Special Briefing via Telephone With Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker

U.S. Department of State
The Dubai Regional Media Hub
For Immediate Release
Special Briefing via Telephone
David Schenker
Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs

October 22, 2020

Moderator:  Thank you.  Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub.  I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record briefing with David Schenker, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.  Assistant Secretary Schenker will provide brief remarks on the U.S. strategic dialogues with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, give a readout of his trip to Lebanon and Morocco, and then take your questions.

We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic.  We request that everyone keep this in mind and speak slowly.

I’ll now turn it over to Assistant Secretary Schenker for his opening remarks.  Sir, the floor is yours.

Assistant Secretary Schenker:  Thank you, Sam.  Good evening, everyone.  It’s a pleasure to join you today.  It’s been a bit over a month since our last call with the Dubai Hub, and it’s been an eventful month.

Since that call, Bahrain joined the United Arab Emirates in normalizing relations with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords, followed by the historic signing of the Abraham Accords Declaration at the White House.  We’ve also held three strategic dialogues with Gulf allies during that time, which have capitalized on and addressed the changing dynamics of the region.  Last month we held a Strategic Dialogue with Qatar, and last week, on October 14th, we held the first Strategic Dialogue with Saudi Arabia since 2006.  And this past Tuesday, October 20th, we launched the first Strategic Dialogue with the United Arab Emirates.

While we’ve long had strong and productive ties in the Gulf, these strategic dialogues marked a deepening of our relationships and our commitments to security and prosperity.  The dialogue with Saudi Arabia, for example, marked a new phase.  It gave us the opportunity to evaluate where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going in our relationship.

This year, as you know, marks 75 years since the seminal meeting between President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz aboard the U.S.S. Quincy that laid the foundation of our modern bilateral relationship.  Today we have nearly $40 billion in two-way trade annually, supporting roughly 165,000 American jobs.  We not only have important cooperation on counterterrorism, defeating ISIS, and countering Iran’s destabilizing influence in the region; we have 37,000 Saudi students enrolled in U.S. schools, the fourth highest from across the world.

When we look at where we’re headed in the coming decades, through this dialogue we’ll enhance traditional areas of cooperation like defense, security, energy, and trade, but also help Saudi Arabia to realize its Vision 2030 goals to transform its society and diversify its economy.  We’ll continue to engage Saudi Arabia on advancing human rights reforms, including integrating women into its economic goals and empowering youth.  We also specifically raised the cases of American citizens in Saudi Arabia.

Also, building for the future of the relationship, the Secretary announced that preparations are underway to acquire a site for a new embassy in Riyadh, which along with new consulates in Jeddah and Dhahran represent an investment of more than $1 billion.  We have the 26-acre site picked out and a targeted completion date of 2026 for the new embassy.

Our Strategic Dialogue with the Emirates was actually a new formula launched this week by Secretary Pompeo and Emirati Foreign Minister Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.  It intends to introduce a comprehensive framework for an ongoing series of engagements in eight areas: policy-making; defense and security; law enforcement; intelligence and counterterrorism; economic, energy, and commerce; culture and education; space programs; and human rights.  I just mentioned how our Gulf relationships were deepening, and I think this framework we’re building with the UAE is indicative of this growing depth.

As with our dialogue with Saudi Arabia, we’re not only building on traditional areas of engagement like our defense, security, and counterterrorism cooperation, educational and cultural exchanges, we’re expanding into newer areas of cooperation.  Take, for example, our cooperation on space programs.  In the past two years we’ve worked with the UAE and NASA to expand cooperation on space exploration and space-related research.  And now our partnership on outer-space activities will be a common feature of our bilateral dialogue.  In fact, last week the UAE joined six other nations and the United States to sign the Artemis Accords, and that’s an initiative for likeminded nations to work on exploring the extension of human activities to the Moon and onwards to Mars.  The opportunities are so many, they cannot be contained to just one planet.

It’s also important to note that we’re making human rights a prominent feature of our dialogue and will pursue initiatives to combat human trafficking, support religious freedom, and focus on the rights of women, children, and people with disabilities, the elderly, and workers.  The Abraham Accords have shown the potential to ignite new diplomatic possibilities and partnerships across the region.  Similarly, these strategic dialogues with our Gulf allies aim to do the same by opening new possibilities on the bilateral level.

