was perceived as a greater    threat by the American public than China’s emergence as a world power or Saddam Hussein’s continued rule in Iraq. Fast-forward to twenty years after 9/11. The Biden administration completed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. More recently, President Biden declared   that “justice has been delivered” after taking out Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose demise comes eleven years after his predecessor, Osama Bin Laden. The president’s words were crafted as if to signal a form of closure, earning him a winning   narrative given the wider context of the war in Ukraine, spiking inflation, and competition with China. The reconfigured landscape of global affairs means that terrorism—as an existential threat—has fallen down the pecking order, at least for the U.S. public. The same Pew Research Center conducted a survey   for   U.S.   adults   in   early 2021 and found that: (1) protecting American jobs should be given top priority (at 75 percent), followed by (2) reducing the spread of diseases (at 71 percent). While “measures to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks” comes in third, the share who believe countering China should take precedence in foreign policy has “increased from about a third to roughly half since 2018.” Where do the Gulf Arab states stand then and now? The narrative of violent Islam, which became synonymous with the Arab-Muslim world, was compounded by the backgrounds of the 19 9/11 hijackers, who hailed from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Egypt. In the immediate post-9/11 era, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, as explained by Rory Miller, a Professor of Government at Georgetown University-Qatar, moved to deal with the regional terror threat with “three distinct but overlapping approaches”: (1) statements and declarations that set the parameters for counter-terror cooperation; (2) practical actions that restricted the transnational nature of terror acts; and (3) practical agreements that expanded cross-border intelligence cooperation. 1 In more recent times, the U.S. Committee on Foreign Affairs in 2016 asserted that, in analytical terms, the individuals who live in Saudi Arabia and financially support terrorism should be separated from the kingdom’s government, which has “adopted strict laws prohibiting terrorist finance.” The same committee hearing shared concerns about Saudi charities funding terrorist groups and foreign fighters. Yet, under the kingdom’s de-facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, analysts have indicated that such a funding tap has now dried up. On the whole, the GCC states have, besides military efforts, addressed extremism within      their borders by means of rehabilitation and reintegration, religious leader engagement, and countering the finance of terrorism. Tackling terrorism is but one of many priorities for the Gulf states, where their recalibration of foreign policy mirrors the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy. “Hedging” is the buzzword best used to describe the Gulf states’ geopolitical strategy amid U.S.-China rivalry and references the cultivation of ties with different states without disrupting an advantageous status quo. As Washington’s attention shifts towards China—as well as Russia—the Gulf states have made similar adjustments, with the understanding that their longstanding national security ensured by the United States is no longer as reliable as it once was. Washington’s preference to downgrade its involvement in the Middle East continues from the Obama   administration when the president said “there is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa.” If words were insufficient as proof, the more recent Afghanistan withdrawal debacle had certainly left a bitter taste in the Gulf states’ mouths as they rode to America’s rescue by helping to facilitate evacuation efforts. Then came the Russia-Ukraine crisis which brought the energy security—both at the global level and for Europe—into focus. Suddenly, the Gulf states have taken center stage again. President Biden’s climbdown in his stance toward Saudi Arabia (after the Khashoggi affair and labeling the kingdom a “pariah” state), encapsulated by his 2022 visit to Jeddah, is testament to the fact that neither Riyadh nor the rest of the Gulf states should be ignored in global affairs. Returning to the rhetoric of the “war on terror,” Emman   El-Badawy , the Head of Research at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, writes that “with the habit of viewing the Middle East through the lens of intractable conflict, it is easy to miss the opportunities for constructing a new doctrine for Western engagement.” Even without the terrorism paradigm, rhetoric remains constructed, framed, and employed as the user deems fit. Iran’s indirect cooperation with the U.S. military after 9/11, for instance, helped topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and stabilize a new government in Kabul, but Tehran later found itself part of an “Axis of Evil” in President Bush’s State   of   the   Union   address in 2002. Barbara Slavin, Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, lamented this as a failure to “distinguish properly between those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and other US adversaries.” Reneging on a promise bears an uncanny resemblance to President Trump’s pull- out from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), after it had taken the P5+1+EU rounds of arduous negotiations to reach an agreement. The ghosts of both the distant and recent pasts will serve as a reminder to the Gulf states that the U.S. has, then and now, acted in a way that mirrors its own national interests. So too can the Gulf states reorganize their own priorities according to what is usually termed “sovereign decisions.” Although anti-terrorism rhetoric and associated operations persist, this paradigm has been superseded by other immediate concerns, notably a perceived diminishing of U.S. interest in the region. Two decades ago, anti-terrorism rhetoric and ideology compelled the Gulf states to pick sides when President Bush famously declared , “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Today, the Gulf states are picking from multiple “baskets” of partnerships. Strategic hedging is now the name of the game.
© 2022 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
How  the Sands Have Shifted: Reflections  on 9/11  as a Chapter in U.S.-Gulf Relations
Written by
Clemens Chay
Research Fellow, Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore
If you are interested in contributing an article for the project, please send a short summary of the proposed topic (no more than 200 words) and brief bio to submissions@911legacies.com. For all other matters, please contact inquiry@911legacies.com.
CONTACT