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Some cautious skepticism about Saudi Arabia’s ‘reforms’

While I’ve developed a very bad attitude about the U.S.-Saudi bromance, it’s obvious Thomas Friedman has never seen anything quite these developments in Saudi Arabia.  

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.
Saudi Press Agency/Handout via REUTERS

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”).

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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.

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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.