Center for Strategic Communication

I returned earlier this week from a week in Saudi Arabia. I got to meet with a wide range of Saudi academics, journalists, activists, human rights lawyers, and former government officials. I had a long conversation with the leading reformist Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, who faces a prison sentence over his efforts to form a human rights NGO and his hard-hitting tweets. I traveled out to the Eastern Province and met with a number of leaders from Qatif. And, as recounted in yesterday’s FP column, I got politely chewed out by Prince Turki al-Faisal and a legion of Saudis for my views on Bahrain.

My column seeks to focus attention on the challenge posed by America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia to any policy based on promoting reform or meaningful change in the region. Washington and Riyadh simply see the region’s politics very differently, have different priorities, and have often been working at cross-purposes — especially with regard to the Arab uprisings, not only in Bahrain and the GCC but across Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, North Africa, and beyond. And Riyadh’s own domestic institutions and practices are, as will surprise nobody and as fully described in the State Department’s annual human rights reports, manifestly incompatible with the vision of universal freedoms and rights which President Obama has frequently articulated.

At the same time, it’s easier to diagnose the problem than to prescribe a solution. Washington cannot easily think past its reliance on Saudi Arabia for its current approach toward Iran, the flow of oil, and the broader regional status quo, and the transition costs of moving toward something else can’t be wished away. My column urges focusing more on protecting and supporting the emergent Saudi public sphere which is already giving voice to a wide range of political and social challenges. I believe that the rapid emergence of a radically new kind of Saudi public sphere over the last two years represents a more fundamental challenge than is generally believed — not that it is going to necessarily lead to revolution, but that it deeply disrupts the existing political institutions and norms. Pushing publicly and privately for an end to the prosecutions over political speech of figures such as Qahtani and Turki al-Hamad, as well as the legions of less well-known young Saudis detained over their Facebook and Twitter postings, would be a start. There’s more, including getting serious about the repression in the Eastern Province and the discrimination against Shi’a and women.

But is this enough? Two of the keenest American observers of Saudi Arabia are skeptical.

Greg Gause, author of the December 2011 Council on Foreign Relations task force report "Saudi Arabia in the New Middle East" and a vocal skeptic about the idea that the kingdom faces significant instability anytime soon, comments:

I think you are trying to have it both ways here. "Liberal vision" AND the existing security structure of American regional policy. I don’t think that you can have both. The middle ground of talking about pushing for reform and the like in Saudi Arabia without really doing anything about it opens us up to legitimate charges of hypocrisy.

And Toby Jones, quoted in my column as the leading academic pushing for a wholesale rethinking of the American posture in the Gulf, responds to my sense that critique has to be framed within the terms of what Washington might realistically consider:

I think you’re right, but we don’t have to let DC’s inertia and inability to see clearly as a pretext to soft-peddle on the best options in the Gulf. I’m not suggesting you’re doing that, but a lot of people do. I’d like to see very clear justifications for why the status quo policy or at least continued emphasis on security, rather than a more robust kind of political engagement, is necessary. Lots of assumptions are made about Iran, about oil, etc., and almost none of them stand up to really close scrutiny.

I think Gause is somewhat too sanguine about the stability of Saudi Arabia and perhaps insufficiently impressed by the depth of the challenge posed by the new information environment and youth frustration. And I remain unsure of precisely what alternative American posture Jones would like to see in the Gulf and how it might get there without major disruptions along the way.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, the experienced journalist Ellen Knickmeyer suggests
that the crucial question is really the sustainability of the patronage
state — which I think is right, and which along with the question of expatriate workers and Saudization of the workforce consumes the attention of most of the Saudi businessmen and economists I met. That’s a whole other set of issues which need to be addressed, and I’ve seen some pretty alarming — albeit contested — numbers put forward on it. Maybe I can get the scholar who produced those numbers to publish them on the Middle East Channel … (hint, hint, scholar who produced those numbers?).

At any rate, Saudi Arabia does lie at the heart of the challenge I posed in my first FP column: What does the Obama administration want the Middle East to look like when it leaves office in four years, and how will its policies help to create such a region? I hope that this week’s column helps to spark more debate and ideas.