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Some cautious skepticism about Saudi Arabia's 'reforms'

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Press Agency/Handout via REUTERS
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has launched a reform movement that is not only cracking down on Saudi Arabia’s endemic corruption among the wealthy, but also showing an openness to social reforms.

In the very late stages of World War II, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt headed home from the famous 1945 Yalta Conference (where he, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill explored how they would run things together after the war) FDR stopped off in in the Mideast’s Great Bitter Lake and, aboard a U.S. naval vessel, met for several days with King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia.

You might find this surprising, considering everything FDR had going on at the time, but he and Abdul Aziz talked for several days on the ship and created an alliance between their two nations that lasts to this day. The alliance revolved then, and basically still revolves, around security and oil. The United States guarantees the security of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi ruling family’s divine grip on power, and U.S. oil companies and U.S. oil consumers have access to the vast oil resources of the desert kingdom.

The oil and security elements of the relationship make a certain sense, but the long deep friendship rubs awkwardly against the view that the United States uses its power in the world to promote and spread freedom and democracy, and the fact that Saudi Arabia, during all these decades, is among the most repressive, least democratic, most sexist, most theocratic and most controlling governments on earth.

Until 2016, a special police force working for the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice used to hit couples with sticks if they were holding hands in public. Saudi women could not legally drive until this year. In 2015, a young Saudi blogger named Raif Badawi was publicly flogged and then sentenced to 10 years in prison (he’s still locked up) for questioning certain government policies (the actual crime of which he was convicted translates as "insulting Islam through electronic channels").

Those who choose to do so may find various lame ways to excuse the awkwardness of the deep ties between such a nation and the United States, the self-styled leader of the Free World.

For me, it’s easier and more honest to acknowledge that good guy/bad guy templates for understanding international relations are generally self-serving and full of holes. The United States has probably overtly and covertly overthrown more democracies than any other power. We may have a rooting interest in democracy promotion, but our own rulers have other economic, military and political interests that generally win out when they come into conflict with our interest in spreading democracy or human rights.

Quite recently, unusual news has emanated from Saudi Arabia. There are signs that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (hereafter MBS), age 32, who is currently designated by his father King Salman (age 81) to be the next king, has launched a reform movement that is not only cracking down on Saudi Arabia’s endemic corruption among the wealthy, but also showing an openness to social reforms.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a long piece about MBS’s reform movement, and my main reason for bringing up Saudi Arabia this morning is to pass along the Friedman piece.

Friedman, as you may recall from the early years of his career, speaks Arabic and Hebrew and made his journalistic bones writing about the Mideast. He isn’t making any promises that Saudi Arabia is about to enter the 21st (well, at least the 20th)century, but Friedman was toward the high end of cautiously optimistic.

After writing about MBS’ fast-moving crackdown on Saudi Arabia’s endemic corruption in business matters, and the fact Saudis are very enthusiastic about it, Friedman segued:

“But guess what? This anticorruption drive is only the second-most unusual and important initiative launched by MBS. The first is to bring Saudi Islam back to its more open and modern orientation — whence it diverted in 1979. That is, back to what MBS described to a recent global investment conference here as a ‘moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples.’”

As you can tell by the first few paragraphs above, I have developed a very bad attitude about the U.S.-Saudi bromance. Friedman maintains cautious skepticism, and so should you, about how far and how fast things can change. But it’s pretty obvious that Friedman has never seen anything quite this promising in Saudi Arabia. Here’s one more bit, in Friedman’s voice:

Can M.B.S. and his team see this through? Again, I make no predictions. He has his flaws that he will have to control, insiders here tell me. They include relying on a very tight circle of advisers who don’t always challenge him sufficiently, and a tendency to start too many things that don’t get finished. There’s a whole list. But guess what? Perfect is not on the menu here. Someone had to do this job — wrench Saudi Arabia into the 21st century — and M.B.S. stepped up. I, for one, am rooting for him to succeed in his reform efforts.

And so are a lot of young Saudis. There was something a 30-year-old Saudi woman social entrepreneur said to me that stuck in my ear. ‘We are privileged to be the generation that has seen the before and the after.’ The previous generation of Saudi women, she explained, could never imagine a day when a woman could drive and the coming generation will never be able to imagine a day when a woman couldn’t.

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Comments (14)

Cautious

Caution is justified. Few individuals or institutions that have power (and especially the combination of power and wealth) give up one or both voluntarily. As can readily be seen currently in Alabama and elsewhere, we have plenty 'o theocrats here in the U.S. who can, and will, justify an assortment of bizarre behavior and belief, sometimes in direct opposition to the spiritual values they profess, in order to maintain that kind of power and/or wealth.