This past week I returned to Lebanon and also visited Morocco and London.  In Lebanon, I facilitated the opening session of negotiations between the governments of Israel and Lebanon on the delimitation of their maritime boundary.  The launch of these talks is a positive step, and the United States remains committed to mediating and facilitating negotiations at the request of both countries as they work toward an agreement.  Ambassador John Desrocher joined me, and he will serve as the U.S. mediator for these ongoing negotiations.

Also in Lebanon, I met with a range of government officials with  – and with my visit being close to the one-year anniversary of the October 17th protest, I underscored the importance of implementing reforms that can meet the demands of the Lebanese people.  As we have repeatedly stated, business as usual is unacceptable, and whatever government comes next must commit to and have the ability to implement reforms that can lead to economic opportunity, better governance, and an end to endemic corruption.

In Morocco I met with Foreign Minister Bourita to discuss opportunities for increasing economic and security cooperation, and to further promote the U.S.-Morocco strategic partnership.  I ended the trip in London for a discussion with my U.K. counterparts on recent developments in the region, and while there, I had productive talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Kadhimi which included our appreciation of his efforts to increase security for the diplomatic community in Iraq.

With that, I’m happy to take a few of your questions.  Thank you.

Moderator:  Thank you, Assistant Secretary Schenker.  We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.

For our first question I’m going to read one of our pre-submitted questions, and this question actually came from a number of journalists from Saudi Arabia.  And they ask, Assistant Secretary, if you could describe the current U.S. relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, including the top points discussed by Secretary Pompeo during his recent meeting with Prince Faisal bin Farhan.  Over.

Assistant Secretary Schenker:  Yeah.  Thank you, Sam.  Listen, this dialogue comes 75 years after the 1945 meeting between President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz Al Saud aboard the Quincy.  This laid the groundwork for a relationship that has really blossomed over this 75-year period.  During the talks, the Secretary reviewed with our Saudi counterparts the extent of security, economic, cultural, and people-to-people ties that underpin the bilateral relationship.

We talked about shared regional threat perception, about deterring the threat that malign Iranian activity poses to regional security and prosperity, and talked about the Saudi-led coalition and its commitment to end the Yemeni conflict through political negotiations; also, the – of course, the close counterterrorism cooperation between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Going forward, in terms of the future, we talked about our defense cooperation, security and intelligence cooperation.  We talked about continued cooperation in the areas of critical infrastructure protection, public security, about how to enhance cooperation and promote resilient energy markets.  We talked about expanded commercial opportunities, investing in infrastructure.  We talked about, vis-a-vis China, the importance of using trusted vendors in critical information and communications technology infrastructure.

We explored the areas of new cooperation in cybersecurity.  And we talked about how we enhance, going forward, our diplomatic, cultural, and consular cooperation, including with the construction, the major construction projects to expand the U.S. embassy and consulates in the Kingdom that will serve us both going into the future.

Moderator:  Great, thank you.  So our next question comes from the line of Jennifer Hansler from CNN.

Question:  Hi, thank you so much.  Could you tell us how much the discussion of potential sales of the F-35s came up in your discussions with the Emiratis and where things stand on that?  And then separately, while we have you, what is the status of talks between Sudan and Israel on normalization?  Thanks so much.

Assistant Secretary Schenker:  Thanks.  I’m not going to get into the details of what came up in terms of the F-35s.  What I will say is, as you know, the U.S. Government is subject to statutory requirements with respect to Israel’s qualitative military edge, and the administration and the U.S. Government will continue to comply with that requirement.  At the same time, we have a 20-year-plus security relationship with the Emirates where we provide technical and military assistance, and will continue to maintain and then strengthen that relationship going forward.  We share common threats, including those posed by Iran, and we’re deeply committed to ensuring that our allies can protect themselves.

Also, in terms of normalization or movement on additional partners in the Abraham Accords, I don’t want to prejudice those discussions moving forward.  I saw the press reports, as you did.  The State Department and Secretary Pompeo, the administration, is very supportive of states taking bold and brave steps to enhance their ties with Israel.  We think that there is a positive trajectory in the region, and look forward to more states signing on.

Moderator:  Great.  Our next question is another pre-submitted question, and this came from a number of journalists, mostly based in Lebanon.  And they asked whether you were optimistic that Lebanon and Israel will reach an agreement regarding the maritime borders and your impressions of the first round of talks.

