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Edition 10 Volume 2 - March 11, 2024

The future of Saudi Arabia

A stabilizing role  - an interview withBernard Haykel
The Saudis have problems that most third-world countries have.

Islam in its entirety and diversity  - an interview withJamal Khashoggi
History cannot stand still--not in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else in the world.

Why we still need each other  - byRichard W. Murphy
Radical change would jeopardize energy markets and hurt the war on terror.

Progress without change?  - an interview withLawrence Wright
The real structural changes that are needed don't appear to be in the making now.

A stabilizing role
an interview with Bernard Haykel

BI: What do you believe to be the greatest challenges facing Saudi Arabia at the moment?

Haykel: The most immediate political challenge has to do with establishing a clearer line of succession, with the king ailing from a stroke, his successor being himself fairly old, and the successor after him also not so young. The leadership at the moment represents an older generation at a time when the kingdom itself is facing a great many new challenges.

BI: What do you make of the prognosis that "the Saudis are in trouble," that new pressures on the kingdom will bring down the monarchy?

Haykel: This conclusion is arrived at largely due to ignorance as to what is happening inside Saudi Arabia and because 15 of the 19 hijackers [in the September 11 attacks] were from Saudi Arabia--i.e., therefore the Saudis must not have things in hand, and we are on the verge of something like the Iranian revolution.

This is scare mongering. At best, it is stupid analysis; at worst it is willful antagonism against the Saudis. The Saudis do have problems that most third-world countries have: problems of demographics and what to do with a huge population that is very young but has not reached employment age.

The issue of women's rights exercises the attention of westerners and human rights groups much more than it does Saudis. I think this is an issue that is in fact a wedge used to undermine the Saudis. There is a women's movement inside Saudi Arabia, but it is very small and politically unimportant as a source of pressure on the Saudi leadership itself. That is not to say that there are no problems there concerning women, but as a political issue, it is a non-starter.

BI: How then would you describe the relationship between Saudis and their government?

Haykel: The way to understand Saudi Arabia is to realize that, unlike the former regime in Iraq, or the one in Syria, the leadership does not consist of a single individual. The royal family has about 6,000 male princes, princes who hold offices throughout the kingdom and have contact with the ordinary citizens of Saudi Arabia on a daily basis. Saudi citizens relate to the royal family through these princes (any one of these princes can potentially become the ruler) and through them, people have access to the government.

Furthermore, I think that most Saudis realize that the country as it is currently constituted can only be held together under the Saudi royal family. Otherwise, it would split up into three provinces, if not more: the Eastern Province, the Hijaz and Najd, which would probably continue to be ruled by the Saudis. So the leadership has staying power by virtue of history, by virtue of the many individuals involved, and also by virtue of the fact that the ruling family is not ideologically monolithic. The whole political spectrum of the Arab world is represented in these princes and this, to my mind, is a source of strength.

BI: What about Saudi Arabia's relationship with the Arab world?

Haykel: If one looks over the long term at what is referred to as the "Arab Cold War" in the 1950s and 60s between [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser on the one hand and the late King Faisal on the other, that challenge has collapsed and the Saudis are left standing, largely through the failure of the Arab nationalists. But since this major defeat for the forces of Arabism and nationalism in the Arab world, the Saudis have remained tentative and cautious about taking over the leadership of the Arab world.

One option for the Saudis would be to take the reigns of leadership more forcefully on crucial issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict. They did this, albeit with great trepidation, in the Beirut Arab League resolution that offered the Israelis a template for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. But by nature, Saudi leaders don't like to take great risks or put themselves forward too much. As a result, the Arab world finds itself rudderless and dis-unified and is crying out for the kind of leadership that only the Saudis can offer.

BI: How does the kingdom view its relationship with the United States?

Haykel: If you asked members of the Saudi royal family, you would hear that they feel that the United States, especially the US media and some politicians, are unfairly accusing Saudi Arabia of sponsoring terrorism and of being behind the entire Bin Ladin phenomenon; that there is a witch hunt on in which Saudi Arabia is being unfairly vilified.