Protection = oil, to me, at least, smacks pretty heavily of the realpolitik of Henry Kissinger fairly specifically, but those kinds of resource = protection arrangements are, and historically have been, so common and unremarkable in world history as to be largely taken for granted. I confess to complete ignorance of FDR's meeting with the Saudi king on his return trip from Yalta. It brings the whole Saudi-United States relationship into something much closer to focus as a result, and also, for me, at least, helps to explain why Saudi Arabia was not at the top of our retribution list after the terrorist attack of 9/11/2001, since (for those who may have forgotten) the majority of those involved in the attack were from… Saudi Arabia.

since (for those who may have

since (for those who may have forgotten) the majority of those involved in the attack were from… Saudi Arabia” And the underwear bomber came from the UK.

Saudi Arabia

In focusing on domestic reform, Friedman says very little about Saudi Arabia's foreign policy which shows little change-- or promise of change. MBS appears to have been very influential in organizing the recent unfortunate anti-Qatar actions. His antagonism (and intransigence) toward Iran diminishes our ability to build on the Iran agreement, which has reduced the nuclear threat in that part of the world and offers an opportunity to continue to ease global tensions (indeed, the Saudi position builds pressure in Washington to abandon the agreement). The Yemen situation and the bizarre events in Lebanon only add to my skepticism about how likely it is the Saudi "reform" justifies optimism.

Mr. Friedman thought that the

Mr. Friedman thought that the Earth was flat – enough said.

Anyway, I think I noted on many occasions that the US is (and should be) looking for its own interests just like all other countries on Earth (which, by the way, Mr. Trump pointed out on several occasions). I just always point out that in most cases what is best for America is best for the world, which, by the way, doesn’t mean it is best for each particular country at each particular moment. Consequently, accusing America of supporting Saudi Arabia is not reasonable because it was in American interests (and actually in the world’s interests to keep the USSR away from the Middle East as far as possible). And sure, it was not the best for the Saudis’ interests.

“The United States has probably overtly and covertly overthrown more democracies than any other power.” Again, Chile and Iran. No, they were not democracies because having a democratically elected leader does not make a country a democracy. Just think of Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Russia.

“We may have a rooting interest in democracy promotion, but our own rulers have other economic, military and political interests that generally win out when they come into conflict with our interest in spreading democracy or human rights.” Of course – security of America was more important than promoting democracy.

Flat heads and earth

Tom Friedman's expression 'the earth is flat' was highly metaphoric -- a comment on international politics, not physics.

Exactly.

Exactly.

Democracies

You are correct that the machinations of a democracy do not make it so - Venezuela, Russia and Zimbabwe are not true democracies, because the ruling party/person can't actually be replaced by democratic means. But Chile and Iran were democracies - power changed hands through elections. And we overthrew those democratically-elected leaders because we did not like who won those elections. Guatemala - and others, depending on how you define our level of interference - was the same.

All the countries I listed

All the countries I listed started as close to being democracies as possible in the beginning (elections were free and fair in the beginning), and so did Chile and Iran. I meant that with the path and the models the leaders of those countries chose (Cuba and the USSR respectively) and nationalization, they could not have ended any other way but as a not democracy, based on historical examples.

Wahhabi

When Wahhabi Islam is no longer Saudi Arabia's state religion I'll believe that they are in fact moving significantly towards democracy.
And of course the Bin Laden family (who George Bush helped leave the country after 9/11 before they could be questioned by the FBI) is Saudi.

“When Wahhabi Islam is no

“When Wahhabi Islam is no longer Saudi Arabia's state religion...” ISIS is not Wahhabi and neither is Hamas. Let alone Iran and Hezbollah…

“And of course the Bin Laden family (who George Bush helped leave the country after 9/11 before they could be questioned by the FBI) is Saudi.” So George Bush is now bin Laden’s ally?

You're missing many points

We're talking about the Saudi's and their sponsorship of terrorists. Their tools do not have to be Wahhabi.
The Bushes were in bed with oil, which at that time was mainly sourced from Saudi Arabia.
Bush was not Osama Bin Laden's ally, but he was a friend of the Bin Laden family (see the picture of him walking pinky to pinky with a Saudi prince).

“Their tools do not have to

“Their tools do not have to be Wahhabi.” So what do they have in common then?

“he was a friend of the Bin Laden family (see the picture of him walking pinky to pinky with a Saudi prince” Do you mean that one of bin Laden’s relatives was a prince?

I don't think that the Bin Ladens were royalty.

They were more in the business of purchasing royals.
My point about Bush II was that he had very friendly relationships with the Saudi's, for their mutual benefit. And he did help the Bin Ladens leave the United States without being questioned after 9/11.

What the 'tools' had in common was a desire to harm the United States. Most of them weren't too particular about who paid their bills.

“And he did help the Bin

“And he did help the Bin Ladens leave the United States without being questioned after 9/11” Apparently, this is a fake news: https://www.snopes.com/rumors/flights.asp.

“What the 'tools' had in common was a desire to harm the United States. Most of them weren't too particular about who paid their bills.” There are plenty of people who want to harm the US – in Russia, China, North Korea, Venezuela… but they do not fly planes into skyscrapers or mow people by cars…