Assistant Secretary Schenker:  Thanks.  While I was pleased with how the first round of talks went, as you know, my predecessor, David Satterfield, worked for about two years towards securing this framework agreement.  I worked for about a year on this.  So we are pleased to see that move forward with the agreement of the Israeli and Lebanese governments and to attend this first session of these discussions on the maritime border delineation, and to do so in good faith.  I think it was a positive environment.  I think both parties have demonstrated seriousness, but of course this was only the first session.  So the hard work lies ahead, but both sides have expressed to me a willingness and a desire to negotiate toward – with an eye toward reaching an agreement.  They have expressed seriousness and a desire to be – to engage with flexibility and goodwill going forward.

So I don’t want to say “optimistic,” I don’t want to say “pessimistic,” but I think we started off on the right foot and I’m looking forward to hearing this week from Ambassador Desrocher, who will conduct the next two sessions of negotiations with the parties.

Moderator:  Thank you.

Assistant Secretary Schenker:  Was there another question that I missed there?

Moderator:  No, I believe you covered it, Assistant Secretary.

Assistant Secretary Schenker:  Okay.

Moderator:  Our next question comes from the line of Nadia Bilbassy Charters, and from Al Arabiya.

Question:  Hello.

Assistant Secretary Schenker:  Hi, Nadia.

Question:  Yeah, hi, David.  Hello from Nashville, Tennessee.  I would like to ask you about this news that Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been nominated again.  A year ago he stepped down because he thought he could not respond to the Lebanese people’s demands.  Today he is stepping up again.  So do you – are you giving up on Lebanese politics?  Do you see that the same face is coming back again, the same problems is even worse with almost 50 percent of Lebanese under poverty line, the lira has been devaluated over 80 percent of its value?  What can the U.S. do to change – to nudge this change that you want that corresponds with the demands of the people in Lebanon?

Assistant Secretary Schenker:  Thank you, Nadia.  We are engaged in Lebanon.  I just came from three days there, and there was one day focused on the maritime discussions.  I think somebody out there has to put on mute on their phone.  Sorry.  So one day focused on the maritime and two other days meeting with Lebanese politicians and political actors and civil society activists.  Our position has not changed.  We stand with the Lebanese people as they urge their political leaders to end business as usual.

We are remaining insistent on the need for any new government of Lebanon to embrace and implement reforms, to embrace transparency, to fight corruption, to hold those accountable for their crimes or misdeeds, and to be committed to disassociation.  These are what the U.S. has repeatedly said are the preconditions for U.S. support for unlocking an IMF loan, assistance to Lebanon.  The French have said the same in terms of the FINRA funding.  We and the International Support Group have made this clear, right?  The legitimate aspirations of the Lebanese people must be met.

Who should lead the government and serve in it are matters for the Lebanese people to decide themselves, but we maintain a high bar going forward.  We believe that Lebanon is in desperate need for economic and institutional reform, for better governance, and an end to the endemic corruption that has really undermined the ability of Lebanon to meet its tremendous potential.

So that’s it in a nutshell.

Moderator:  Great, thank you.  Our next question comes from the line of Arshad Mohammed from Reuters.

Question:  Thank you.  To return to Lebanon, as Nadia points out, Mr. Hariri has served as prime minister three times in the last dozen years.  Why is there any reason to believe that he is not part of the problem rather than part of a solution?  Why does the U.S. Government believe he will achieve any of the goals that you have said are imperative?  And can you please respond specifically to the fact that he has been tapped as prime minister to form the next government?  Is this a good thing or a bad thing from the U.S. point of view?

Assistant Secretary Schenker:  Arshad, listen, I appreciate your efforts to have me comment on Prime Minister-designate Hariri, and in fact on any other Lebanese politician that might be tapped for this position.  The United States has not commented or weighed in on specific individuals in Lebanon.  We have maintained from the very beginning that what is important are the principles, and I’ll repeat them.  This is reform, this is transparency, this is anti-corruption, this is accountability, and this is disassociation.  Whatever government in Lebanon comes forward, if they want to help extricate Lebanon from this crisis, this is going to be a sine qua non.  All these criteria are going to have to be made.  It’s not only about unlocking international assistance.  It is about getting Lebanon internally back on the right path where they have not only international confidence but the confidence of the people of Lebanon.

We’ve all seen the numbers, incredibly troubling – over 100 percent debt-to-GDP ratio; GDP that has decreased from $50 billion a year to $30 billion a year; 50 percent of Lebanese under the poverty line; 22 percent of Lebanese destitute.  We’ve seen reports about holdings of the central bank; there’s a forensic audit going on right now.  There’s a lot to fix, and so we’re sticking with principles rather than people, and so we’re going to reserve judgment.