BI: How would you rate the Bush administration's policies towards Saudi Arabia?

Haykel: I think the Bush administration has decided that it cannot rely exclusively on Saudi Arabia for the security and strategic interests of the United States in the Persian Gulf area. It has decided that Saudi Arabia must be knocked down by at least a peg, if not more. The invasion of Iraq was partly intended to establish another foothold in the Persian Gulf region for the US.

The other side to this story is that the Bush administration has, for domestic policy reasons, permitted and promoted the line that the Saudis are to blame for September 11 and the radicalism we are seeing. This may not be the official line, but it is understood to be the case and this, of course, denies American culpability in the promotion of these jihadis in the 1980s in the war against the Soviets.

The Saudis, as the swing producer in the world oil market, have in fact played a stabilizing role in the price of oil for a very long time. This has directly allowed western economies to do extremely well in the last two decades. What the Bush administration hasn't been clear about is this very positive role in addition to Saudi Arabia's ability to contain rather than promote militant Islam (as we have seen in the spate of arrests and killings of jihadis by the Saudi security services since 9/11). I know that what I am saying is rather unorthodox, but it can be proven--the Saudis have promoted a version of Islam that is fundamentalist, but which is also apolitical and quietist in terms of politics. The fact that a militant form has emerged from within Wahhabism is not necessarily Saudi Arabia's fault.

BI: Can you give an example of the Saudi form of Islam?

Haykel: The Islam that Saudis teach is an Islam in which Saudi citizens are told that they must obey their Muslim rulers; rebellion is not permitted, obedience is mandated, and all forms of political organization such as political parties are not permitted. The only thing that Muslims ought to be doing besides being pious and obeying the dictates of ritual law is forming charitable associations.

BI: Do Americans make any of these distinctions?

In America today, what people seem to want to say is that the problem that America is facing is with Islam and with Muslims, but to say this is not "politically correct" because we have five or six million Muslims in our country and you can't just vilify a religion. The one way to say that without being politically incorrect is to blame it on the Saudis; the word "Saudis" has become shorthand for "Muslim" and this I find to be a very dangerous, ignorant and fundamentally racist line of argumentation.-Published 11/3/04(c)bitterlemons-international.org

Bernard Haykel is professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and director of the Transregional Institute for the Study of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.

Islam in its entirety and diversity
an interview with Jamal Khashoggi

BI: What do you feel is the greatest challenge faced by the kingdom today?

Khashoggi: It shouldn't be a challenge. It should be easy. The kingdom has done this before. It should open up to Islam in its entirety and diversity. In fact, we agreed on that in the first national forum held in Riyadh. Different parties that met there concluded that diversity in school of thought and intellectual diversity--along with many other proposals--be taken to the Crown Prince and he liked them and he approved them. So in principle we agreed to broaden our base under Islam.

BI: Why do you feel that this is important?

Khashoggi: I believe Islam is not an obstacle to organization. It will help us, but only taken in its entirety and diversity. If we cannot find an answer in this ijtihad [religious legal interpretation], then we can pursue another ijtihad.

Maybe this is a challenge for certain groups that have enjoyed for some time exclusivity of interpretation. But nobody should have enjoyed that exclusivity in the first place. Islam is for Saudi Arabia and for everybody there. Saudi Arabia is the center of the Muslim world and Islam in its diversity is represented in the Muslim world. So then let's implement what we have agreed on. Let's implement diversity and put it into practice.

BI: What are the factors, external and internal, that will affect how Saudi Arabia deals with these issues?

Khashoggi: I think the most important force is the course of history. History cannot stand still--not in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else in the world. Modernization and reform are a continuous process. Saudi Arabia today is different from Saudi Arabia 100 years ago. Germany does not see France the way it did 50 years ago; the same applies to us.

