On Monday, the Hudson Institute hosted a conversation with Rear Admiral Chris Parry, Royal Navy (Ret.), entitled Europe at Sea: Mediterranean and Baltic Security Challenges. Seth Cropsey, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute, moderated. Admiral Parry spoke about the challenges that Europe faces, given that it is surrounded by water on three sides, and outlined several alternative political futures for Europe.
The threats to Europe from the sea are not new. In 1983, the USSR had a plan to attack Europe through the Central Front plus the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas. Understanding the way the Russians view the Black and Baltic Seas is crucial to understanding Putin’s motives. They have a very short coastline on the Baltic Sea. Until they took Crimea, they had a short Black Sea coast as well. This has always made the Russians nervous. Russia and the Scandinavian countries also have competing claims in the Arctic. Russia’s claims extend far beyond the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and Russian icebreakers now escort vessels through the Arctic.
Europe, however, is more worried about the Mediterranean because of unstable states in North Africa and the Levant, as well as migration both by sea and overland through Turkey. There is a risk for the return of Barbary piracy, as well as for seaborne terrorist attacks on coastal tourist areas. Northern Europe believes that it is the responsibility of Southern European countries to deal with this. The EU is not set up to make political decisions because it is an economic union with political pretensions. The effort needed to run the EU saps energy from efforts to address seaborne security threats.
Parry spoke about how influence has shifted, such that the important global players are now the US and the East Asian countries. The US is well-placed to benefit from globalization. If Europe isn’t careful, it will decline and become strategically irrelevant. In the future, Parry sees:
- An increase in the use of state power by non-Western countries.
- Small amounts of high-quality force will be decisive.
- Increased proxy activity, because states don’t want to directly confront each other.
- WMD proliferation.
- Increased terrorism.
- Diffusion of technology and weaponry.
There will be both irregular threats from terrorism, criminality, disasters and disease, as well as renewed threats from China, Russia, ISIS, Marxist revivalists (in Greece, for example), regional aspirants and weapons proliferation. Europe will need to contain a Middle Eastern equivalent of Europe’s Thirty Years War, ensure access to natural resources, and adapt to climate change.
Though Putin constitutes an existential threat, Parry noted that defense expenditure in Europe is declining. NATO countries still however spend more than non-NATO countries. It spends far more to shoot down a cheap missile than the missile costs; this unsustainable cost ratio must decrease. NATO has failed to resist coercion in Ukraine. Hitler knew he would win at Munich because he knew the British and French wouldn’t go to war. Putin is using traditional hard power and is confused by our lack of response. Russia’s Baltic Sea exercises are designed to resist NATO forces.
Scandinavia is nervous. Europe has become strategically dependent on the US; some European countries have armies that aren’t prepared to go to war. The UK is investing in new aircraft carriers but is hollowing out the rest of the Royal Navy. To resist coercion at sea from Russia, a change in attitude is needed.
Parry also spoke about the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The Iran deal represents what is possible, rather than what is desirable. China and Russia have been keen to maintain Iran as a client state and suppress its nuclear ambitions. In the rush to welcome Iran into the global economy, we need to be careful about the security dimensions. As a result of the Sunni-Shiite conflict in MENA, the “Great Satan” tag will shift from the US to Saudi Arabia. China has invested heavily in new trade routes. It may get the bulk of its future oil and gas from Shiite Iran and Shiite-dominated Iraq. But China could also move into the Southern Gulf States if the US and Europe reduce their commitments there.
Like Russia, China is increasing its naval presence, sometimes disregarding the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. There are increasing numbers of Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean as well as Chinese ships in the Mediterranean and Chinese icebreakers in the Arctic. China views its oil rigs as sovereign territory, which means that it believes it can base missiles and surveillance off of them. This is illegal under international law.
Parry outlined three different potential futures for Europe:
- A Eurasian future: the US drifts to the Pacific and Europe pursues economic cooperation with Russia and China.
- A maritime future: Parts of Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Korea together control trade on the seas. The sea is the physical equivalent of the World Wide Web and controlling it is vital for international trade.
