Interview with David Ottaway

15 July 2015, Washington, D.C.

David Ottaway is Senior Scholar at the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He worked 35 years for The Washington Post as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, Africa and Southern Europe and later as a national security and investigative reporter in Washington before retiring in 2006. He has won numerous awards for his reporting at home and abroad and was twice nominated a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His most recent book, published in November 2008, was The King’s Messenger: Prince Bandar bin Sultan and America’s Tangled Relationship with Saudi Arabia. He is currently working on a book regarding the changes underway in the Arab world. Ottaway received a BA from Harvard, magna cum laude, in 1962 and a PhD from Columbia University in 1972.

Pınar Akpınar (PA): First, thank you very much for accepting our interview request.

David Ottaway (DO): My pleasure.

PA: —I just read two, three of your pieces on Yemen. Those were very good articles. So, what is actually happening in Yemen?

DO: The Saudis felt very much under pressure to show they can stand up to Iran and Iran’s continuing effort to find, expand its influence in the Arab world, in and around Saudi Arabia. And, the Saudis have not been able to really counter Iran and its allies either in Lebanon or in Syria and now in Iraq, there’s a Shia government backed by Iran with a tremendous Iranian influence.

And, they say, the Bahrainis say, the Iranians continue to foment trouble in Bahrain, so the Saudis, when it came to Yemen, saw this as the kind of the completion of the encirclement of Saudi Arabia by Iran and its allies. And, they were very concerned with the issue of Iran establishing its hegemony over the Gulf. And as a result of the agreement between United States, the P5+1, particularly the United States and Iran, and, in their view, they see Iran on the rise. And fortified with increased oil sales, with the release of money that’s been frozen in the United States and faced with this, this growing Iranian power, and they felt they had to go in and show that they could stand up to Iran. They rushed to do it because the Houthis, after taking over Sanaa, were suddenly pushing south down to Aden. And that would complete the sort of take over measure of cities and towns by the Houthis.

So, while they had been thinking about this intervention for some months, I think, the timing is explained by the Houthis’ attempt to seize Aden. And then they really had to intervene. Unfortunately I don’t think it was very well thought out. I think they overestimated the amount of support that the failing president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi had inside the country. And they assumed that there was so much opposition among the Sunni tribes to the Houthis, who are vaguely Shiites, and certainly perceived as Shiites in Saudi Arabia, they thought the Sunni tribes would rise up and come and oppose the Houthi takeover. Unfortunately that did not happen and they were left with daily bombing - 26th of July made it four months.

And they have not been able to see any of their allies stand up to the Houthis and take back territory that has been lost. Indeed, we continue to see elements that were on their side, even within what remains of the old army, you see defections to the Houthis—we just saw someone yesterday, 23rd Mechanized Brigade and they switched to the Houthis’ side. So, this is a very difficult situation for the Saudis.

PA: So you noticed a number of miscalculations in terms of the balances within Yemen. There are also similar miscalculations in terms of the supposed regional support to Saudi Arabia.

DO: For Yemen?

PA: Yes, for Yemen.

DO: Well, you know, five of the six GCC—Gulf Cooparation Council—members supporting them. I think they knew Oman would stay out. So they had fair support from their media allies. I think their disappointment has been Pakistan, because they had hoped the Pakistanis would send some support, or at least some symbolic troops to show their support. And this did not happen and the Pakistani parliament said, “We do not want to get involved,” so this is a deep disappointment because they have done a lot for Pakistan, economically, financially, helping develop their nuclear program and paying for part of it. So I think they have been disappointed by Pakistan.

PA: But other than Pakistan, do you consider Saudi successful to mobilize support from the Arab countries?

DO: Well in the case of Egypt, they provided 20 billion dollars of—well if you combine all of the GCC countries—it’s like 30, 40 billion dollars to Sisi, to help him deal with his economic and social and political problems. And you know, Egyptians, they sent some aircraft, they sent some ships. They did get some support from Egypt but it’s not the extent they had hoped. You know and they—one surprise, they did get some support from Sudan. The Sudanese have sent a few planes, two or three planes, and that is a bit of breakthrough because the Sudanese government was fairly close to the Iranian government. So that is one small success, but, and of course Turkey was not interested in getting involved in that conflict.