Take the concept of sovereignty, for example. In the 60s, it was a big thing for Arab countries to nationalize investments. Now we are going the other way and we are inviting [foreign] investments. Ideas do change and this is happening to us as in any other part of the world. This is the most important factor to make us change and progress.

BI: What are the other factors?

Khashoggi: There are other factors that are experienced by us just like other countries. For example, there is unemployment, which is serious. The fact that we have a huge number of graduates that cannot find jobs--this is a clear indication that there is a problem with our education system. If people were educated properly, they would find jobs.

One more factor is change around us. There is major change in Iraq, hopefully towards the positive. There are changes in Iran--God knows in what direction. I was once more optimistic about Iran, but not anymore. I hope they will not wind up with upheaval and crisis, but if the conservatives in Iran continue going against history, then they may face a problem on the ground.

We should take it for granted that Iraq and Egypt and Syria will be different. I don't know about Israel, it may be locked behind the wall they are building and more isolated from the Arab world. We are not so affected by what happens in Israel as we are countries like Iraq and Egypt. The changes around us are both internal and external. American forces are reshaping Iraq. There are internal forces at work in Egypt that I am sure are going to change the way Egypt looks over the next five to ten years. Syria, also for internal reasons, will be forced to change.

BI: There are many reasons why Saudi Arabia is seen as a leader in the Arab world. It has been suggested that the kingdom is not always comfortable in that role, that sometimes it likes to stay out of the limelight.

Khashoggi: The most important ideas in the Arab world recently have come out of Saudi Arabia. The concept of reform came from Saudi Arabia a few years ago. The most progressive reform for the Arab League came from Saudi Arabia in the plan proposed by Prince Abdullah. Even though it was postponed twice, it originated with Saudi Arabia. The most significant peace proposal came from Saudi Arabia.

This offers us two indications: that Saudi Arabia is dynamic and we do produce ideas that are reasonable and applicable, and that to maintain this position we must change internally, acquiring more power through economic and social reform and thus maintaining our position in the Arab world. I am sure that Egypt will always be leading along with us, but between the two countries, we can share responsibility.

BI: So what is next?

Khashoggi: So far, as a Saudi Arabian who believes in reform, I am not complaining. We are moving gradually, we are adopting plans to implement reform gradually under the concept of "one thing will lead to another." I think this is wise.

I will give you a small example. We are going to have elections sometime at the end of this year or the beginning of next year. Maybe that doesn't seem so important, because these will be local council elections. But in fact two important aspects will be introduced through those elections into Saudi Arabian society. First, [there is] the concept of elections, that leaders acquire power through a popular vote, which is very much a new concept. The introduction of this concept with all its details like campaigning, competing and challenging each other will very much inject life into the political life of Saudi Arabia. It will inject local politics into our life.

The other thing is that, once there is a local council, it will monitor the work of the municipalities or the mayor. Again, this is something new and very important. From this system of checks and balances, we will move towards other institutions, maybe to those more important.

Emotionally, I want to see things move faster, but my mind says to me that we don't want chaos. We must balance between the time that we have to develop and change, and our current movement. If we are too slow, we will wake up one day and find ourselves behind other Arab countries. We have to balance between cautious movement, and the speed that is needed to achieve our goal without being late. -Published 11/3/04(c)bitterlemons-international.org

Jamal Khashoggi is a journalist and media advisor for His Royal Highness Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Saudi ambassador to England.

Why we still need each other
by Richard W. Murphy

It used to be beyond question in Washington and Riyadh that a close and supportive American-Saudi relationship was good for both. Over the decades, our bilateral relationship has been kept on a remarkably even keel thanks to the unspoken agreement that the United States would help defend the kingdom against foreign aggressors and in return have unimpeded access to its energy resources. Today, many in both countries are asking if that relationship need be preserved.