- A fragmented future: There are no eternal friends or enemies, just interests, and each country pursues its own interests. Europe’s separatist movements could also lead to a fragmented future.
According to Parry, the US now faces choices as well. Unconventional oil and gas have been a game-changer for the US economy. The US has to decide whether it will use this money to remain strategically dominant or turn inward. The 2016 election will be crucial. In the future, if it becomes clear that help isn’t coming from the US, European countries will seek accommodation with Russia and East Asian countries will seek accommodation with China. This will have major geostrategic consequences.
So now US government officials are denying any intention of creating protected areas in northern Syria. They just want to clear the Islamic State from a portion of the Turkish border.
This makes no sense. ISIS governs the territory in question at present. Something will replace it if ISIS is “cleared.” The Turks can be counted on to prevent Syrian Kurds from filling the vacuum. Washington and Ankara should both be worried about what else might.
One possibility is a return to the area of the Syrian government, whether in the guise of the now decimated Syrian Army, Alawite/Shia militias or Hizbollah. From the Turkish point of view, that would be a disaster, as it would significantly strengthen Ankara’s archenemy Bashar al Asad on its southern border and provide him with the ability to allow infiltration of Turkey by both jihadi and Kurdish terrorists.
Or, more likely, ISIS could return as soon as American and Turkish attention focus elsewhere. The notion that ISIS can be cleared permanently without somehow providing minimal state functions in any area is unconvincing. Turkey is talking about Syrian refugees returning to the cleared area. They won’t do that unless there is some semblance of law and order in the area.
The Americans may be leaving the tasks of “holding” and “building” to the Turks. That makes some sense, since Turkish national interests are directly engaged. But a Turkish occupation of any part of Syria would rouse nationalist sentiments to fever pitch and risk unifying Syrians against a Turkish incursion.
The Turks could try to work through the moderate Syrian opposition, which however is not strong in northern Syria. It would need substantial assistance from Turkey to take over security and governance there. It is not clear that Ankara is prepared to take on that role, but it may have to do so if it wants to keep the Kurds, the Syrian government and ISIS out of the area.
Why is the Obama administration leaving this vital issue of who would govern in a liberated area of northern Syria unresolved? It wants to avoid getting involved in another state-building effort in the Middle East, where such efforts have repeatedly failed.
I understand the impulse. But President Obama has already acknowledged that it was a mistake to leave Libya to its own devices after the NATO-led intervention collapsed the regime of Muammar Qaddafi. Libya is today in chaos. Breeding in that chaos are several jihadi groups, including some that identify with ISIS. It would be no less a mistake to clear the Islamic State from a portion of northern Syria and leave who will then govern the liberated territory to chance.
Here are some criticisms of the Iran deal that contain at least a kernel of truth. I thought I might go over these, for the sake of clarifying some of the arguments pro and con:
1. It will give Iran a lot of money to do bad things with. That is true. It’s not as much money as some are claiming: perhaps $50 billion fairly quickly the US Treasury thinks, rather than the $100-150 billion deal opponents cite. Since the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its affiliates has lost a great deal (two-thirds of the country’s centrifuges and virtually all of its enriched uranium, not to mention a plutonium-producing reactor filled with concrete), the pressures to compensate it with both money and freedom to do bad things in the region will be enormous. That means more money for shipping arms to Bahrain, Yemen and above all Syria as well as compensating Hizbollah for its losses. Only by countering Iranian moves in those places can the US hope to avoid some of the consequences.
2. All the agreement does is buy time. Yes, that is the main thing it does, by pushing Iran back from a breakout time (the time it needs to get the fissile material needed to build a singular nuclear weapon) of 2 months or so to a year, and preventing any shortening of that breakout time for 10-15 years. But that is not all it does. The verification mechanisms put in place will be the strictest and most comprehensive installed anywhere and will last forever. The obligation Iran takes in the agreement not to pursue nuclear weapons is binding and permanent. The military option so many critics implicitly favor remains an open should Iran move in the direction of getting a nuclear weapon.
