Marc Lynch

America’s Saudi Problem

Obama can't get it right on the Arab Spring unless he holds Saudi Arabia to account.

Pete Souza/The White House
Pete Souza/The White House

In Riyadh last week, where I was speaking to a small private workshop, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to the United States, introduced me by reading several excerpts from my recent FP column: "Bahrain crushed its opposition with impunity," he read. And then: "Obama chose to rely on the Gulf monarchies against Iran, which made it exceptionally difficult for him to meaningfully pressure them to reform or to block their counterrevolutionary intervention in Bahrain." His polite but pointed comment: "These words are not accepted in the Gulf."

That was putting it mildly. For much of the week, I heard sharp disagreements from Saudis on Bahrain, which they for the most part saw not as a peaceful uprising but as an Iranian-backed campaign of violent subversion that had to be put down to restore order. Perhaps a few agreed, at least privately, on the unjustifiable nature of the campaign of repression that followed — even if the protesters had sympathies with Iran, could that justify their torture and indefinite detention? — and the dim prospects for stability without a serious new political initiative. But that rarely extended to an acceptance of the authenticity or legitimacy of the Bahraini protest movement.

The yawning gap in our views of Bahrain reflected a more general disconnect between Washington and Riyadh on regional order. Saudi Arabia’s hostility toward the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and its coordinated efforts to block change in the Gulf and in allied monarchies across the region, works directly against the stated American goal of promoting reform. Its support for the crushing of the Bahraini protest movement and rehabilitation of an unrepentant regime left a gaping hole in American credibility. Saudi domestic policies, from women’s rights to the treatment of its Shiite minority to the absence of democracy and repression of the public sphere, are manifestly incompatible with any liberal vision. And should the Obama administration attempt serious negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, it will find a skeptical partner indeed in Riyadh.

The tension cuts to the heart of my vision for U.S. Middle East strategy of a "right-sized" military and political presence combined with stronger commitment to political reform and public engagement. Indeed, America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia remains the greatest contradiction inherent in its attempt to align itself with popular aspirations for change in the region. A Saudi exception certainly makes things such as coordinating the containment of Iran easier for diplomats on a daily basis. But it sustains and perpetuates a regional order which over the long term is costly to sustain and clearly at odds with American normative preferences.

Some American analysts, notably Toby Jones, have therefore called repeatedly for a wholesale rethinking of the U.S.-Saudi alliance. He argues persuasively that "Washington’s clear preference for the status quo in the Gulf has come at considerable cost to activists in the region. The U.S. has enabled the Gulf regimes to behave badly; the regimes, for their part, have exploited geopolitical rivalries to consolidate power at home." What would such a rethinking actually look like, though? We should recognize and attempt to break that vicious cycle. I don’t think that the United States can or should abandon its strategic posture in the Gulf — certainly not overnight. But it should be much more forthright in pushing for reforms and supporting universal human rights in all of its allies. This is the time for Washington to be actively thinking about how to use its very real strategic imperative of reducing its military commitments to the region as leverage over those allies to reform. Putting those together, along with sustained dialogue with Saudis from the royal family down through all sectors of the public, could help to create a greater coherence in America’s regional strategy.

I don’t believe that Saudi Arabia is poised for a revolution (though a lot of people in Riyadh wanted to know whether Bruce Riedel’s views were widely shared in Washington). Even the most determined reformers with whom I spoke told me that they expected meaningful change in a longer time frame (some said three to five years, others five to 10 — an eternity in American strategic practice). But "revolution" sets the bar too high. The changes that have already taken place — from the furious protests in the Eastern Province to the renewed push for women’s rights to a legal campaign for human rights to the dramatic opening of online public debate — strike me as profoundly important. It simply does not seem plausible that a country with such a young and intensely wired population can maintain indefinitely a system which denies transparency, accountability, or equal citizenship.

Saudi Arabia has clearly been deeply affected by the Arab Spring, even if demands for political change have thus far been blocked through a mix of repression and co-optation. Recurrent economic and institutional problems, along with widely perceived corruption, generate significant distress among Saudis. Almost everyone I met, from Shiite activists in the Eastern Province to youth activists, women’s rights campaigners, and human rights lawyers in Riyadh, identified Tunisia, Egypt, and the Arab Spring as the spark for a new form of domestic mobilization. The connection between Saudi Arabia’s domestic crackdown and its regional policy seems clear. Riyadh’s crackdown on its own reformists and massive domestic spending boom mirrored the support it offered for beleaguered monarchies in the Gulf, Jordan and Morocco.

