Has the Saudi Kingdom Reformed?

On February 14, 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman al-Saud on board the USS Quincy, anchored in the Great Bitter Lake along the Suez Canal in Egypt. The summit cemented a lengthy and, in recent years, often fractious relationship. Over the subsequent six decades, U.S.-Saudi relations have been multifaceted and complex, and often tense. In the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks and the revelations that fifteen out of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi nationals, both Washington’s ties with Riyadh and the kingdom’s support for radical Islam have come under increased scrutiny. On December 1, 2005, Patrick Clawson, senior editor at the Middle East Quarterly and deputy director for research at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, convened a roundtable to discuss the current state of U.S.-Saudi relations. Joining him were Thomas Lippman, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute; Ali Alyami, founder of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia; Simon Henderson, a Washington Institute senior fellow and London-based specialist in Saudi politics; and Amr Hamzawy, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Are U.S.-Saudi Relations Solid?

Middle East Quarterly: How solid is the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and what interests do the two countries have in common?

Thomas Lippman: The relationship is solid in a bilateral sense in which you have two governments that have found various issues on which they can work together and come to an agreement. It is not and should not be the kind of relationship that we have had in the past in Saudi Arabia, one essentially of the U.S. as tutor and Saudi Arabia as student. Saudi Arabia is a more mature country now. The damage that was done by 9-11 has largely been repaired in the government-to-government relationship; the relationship between the American people and the Saudi people has suffered what may be permanent damage.

Ali Alyami: The Saudi and U.S. relationship has not been a solid relationship. It has been premised on an artificial basis, not on shared values. It’s a relationship based on a family that represents the government, a government that represses democratic society. The relationship has been based on the wrong issues. The Saudi government—or should I say the ruling family—today, more than at any time in the past, represents perhaps the single biggest danger in the Middle East.

MEQ: Does the U.S. government share your viewpoint?

Alyami: Some in it agree with me; others express the same views as does Tom Lippman.

Simon Henderson: It’s a strong relationship but it has suffered because of 9-11. To an extent, it’s been repaired since then, but it has changed. Before 9-11, it was based on a strategic security relationship with a great understanding that this was mutually beneficial to both sides. It’s still based on oil in the past four years, but the military security relationship has declined, as has the sense of a mutual understanding.

Amr Hamzawy: I basically agree with Simon Henderson but would add that there are areas of convergence and divergence in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. This became clearer after 9-11. What we are really seeing now in Saudi-U.S. relations is the crystallization of some areas where interests and perceptions intersect and others where they do not. The Israeli-Palestinian issue and oil are clear cases of convergence. Perceptions, interests, rhetoric, political reform—even the framework of political reform as understood in Washington as compared to Riyadh—are clear areas of divergence. Despite these areas of divergence, the relationship remains very pragmatic. It will hardly lead to open conflict. So, tensions exist but not conflicts.

MEQ: Several people identified 9-11 as extremely important in shaping the relationship. How effectively do you think the Saudi government is countering those in the kingdom who would finance such Islamist terrorism overseas?

Lippman: There is no doubt that King Abdullah and his closest advisers realize that Islamist or jihadist violence is inimical to their interests. This is affirmed by the appointment of Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the most outspoken proponent of all-out war against the violent extremists, to direct the National Security Council. Commitment to eradicating extremism is not the same as being fully effective, though, either at home or internationally. There is still much work to be done. Senior Bush administration officials have repeatedly testified before Congress on how the Saudis can be more effective on issues such as control of finance.

Henderson: But the Saudi government is more than King Abdullah and his closest advisors. While the king brought his closest advisors with him when he formally assumed the throne in August 2005, he shares leadership with other senior princes. There is no consensus on who is in this most influential group, but certainly Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz and Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz are among them. Other senior royal family members also have influence. Just as Abdullah never had full authority while still crown prince and acting head of state, he has not consolidated full control today. When talking about Saudi Arabia, deciding who controls the levers of power is always a problem.