3. The verification measures are inadequate. It is difficult to prove a negative, as we all know. That is what the verification measures are asked to do. But no country has ever made nuclear weapons in facilities monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as Iran’s will be. Iranian facilities will be covered by the tightest monitoring scheme ever devised, with the real capability of detecting diversion of any nuclear material. Still, a clandestine nuclear program is possible, conducted outside monitored facilities. That is why Iranian delivery to the IAEA of answers to questions about its past activities with “possible military dimensions” (PMDs) is so important. That is due October 15, with an IAEA report due December 15. If you want an early indication of whether this agreement will be effective, watch that space.
4. Lifting of sanctions cannot be “snapped back.” Existing contracts will be grandfathered, so the legal impact of any reimposition of sanctions–which can be decided by the US and its allies over Russian, Chinese or Iran objections–will not be immediate. That’s true. But the fact of reimposition will be much more significant than the legal impact. Companies that do business with Iran will immediately dial it down, if not out, should sanctions be reimposed, if only to avoid getting into trouble with US and European financial regulations. In the longer-term, Iran will be less vulnerable to sanctions if it invests its money well and is able to develop its oil and especially gas resources. That is an inherent part of the deal.
5. The deal allows industrial-scale nuclear facilities that make Iran a threshold nuclear state. I wouldn’t rank 5000 or so centrifuges or a few hundred kilos of light enriched uranium as industrial scale or nuclear threshold. But fine if you do, because Tehran has much more than that now and would be under no obligation to give any of it up if there is no deal. Are we better off with numbers two and three times as large as will exist if the deal is not approved? Not to mention that without a deal we can expect Iran to accelerate its nuclear efforts.
6. The sanctions will hold even if the US withdraws from the agreement. It is true that the US can make life extremely unpleasant for any company or bank anywhere in the world that does business with Iran if Washington says no. But there is a high price to be paid for extraterritorial extension of our sanctions: other governments don’t like it and Iran will build an elaborate network to get around it, as they have with the existing sanctions. Especially on the Repubican side of the aisle, it should be appreciated that anti-market restrictions are unlikely to be watertight or last forever.
7. The arms and especially missile sanctions should not have been lifted. The UN Security Council imposed them in order to get Iran to negotiate on nuclear issues. Iran expected them to be lifted as soon as it had implemented its portion of the nuclear constraints. Instead they will remain in place far longer than we had a right to ask. I’d prefer they not be lifted too, but I never got a pony either.
I’m reasonably confident the Congress will not muster the 2/3 majority in both houses required to kill the deal. But if they do, we can expect most of the world (that’s everyone but Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu) to think us deranged and to refuse American leadership on Middle East and many other issues for a long time to come. All those Gulf countries complaining about the deal now will make much more noise if the deal falls through and Iran acquires the material for a nuclear weapon in the next couple of months. Remember President Wilson, the League of Nations and the period between the World Wars? This would be at least as bad.
Washington has reportedly agreed with Ankara to sweep Islamic State fighters from an important portion of Turkey’s border with Syria, de facto creating a “safe” zone something like 40 miles deep into Syria and extending from Aleppo to the Euphrates river. This move comes on the heels of Turkish agreement to allow the US to use planes based at Incirlik to bomb the Islamic State, whose attacks in recent weeks have reached into Turkey.
Differences in Turkish and American objectives remain. The Turks want the Syrian opposition to Bashar al Asad to control the zone, thus stemming the advances from the east of Kurdish forces that the Turks regard as hostile to Ankara and supportive of Asad. The Americans want to weaken the Islamic State, which has been bringing men and supplies across the Turkish border into Syria. But there may be enough overlap between these somewhat disparate goals for practical purposes.
The zone will not however be safe just because we call it that. The territory in question is strategically important to the Islamic State, the Syrian opposition, the Syrian Kurds and the Turks. It will have to be protected. Lack of a formal no-fly zone is not the problem. Syrian aircraft know to steer clear of zones where the Americans fly. The use of Incirlik will enable a much more visible and constant US presence. The Americans reportedly intend also to train spotters to direct their air attacks. But indirect fire from artillery as well as infiltration of suicide bombers and other individual operatives could still sabotage any effort to establish a “safe” zone. Security is job 1.
