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Saudis fall further from US grace
By Ashish Kumar Sen

WASHINGTON - On a September morning just over three years ago, as hijackers piloted airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, few would have guessed the catastrophic consequences for Saudi Arabia.

Washington's "special relationship" with Riyadh has steadily unraveled since the revelation that 15 of the 19 hijackers were young Saudis.

Last week, the predominantly Sunni Muslim kingdom was placed on the US State Department's list of "countries of particular concern" for its lack of religious freedom, putting it in the company of North Korea, Iran and Sudan.

In his State of the Union address in 2002, US President George W Bush included both Iran and North Korea on a three-nation "axis of evil". The third country was Iraq.

In a stinging indictment of Washington's ally, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom John Hanford said that in Saudi Arabia "the government rigidly mandates religious conformity. Non-Wahhabi, Sunni, Sunni Muslims, as well as Shi'ite and Sufi Muslims, face discrimination and sometimes severe restrictions on the practice of their faith."

The Bush administration, Danforth said, is concerned about the religious hate speeches that occur in some mosques, where Muslims, who are not of the Salafi faith, as well as other religions, "can be in for some pretty severe language".

"We're concerned about the export of religious extremism and intolerance to other countries where religious freedom for Muslims is respected," he said. "There were frequent instances in which mosque preachers, whose salaries are paid for by the government, used violent language against non-Sunni Muslims and other religions in their sermons."

Riyadh's inclusion on a list of "countries of particular concern" is just the latest setback in US-Saudi relations. US imports of Saudi oil have declined from levels in 2002. "What we're seeing is not punishment or retribution, but a realization that the special relationship is not so special any more," James Placke, a senior associate at Cambridge Energy Research Associates, said at a panel discussion in Washington last week.

He predicts that by the end of the year, Saudi Arabia will no longer be among the top five exporters of oil to the US.

In his book Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, Robert Baer, a former Central Intelligence Agency operative, makes the case that America's dependence on Saudi oil has made it increasingly vulnerable to economic disaster and put it at risk for further acts of terrorism.

"Saudi Arabia is more and more an irrational state, a place that spawns global terrorism even as it succumbs to an ancient and deeply seated isolationism, a kingdom led by a royal family that can't get out of the way of its own greed. Is this the fulcrum we want the global economy to balance on?" Baer asks.

For decades, the US has counted on the Saudis for cheap oil and lucrative business relationships, while providing in exchange a reliable market for the kingdom's vast oil reserves.

"Of the Islamic oil states, none is more critical than Saudi Arabia, because (a) it sits on top of the largest proven reserves; (b) it serves as the market regulator for the entire global petroleum industry; and (c) it has the money, the political will, and the religious zeal to pursue control of the Arab Peninsula and Central Asia," writes Baer. "Like it or not, the US and Saudi Arabia are joined at the hip. Its future is our future.

"Washington's answer for Saudi Arabia - apart from the mantra that nothing's wrong - is the same as its answer for the rest of the Middle East: democracy will cure everything," Baer writes.

It is with this in mind that Washington is keeping a close eye on the kingdom's first elections. Municipal elections will be held in November to fill half the seats on 178 municipal councils. The royal family will appoint the other half.

These elections are being seen as a first tentative step toward political reform in the kingdom - an absolute monarchy - that has never had elections since its creation in 1932.

Facing Islamic militants at home and increasing Western pressure for political reform, Saudi Arabia has few options left on the table.

"Give us the opportunity to do things at our own pace. We will change whatever we think is necessary for us to change," Osama bin Mohammed al-Kurdi, a member of Saudi Arabia's majlis al-Shura (consultative council) that advises the royal family, said at the panel discussion on the pace of reform in the kingdom. "We don't think we have to follow a certain model [of democracy] for it to be acceptable to others."

In an oblique criticism of Bush's Greater Middle East Initiative, al-Kurdi said: "It is not for others to come in and decide to do mass reforms for the Middle East. Somehow I don't think mass reforms will work." One of the most important things about reform is that "it has to come from the people", he added.

Pointing out that the unified kingdom is barely 70 years old, al-Kurdi said: "We still have a lot of things to do. I think one step at a time is the best way to go about it." Rather than internal security and democracy, he said Saudi Arabia was looking at "internal security and reform". "Let us learn from the experience of others. For God's sake, the last thing we need now is skepticism," he added.

F Gregory Gause III, associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont, said a move toward national elections in Saudi Arabia would be "counterproductive from the point of view of both reform and stability". The most important thing the Saudis have to do is improve their internal-security situation, Gause said. "You can't have anything approaching democracy if you don't have internal security. The one is a prerequisite of the other. If you don't have security you will not have people voting. You will not have people practicing politics."

Thomas Lippman, adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, said it is also crucial that Crown Prince Abdullah settle the succession issue and "let the Saudi people know that someone whom they trust, admire, respect and are willing to follow is waiting in line" to lead.

Pointing out that succession is one issue on which Saudis are least open to foreigners meddling, Gause said the primary task of the ruling family, if it is going to maintain itself, is to sustain an orderly succession that ensures order in the country. Saudis face "troubled waters", Gause said. Since King Abd-al-Aziz died, succession has gone through his sons. "At some point it will be inevitable that there will be no more of the king's sons. And there is no template or precedent of how succession goes to the generation of grandsons."

Before the generation of sons disappears, Gause said, "it is incumbent upon them to have a procedure in line so that the generational transition is shown".

For now, Saudi Arabia is preparing for its tryst with democracy, which is by no means an inclusive one. Women will not be permitted to vote in the municipal elections. "From the mufti of Saudi Arabia to the most radical al-Qaeda type, the one issue that would unite them would be women's issues - there are too many obstacles," Gause said. "If there is one issue that would mobilize guys with long beards to come out and vote for people who would stand against the general reform agenda in Saudi Arabia, it would be women's issues."

Lippman agreed that Crown Prince Abdullah needed to be "particularly cautious about women's issues because nothing else would more quickly alienate the religious leaders whose support he needs."

Al-Kurdi said: "Are [women] going to vote in the future? I think they will. When? I don't know."

A US-style election would lead to an extremist government in Saudi Arabia, cautioned Placke, a former deputy assistant secretary of state.

Lippman, meanwhile, said that while he understood Americans' impatience with the slow pace of reform in Saudi Arabia, "it is useful to keep in mind that the unified kingdom is 73 years old. Where were we 73 years after the adoption of our constitution? We were preparing to fight a Civil War over slavery that had sustained the economy. We were busy wiping out our indigenous population, and women couldn't vote.

"It is useful for Americans to evaluate the progress of reform in Saudi Arabia in the context of the way real societies work," Lippman added, "not the way we'd like them to work."

Ashish Kumar Sen is a Washington, DC-based journalist.

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Sep 21, 2004

House of Saud exits cocoon of denial (Aug 13, '04)

Saudi Arabia's double-edged amnesty (Jul  21, '04)

Saudi Arabia: A nation in turmoil (jul 16, '04)


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