Behind the Scenes of My Trip to the Middle East
Every time I take a trip overseas in connection with my work as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, I write a short behind-the-scenes account on the plane ride home. The purpose is twofold: first, for me to process my thoughts and experiences during the trip; and second, to pass along to you, my constituents and supporters, a true sense of what it’s like to represent the United States abroad. So, what follows is an inside look at my recent trip to Qatar, Oman, and Jordan.
First, the background: the Yemen civil war has set in motion the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. Over 100,000 children have died of starvation or disease, and today over half the country relies on humanitarian assistance to live. For years, I have been working to end U.S. participation in the war (we have backed the Saudi-led coalition that is trying to restore the Yemen government to power since the 2014 takeover of the country’s capital by Houthi rebels). Finally, this January, President Biden announced our departure from the Saudi-led coalition and named veteran diplomat Tim Lenderking as the Special Envoy tasked with leading U.S. efforts to end the war.
These moves stimulated talk of a ceasefire in the Yemen war, and last weekend, a bevy of U.S. officials headed to the Middle East in part to help push these discussions along. One delegation, led by Brett McGurk from the National Security Council and Derek Chollet from the State Department, crisscrossed the region to meet with partners on Yemen and other issues. Tim Lenderking was in the region taxiing between capitals to push a ceasefire proposal. Martin Griffiths, the UN Special Envoy, was there too. I felt like some congressional participation in these visits would be worthwhile, so that players in the region could see that there was no distance between the administration and Congress on the need to achieve peace in Yemen.
A Dinner Stop in Doha
As soon as votes ended Thursday, I hopped on a non-stop flight to Doha, Qatar. The Foreign Minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, is a friend, and the beginning and end of the Qatar leg of the trip would be an Iftar dinner (the dinner that ends the daily fast each day of Ramadan) at his home. I landed in Doha and made quick use of an airport lounge shower to clean up and throw on a suit for dinner.
Al-Thani and I get along well — he’s slightly younger than me and our kids are the same ages — and he joked that since he always has Iftar dinner at his mother’s house, this was going to be his second meal of the evening. Over a long dinner, we surveyed the region, and he explained how Biden’s focus on diplomacy and de-escalating conflicts in the Middle East was having a major impact. The cold war between Qatar and its other Gulf neighbors had ended, Iran and Saudi Arabia had begun informal talks, and a ceasefire was possible in Yemen.
As we moved to the dessert course, I brought up the active role that Qatar used to play in Yemen, often acting as a peace broker between the Yemen government and the Houthis. I asked him why Qatar, which in most years is a generous donor to the UN Yemen humanitarian aid program, had held back money this year. He told me that with political talks possible, they wanted to use their contribution as leverage to get the negotiations moving. I told him this was a risky move, as millions could starve while the ceasefire is being negotiated and implemented. He turned to his deputy and whispered something in Arabic, then told me that I made a strong case and he would consider it.
Oman Loves Mystic
At 1 AM, I boarded a flight to Oman, arriving in Muscat, the capital, at 3 AM. I knew I would need some time to fight off jet lag, so I worked at the hotel in the morning and took a quick trip to the Oman National Museum at lunch. I don’t get to spend much time outside of conference rooms on these trips, but if you want to be impactful in foreign capitals, you need to know these countries and their history. So I thought an hour-long tour of the museum would help orient me.
Oman is about the same size as Yemen, and right next door, but has only 5 million citizens compared to Yemen’s 35 million. For thirty years, it was ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, who died last year. Qaboos had no heirs, so he tucked inside a secret envelope the name of his chosen successor and forbade anyone from opening the envelope until he died. What the envelope contained turned out to be a surprise: instead of the widely expected Sultan-in-waiting, Qaboos chose his cousin, the quiet but capable Minister of Culture, Haitham bin Tarik Al Said. Intent on carrying on Qaboos’s legacy of remaining neutral in regional conflicts, but often willing to play a mediating or convening role, Haitham has taken an active interest in Yemen and has a special relationship with the Houthis. Oman, in fact, allows the Houthis to keep an office in the country in order to conduct international diplomacy.
On Saturday afternoon, I spent time with the embassy team and then went to an Iftar dinner at the home of a prominent Omani businessman and member of the country’s appointed upper chamber of the parliament. Upon returning to the hotel, who but Tim Lenderking was in the lobby! I’m sure he was planning on getting a quiet dinner by himself, but I insisted on joining him so that we could plan for our joint meetings the next day with Omani officials.
On Sunday, Tim and I met with both the Foreign Minister and representatives of the Sultan. Our plea was that the Omanis use their contacts with the Houthis to press for an end to the assault on the city of Marib. The Houthis want to control Marib’s oil resources, which would provide them with significant revenue and more leverage in negotiations. But Marib is also home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Yemenis who fled fighting in other areas of the country, so close fighting in the city would be devastating. If the Houthis enter the city, a million citizens may be forced to flee, creating a brand new humanitarian disaster in Yemen. We left our meeting with the Foreign Minister believing we had made progress.
