2:43 P.M. EDT
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Apologies for the slight delay here. Thanks for joining the call. This call will be on background attributable, to a “senior administration official.”
For your awareness, not for reporting purposes, on the line is [senior administration official].
As a reminder, the contents of this call are embargoed until tomorrow, September 13th, at 2:00 p.m. Eastern time. Therefore, no content may be published or made public until tomorrow at 2:00 p.m. Eastern time.
With that, [senior administration official], I’ll hand it over to you get — to get us started.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hey, thanks, everybody for joining us today, including those in the Middle East. I know it’s very late. I apologize to be 10 minutes late.
I want to provide some details on an important initiative that the administration is launching tomorrow with the Kingdom of Bahrain and describe how we view the significance of His Royal Highness of Bahrain Crown Prince Prime Minister Salman’s visit to Washington this week.
Tomorrow, Secretary of State Blinken and the Crown Prince will be signing the Comprehensive Security Integration and Prosperity Agreement, which we’re calling C-SIPA. And this will be a really significant upgrade in what has been a long-term strategic relationship with Bahrain, one of our longest and closest partners in the — in the broader Middle East region.
During his visit to Washington this week, the Crown Prince will meet with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, with Secretary Blinken, with Secretary Austin, and others. And the focus of their discussions will be on, obviously, C-SIPA and our bilateral relationship, but also broader cooperation in the region and beyond.
They’ll discuss a range of regional and global issues. And of course, you’ll see readouts from those specific meetings after they conclude.
On this call, I’ll focus a bit on C-SIPA and putting the agreement in the context of President Biden’s broader vision for a more integrated, secure, prosperous Middle East region, which he first detailed during the Jeddah Summit in July of 2022.
I think if you go back to that — to that address that he made last summer, it kind of lays out a lot of what I think we’ve been doing since and also what’s incorporated into our national security strategy, which came out a couple of months after that visit, and, of course, also summarized in — if you look at Jake Sullivan’s keynote address to — to WINEP, a think tank here in town a couple of months ago.
President Biden also reaffirmed — I think you saw the implementation of part of this vision just at the G20 just a few days ago with — with the announcement of what is really a truly transformative project — the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, which connects India to Europe through the Gulf region through Jordan and Israel — and I think emphasizes the role, particularly, of the Gulf region as an economic engine and gateway between continents, enabling goods and services to transit to, from, between India, the Gulf, Jordan, Israel, and Europe and Bahrain.
The focus of this call, of course, stands to benefit significantly from this new economic corridor just given its geography and its existing economic integration with Europe and Middle Eastern economies, including Israel.
So, on C-SIPA specifically, before I take a few questions about it — and we’ll — we’ll get you a factsheet with details after this call, which I think will be embargoed, unfortunately — but embargoed until after these meetings that take place tomorrow around 2:00 p.m. Eastern.
But I’ll just describe the main elements of what is a — this binding international agreement. The text of the agreement will also be posted online once the agreement comes into a force, which will be probably a couple of days after the formal signing.
So, we’ve been working on this agreement with Bahrain for about a year or so. And it flowed from discussions that began when the Crown Prince last visited Washington last year, including his bilateral meeting, a fairly lengthy and very substantive meeting last year with Vice President Harris.
Since then, multiple senior U.S. officials have traveled to Manama for talks and vice versa. And we’ve hosted senior Bahraini officials here in Washington over the past year to discuss and to eventually finalize this initiative.
This is a bilateral agreement between the United States and Bahrain. But as you’ll see when you see it, it also can serve as — as kind of a cornerstone for broader grouping of countries over time that share our common vision on deterrence, diplomacy, economic and security integration, and de-escalation of conflicts in the Middle East region — a vision for a more prosperous, more integrated, more peaceful, more stable Middle East region.
Some of the key themes I think you’ll see are deterrence. The agreement expands (inaudible) security cooperation, mutual intelligence capacity-building, interoperability. DOD had a big role in forging this arrangement. And it kind of formalizes, I think, some of what CENTCOM has been doing in the — in the region for some con- — some time regarding integration of the region’s air missile defense systems and so on, which we’ve talked about before in some detail.
In the economic sphere in trade and investment, we have a free trade agreement with Bahrain. We’ve had that agreement since 2006. And this agreement will further promote cooperation on trade and investment.
Just last year, for example, Bahrain created a U.S. trade zone where U.S. companies can develop new products, reach untapped markets, adding to supply chain resiliency. And this is the kind of cooperation that we can expect to see more of and we’ve been working a great deal on throughout the Middle East region.
Some — an area of trusted technology — and I think you’ll see this in the agreement and its significance, just given the evolving nature of threats, but also opportunities in the international security environment.