Alyami: Too many Western officials and commentators say that the Saudi government is an ally in the fight against terrorism. Do not forget that the Saudi regime and the terrorists share many goals. In Iraq, neither the Saudi government nor Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi want democracy. They jointly fear Iranian influence. They oppose stability in Iraq. Riyadh does not want a thriving, oil-producing Iraq on its border. Tom Lippman said that the Saudi government is fighting terrorism; yes, it fights terrorism inside its borders because domestic terrorism threatens the royal family. But outside the kingdom is another matter.

MEQ: What are the Saudi government’s attitudes towards those in Saudi Arabia who fund Islamist terrorists groups such as those that struck at the World Trade Center and the London transportation system?

Alyami: The Saudi government attitude is permissive to the people and institutions such as Muslim youth organizations that supported these terrorists. Since the dynasty’s founding in 1744, Wahhabi extremists have supported the Saud family. The Saudi royal family has no legitimacy beyond the support of these extremists. The Saudi royal family is neither democratic nor interested in sharing power. Terrorism can threaten the House of Saud, but it can also serve its interests. I am from Saudi Arabia, and I know the system. I am a victim of this brutal system. If there is not complete transformation of Saudi Arabia—not only politics but also culture, religion, and education—then Islamic extremists will bring the United States down. I agree with President Bush: we must confront the ideology. The Saudis will indeed fight the terrorism inside Saudi Arabia but, I repeat, outside Saudi Arabia is another story.

Henderson: The Saudis have become more effective in countering those inside the kingdom who finance Islamist terrorism abroad. Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Daniel Glaser testified to this issue in November 2005.[1] Despite the improved cooperation, he did imply there was much more that the Saudis could do.

Who Controls Saudi Arabia?

Hamzawy: I agree with part of what Ali Alyami said. The Saudi establishment considers the Islamist splinter groups, which are scattered across Saudi Arabia, to be a security threat. They are beginning to see Islamism as a political threat as well. The need to combat terrorism has motivated all recent reform, including holding municipal elections.

I disagree with Ali that the Saudi establishment wishes to radicalize the region. Instability in Iraq undermines Saudi national interests. The Saudi royal family knows that it is hard to control radicalization once it takes root. The 1990s’ radicalism in Algeria and Egypt that swept the region scared the family.

How effective has the Saudi government been in tackling Islamism at home? Two of its strategies are effective and one less so. Prince Naif has implemented a strategy of securitization. I went to Saudi Arabia in June 2005 and found the number of policemen on the street striking. A militarization of daily life has taken place, and it is proving to be an effective strategy. Over the past two years, Saudi security services have caught and arrested terrorists.

The Saudi establishment has also been effective at outreach to the outer edges of the Islamist spectrum. They have won back, not members of splinter groups, but some of their sympathizers. They have regained control over some segments of the Islamist spectrum.

Less effective has been the Saudi royal family’s efforts to use religious discourse to combat radical Islamists. The Saudi royal family has not won the cooperation of the Wahhabi establishment. A core group of the Wahhabi establishment may be receptive to the royal family’s message, but the broad base of the religious establishment is ambivalent when it comes to combating the discourse of Islamism in public.

Alyami: It is important to judge people by what they do as opposed to what they say. The Saudi royal family, especially Prince Naif, worked hard to dismiss a reformist minister of education and to replace him with Abdullah bin Salih Obeid, the former head of the World Muslim League.[2] Obeid is among the most hard-line Wahhabis in the country. And he runs the education system in Saudi Arabia today! How can they be confronting these extremists when they place one of the most reactionary men in charge of educational reform?

Given a choice between religious extremists and reformers, the Saudi royal family will imprison the reformers and give amnesty to the extremists. Abdullah has done this three times in the last two years. He put Matruk al-Faleh, Turki al-Hammad, Ali al-Domani, and hundreds of other reformers in prison, stopped them from leaving the country, or cut off their media access. The government, then, gave amnesty to people incarcerated for inciting murder or conspiracy to murder. Anybody who says the Saudi royal family is stupid is himself stupid. The Saudi leaders are clever; they are desert foxes. What they do and what they say are very different things.