Moderator:  Great, thank you.  Our next question was a pre-submitted question and it came from a number of our journalist colleagues from across the Gulf region, and they asked: “What is the latest attempts to resolve – what is the latest on attempts to resolve the Gulf crisis?  And was that crisis discussed as part of the recent strategic dialogue with partners in the region?

Assistant Secretary Schenker:  Thank you.  That crisis was discussed during the strategic dialogue.  This has long been a priority for the United States.  The Secretary is engaged.  The White House is engaged.  The President is engaged.  The highest levels of the U.S. Government are engaged with our Gulf partners, GCC partners, across the board.  The Gulf crisis, the rift serves no one except with the possible exception of Iran.  This is putting money vis-a-vis fees that Qatar Airways pay to Iran for overflights because of the airspace blocking, closure.  We believe that the dispute really only serves our adversaries and harms our mutual interests.

So we’ve been talking to the GCC trying to come up with formulas to move ahead, and that is something that has been – has been a priority issue for the Secretary and for the administration for quite a while, and it will continue to be.  The dispute has gone on far too long.

Moderator:  Great, thank you.  Our next question comes from the line of Bryant Harris from The National.

Question:  Hey, thanks so much for doing the call.  I want to ask about Morocco.  A while ago there was talk of the U.S. potentially recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara if Morocco moved to normalize relations with Israel.  Is that something that’s on the table right now?  Thanks.

Assistant Secretary Schenker:  Look, I’m not going to talk about the sort of diplomatic discussions with these countries, but that is not an issue on the table right now.  So I know that there were several reports out there earlier this year, last year, but it’s not something that’s currently on the table.

Moderator:  Great.  Our next question is from the line of Mr. Barak Ravid from Axios.

Question:  Hi, David.  Thank you for doing this.  I want to ask you about recent reports about negotiations between the Trump administration and the Syrian regime about hostage negotiations, and the director of Lebanese security, Abbas Ibrahim, was in Washington for talks about possible mediation between the U.S. and Syria.  Is the U.S. willing to reengage with the Assad regime?

Assistant Secretary Schenker:  Well, as the Secretary I believe recently said, and I’ve been traveling so forgive me, but I believe I saw comments from the Secretary on this the other day, saying that we are always looking forward – looking for ways to repatriate Americans, all Americans.  And you saw that we just returned several Americans from Yemen.  This has long been a top priority for the administration.  But – and we will engage in whatever way we have to engage to help Americans.  But as the Secretary said, that does not imply a change in policy towards Syria.

Moderator:  Great.  We have time for one last question, and the last question goes to Michel Ghandour from Al Hurra TV.

Question:  Hello, thank you for doing this.  David, what’s the real story of the sword hanging in President Aoun’s office?

Assistant Secretary Schenker:  [Laughter.]

Question:  Do you recognize the positive role that the president is playing in fighting corruption?  And the future sanctions on Lebanon, are they frozen after Speaker Berri agreed to start the talks with Israel?

Assistant Secretary Schenker:  Okay.  Well, so forgive me for butchering the Arabic here, but I think it said, [speaks in Arabic].  Right, “Under a glass sword.”  And so I merely pointed out to President Aoun that it’s necessary to fight corruption, as the sword says.  You must take this figurative sword and fight corruption.  So that’s the story behind the story.  Maybe it got lost in translation.

But as for sanctions, Michel, I’ll be clear.  There’s no deal here.  There’s nothing to read into.  The United States will pursue sanctions and will continue to pursue sanctions against Hizballah and its Lebanese allies.  The United States will continue to pursue sanctions through the Global Magnitsky Act against those who are engaged in gross human rights abuses and corruption.  And so there is no deal here; these will continue regardless of the maritime talks, regardless of government formation.  You saw that a few weeks ago when we leveled sanctions, the designations of Finyanus and Ali Hassan Khalil.

Moderator:  Great.  And now, Assistant Secretary Schenker, if you have any closing remarks I’ll turn it back over to you.

Assistant Secretary Schenker:  No, thank you, Sam, and thank you, everybody, for coming out today and for joining us.  And I’ll look forward to future engagements with you.  I hope this was useful.  So thank you.

Moderator:  Thank you, Assistant Secretary.   That concludes today’s call.  I would like to thank Assistant Secretary Schenker for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating.  If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at DubaiMediaHub@state.gov.  Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly.  Thank you and have a great day.