This agreement includes a section on promoting the development and deployment of trusted technologies. That refers to things such as emerging tech, infrastructure, the AI revolution, looking ahead to quantum computing — everything from 5G, telecom, chip exports, et cetera. And this is the first binding international agreement of its kind to promote such cooperation on trusted technologies. So, I think that’s a very significant plank of this arrangement.
So, again, I think the visit — we’re very pleased to have the Crown Prince in town once again. And I think signing this agreement is really a milestone in the strategic partnership. And when, I think, you see the agreement, it incorporates a lot of what we’ve been working on here throughout the region in a number of — a number of areas.
And, with that, I’m sure there are a lot of questions, so I’m happy to open it up to questions on this.
MODERATOR: Thank you, [senior administration official]. We’re ready to take some questions now.
Q Hi. Thanks, [senior administration official], for doing this. I will start — if you can elaborate a little bit about the defense portion in this agreement — if, for example, Bahrain was attacked by a third country, how the U.S. would assist.
And my second question would be on the initiative you announced in India. Erdoğan obviously opposed this economic corridor. And he said that “there is no corridor without Turkey.” How do you comment on that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, on the first, on the defense and security plank of the agreement — again, when it comes out, I think — I think you’ll see it. But it’s a — it’s a very strong — it’s a very strong arrangement in which it’s the policy of both of us to work together to help deter and confront any external aggression against the territorial integrity of — of any of the parties.
It has some specifics in terms of consultation and what would happen in that event. But it’s really designed to further enable what has been a policy of deterrence against threats but also a policy of proactive diplomacy to deescalate conflicts in the region.
And again, I think you’ve heard us talk about Yemen before. [Redacted.] And Yemen is now in the — (inaudible) the 17th month of, effectively, a truce. And we still have a lot of work to do.
But that has been an awful lot of U.S. diplomacy, and also working in the deterrence space to help stop increasing interdictions and other things, in terms of support to the Houthis, and also encouraging our partners to pursue a very proactive diplomatic campaign to deescalate that conflict.
So, deterrence and de-escalation go hand in hand. I think you’ll see that in the agreement.
On the India-Middle East Corridor, I think it speaks for itself. And I would just say it’s not exclusive to any other possible ways that goods get back and forth. But I think the leaders of these countries came together to endorse this project.
We’ve looked at the economics of it. It works. And I think, if anything, it increases trade and opportunities across the Middle East region, including, I think, other routes that have been discussed. So, I’ll just — I think I’ll leave it there, because I have not seen those comments, so I can’t comment on that specifically.
But I think on the India-Middle East Corridor, it is unprecedented. And the route going from India to Europe through the Gulf, through Jordan, Israel, and vice versa, carries an awful lot of potential. And I think it can really promote economic integration, prosperity, really, across the sphere of this important part of the world.
Q Hi, thanks for the time. I wondered if you could elaborate a little bit on the comment you made in your earlier remarks about this being a potential template that could be replicated elsewhere in the region. Is there — where are you in terms of trying to do that? And would that be something similar to all the parts of this — the security and the economic aspects — or just focused on specific parts of that?
And then, I was wondering if you could also sort of talk a bit about how this fits into wider strategy on Iran and trying to keep Iranian threats at bay.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can answer the question in two ways. First, on, kind of, security cooperation, security integration, this has been a driving focus of our effort and then led by — led by CENTCOM, which is doing some truly extraordinary and very creative things, particularly in the Gulf region, and often led out of Bahrain and NAVCENT.
We talked about Task Force 59, which incorporates artificial intelligence and drones in a very new way to significantly enhance maritime awareness.
This is really the wave of the future. We think the Middle East region and CENTCOM is at the cutting edge of it. And a lot of that cooperation is at the (inaudible) sphere.
And what this agreement does is it kind of raises it up into a — into an internationally — a binding legal agreement and incorporates some of that cooperation in a more formal way. And there’s a provision of the agreement that does — by mutual agreement, we can invite other countries to join.
So, I won’t get ahead of that process. These things take time. But I think there’s some — there’s some real potential.
And the provisions on trusted technology as we move rapidly — and we very much believe the United States of America is at the forefront of the AI revolution, and Bahrain has been a very close partner in that regard. And that’s important. So, I think I’d — I think I’d leave it there.
But it is really reinforcing to a lot of those broader initiatives that are going — going on in the region, often from the bottom up, led by CENTCOM.
On Iran, I think we have — our policy in Iran is focused on deterrence and deterring Iranian aggression, but also diplomacy and, as I mentioned, deterring or de-escalating conflicts where we can.
We have welcomed the restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That’s something that, you know, we had full visibility on, when the talks are going on in Baghdad and Oman over the course of — beginning in 2021 and 20- — into 2022 and 2023. And restoring diplomatic ties — it’s better to have diplomatic ties than not to have diplomatic ties.