PA: Another perspective is that Yemeni intervention was a strong internal decision and they did not rely much on international support. What do you think about this perspective?

DO: Well yeah. I must say there is tremendous support inside—I was in Saudi Arabia in May and still tremendous support—public support—because Saudis are generally worried about Iran and Iranian intentions, and felt that Saudi Arabia had to stand up against Iran. So, this is a case where you do not see much division at all within Saudi public. They supported the intervention. Now, when it does not achieve results, I do not know what is going to happen, whether you are going to see divisions within the Saudi royal family or with the public. But I would say, generally speaking, the decision of the Saudi government to intervene in Yemen had tremendous public support.

PA: What are the implications of Yemen crisis on the Saudi and Iranian relations? Is it going to escalate further?

DO: This has made things much worse. Iranians have been, you know, have tremendous propaganda campaign against the Saudi intervention there. They did try to provide some arms and humanitarian aid, but that didn’t get through. Um, but this is going to sharpen the conflict between the two and whether or not an agreement, I think it is going to have implications for increased Saudi involvement with the rebels in Syria in order to help overthrow Bashar al Assad. This, as the Saudis see it, Syria is kind of the key to Iranian strategy in the Levant. And if Assad falls, then it would isolate Hezbollah in Lebanon and strengthen hand in Lebanon as well as in Syria. So I think we are going to see increased competition there, particularly as there are signs now that Assad’s regime is in serious military difficulty. I think the Saudis will increase their support for the rebels and so will the Iranians for Assad. So we will see Syria become a very intense arena for competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

PA: Where would the Arab Spring go from here, after Yemen intervention?

DO: I think this has more to do with the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia for influence and hegemony among the Arab countries and the Gulf, than it does for the Arab Spring. I mean, of course, what happened in Yemen was a result of the Arab Spring, and Ali Abdullah Saleh was overthrown, the Saudis thought they had arranged for his exodus and a relatively smooth transition to another leadership and of course that did not work out. I mean, that, the causes for the mess in Yemen are certainly the Arab Spring, the original causes. But it has gone way beyond that now.

PA: So do you think there is a way to exit out of the Iranian-Saudi tension? Might there be common ground in any way with Saudi and Iran, if Saudi Arabia had an upper-hand in Yemen?

DO: Well I do not think Saudi Arabia is going to take over Yemen.. I do not see a prospect for common ground.

PA: DO you think Iran will decisively continue to intervene?

DO: Sure. And the Houthis are not going to leave from their own stronghold in the North.

PA: You mean, even without Iran?

DO: Well, they are certainly going to hold on to their own area. And they certainly have a strong position in Sanaa. So you could have, very likely have the division of the country, and go back to South and North Yemen. But North Yemen remain under the Houthis and the Houthis would look for support from Iran.

PA: So what’s going to happen if Iran ceases their support? Houthis will continue to fight on their own?

DO: But why would the Iranians cease support?

PA: Maybe in case of an agreement on Syria.

DO: Oh, you mean, some time from now? Well, one explanation, one theory I have heard is the Iranians decided to help the Houthis is that they want to put pressure on the Saudis to stop supporting the Syrian rebels. And I think I am getting to your point—could there be a tradeoff at some point? Between Iranians ceasing to support Assad and the Saudis will have agreed to a deal with the Houthis.

PA: Or vice versa.

DO: Or vice versa. That’s possible, because the Iranians are in a very difficult position in Syria now. And the cost to them of trying to prop Assad is becoming greater and greater. They just extended another billion dollars to Assad, they have already extended 3.5 billion. So they are close to four and a half, five billion dollars. Even when they are under sanctions, they were willing to spend five billion, or 4.5 billion dollars to help Assad stay in power. So he is been very important to them. I am not convinced by this argument. I think Syria has its own importance because of the Iranian position in the Levant, in Lebanon too. It is kind of the key to their position in the region there and I—whether Yemen had happened or not, they would still be doing what they are doing now. It is too important for Assad. This thing that they, this theory that they decided to help the Houthis in order to put pressure on the Saudis to stop supporting the Syrian rebels—in a way, it is an attempt to understand the rationale why the Iranians decided to help the Houthis, but in fact, the Iranians had been developing a relationship with the Houthis for years. And they had, before this intervention had began, they had said, according to the United Nations study, sent 6 shiploads of arms to the Houthis. So they had been developing this relationship for a number of years, theologically, a lot of the Houthis had gone to Iran and been converted to the Iranian version of Shiism, and this had been going on for a number of years. So I think there are separate dynamics and could there be a tradeoff? I’m skeptical. I think Assad—I think Iranian policy in Syria is independent of Iranian policy in Yemen and this notion that could be a tradeoff and the Saudis decide to support Assad and help him—I just don’t see that.