Lippman: To some extent I agree. It is always possible to pick out issues such as the appointment of Obeid as minister of education. From the time of King Faisal, who ruled from 1964 to 1975, it has always been three steps forward and 2.8 or 3.2 steps back. A statesman like Ghazi al-Gosaibi serves as minister of labor, and every day he kicks open doors for women and others who were previously disenfranchised from working. Saudi Arabia is not a static society. Domestic tendencies and trends are felt in different ways. While there is no system in place for such trends to be reflected in the ballot box, society is changing in other ways. There are too many educated women coming into the work force and into society now for it to remain static. Saudi Arabia now is certainly different from what it was when I first visited it thirty years ago.

Henderson: Surely, Tom, we cannot confuse openings for women and the appointment of a certifiable Wahhabi education minister three years after 9-11. Especially when almost all analysts and officials agree that the obscurantist nature of the Saudi education system contributed to the attacks.

Lippman: You are absolutely correct about the negative impact of the education appointment, especially since the ministry now controls both girls’ and boys’ education.

Hamzawy: Simon Henderson is correct that there are different trends within the royal family. The religious establishment is a key player and is wealthy. It cannot be controlled, even by the royal family. The religious establishment controls three vital spheres of Saudi society: education, preaching, and the judiciary. It is not a monolith, though. Within the religious establishment, there are different tendencies. A core group is receptive to the wishes of the king. Another group has been less receptive. This group was associated throughout the 1980s and 1990s with the so-called Sahwa Islamiya (Islamic Awakening), which still adheres to an Islamist discourse, even if they were less militant than Al-Qaeda.

There are two general groups of reformers on the Saudi scene, and both are relatively small. The first are the so-called liberals such as Matruk alFaleh, Ali al-Domani, as well as some university professors, and civil society, human rights, and women activists. The second are the liberal or moderate Islamists. Again, these groups are not monolithic. There are degrees of convergence and divergence within the reform camp.

Another force is small but a threat to national security: the splinter groups of Islamists operating across the kingdom.

The power balance among these groups is the best way to gauge how effective the government is in terms of ideology and reform.

MEQ: How does this play out with regard to education?

Hamzawy: While Wahhabism is the defining reality of Saudi Arabia, it is important to look for gray zones. The question is whether there are moderate trends within the Wahhabi establishment and whether these can lead to reform. There is not always forward progress.

There has been less moderation in the last year. Between 2001 and 2003, there was greater moderation within the educational system and universities. There were fewer attempts to ban professors and fewer restrictions than there are now. In the last year, and especially the last few months, there has been a shift back to less moderation.

MEQ: Why?

Hamzawy: I asked this same question of Saudi intellectuals in June and July 2005 when I was in the kingdom. They enunciated two basic reasons. One is that the Bush administration is not pressing the Saudi royal family enough, and the second is that the royal family went through a period of turbulence after 9-11. For perhaps two years, it was willing to do a bit more than its normal inclination. As the pressure abated, it shifted back to less moderation in the education and preaching spheres.

MEQ: Is King Abdullah a reformer?

Lippman: There is a tendency in the United States to think of King Abdullah as a reformer who, as crown prince, was chomping at the bit to implement liberalizing change in Saudi Arabia. I never believed that. He is some 80 years old. He’s been part of the tiny ruling elite of Saudi Arabia all his life. He is not bursting out of the gate to make major changes in the Saudi power structure.

Alyami: Abdullah is no reformer. Abdullah was marginalized throughout his life by his father the king, by the Sudairi full-brothers, and by prior kings, including the late King Fahd, with whom he shared the same mother. He became crown prince only because King Fahd felt badly for him. The royal family agreed to this because it assumed Abdullah would die before Fahd. God made a liar out of them, for Fahd died before Abdullah. The royal family did not want Abdullah as king but he threatened them with the National Guard.

There is no accountability in Saudi Arabia. There is no transparency. Anybody can pay to kill another person. There is the hawala [religious financial] system, which the Saudis use quite a bit, that leaves no paper trail. The judicial system is broken and needs urgently to be changed. The Saudi people are fed up. Power lies in the hands of Abdullah, Sultan, Naif, Majid, Khalid bin Faisal bin Abdul Aziz [governor of Asir province], perhaps Mohammed bin Fahd bin Abdul Aziz [governor of the Eastern Province], and a few others here and there.