But at the same time, our eyes are wide open. In terms of Iran, President Biden has not shied away from ordering military strikes to protect our people. And we’ll continue — we remain poised to do that.
We’ve increased our naval presence in the Gulf region recently in response to threats and interdictions as part of our role in ensuring that international commerce is safe. And we do a lot of that out of Bahrain, and we’re grateful for Bahrain for hosting the Fifth Fleet.
So, the more security integration and cooperation the better, but this is not something that is directed at Iran. Again, we are focused on deterring threats from Iran or just deterring threats from terrorist groups, deterring threats from Iranian-backed militia groups, while also using diplomacy and de-escalation to try to encourage a more peaceful, stable, prosperous region over time.
Q Hi, thanks for taking my question. I just wanted to ask about this new agreement in the context of human rights in Bahrain. And will the U.S. be using this week’s meetings with the Crown Prince to press for improved prison conditions and the release of political detainees? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I would say: pressing basically all of our friends, partners, allies. But to protect and advance human rights is a key focus of the President’s National Security Strategy, and it’s one of the five pillars of the President’s vision for the broader Middle East that he laid out when he was in the Middle East last year. And quite frankly, we don’t shy away from raising these issues, even with our closest partners around the world, and we’d say say Bahrain is no exception.
We have seen the Bahrainis make some important strides and some important reforms. I don’t want to get ahead of things, but we’ve been discussing, for example, the situation and what is going on with hunger strikes in some of the prisons in Bahrain. We understand that some arrangements have been made. I don’t want to — again, I don’t want to get ahead of this process.
But we’re hopeful that that situation is now being resolved. And I think that’s because we have had very candid conversations with our Bahraini partners. We work at these issues very diligently. And I think we are one of the few countries around the world where human rights is at the table when we are having a very broader geostrategic conversations. And that’s what makes us unique. We don’t shy away from that.
Sometimes we might not be as public and vocal publicly as I know some might like, but I think we are — we’re focused on being effective. And I think Bahrain is an example of that. I think we’ll hear more about that over the course of the Crown Prince’s visit this week.
Q Thank you so much. My main question was around, sort of, human rights as well, so I’m glad that you were able to address that.
But my second question is a little bit more specific around the corridor again. Part of it seems to involve some sort of connection between the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Can you elaborate the nature of that connection? And do you think that they’re actually going to go through with building a rail or another connection given the political tensions and economic competition between their two countries and the long history of failed rail projects between their two countries?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We do. We feel — we feel confident about it. We have — in fact, these discussions began in a trilateral basis with the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and UAE. And then ultimately, Jake’s visit last summer, where he met with his counterparts from UAE and India, together with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, to discuss this in some depth. And so, I do think the foundation has been set to move forward on this.
The Saudis announced at the G20 $20 billion in supporting the Partnership for Global Infrastructure writ large. That’s one of the President’s signature initiatives. And I think that’s quite important.
So, we think the economics of this work. It benefits everybody involved. And some of the tracks, as you know, are already built, so some of them just need some connections, which are not — which are not that hard to envision.
So, look, there’s work to do. I think the agreement — the MOU that was signed in G20 — we will get together within 60 days on working groups to begin laying some of the groundwork and laying some of the tracks. No pun intended.
But there’s — you know, I think the foundation has been set, and we have a good commitment from the leaders even despite disagreements between all of these countries on many different things. That’s something where — that we work on every day.
I will say: I think it’s important that, you know, this is U.S. leadership and U.S. facilitation that brought this about. Without that, this would be impossible. And I think you heard that reflected in the comments of all the leaders who were in the room at the G20 at that event on Saturday, from the President of the EU, to the President of France, the Prime Minister of India, and Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, et cetera.
So, this was something that President Biden set — he kind of set this vision. When we — when they — when we had the idea, sat down with the leaders, and I think it’s in — it’s in good shape.
But we’ll have more to talk about over the coming couple of weeks about that initiative.
Q Thank you. Hi, [moderator]. Hi, [senior administration official]. Thank you for doing this.
Would this upgrade involve a new weapons sale and will any element of this new agreement require congressional approval?
And second, on the economic corridor, is it open for other countries — like, for example, Iraq or Egypt — to join as you go along or even in the initial stage?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, there — on this agreement — this agreement does not require congressional approval. It is an internationally binding agreement, so we will notify it to Congress under the CASE Act but it does not require congressional ratification. But it is an internationally binding agreement.
It also does not entail any specific weapons sales. I would note Bahrain was the first Gulf country to receive F-16s in the 1990s. And I think just this past spring, in March, (inaudible) delivered the first F-16 Block 70 fighters and, in doing so, became the first customer to receive that latest generation Block 70 aircraft — a purchase that nearly doubled the size of its fleet.
