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.
"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".
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
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.
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
"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.
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
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
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
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
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
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."
Sen is a Washington, DC-based journalist.
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