Saudi Arabia today actually reminds me vividly of Egypt circa 2004, with a rapidly transforming public sphere and rising citizen demands finding little opportunity for expression in the formal political realm. While such comparisons are fraught with problems, I could not avoid the echoes. Almost everyone I met pointed to Twitter as a dramatic new Saudi public sphere in a country that never used to have a meaningful public sphere at all. I’m primed to be skeptical about such claims, but they ring true in a country with exceptionally tight control over all other media and exceptionally high levels of social media use (among the highest per capita in the world for YouTube and by far the most Twitter users in the Middle East). The willingness to openly discuss the most sensitive and contentious issues and the role of social media in widening the zone of open debate was there, as was deep frustration with formal politics and the inability to sketch out a clear path to political change. It isn’t just the famous @mujtahhid spilling royal family secrets. It is the ferocious, no-holds-barred online discussion of virtually everything — and the open mocking of those royals brave enough to join the discussion. One prominent journalist told me that officials had recently allowed a slightly more independent political talk show onto the airwaves primarily because they were all too aware of the far more critical discourse routinely circulating on Twitter.

Thus far, the virtual protests have not been able to move into the streets in force, except in the east, which has experienced a sustained, serious challenge to the systematic discrimination against Shiite citizens. Activists from Qatif with whom I met while visiting the Eastern Province gave a consistent account of pervasive, systematic discrimination and a dangerous cycle of violence. They rejected the common claim that they had been inspired by Bahrain or by Iran — they claimed inspiration from Tunisia and Egypt, and made constitutional and citizenship rather than sectarian demands. But while those protests have not spread to the Sunni majority areas of Saudi Arabia, in part due to the active promotion of sectarian discourse at home and abroad by the regime, the crackdown against reformers pushing for legal accountability, the release of political prisoners, and constitutional change strikes me as a sign of regime weakness, not strength. The imprisonment of the liberal writer Turki al-Hamed over his tweets, or the throwing of youth into prison without charges over their Facebook posts, suggests a regime uncertain about itself and over how to manage the sudden transformation of the public debate.

What should the United States do about this changing Saudi Arabia? Its real dependence on Saudi oil, Riyadh’s key role in the current security architecture, and the transition costs of a new strategy can’t be wished away. Allies should be engaged with a presumption of partnership, not one-sided lectures or sudden, erratic policy shifts. But America cannot continue to ignore the increasingly clear tension between its stated policy goals. It should at least avoid accepting or endorsing the status quo, and should do far more to nurture the emerging new Saudi public sphere. For instance, the symbolism of President Obama’s unusual meeting with new Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, which looked to many Saudis like an endorsement of someone they identify with the most repressive and anti-democratic trends in the kingdom, was unfortunate.

Does Washington have any leverage? Maybe. The day after his lengthy interrogation over various ill-defined charges, the impressive human rights campaigner Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani told me that the United States urgently needed to do more to support these emerging voices. Qahtani, like others, thinks that Obama could significantly help this emerging new reformist discourse — and that engaging with them would ultimately be decisively in the interests of both Washington and Saudi Arabia itself.  While many were dismissive of the 30 women appointed by King Abdullah to the Shura Council, for instance, one women’s rights activist with whom I spoke argued strongly for its significance. Their presence, she insisted, was symbolically important and would make it far easier for them to get women’s issues onto the Shura Council’s (admittedly lean) agenda. If this were simply a public relations move to appease the United States ("the Hillary Clinton Council," as several Saudis called it), she argued, then it should be taken as a positive example of how American pressure could help. Change will not come quickly, but Obama should speak out against the prosecution of such liberal reformists and apply the same standards on the right to free expression in Saudi Arabia that he does elsewhere in the region.

In his inaugural address, Obama declared again, "We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom." If the president is serious about this, and genuinely hopes to shape a regional order based on more democratic and open allies, then he will not be able to avoid the Saudi exception indefinitely. It will not be welcome, but he should support the demands of all Arab citizens for transparency, accountability and pluralism — even in hard cases like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

 Twitter: @abuaardvark

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola