Passport

The real story of Saudi Arabia’s ruling class

Anne Applebaum rightly condemns Saudi Arabia's treatment of women, but I think she misunderstands the political dynamics in the kingdom. Writing about a truly abhorrent case in which a Saudi court ruled that a woman who had been brutally gang raped had to face  a punishment of 200 lashes and six months in prison, Applebaum ...

Anne Applebaum rightly condemns Saudi Arabia's treatment of women, but I think she misunderstands the political dynamics in the kingdom. Writing about a truly abhorrent case in which a Saudi court ruled that a woman who had been brutally gang raped had to face  a punishment of 200 lashes and six months in prison, Applebaum opines:

Thanks to international pressure, the Saudi king has pardoned the woman. And now? In Saudi Arabia women still can't vote, can't drive, can't leave the house without a male relative. No campaign of the kind once directed at South Africa has ever been mounted in their defense.

The comparison of Saudi and South African apartheid, and the different Western attitudes to both, has been made before. Recently the journalist Mona Eltahawy argued that while oil is a factor, the real reason Saudi teams aren't kicked out of the Olympics is that the "Saudis have succeeded in pulling a fast one on the world by claiming their religion is the reason they treat women so badly." Islam, she points out, does take other forms in Turkey, Morocco, Indonesia and elsewhere. But Saudi propaganda, plus our own timidity about foreign customs, has blinded us to the fact that the systematic, wholesale Saudi oppression of women isn't dictated by religion at all but rather by the culture of the Saudi ruling class.

If you meet Saudi officials, you soon realize that many of them are actually Western-educated liberals. The oil minister, for instance, went to Lehigh and Stanford. The ambassador to the United States attended Texas and Georgetown. Before 9/11, more than 60,000 Saudis came to the United States each year. That number is now down to around 25,000. Still, in 2006, more than 11,000 visas were issued to incoming Saudi students. Think most of those kids don't absorb American culture and values while they're in college? Many of them go back and become high-ranking officials in Saudi Aramco or the government. They will tell you that widespread, systematic discrimination against women in their country is a tribal issue and has nothing to due with Islam. 

Some top leaders, such as Interior Minister Prince Naif bin AbdulAziz, are basically religious fundamentalists. But in general, the "Saudi ruling class" is a relatively liberal group sitting on top of a deeply conservative population. It's an elite that constantly jockeys with the religious establishment for power; sometimes the liberals win, and sometimes they lose. Certainly, Saudi Arabia's reformers move more cautiously than we in the West might like. But they know far better than we do what the traffic will bear. Remember: Before oil was discovered in 1938, Saudi Arabia was largely a land of tribal nomads and subsistence farmers. Just 70 years later, the country is a modernizing state and one of the linchpins of the global economy. This is a lot for any country to absorb. Give the Saudis time. They'll get there.

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