King Abdullah has not implemented a single recommendation suggested by the national dialogues [high-profile conferences he organized to gather suggestions from a wide range of commoners]. He takes orders from those around him. He is one absolute monarch out of many absolutes. This is the reality of Saudi Arabia.

MEQ: What about the religious establishment?

Alyami: Amr Hamzawy is right that reform is in retreat. The House of Saud is the real establishment; the religious institution is only as powerful as the House of Saud allows it to be. The Saudi government plays the religious people against each other, and it also plays the religious establishment against liberals. If the Saudi royal family wanted to muzzle the religious establishment, it could. It has used the mufti to issue fatwas [religious rulings] against [Libyan leader Mu‘ammar] Qadhafi and against [former Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hussein.

The royal family can silence people but does not silence the clergy because the alternative is liberalization, which is not in its interest. It feels safer with all the problems and threats of the religious establishment than with democratization, for democratizing means sharing power and becoming accountable.

MEQ: And terrorism?

Alyami: The hatred the religious establishment preaches against Christians, Jews, Shi‘ite Muslims, and all non-Wahhabi Muslims is huge. Without reform, there will be no end to the hate in Saudi mosques, and terrorism will continue.

MEQ: Washington has praised reform efforts in Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait. What is Riyadh’s attitude toward its neighbors’ reforms? How do Saudis see U.S. policy to promote democratic reform in the Middle East?

Hamzawy: The Saudi situation is far more complicated than its neighbors’. Saudi Arabia is a [Persian] Gulf superpower. Other [Persian] Gulf countries depend on Saudi Arabia.

Throughout recent years, the Saudi government minimized reforms through various strategies. As Simon Henderson said, it uses oil. It also uses the fear that democratization could lead to the kingdom’s takeover by jihadists. More recently, the Saudis have also exploited Western and primarily U.S. fears of the aftermath of the ouster of Saddam Hussein to urge Washington to consider other democracy promotion projects more carefully.

Accordingly, the U.S. government might consider reaching out directly to civil society institutions, to groups promoting democratic change, and to the Saudi people themselves.

Henderson: The Americans should encourage civil society and advocate democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia. Washington should also be tougher with regards to human rights abuses. The kingdom’s record is appalling; innocent people are thrown in jail and tortured.

Saudi Foreign Policy

MEQ: Turning to foreign affairs: how helpful is Saudi influence to Washington on regional issues such as stabilizing Iraq, pressing Syria to end its interference in Lebanon, promoting Israeli-Arab peace, and responding to the Iranian nuclear challenge? Are these issues on which the U.S. and Saudi governments can work together?

Henderson: A schizophrenia exists in Saudi foreign policy. Anyone who listens to Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal would think U.S.-Saudi interests converge. But look at the history of Saudi foreign policy during the 1980s and 1990s: despite being a close ally of the United States, the kingdom exported its firebrands to Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya. Islamists almost triumphed in Algeria not because the Saudi government was encouraging Islamist government directly but because Saudi interests promoted the Islamists. There is a strong Islamist element to Saudi foreign policy that often goes unrecognized.

MEQ: But for a long time during the Cold War, wasn’t the U.S.-Saudi alliance based on common interests against the Soviet Union and communism? The U.S. government worked with the Saudis in the 1950s and 1960s against Nasserism; there was bilateral cooperation in the 1980s in Afghanistan.

Henderson: U.S. and Saudi interests converged in Afghanistan. They did not in Bosnia.

MEQ: Those interests converged for three decades of the Cold War.

Henderson: They did not converge in Algeria, Bosnia, or Chechnya.

MEQ: All those are post-Cold War examples.

Henderson: Washington did not necessarily recognize post-Cold War that U.S.-Saudi interests had diverged. The Saudis may not have a long-term interest in a stable Iraq. They will not, of course, say this publicly.

MEQ: What about Saudi policy toward Syria and the Arab-Israeli peace process?