Newspaper articles criticizing the kingdom for its links to Islamic terrorism have appeared almost weekly. These attacks alternated between the charges that the Saudi educational system fostered a violent strain of Islamic fundamentalism and that the Saudi authorities were lax in monitoring the flow of money to terrorist organizations. Although the frequency of such criticism has slowed in the past months, recent surveys show that nearly two-thirds of Americans still hold an unfavorable opinion of Saudi Arabia. Never before has the US-Saudi relationship been so badly strained.

American public opinion in the post-9/11 world has been quick to criticize Washington for "coddling" Riyadh. Many Americans would be surprised to learn that, over the decades, our bilateral relationship has not always been smooth sailing. Under President Eisenhower we disagreed with the Saudis over creating the Baghdad Pact; during Kennedy's administration the Saudis were unhappy about his efforts to maintain a balanced relationship with both Riyadh and Cairo as the latter worked to topple the Saudi regime; Reagan was jarred by the secret Saudi purchase of Chinese long range missiles; and not least, America's handling of the Palestinian question has long provoked a contentious dialogue with the Saudis.

However, the strength and importance of the US-Saudi relationship during the Cold War was beyond dispute. US policy makers bent every effort to block Soviet penetration of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Furthermore, whatever our bilateral disputes were at any given moment, we never hesitated to commit American diplomacy and military force to the defense of the kingdom, whether to counter Egypt's pan-Arab nationalism in the 1960s, Iranian subversion in the 1980s, or Iraq's expansionist policy in the early 1990s.

The many calls to revisit the US-Saudi relationship reflect the changing times. The factors that once legitimized difficult compromises between close allies have disappeared. Saudi Arabia is no longer threatened by Egypt, Iran, or Iraq. The US no longer needs to counter Soviet expansion. In the new global order, why should Washington continue to have close relations with Riyadh?

One good reason is the stabilizing role the kingdom can continue to play in global energy markets. Oil is a global commodity and, during times of crisis, the kingdom's surplus production has been crucial to stability of oil prices around the world. Today it is critical that Saudi Arabia quickly expand its output and maintain the surplus productive capacity it has carefully developed over the years. This role will continue to engage American support.

Also noteworthy, Saudi Arabia hosts the two holiest sites of Islam, a religion that claims more than a billion followers around the world and is the fastest growing in America. The extremism of some of its citizens to which it once turned a blind eye now threatens stability in that country. To keep Saudis as close allies in the war on terror and as a voice of moderation in the Muslim world would be helpful, especially considering our deepening involvement in the region, where the argument is increasingly heard that the US is "anti-Islam."

It is true that the Saudis started late in mobilizing their resources to counter terrorism and have not moved as far or as fast as we would like. However, critics gloss over just how difficult it is to block money flowing to terrorists. In the Arab world, a further complication is its tradition of exchanging money by courier, leaving no paper trail for official scrutiny.

The Saudis now cooperate closely with US and other international efforts to cut off funds reaching terrorist groups. They have also revoked the Saudi diplomatic status of questionable personnel abroad.

Moreover, the kingdom has set itself on the path of domestic reform. Homegrown efforts to improve national education, women's rights, religious tolerance, and political participation are positive signs which, as they develop and are implemented, can help avoid the embarrassment Americans have felt about a close association with the Saudis. President Bush's Greater Middle East Initiative, to be formally launched in June, underscores the importance of maintaining healthy relations.

A sound evolution of the political relationship between Washington and Riyadh is in both our interests. Radical change would both jeopardize global energy markets and constitute a heavy loss in the war on terror.-Published 11/3/2004(c)bitterlemons-international.org

Ambassador Richard W. Murphy is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia and as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs under President Reagan.

Progress without change?
an interview with Lawrence Wright

BI: You recently spent several months working with Saudi English-language journalists in Riyadh. What was your most profound impression regarding the future of Saudi Arabia? How did the Saudis you worked with see their future?

Wright: My views and theirs pretty much coincided, which is that the country is quite paralyzed in deep ways. There are many surface changes and reforms going on, but the real structural changes that are needed to unlock the country don't appear to be in the making now. That leaves people hopeless, depressed and concerned.

BI: How would you describe the internal security situation?