So, we have a very close military relationship with Bahrain. That’s going to continue. And I think this agreement kind of formalizes that.
In terms of the corridor, it’s a — it’s an economic corridor that will really benefit the whole region. So, it’s not exclusionary. But when you look at the economics of it, it really — it really has potential to benefit everybody.
You mentioned Egypt. The Suez Canal, of course, is the main chokepoint. And it is a chokepoint. It can only — only so many ships can go through the Suez Canal a day. So, when this corridor is actually moving, up and running, a ship-to-rail corridor, that does not take away from the importance of the Suez Canal in any way. It just increases the overall volume possibilities and opportunities not only of just trade and goods, but also clean energy products and everything that is addressed in that MOU.
So, we think there’s potential here for everybody, including the Bahrainis, who will be in town this week.
Q Hi, [senior administration official]. Thanks for this. I was wondering if you could go a little bit beyond — into a little more detail about specific ways in which this will increase military and security cooperation with Bahrain, and if you see any likely candidates for, sort of, joining in, whether, you know, that would be like Saudi or the UAE afterwards.
And in terms of the trusted technology element of this, is this — I mean, how is that going to work? And is it aimed mainly at containing China’s expansion in this role? We’ve seen them, you know, become quite present in the Gulf, especially in 5G, 6G, and — or, at least 5G and some other of these expanding technologies and AI.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Thanks, Stephen. I think — we’re going release a pretty detailed factsheet after this call that I think addresses a lot of this, including on the defense and security cooperation side with — encompassed in this agreement and also on the technology side.
So, you know, I just don’t want to get too ahead of it. But I think it does recognize the impor- — we see tremendous opportunity, and we worked on this very hard here — from the NSC, but throughout the interagency — on the opportunities that are emerging within the AI revolution. And we think America is very — is very well positioned to lead that revolution. And, frankly, Bahrain has been a very close partner in this area.
And so, this is an active, ongoing discussion with countries around the world, including the Middle East region. And — but this agreement kind of incorporates some of those principles. It’s the first binding legal agreement of its kind that does that.
And so, I’ll let it — I’ll let it speak for itself.
MODERATOR: We have time for maybe one more question.
Q Thank you. Can you hear me?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q Hello? Oh, okay. Hi. I wanted to go back to the very first question and the security aspects that you mentioned.
You said that it’s a binding agreement for both to work together to help to deter and confront any external aggression. You — and then you talked about deterrence and diplomacy, but you didn’t say anything about confrontation against external aggression. And I wonder what the extent of the U.S. commitment is to physically confront aggression.
And secondly, Saudi Arabia has said it wants a defense commitment from the United States. And I wonder, to the extent you see this agreement as a possible template for other countries in the region, is this something that the U.S. could live with for Saudi Arabia and other countries?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, we are in discussions throughout the region about our security relationships, about looking towards the future. And — but I just — I wanted to emphasize: It’s not about confrontation at all; this is about — this is defensive in nature. It’s about deterrence, and it’s about setting conditions for a more stable region going forward, which I think we have a fairly good record here — over the last few years, despite some significant difficulties and challenges which you all cover and know very well.
I think our record demonstrates that while we’re very committed to the deterring element of policy, we’re also very committed to the de-escalation and diplomacy elements and forging broader integration in the region, which is ultimately the recipe for a more stable region going forward.
The Gulf has a — Israel has important role in that — North Africa [redacted].
And trying to do all we can to deter some of the more aggressive nature and tendencies from the Iranians. And so, I think all of that is incorporated here.
I have it in front of me. I just can’t read from it because until it’s actually signed and in force, I don’t want to get ahead of it.
But it is a — it is a commitment in the — in the event of a worst-case scenario of an attack to immediately — to immediately consult and ensure that we can do all we possibly can to deter further threats.
So, I think I’ll leave it at that.
It is not a — it does not cross the threshold of a treaty. But it is a very strong security assurance, which I think, when you see it, you know, I think you’ll find —
Q Yeah, I just ask because you used the word “confront.”
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I used the word “confront”?
Q Yeah. You said “work together to help to deter and confront any external aggression.”
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, that’s right — “in the event of an attack.” I think the — the standard security assurance is that we would immediately consult with our partner and ally, and determine the best way to confront would be an ongoing external aggression in that worst-case scenario.
But the ultimate objective of agreements like this are to ensure that you never get to that worst-case scenario. So, it is focused on strengthening a partnership, strengthening the deterrent element of policy to enable diplomacy and de-escalation to ultimately succeed.
MODERATOR: Thanks. Thanks, everyone for joining the call today and, again, apologies for the delay.
As a reminder, the contents of this call will be attributable to a “senior administration official,” but no contents may be published or made public until the embargo is lifted tomorrow, September 13th, at 2:00 p.m. Eastern time.
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