PA: So there is a new psychological atmosphere of The US-Iran deal, I think you know, the sides are close to the deal, there is a positive atmosphere. So, will it impact on this Saudi-Iranian rivalry in Syria and Yemen?

DO: It is going to happen: psychological, political, and economic. Psychologically, the Saudis are going to feel that the Americans are beginning to tilt towards Iran. Politically, they are going to feel the Americans are tilting towards Iran and undermining their position and their attempt to establish their religious and political authority over the Gulf—the Arab states of the Gulf and into the Levant. I mean, the Arab world generally. Um, for the Saudis, I think it is more psychological than real, or more imagined than real because I do not think the Americans are about to abandon Saudi Arabia. But anyway, they feel that way and this deal is going to encourage or exaggerate that feeling of abandonment by the United States. And this affects them psychologically in the first place. The Iranians will probably try to use and exaggerate this new relationship with the Americans, if indeed there is a deal, to undermine Saudi confidence. Saudis would be very upset and I think it’s very likely to happen if the Americans start dealing with the Iranians, to make a deal with Assad. That will increase the American-Iranian cooperation that they ae very worried about in other areas, other than the nuclear deal, in Iraq and in Syria. And finally, the rivalry is going to get much worse over oil, because the Iranians are going to get back and go back, to increase their oil production and exports, you know several million barrels a day. And already they are an intense competition in the Gulf even Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies, between Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Oman, competing for the Asian market. Now you add to this, Iran, and that is just going to make things much worse, so I think there is going to be increased political and economic rivalry and things are going to be a lot more tense between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And I do not really see at this point, any issue where they’re even tempted to work together. Now, on oil, the Saudis have decided they are going to go for market share, no matter, they will produce whatever they need to, they are not going to help other OPEC members, so I mean. That is their policy and they are certainly not going to change it because of Iran coming back. It is going to get worse. They are going to be even more determined to hold on to market share.

PA: So you don’t assume a change in Iranian behavior in Levant, after the deal, if it happens?

DO: Well, we now know how far Iran is willing to go to support Assad. They are already got advisors, and volunteers, they brought in Hezbollah troops, militia or whatever you want to call them, militia.

PA: Don’t you think Iran reached its limits?

DO: I do not know.

PA: Since how many wars it can wage together? Yemen, Syria? The one against Daesh?

DO: If there is an agreement with the United States, then they are going to get a lot more money.

PA: Providing this kind of relief to Iran—it only makes sense if Iran is going to be the next region hegemon to stabilize the area. What do you think?
DO: Well it could be part of the fallout. On the other hand, Americans feel that if the Iranians had nuclear weapons, that it would be even more of a problem for Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf countries, that their feeling of superiority, you know, their nuclear saber-rattling would be far greater than if they don not have nuclear weapons.

PA: Saudi’s new administration, new administration policy, and new staff, do you think what extent their future is dependent on the situation in Yemen? What is going to happen if they fail in Yemen?

DO: Well, as I said, there’s been a great deal of public support for this decision. Now, what happens if they don not get anywhere? Well, you need to remember they still see it as part of their rivalry with Iran, so it is easy to say and think that this new military chief of the Saudi military, this 29-year-old youngster, Mohammed bin Salman, who’s taken over, 29, and with no military experience, etc, that he will be the fall guy, if they start blaming him for this decision, and that this will weaken his hand. I am not sure that is true because I think the decision to go in there was widely supported within the Saudi royal family and I think it is going to be hard for some faction of the royal family to turn around and go, “Well, now this is a terrible error and it’s all because this young minister of defense who’s taken over, etc., etc.”

PA: So do you think he may be the king in future?