Wright: When I was there the internal security situation was a light touch. They weren't that visible. It was hard to find a policeman. This is not typical of most Arab countries. There were occasional roadblocks. Now the current tense situation is the consequence of the May and November bombings and the regime's awakening to the dangers. As for the fence with Yemen, the Saudis have always feared Yemeni migrants, more for economic reasons than terrorism.

BI: Assuming that Iraq becomes a Shiite-dominated state, how is this likely to affect Saudi Arabia, with its Shiite minority in the eastern oil region?

Wright: They are very worried about it. Saudi Arabia has its own internal schisms that match those of Iraq, so they worry about splitting apart just as the Iraqis do. There is no doubt that a Shiite-dominated state on Saudi Arabia's border will affect it, but what kind of state? A Shiite theocracy that oppresses the Sunnis will be difficult for the Saudis to live with. If it's a kind of multi-faith democracy that the United States wants to encourage, that could also be difficult for the Saudis. All the alternatives look bad for them.

It also depends whom you talk to. The royal family is not eager for democratic changes, and having a successful democratic model next door will put a lot of pressure on. The reason the royal family has been able to stay in power for so long is that all the models in the neighborhood look worse than the status quo in Saudi Arabia, which is stable but frozen.

BI: How influential are other non-Saudi Middle East issues?

Wright: If there was a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma, there would be more freedom for the progressives in Saudi Arabia to operate, and the anti-Americanism that makes progressive change seem un-Islamic or non-Saudi would diminish.

BI: What can and should the more enlightened forces in the regime do?

Wright: It is difficult to make meaningful small changes. There are lots of little changes toward democracy happening now. My feeling is that they really need to start creating civil society or allowing it to exist. There's very little except the government and the mosque. The middle ground is what's lacking.

They could allow different schools of Islam to be taught again in Mecca, as was done prior to the Wahhabi takeover of the Hejaz. That would go a long way toward making the country more tolerant.

The next thing is to free the press. They've bowed in that direction by taking the Information Ministry out of the Interior Ministry, but the press is still tightly controlled. Right now you have more freedom of opinion, but reporters still can't find out the facts and report on them. This would be the beginning of civil society, and would contribute to transparency and accountability.

Not allowing women to drive cripples the Saudi economy. Dr. Nahed Taher at the National Commerce Bank calculated that just the money exported by [hired expatriate] drivers, mostly from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines, amounts to two percent of GNP. Each family needs at least one driver. Dependency on a single wage earner in Saudi Arabia is six to one; in Egypt it's three to one.

These are profound changes that could actually be implemented by the royal family. They won't institute an independent judiciary, but they could do the other things.

BI: How do you see Saudi Arabia ten years from now?

Wright: I asked Saudis that question when I was there. The range of replies goes from some changes and relaxation of some rules, more freedom for women, joining the World Trade Organization and general liberalization, to no change, or "progress without change," in the words of Lubna Olayan, a businesswoman in Riyadh.

[Regarding the American position on change,] about a year ago then US ambassador Robert Jordan said: We're not ready for them to have democracy here. If they did, the Islamists would likely come to power. They have a defense agreement with Pakistan which has the bomb, the Saudis have money, we don't want this country run by rich Islamists with the bomb who hate America. Since then President Bush has made statements to the effect that the US would change its policy and now back democratic reforms in the Middle East, [a policy that] until recently was the exception.

Young radical Islamists think the US will take over and they'll all be in Guantanamo.
[Certainly] an extremist takeover within ten years is not a realistic scenario. The royal family still has a firm grip on the country. Saudi Arabia today does not look like Iran in 1979: the population is more subdued, there is no unanimity about what they want to do, and [no one can] mount the opposition needed to remove the royal family. So the country is going to be stuck in its current situation for a long time.- Published 10/3/2004(c)bitterlemons-international.org

Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is the author of "The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11". His one-man play, "My Trip to al-Qaeda," opened in March at the Culture Project in New York City.

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