The area will also need to be governed. This is where the Islamic State has excelled. Its brutality has reestablished fear in the populations it controls and enabled it to govern with minimal resources. ISIS brooks little dissent. It is unified, purposeful and predictable. Its courts are merciless. Crime in the areas it controls is down. Many Syrians no doubt would prefer to avoid the mistreatment ISIS dishes out, but in a chaotic situation they may prefer to accept the devil they know.
The Syrian opposition, which both the Turks and Americans will want to put in charge of any area they clear, has been anything but unified, purposeful and predictable. It will need to learn, fast. Withdrawal of ISIS has not brought peace and tranquility to Tikrit, Kobane and other recovered areas. Like it or not, ISIS is more like an insurgency than anything else. Dealing with it requires the counter-insurgency not just to clear but also to hold and build. Neither in Iraq nor in Syria has this part of the job been done well.
The situation will be particularly fraught because of Turkish involvement, which is of course necessary. But the Syrian Arab opposition distrusts the Turks and the Syrian Kurdish opposition loathes them. It is difficult to picture those sentiments overcome easily, especially as Turkey will control the border across which all logistical support for a safe zone will need to come. Turkey, the US and the Syrians (Arabs and Kurds) will need to engage with each other much more intensely than in the past if the problems are to be overcome.
Meanwhile, there are also rumors of a “safe” zone in the south, where my former intern Ala’ Alrababa’h says it will imperil Jordan. He is correct: it will. The question is whether the risks are worth running in order to protect the relatively well-organized moderate opposition on the southern front, keep extremists off the Jordanian and Israeli borders, and eventually help the opposition to mount an offensive farther north.
From the American perspective, these “safe” area proposals, which I would prefer to call protected zones, put President Obama where he has consistently tried to avoid going: on the slippery slope toward greater US involvement in Syria. He knows, as I do, that the “safe” areas in Bosnia only worked by failing and bringing on stronger intervention. Odds are any “safe” areas in Syria will also fail, but this president has been very disciplined. It is unclear whether he would then intervene more strongly. The Syrian opposition had better get its act together and begin governing effectively wherever it can.
PS: Bassam Barabandi of People Demand Change sent this nice picture of the potential zone:
1. Chemical Safety and Security: TSCA Legislation and Terrorist Attacks | Monday, July 27th | 2:00 – 5:00 | CSIS | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Chemical safety and security is one of the fundamental pillars of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), but the recent and ongoing use of dual-use chemicals such as chlorine in the Syrian conflict, several recent chemical accidents in the US, and congressional updating of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) have all raised these goals to a much higher level. This seminar will address three related safety and security issues: (1) new TSCA legislation in the House and Senate; (2) the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS); and (3) Global Partnership efforts to improve chemical safety and security of industry and transportation. The Proliferation Prevention Program will co-host this event with Green Cross International and International Center for Chemical Safety and Security (ICCSS). Speakers include: Ambassador Krzysztof Paturej, President of ICCSS Board, Michael P. Walls, Vice President, American Chemistry Council, Michal Ilana Freedhoff, Director of Oversight & Investigations, Office of Senator Edward J. Markey, United States Senate, Todd Klessman, Senior Policy Advisor, Infrastructure Security Compliance Division, Department of Homeland Security, Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, US Department of State, Ali Gakweli, Deputy Government Chemist, Government Chemist Division, EU CBRN National Focal Point National Authority (CWC), Nairobi, Kenya. Moderators include: Paul Walker, Director of Environmental Security and Sustainability, Green Cross International and Sharon Squassoni, Director of the Proliferation Prevention Program, CSIS.
2. Hearing to Examine Iran Nuclear Agreement | Tuesday, July 28th | 10:00 – 2:00 | Rayburn House Office Building | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) on the hearing: ‘This Iran deal is one of the most important in decades. It reverses decades of bipartisan nonproliferation and regional policy, has several shortcomings, and demands the closest scrutiny. Secretary Kerry and the other Administration officials will face tough questions before the Committee, as we continue our comprehensive review of the Iran deal and the Administration’s overall regional policy.’
Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) on the hearing: “I look forward to hearing from Secretaries Kerry, Lew, and Moniz to discuss the Iran agreement. I have serious questions and concerns about this deal, and input from the Administration will be critical as Congress reviews the proposal.”
Speakers include: John Kerry, Secretary of State, Department of State, Jacob Lew, Secretary of Treasury, U.S. Department of the Treasury and Ernest Moniz, Secretary of Energy, U.S. Department of Energy.
3. Discussing American Diplomacy at Risk and the Second Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review| Tuesday, July 28th | 11:00 – 12:30 | The Stimson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Government reform is an open ended process; large institutions that conduct our national security and foreign policies need to continually evolve, to adapt to changing realities in the international landscape, and to changes in our own society. Two recent reports address the challenge of aligning the internal structures and personnel practices of the Department of State to the 21st century world. The American Academy of Diplomacy has recently released American Diplomacy at Risk, examining how the professional foreign service is weakened by politicization and by failures to sustain relevant training and professional development for the work force. The State Department itself has released its second Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, looks at recent reforms and innovations to make the department more responsive in an age of partnerships and collaboration with diverse state and non-state civil society players. Speakers include: Ambassador Ronald Neumann, President, American Academy of Diplomacy, Caroline Wadhams, Acting Director in the Office of the QDDR, State Department , Ambassador Barbara Bodine, Director, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and Julie Smith, Senior Fellow and Director of the Strategy and Statecraft Program, Center for New American Security . Moderators include: Ellen Laipson, President and Chief Executive Officer, the Stimson Center .
4. Can the P5+1’s Vienna Deal Prevent an Iranian Nuclear Breakout| Tuesday, July 28th | 11:45 – 1:30 | Hudson Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed earlier this month in Vienna is the culmination of a longstanding Obama administration effort to resolve the international community’s nuclear standoff with Iran through diplomatic means. A host of serious questions surround the agreement, including the complexities of international law and politics necessary to enact its provisions, and the strategic calculations that Iran’s regional rivals will make in its aftermath. But the key question remains the most practical one: Will the JCPOA, advanced by its proponents as a far-reaching and robust arms agreement, actually prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?
Can the JCPOA’s inspection and verification regime, which allows Iran a 24-day window to prepare – or “sanitize”—any suspected site for on-site review, provide an effective guarantee against violations? What will it mean when the JCPOA expires in 15 years under the “sunset clause” and Iran becomes a “normal” nuclear power? And how, in the meantime, will the deal’s removal of existing sanctions against currently designated terrorists and terror-connected entities – like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Qassem Suleimani, commander of IRGC’s expeditionary unit, the Quds Force – complicate efforts to constrain Sunni Arab states from pursuing nuclear arms programs of their own?
Speakers include: Senator Tom Cotton, U.S. Senator from Arkansas, Michael Doran, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute, William Tobey, Senior Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Hillel Fradkin, Senior Fellow and Director, Center on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World, Hudson Institute. Moderators include: Lee Smith, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute.
5. Hearing: Women Under ISIS Rule: From Brutality to Recruitment| Wednesday, July 29th | 10:00 – 1:00 | Rayburn House Office Building | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Speakers include: Sasha Havliceck, CEO, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Ariel Ahram, Assistant Professor, Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs and Kathleen Kuehnast, Director, Gender and Peacebuilding, Center for Governance, Law and Society, United States Institute of Peace.
6. Panel: Scorecard for the Final Deal with Iran| Wednesday, July 29th | 12:00 – 1:30 | JINSA | REGISTER TO ATTEND | In Vienna on July 14, the P5+1 and Iran agreed on a final deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA). This report will analyze whether the JCPA addresses the Task Force’s questions and concerns about the framework agreement. Overall, the JCPA rolls back Iran’s breakout time and allows for broader verification, but only in exchange for key restrictions being removed in 8-15 years, R&D on advanced centrifuges, front-loaded sanctions relief – including up to $150 billion in unfrozen assets – with no automatic “snapback” mechanism, an end to the U.N. arms embargo against Iran and no anytime, anywhere inspections. Speakers include: John Hannah, Former National Security Advisor to the Vice President Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Iran Task Force Member, Dr. Michael Makovsky , CEO, JINSA, Dr. Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations .
7. From Ocean of War to Ocean of Prosperity| Wednesday, July 29th | 4:15 – 5:15 | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Over the past two hundred years, the Western Pacific has been the stage for war, peace, development, modernization, and prosperity. Its rich resources and vital shipping lanes are essential to the well-being of all countries within its bounds. Admiral Tomohisa Takei, chief of staff for the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, will discuss the development of the U.S.-Japan relationship, Japan’s role in the region, and the future of a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific. Carnegie’s vice president for studies, Thomas Carothers, will moderate. Speakers include: Admiral Tomohisa Takei, Chief of Staff, Japan Maritime Self Defense Force, Thomas Carothers, Vice President for Studies, Director of Democracy and Rule of Law Program, Carnegie Endowment.
8. Empowering America: How Energy Abundance Can Strengthen US Global Leadership| Thursday, July 30th | 8:30 – 9:45 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Please join Senator Lisa Murkowski, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Senator Mark Warner as they launch the task force report: Empowering America: How Energy Abundance Can Strengthen US Global Leadership. Over the past few months, with the Senators as the Co-Chairs, the Atlantic Council convened foreign policy, defense, and energy experts to assess the foreign policy considerations of the US energy boom. The task force details the nature of our energy abundance, the importance of deploying our prowess in energy innovation and technology to others, and the ways in which we can pursue our responsibilities as a global leader on energy and the environment, while leveraging our supply abundance at the same time. It unequivocally determines that America must embrace this new tool to advance our global leadership on trade and security. Speakers include: Richard Morningstar, Director, Global Energy Center, Atlantic Council, Lisa Murkowski, Senator of Arkansas and Mark Warner, Senator of Virginia. Moderators include: David Goldwyn, Chairman of the Energy Advisory Group, Atlantic Council.
9. Threat of ISIS in Iraq: Views from the Ground| Thursday, July 30th | 10:30 – 12:00 | Stimson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | From enflaming sectarian tensions to undermining governance and economic development, the expansion of ISIS continues to pose grave risks to Iraq and the broader Middle East. Stimson and the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) invite you to join us for a discussion featuring views and perspectives from AUIS scholars and students examining the nature of the ISIS threat, and the related territorial, demographic and socio-economic consequences. Students from Kurdistan and other parts of Iraq will join us through video links.
10. Reviving Citizenship in Turkey through Citizen Journalism| Friday, July 31st | 1:30 – 2:30 | Freedom House | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Engin Önder is the co-founder of the Turkish citizen journalism initiative 140journos. Founded in 2012, 140journos is a collaborative information-gathering and dissemination project that has responded to the censorship and self-censorship of the official media in Turkey by taking matters into its own hands. After huge success as a Twitter-based livefeed that helped document the 2013 Gezi Park protests, in 2015 the project has transformed itself with a new approach that embraces interactive mapping, data visualization, and long-form reportage across multiple social media platforms. Önder will describe how the new 140journos is using citizen journalism to change the information ecosystem and restore the meaning of citizenship in Turkey. Speakers include: Engin Önder, Co-Founder, 140journos.
On Tuesday, Atlantic Council hosted a panel discussion entitled Saudi Arabia’s Scholarship Program: Generating a “Tipping Point”?. Panelists included Stefanie Hausheer Ali, Associate Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council, Dr. Rajika Bhandari, Deputy Vice President and Director of the Center for Academic Mobility Research and Impact, Institute of International Education, Samar Alawami, American University graduate of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program and researcher at the King Salman Center for Innovative Government Anne Habiby, Director, King Salman Center for Innovative Government, and Ambassador James Smith former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone, Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and Vice President, Atlantic Council, moderated. The panelists discussed the transformative impact of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program on Saudi society and put this program in the context of foreign exchange programs worldwide.
