from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

(Mostly) Wise Words About Saudi Arabia

December 15, 2011

Blog Post

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Middle East and North Africa

Saudi Arabia

Human Rights

Politics and Government

The Council on Foreign Relations has just published an excellent Council Special Report entitled “Saudi Arabia in the New Middle East,” by F. Gregory Gause III. Prof. Gause is, as always, worth reading on any Middle East subject. The report can be found here.

I do have one argument with Greg Gause, which is worth stating. He notes that there are many important issues as to which the Kingdom and United States have common interests—nuclear nonproliferation and counterterrorism are examples. On other matters, such as Saudi internal politics, we do not. He concludes that “Maximizing U.S. leverage in the bilateral relationship requires a consistent U.S. focus on its most important priorities” and urges that we push the areas of disagreement to the side (though not that we abandon them).

I am not so sure. Issues in this category "that should not make the top priorities list" include the gross discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia and its treatment of Christianity (not one church is permitted in the Kingdom, nor are priests permitted to minister the sacraments freely to the hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholics working and living there). Given our own beliefs about freedom of religion, it seems to me that we cannot and should not be silent about these abuses and that it is likely we’ll be more vocal about them in the future.

What’s more, the refusal of the royal family to permit dissent or to allow the people of the Kingdom a say in the way it is governed are dangerous practices. We should learn from the Arab Spring that stability may be more apparent than real. The Saudi royal response to the Arab Spring has been to allocate about $130 billion to palliate the masses, which is itself suggestive: someone in the royal family realizes there are grave problems that need to be addressed and that stability is not assured without such a massive expense. Perhaps it is not assured even with such expense, over the long run, unless the royals stop treating the country as their property and start giving the twenty-five million people who are citizens a role in governance. Kuwait has a real parliament; why not Saudi Arabia? And why should we not say so? The practice of concentrating on areas where we agreed and avoiding the domestic political issues where we did not turned out pretty badly in Egypt, where millions of people resent our partnership with Mubarak over the decades while he was their oppressor. Saudi Arabia is not Egypt, for the royal family has considerable legitimacy and even greater cash reserves at its disposal. But I suspect that Greg Gause and I would differ on how loudly and how often the United States should criticize the Saudi royal family over what he calls "domestic" issues.

Read his report and see what you think.