DO: Well yes but we do not know. There could be other reasons; other parts of the royal family are going to reject him. Depends how he behaves. I do not think it is for certain he is going to become King, he’s deputy crown prince. The relationship between Mohammed bin Nayef, who is the crown prince and next king, and Mohammed bin Salman, is said to be rather tense. And once you have become king, you can fire the crown prince—we just saw with Muqrin, who was fired by someone. So, um, it is not, I am not at all certain that Mohammed bin Salman will end up becoming king. It depends on the dynamics within the family. Even aside from the Yemeni issue and Mohammed bin Nayef, the crown prince, can not get along with Mohammed bin Salman, you know the deputy crown prince, once he is king, he could just fire him. You know? And, so everyone’s watching this relationship between the two Mohammeds and how it is going to evolve, particularly in light of what happened to crown prince Muqrin, who was fired, despite the fact that the late king Abdullah and Salman are said to be have agreed, that Muqrin will become the next crown prince and therefore the king. And it turned out not to be true. As soon as Salman was in power and commitments he made to the late king did not make any difference. He got rid of Muqrin and promoted Mohammed bin Nayef. So, because of that, I think, the fate of Mohammed bin Salman, is more questionable. And a lot depends on the personal relationship between Mohammed bin Nayef and Mohammed bin Salman, and how that works out. And Yemen, is that going to be a pretext for the two? I do not think so, I do not see much difference in thinking.

PA: Salman’s future is very much dependent on what the king is going to say. He can fire Nayef as well, right?

DO: But what would he fire him for?

PA: He may have an idea to make Salman to succeed him. Maybe he is deputy crown for now because of his age—do not you think it may be possible?

DO: You know it is possible. It really goes into the personal relationships among people and members of the royal family.

PA: So you know this, you’re also an expert on another man in the royal family, Bandar. Do you think he is completely out?

DO: Yes, I do now. If Muqrin had become king, he might have had a chance for rehabilitation because they were both out of the Air Force, pilots and knew each other and had some friendship. But I don’t see anybody turning to Bandar in this group that is in power now.

PA: So, last question is about the US policy, how the United States is going to handle this situation, the escalating sectarian tension, Saudi-Iranian rivalry, you know, this psychological impact of nuclear deal on Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf.

DO: This is a very difficult period for the United States, for the Obama administration.

PA: This will also be a central issue in presidential campaign.

DO: It, it could be, particularly if there is no agreement, but even if there is an agreement, but I do not think. But even if there is an agreement, we are going to know within a year and a half, which is what we are going to have before the election, whether Iran is cheating or not cheating. It is going to take a year and a half to get this agreement actually in operation. So if there is an agreement and it is approved by Congress, I do not think it is going to be a serious issue. If there is not an agreement, then what we do vis-à-vis Iran could become central issue, yeah. And whether we take military to stop their program or not, and the Republicans will take a much more aggressive position than Obama will. So in that case, I think it could be a big issue.

PA: So what about the US-Saudi relations?

DO: US-Saudi relations are, I think they are fragile. They’re fragile in the sense that if there is an agreement, then I think Obama will indeed try to develop a relationship with Tehran to work on resolving the Syrian issue. And that is going to make things even tenser between United States and Saudi Arabia. We are supporting them in Yemen with sort of intelligence and back off the support if you will. Refueling targets and this sort of stuff. But I think we are mostly doing it because we need their support and the other coalitions Americans are leading against ISIL, Daesh, in Syria and Iraq, in that the Americans do not really share the Saudi objective that the Houthis have to leave power. Because the Houthis, after all, are, should be good allies against Al-Qaeda and ISIL. And these are our priorities in Yemen: fighting Al-Qaeda, and not fighting the Houthis. So we do not share the same priorities in Yemen and the Americans have been pushing for “humanitarian pause,” but this is really a code word for “stopping fighting and start fighting and find a political solution,” where the Saudis are in a really weak position going into negotiations at this point because their allies have not taken back any territory or any of the cities. So this is also a difficult complicated relationship. We are trying to hold together the anti-ISIS, anti-Daesh coalition, we need the Arab support, so it is a very delicate, diplomatic posture to be in, trying to hold together that coalition—show some support for the Saudi-led coalition, even if we do not really share their objectives, this is very difficult. And at the same time, as we open a new relationship with Iran, maintain the confidence of our Gulf/Arab allies that we are still supporting and on their side, even while we are talking to their worst enemy. This is a very difficult set of positions to be in and, but you know, we are not the ones in these incredibly difficult positions.