Henderson: Abdullah has a sense of kinship with the Assads. Saudi involvement in Arab-Israeli peace negotiations was more a way of placating Washington. The Saudis are politically correct enough not to speak publicly against Arab-Israeli peace; they go along with the peace process. They get brownie points in Washington for meeting Jewish groups, for pushing the Palestinians in certain directions, funding Palestinian peace diplomacy, and things like this.

Hamzawy: Simon over-Orientalizes Saudi Arabia. Sometimes he suggests it’s religion, other times kinship. I disagree. Yes, Wahhabi Islam is a defining factor for the Saudi royal family and the Saudi establishment. In the 1960s, a power struggle took place between Nasserism and Saudi traditionalism. This was not a power struggle over the soul of the Arab world; it was a struggle over who would be the region’s power center at a time of shifting regional and international alliances. The Saudis often used religion to counter other ideologies, always, however, based on clear political calculations. They used religion in Afghanistan, with the blessing of Washington, I might add. In the post-Cold War era, the Saudis used religion to promote what they perceive as being Saudi national interests. At the end of the day, what is structuring the reality of Saudi foreign policy is the preservation of the Saudi royal family’s power. It’s not religion, or kinship, or ideology. It’s simply preservation of power. That is the story of Saudi Middle East policy.

Lippman: Absolutely correct, and the historical record supports that assessment. Look at some of the most critical external decisions Saudi Arabia has made over the past forty or fifty years: self-preservation is the first rule of the House of Saud. Likewise, the civil war in Yemen back in the 1960s was about preservation, not religion. In OPEC [the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries], the Saudis cooperated with the most radical Arab regimes with which they had nothing in common politically or spiritually. The same rationale impelled them to make the mistake of allowing 500,000 Americans to enter the country for Operation Desert Shield [in 1990]. Abdullah’s 2002 peace initiative on Israel was pragmatic and a sign of a generally non-ideological foreign policy.

MEQ: What does this mean about the issues and concerns to the United States in regional politics?

Hamzawy: Just as Tom Lippman said, I see pragmatism as key; preserving Saudi royal family power leads to convergence on regional issues. But I disagree with Simon Henderson concerning Iraq: the Saudi royal family has an interest in a stable Iraq but not necessarily a democratic Iraq. It is not against Iraqi democracy, but it will not invest much to help that flourish. It has a prescription to stabilize Iraq, which is to integrate, not exclude the Sunni Arabs. Do not divide the country. That is pragmatism. The Saudi royal family agrees with Cairo, with Damascus, more or less, and also somewhat with Washington.

MEQ: And the Arab-Israeli conflict?

Hamzawy: The Abdullah plan was a pragmatic effort to gain momentum and establish Saudi Arabia at the forefront of regional leaders. Abdullah intended to push Egypt and Jordan back a little and portray Saudi Arabia as an influential regional power. The Saudis would love to see the Palestinian issue solved because it is exploited by radicals and militants. A solution to it rids the Saudis, in terms of ideology and discourse, of a central factor to bin Ladenism. Saudi foreign policy is designed to preserve power and minimize threats. It has very little to do with religion and hardly anything to do with exporting Wahhabism.

Alyami: The House of Saud’s only agenda is to stay in power. It will do whatever it takes: kill, murder, incarcerate, destroy. The Saudis have no interest in stabilizing Iraq. I disagree with the idea that it is indifferent to a democratic Iraq. The Saudis hate two things: Shi‘ite empowerment and a democracy on their border. They will do whatever it takes to ensure neither happens.

The Saudi government would like to see the United States stay in Iraq for sixty years. In part, it does not want Washington even to consider invading another Arab country, so getting the U.S. nose rubbed in the mud suits its purposes. Also, a U.S. occupation in Iraq can be just as useful a symbol if the U.S. military gets bogged down in the country.

In Syria, the Saudis have mixed interests. Because the ‘Alawites who control Syria are an offshoot of Shi‘ism, they fear the Assad regime’s outreach to Iran and the Shi‘ite government in Iraq. On the other hand, the Saudis fear the alternatives to the Assad dynasty, and fear that chaos in Syria may undercut Lebanon.

