– François-René de Chateaubriand, 19th century writer and statesman
Jake Sullivan was 44 when President Biden named him as national security advisor, the youngest American national security adviser in nearly 60 years. He comes not from a college campus with sweeping untested theories, but rather from Capitol Hill and the State Department with practical experience as a diplomat and policymaker. He focuses on what is possible given the balance of forces for and against any proposal, with attention to detail and confidence in America’s capacity to renew its foreign policy.
Sullivan was a quiet star in the Obama years, where he worked for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Foreign policy legend Richard Holbrooke once advised an incoming special envoy with these words: “Let me tell you, the only person and the one person you need to get to know, who is loved by everyone in the institution [the State Department] and gets things done, is Jake Sullivan.”
Since taking office as National Security Advisor in 2021, Sullivan has faced an avalanche of foreign policy challenges: Afghanistan, Taiwan, Sudan, the war imposed by the Russians on the Ukrainian people, the massive Russian hacking of American companies and federal agencies, and the repeated North Korean missile tests.
Sullivan’s visit to Saudi Arabia this weekend, especially his meetings with Crown Prince Mohamed ben Salman and the leaders of United Arab Emirates and India, could mark a turning point in American policy in the Middle East.
Sullivan is a comparatively young man meeting leaders of his generation: Saudi’s Mohammed Bin Salman and the UAE’s Crown Prince Khalid bin Zayed. Each is old enough to understand the gravity of his responsibilities but young enough to understand the aspirations of his cohort for technological progress, access to global markets, and economic development. In short, jobs, security, and hope.
This visit should also reassure and reiterate President Biden’s commitment to the Middle East as a region that it important and securely yoked to the America’s interests. Sullivan’s visit is a chance at a reset.
The Biden administration has made some course corrections that should make it easier to engage with the Arab world. After months of hesitation, it has embraced the Abraham Accords as an opportunity for greater regional integration. Secretary of State Blinken’s participation in the Negev Forum, which brought together Israeli and Arab leaders to discuss cooperation on issues ranging from security and climate change to trade and education, was positive. Administration leaders should plan for repeat performances.
The truce in Yemen followed by the talks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia is another positive sign.
Opportunities abound for Sullivan to make further progress. The Saudi-Iranian agreement, even though China was its convener, has been followed from start to finish by Sullivan and the Biden administration. It may offer some opportunities. Finally, the interest of the Biden administration in Israeli-Saudi normalization, which will certainly be done in staggered steps, is an enormous opportunity.
Perhaps Sullivan’s biggest opportunity lies with the new I2U2 coalition – the partnership of India, Israel, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates. It opens the possibility of connecting South Asia with the Middle East, for investment, trade, tourism, and other purposes, in a way that strengthens America and her allies while offering an alternative to the road being laid down by China.
Although the Arab Gulf countries have developed relations with Russia and have turned to China for trade and investment, their most important relationship remains with America. Only the US can offer the security and intelligence partnerships that protect the Gulf nations from their adversaries. Shared US-Gulf interests, backed by decades of work together, remain vital, whatever new trial balloons Beijing and Moscow may float.
Sullivan must show that the US is serious about helping Saudi Arabia and other Arab partners defend their territory against attacks – both digital and physical. To do that, the US must maintain its substantial military presence to secure vital waterways, especially its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and its air base in Qatar, along with other facilities in Saudi Arabia itself.
Sullivan also knows that Israel can contribute to its Arab neighbors’ security in significant ways, with its close military relationship with the US, its economic dynamism and its ability to invest money, management, and new technology in neighboring lands. This would promote peace and regional stability.
Sullivan has a unique opportunity to bring American ingenuity to one of the most prosperous regions in the world. His visit to Saudi Arabia may reveal his first steps.