Ambassador Ricciardone opened the discussion by recounting his visit to Saudi Arabia in May. People think of Saudi Arabia as backward and conservative. He found young people with international exposure who wanted to effect change. Ambassador Ricciardone attributed this to the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which has made it state policy to send Saudis abroad to study. It is similar to the Fulbright Program, which promotes American interests by sending Americans abroad to see how others think. He asked the question of whether, à la Malcolm Gladwell, Saudi Arabia is reaching a tipping point where returnees from the program will transform the country.
Ali explained that she started studying the King Abdullah Scholarship Program because she met a number of Saudis from the program while studying at GW. King Abdullah met with George W. Bush in 2005 and made the case that more Saudis should study in the US. Bush agreed, and the number of Saudis studying abroad has skyrocketed from 5,000 in 2005 to over 200,000 today. In 2014, only China, India and South Korea sent more students to the US than Saudi Arabia. Approximately 30% of participants in the King Abdullah Scholarship program are women. The program is merit-based and doesn’t just include wealthy Saudis. Approximately 11% of Saudi higher education students are educated abroad; the average time abroad is 5 years. In the US, they do ESL for a year or two, then a degree program. Over half come to the US, but Saudi students are studying in 23 countries. The program costs $6 billion/year or 3% of Saudi Arabia’s budget. Saudi students contributed $3 billion to the US economy in 2014 and help break down Americans’ stereotypes about Saudis. Such stereotypes may include:
Dr. Bhandari spoke about the rapidly expanding number of globally mobile students. Most study abroad programs focus on graduate students, because they provide a greater multiplier effect for their host countries, but the Saudi program involves many undergrads too. These programs often promote vertical mobility. Governments launch such programs for several reasons:
1. Promoting national development.
2. Increasing human capacity in key areas.
3. Reforming organizations or entire sectors.
4. Improving linkages with other countries.
5. Creating opportunities for disadvantaged societal groups.
More needs to be done in these programs to:
1. Engage alumni.
2. Provide students with re-entry support.
3. Study the impact of these programs.
Habiby spoke about the King Salman Center for Innovative Government. It is the first private, nonprofit, Saudi think tank focused on improving government performance. It tries to connect national government, local government and economics. There is a lot of research in Saudi Arabia, but the Center makes this research more accessible. Habiby stated that Alawami’s first project was to map the Saudi government from the 1920s to the present. They look at case studies of which Saudi institutions are working. The King Abdullah Scholarship Program is one of them.
Alawami explained that she is a product of the King Abdullah Scholarship program and obtained a bachelor’s in International Studies from American University. The program is transforming Saudi Arabia into a knowledge society and giving Saudis the opportunity to meet those from other backgrounds, increasing tolerance in a traditionally tribal society. Saudi Arabia starts teaching English in 6th grade, so the program improves participants’ English skills. Saudis also learn better problem-solving skills. They come back with best-practice advice for the Saudi education system. The program opens up areas of study unavailable in Saudi Arabia, such as International Studies, and women in the program can study Petroleum Engineering, which they can’t do at home. Saudis do internships abroad, which are uncommon domestically and provide essential practice. When the students return to Saudi Arabia, they transform existing organizations or create new ones.
Ambassador Smith explained that the exponential growth in Saudi students in the US wasn’t planned or foreseen. When he began his term in 2009, he figured that the King Abdullah Scholarship Program had plateaued and envisioned a focus on business, healthcare, and domestic education. However, early in his term he realized that visa wait times were a major issue. King Abdullah asked him to do what he could to make sure Saudi students succeeded. Ambassador Smith ensured that students would be first in line for visas, and streamlined the system to reduce wait times for visa appointments from 6 months to under a month. When the State Department switched to an online system, he streamlined the system further and the wait time was reduced to only a few days. This sent a message that the US cared about Saudis. Then in 2010, the US increased the number of Saudi students allowed in. In the past 15 years, Saudi went from 8 universities to 32. Many returnees from the King Abdullah Scholarship program become professors.