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Gently, Gently on Saudi Reforms

Author: Jessica Fugate
September 2, 2002
The Boston Globe


The royal House of Saud is a key yet unpredictable player in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy with a political system rooted in Islam's traditions and culture. It is a longstanding friend of the United States and the most important producer of oil in the world. It is an important ally in OPEC and serves to moderate global oil prices. The challenge for the Bush administration is to accept that over time - not overnight - Saudi Arabia will liberalize and modernize politically, economically, and socially but that it must be allowed to change from within.

Some strategic thinkers in Washington already consider Saudi Arabia a strategic adversary and advocate abandoning our relations with it.

The Defense Policy Board, which comprises intellectuals, foreign policy wonks, and former senior officials who advise the Pentagon on defense policy, recently heard a briefing by a RAND Corporation analyst asserting that the Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to footsoldier, from ideologist to cheerleader.

The RAND analyst told the board that the royal House of Saud attacks our allies and provides a daily outpouring of virulent hatred against the United States from Saudi media, educational institutions, clerics, and government officials.

The analyst said the Arab world lacks inner resources to cope with the modern world, missed out on the industrial revolution, and is missing out on the digital revolution.

The thinking behind the briefing is that Saudi policy has shifted from oil-based pragmatism to the promotion of radical Islam. Once a friendly successor regime is installed in Iraq, it would become a major exporter of oil to the West. Oil would diminish US dependence on Saudi exports and permit the United States to finally confront the House of Saud for supporting terrorism. The briefer recommended that US officials give the Saudis an ultimatum to stop backing terrorism or face seizure of its oil fields and its assets invested in the United States.

The State Department's annual human rights report harshly assesses Saudi Arabia's record as poor despite our publicly positive relations. The kingdom lacks essential building blocks for civil society, including any independent institutions, women's or political groups. In fact, the report says, there are no active women's rights groups in the country.

And despite the fact that Saudi Arabia has a seat on the UN Human Rights Commission and has signed onto the major human rights conventions, including the Convention Against Torture, the State Department review indicates that Saudi Arabia is regularly violating rights it has pledged to uphold. The report says the Saudi government infringes on citizens' privacy rights and prohibits or restricts freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, religion, and movement.

To insist on overnight democracy, however, is to invite turmoil. The Bush administration should accept that reform is a long-term process and not rush to make Saudi Arabia a fourth part of the axis of evil. Rather than abandon one of our most important allies in a volatile region, we should cultivate and support reform efforts in Saudi Arabia.

The United States and its European allies have largely succeeded in facilitating the growth of democracy in the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. It is not realistic to think we can change the medieval regime in Saudi Arabia, but we can support incremental democracy there, just as we did with our complicated former enemy-cum-strategic partner, Russia. Crude public intimidation of the Saudis evident in the leaked report of the RAND briefing does not serve US interests. In keeping with past US policy, such as with Russia, Washington should regularly raise human rights issues with the Saudis when we discuss our oil and security concerns with them.

The grand strategy for the Middle East should not start with abandoning our relations with Saudi Arabia. Unlike Iraq, Saudi Arabia is not an enemy. Without US cooperation and support, the kingdom is unlikely to move toward a modern, tolerant society.