Abdullah’s Arab-Israeli peace plan was tactically wise. He knew that the Israelis could not accept it because it called for Israel to return all land occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem. The Saudi royal family wants sway over East Jerusalem to add to [their patronage of] Mecca and Medina. Then they will be custodian of three holy places instead of two and will increase their stature accordingly. The Saudi government has no interest in seeing Palestinian-Israeli peace, especially if that results in a democratic Palestine. The Saudis are the greatest financial patrons of Hamas and of Al-Aqsa Brigades and other groups. If Israel and the Arabs make peace and democratization proceeds, the Saudi royal family will lose its power.

What really bothers me about all these discussions is that the Saudi people are never considered. We talk about the women in Saudi Arabia today as if we are talking about women’s situations 500, 600 years ago, and then people say there are openings for women, there are openings for religious minorities—but it’s still a country ruled by four or five old men who still do not recognize half of their society as human beings.

Henderson: I always regarded Abdullah’s peace plan as a Saudi public relations attempt to deflect attention from Saudi Arabia’s indirect role in 9-11.

The Oil Factor

MEQ: How important is oil to the bilateral U.S.-Saudi relationship?

Lippman: I’m a contrarian on this. Oil is not very relevant to bilateral relations. Even if there were a jihadist revolution tomorrow …

Alyami: I say, it’s all about Saudi oil.

Lippman: The record shows that the United States boycotts oil producers. They do not cut off America. Take, for instance, Libya and Iran …

MEQ: Saddam’s Iraq, too, right?

Lippman: Yes. But, that was because of United Nations’ sanctions. And the United States bought the oil anyway. I believe that oil has no country of origin. There is only one global oil market. If the United States stopped buying the three million barrels a day that it buys from Saudi Arabia, and instead purchased that amount somewhere else, then the Saudis would sell the same three million barrels to the Chinese, South Africans, Japanese, or the Argentineans. As long as Saudi Arabia is not in the forefront of rebels trying to drive the prices up (the way Mu‘ammar Qadhafi or even that old U.S. friend, the shah of Iran, did in the old days), there should be no problem. Washington should take the Saudis at their word, just as Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman did on his recent trip there.

Alyami: From day one, oil has been the basis, directly or indirectly, of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Oil is important in Saudi relations with Japan and Europe, too, as both of them import a lot of Saudi oil. If their economies fall, the Saudi economy will follow. Therefore, oil becomes a key issue here. Tom is right that the U.S. does not import so much oil from the Saudis right now, but the situation will change in ten or fifteen years as China consumes more energy than the United States. The Chinese have few reserves, and they will try to buy as much as they can from the Gulf region. That said, the United States will never let the Chinese or anyone else get control of oil production in the Middle East.

Henderson: I disagree with Tom Lippman’s remarks. Oil is the basis of the relationship and is absolutely vital to it. So, preservation of the present Saudi regime is in Washington’s best interests because when other major oil exporters’ governments fail, the history is that their oil production and exports are drastically reduced. Iran and Iraq are cases in point.

MEQ: And Qadhafi?

Henderson: Yes, and Qadhafi, too. He didn’t actually fall, but Washington gave him a hard time.

MEQ: Yes, oil production in Libya has fallen for so long that the country now hopes that by 2010 it can return production to where it was when he came to power in 1969.

Henderson: Of course, Saudi Arabia, because of its huge reserves and huge production, has a crucial role, one that Riyadh has been happy to undertake for many years: to be the swing producer. Many in Washington consider it vital that Saudi Arabia continue to perform that role in the future. Such concerns limit Washington’s freedom of action on a whole series of concerns about Saudi Arabia.

MEQ: Thank you for these most interesting observations. In sum, while there remains disagreement on many, I heard a consensus that Washington should encourage the kingdom’s civil society organizations and democratic reformers. That would be quite a change, indeed, from U.S. policy in decades past.

[1] Daniel L. Glaser, deputy assistant secretary Office of Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes, U.S. Department of the Treasury, testimony before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Nov. 8, 2005.
[2] The World Muslim League is a Saudi-sponsored organization founded in 1962 to fund mosques, publishing houses, cultural centers, schools, and other Islamic institutions.