The John Quincy Adams Society, a national student group dedicated to non-interventionism and diplomacy, hosted foreign policy analyst Matthew Duss for their “Saudi Arabia and the U.S.” event hosted on Saturday.
Duss was formerly the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, a non-profit that promotes a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He also served as a policy analyst for both Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and the Center for American Progress, a progressive public policy research and advocacy organization.
Duss began his talk by discussing what he saw as the problematic relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
He began his talk by describing the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s current tour of the U.S., as well as the skepticism he feels towards bin Salman’s recent reform movements within his country.
“The real question is how committed he is to political reform. I see very little evidence that that’s on his agenda right now,” Duss said. “We need be realistic and say that he’s interested in consolidating and ensuring the rule of the House of Saud. We can’t get hung up on the idea that he is a democratic reformer, because clearly he is not.”
In 2017, bin Salman took over the role of crown prince, after serving as the deputy crown prince since 2015.
Previously, bin Salman also worked as the defense minister for Saudi Arabia, where he launched a coalition in Yemen against Houthi rebels, a religious group. The initiative was known as Operation Decisive Storm.
Duss noted the disconnect between bin Salman’s “anti-corruption” reforms — a series of firings within the Saudi government — and the extent of destruction caused by the Saudi-led conflict in Yemen.
He went on to criticize American politicians and business owners who warmly received bin Salmon on his tour, despite his purported human rights violations.
To Duss, the media’s portrayal of bin Salman as a progressive detracts from his nefarious intentions.
“He’s clearly being advised to stress certain things to an American audience in terms of things we value,” Duss said. “Women’s rights, for example. He said, ‘absolutely, we support women’s rights.’”
He added that, while bin Salman has taken moderate steps to reform his country, he has largely used his power to gain even more control of the Saudi state and military.
Even with gradual reform movements, Duss argued that Saudi Arabia continues to extoll a puritanical, often violent approach to Islam: Wahhabism.
He elaborated on the history of the region and on how Saudi Arabia developed its trademark ideology as a political tool.
“After the Iranian Revolution, there were many problems to the Saudis that cued them to the fact that they needed a much harder line to accommodate and build relationships with much more extreme clerics within their own society and preach much more radical teachings abroad,” Duss said.
By cultivating a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, Duss argued that Saudi Arabia, a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, was able to leverage political power against Shi’ite Iran and export their extremist ideology to places like Afghanistan as a means to ward off the Soviet Union.
Many countries, including the U.S., maintain strong diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, though the country has received international condemnation for its role in global terror attacks.
Duss explained that Saudi Arabia holds considerable sway over the U.S. due to its oil reserves and relationship with armament corporations.
“We need to understand how important it is for any presidential administration to provide and create American jobs,” Duss said. “Arms sales create jobs. There are around 1.2 million voters in the U.S. that work in the arms and defense sector. We have to recognize the importance of that.”
However, arms sales to Saudi Arabia come at a steep cost, according to Duss.
This is especially true in light of the recent Yemen crisis, where a Saudi bombing campaign has left thousands dead and millions on the brink of starvation.
“There’s a great deal of influence [Saudi Arabia] has had over the formation of policy in Washington,” Duss said. “Yemen is one of the worst expressions of that. People are calling it one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the Middle East right now. That’s really saying something.”
The idea, according to Duss, was that the U.S. would provide the Kingdom with weapons on the grounds that they could oversee Saudi actions and minimize civilian casualties. In practice, Duss noted, the opposite has occurred.
“Once the U.S. refuels these Saudi planes, are we tracking where we drop the bombs?” Duss said. “And the reality is that no, we are not. If you can’t track where the Saudis are dropping bombs, how can we say that we’re having a positive effect on Yemen?”
While Duss believes that the U.S. must often work with authoritarian governments like Saudi Arabia’s, he argued that saving lives should be the center of U.S. foreign policy.
“We need to sometimes compromise to protect our own security and promote American interests,” he said. “But I would hope that human rights would be included in those compromises.”
Duss opined that, rather than focus on sanctions and warfare as a means to an end, the U.S. should use its influence to foster dialogue and peace accords among Middle Eastern countries undergoing conflict, including Saudi Arabia.
“We need to find ways of getting these countries to develop common solutions to their problems, like climate change,” Duss said.
He sees the U.S. as a leader in creating opportunities for countries to work together and believes that solutions can arise out of these discussions.
“This cooperation emanates out into some of their other problems, and it allows them to work on their touchier issues. The U.S. needs to set the table for these talks. We have a unique ability to facilitate these kinds of conversations,” he said.
Sophomore Abigail Johnson said that the talk made her both disconcerted and hopeful about the future of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia.
“I was really motivated to come here to learn more about the Yemen conflict,” Johnson said. “I wanted to learn more about U.S.-Saudi relations because of our problematic involvement in the Saudi assault on Yemen.”
This semester, several student groups have held protests at events in order to oppose controversial speakers.
For example, on March 13, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power visited Hopkins to speak at a Foreign Affairs Symposium (FAS) event. Power supported military involvement in Libya and Saudi-led bombing of Yemen, actions which many have criticized.
At the FAS event, members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) staged a silent protest during Power’s talk, holding banners with, “Samantha EmPowers Genocide in Yemen” and “It’s Still Genocide When U.S. Allies Do It.”
Sophomore Evan Drukker-Schardl said that, given the controversy surrounding Power’s FAS event, Duss’ remarks were especially important and relevant.
In particular, Drukker-Schardl thinks that learning about U.S. conflicts in other countries is a good way to show students the negative effects of military intervention.
“There are some International Studies students for whom talking about how U.S. intervention in places like Yemen is harmful would be an effective way to learn,” he said.
Drukker-Schardl believes that it is important for Hopkins students to be exposed to new ways of thinking about foreign policy issues.
“The idea that it’s morally wrong and just bad policy for the United States as well is not something that’s usually taught here,” he said.
Sophomore Hannah Fajer also supported educating more students about global conflicts and how to solve them. She added that she felt inspired by Duss’ views of diplomacy and approaching current events with a less combative approach.
“I liked what he said about thinking of solutions other than just sanctions and thinking that we can actually help people and build relationships with them,” she said. “That’s really valuable.”