On the walk out of the Foreign Ministry, the Deputy Minister said to me, “I once spent time in a beautiful town on the sea in Connecticut. Lots of ships and old boats.”
“Mystic?” I asked. “You’re probably talking about the Seaport museum. It’s wonderful.”
“Yes, Mystic!” he exclaimed, his face lighting up. “I loved it!”
National Park Advice from the King
Sunday evening I departed for Jordan. The United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen is based in Jordan, but I was also heading there to join a large delegation of senior Biden administration officials to make the first American visit to our ally King Abdullah II since the transition. The Trump administration was, to put it kindly, rough sledding for Jordan. Trump had affection only for the oil-rich countries of the region (places where he might one day want to put up a hotel), and his decision to cut off funds for the Palestinians was particularly hurtful to Jordan (which hosts more Palestinian refugees than any other country).
Trump’s decision to turn America’s back on Jordan was bad policy. A future Palestinian state (something that Trump did not believe in) cannot happen without Jordan playing an active midwifing role. Jordan is also a key counterterrorism partner and a general force for stability in the region (especially with the recently erratic behavior by Saudi Arabia). Yes, we want the King to enact political reform to open up more space for democratic participation, but Trump wasn’t even making progress on this.
I led our delegation’s visit with the King, which included a formal sit-down meeting and then a delicious meal with both King Abdullah and Queen Rania at their home. Before dinner, I huddled with the arriving Biden administration delegation in the palace’s health unit as we all took turns getting COVID tests. Despite being vaccinated, I had a COVID test in every country I visited (all of them the uncomfortable deep nasal variety), and so I can safely say that upon my return to the U.S., I am the most COVID-free individual on earth.
Over a five-course dinner, complete with the royal family’s cute, spunky dog running around underneath the table, we discussed with the King and Queen our mutual concerns. He noted his family’s historic relationship with the Houthi family in Yemen, and said that if the time was right, he would be willing to use those connections to help push for peace. We talked about the tough reforms necessary to stabilize the nation’s economy, and I told him that a Congress that was increasingly focused on domestic issues would want to see true reform to keep investing in Jordan.
As the dinner broke up, the King and I walked out of the Palace together and he asked about my summer plans. I told him that my wife and I had planned a trip with our kids to see the Utah national parks. His face lit up, and he talked about his treasured motorcycle trips across America and gave me a few recommendations for our visit. I thanked him for his friendship and headed off to the home of Jordan’s Ambassador to the U.S. (who was in Jordan for our visit) for a final late-night meeting.
The United States is Back
On Tuesday, I spent the morning doing more Yemen meetings. Lenderking had joined the large U.S. delegation in Jordan, and he and I met with the European ambassadors to Yemen (who reside in Amman) and then Martin Griffiths, the U.N.’s Yemen Special Envoy, to coordinate strategy on the push for a ceasefire. Martin noted that his efforts had stalled for much of 2020, and immediately upon the election of President Biden and the U.S. decision to pursue diplomacy instead of war in Yemen, things started moving again. He was thrilled at another chance to get a peace deal, and he conveyed how Biden’s election had made all the difference.
For lunch, I met up with a group of Connecticut National Guard soldiers stationed in Jordan. Whenever I travel abroad to a country that hosts U.S. troops, I always seek them out. I picked my way through a plate of hot dogs and fries, but the conversation more than made up for this. It’s just amazing to me that so many patriotic, capable Americans volunteer to have their lives and careers interrupted to travel to the other side of the world to protect our interests. One soldier, Jay Cruz of Meriden, smiled as he reminded me that we had met before — twice.
“I’ve been on three tours — Iraq, Kuwait, and Jordan — and I’ve met with you on all three,” he explained.
I immediately remembered his face. “Tikrit! 2007!” I exclaimed, remembering visiting with him on my first ever overseas trip as a member of Congress to Iraq. “Man, Jay, that’s kind of creepy. You must think I’m following you around the world.”
After lunch, I drove with our amazing Ambassador to Jordan, Henry Wooster (who met his wife in New Haven!) to a career training program in Amman run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN organization that funds relief programs for Palestinian refugees. The campus looked like any American technical high school, and when I sat down with about 10 students, they all told me how glad they were that Biden had restarted funding for their school. They had felt abandoned by Trump, who felt that UNRWA programming was too slanted against Israel. I could see no sign of politics on this campus, just air conditioning repair and car mechanics training.
After several press interviews from the hotel, I had dinner with the Ambassador at his residence and headed off to pack up in preparation for my Wednesday morning flight back to Hartford. As I readied for bed, I marveled at how different this trip was from those I took during the four years of Trump’s embrace of despots, disdain for diplomacy, and general withdrawal from the world.
Biden, in just three short months, has set in motion a cycle of potential de-escalation in the Middle East. We are just seeing the grass shoots now, and it could all turn in the wrong direction just as quickly, but the ability to be here, working hand in hand with Biden’s team, solving problems, was invigorating. The world is better off and America is more secure when we try our hardest to be a force for good and peace in the world. Especially in the Middle East, we don’t always succeed, but at least we’re trying again.