The more-assertive Saudi role has been clear in its open support for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is Iran’s crucial Arab ally. The Saudis were decisive backers of last weekend’s Arab League decision to suspend Syria’s membership (though they also supported the organization’s waffling decision Wednesday to send another mediation team to Damascus).
What I find curious here about the Saudi ruling family:
One wonders what the Saudis see as the odds of a popular revolt in Iran. Do the Saudis do anything to promote internal opposition to the Iranian government?
What I also wonder: Are the Saudis trying to use their influence to stoke up support in Washington DC for a US military strike against Iran? Are they allying with pro-Israel interests in DC toward this end?
More generally: What's a good way to get a measure of trends in influence-buying in DC and also internationally? Which governments are most buyable for foreign policy purposes by domestic and foreign influence buyers?
So what is life like in Saudi Arabia, what do Saudis think,what are their fears (Shias, the government), and what is life like in a tyranny? A guy apparently from Chico California working as an academic in Saudi Arabia and writing with the pseudonym Joseph Marais lays out lots of interesting details. Read the whole thing. Then tell me what this portends for Saudia Arabia's future.
Now that the regional lid has come off and everyone is wondering whether Saudi Arabia is next, trying to figure out what’s going on here makes the long-ago work of Kremlinologists look easy. To ask students about it is extremely risky. Of the innumerable, unwritten, ironclad rules, No. 1 is: Never talk about anything that actually matters. No. 2 is: If you wish to violate No. 1, make sure the corridor is empty, the door is locked, and voices are kept low. Religion—out. Politics—out. Sex—out. Social system—out. The government—way out. The monarchy and the Saud family? Mention them, and people turn into ice statues.
So then what to talk about? Even the streets are mostly empty according to Marais. The students are aware of all the things they are missing.
Since the University of the Empty Quarter nowhere provides clear rules, it’s all guesswork about where the minefields have been laid. Whispers in departmental corridors of “one wrong note and they’ll toss you out” encourage teachers to play it safe. Yet students often complain bitterly about the extreme suffocation of Saudi life.
They bemoan the absence of music, art, cinema and theater, and gripe that “there’s nothing to do.” They complain about the impossibility of pursuing activities that elsewhere are commonplace, such as a dance class, a music lesson or a yoga session. Many are irritated with the domination of the mosques and the inescapability of religion, and chafe at the forced insularity of life in Saudi Arabia. It’s the rare student who does not express an intense desire to get away from the country.
How many at least have fast internet and how sophisticated are the internet firewalls around Saudi Arabia? Do you have to use a VPN connection to a server that lets you reach, say, Facebook or the NY Times or Hulu or Youtube? The article says it is pretty easy to get around Saudi government blocks on web sites. So are the Saudis all at home watching forbidden stuff on their PCs?
The real test for the Saudis will come when domestic oil demand grows so large and domestic production shrinks far enough that the Saudis make little off off oil exports. Then will the regime be able to maintain the loyalties of all those Saudis who do little work in their jobs in Aramco and the government? What happens when work becomes necessary for the elite? Will extreme Islamic culture become so inefficient and unaffordable that the government (before or after overthrow) be forced to loosen up? Will males still support the government just to keep the women down?
The United States for the first time named Saudi Arabia yesterday as a country that severely violates religious freedom, potentially subjecting the close U.S. ally to sanctions.
"Freedom of religion does not exist" in Saudi Arabia, the State Department said in its annual report on international religious freedom. "Freedom of religion is not recognized or protected under the country's laws and basic religious freedoms are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam," the report said, adding that "non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation and sometimes torture."
Did Saudi Arabia suddenly take a turn for the worse in the religious freedom department? Or has the place been a repressive Wahabbi Islamic theocracy since its creation?
More fundamentally, why should anyone take seriously any US State Department report on religious freedom by country?
President George W. Bush, a man who professes to believe that the spread of democracy is the cure needed to stop terrorism, looks at Vladimir Putin, a man who is systematically disassembling democracy and press freedom in Russia and sees a man to admire.
On Sunday, President Bush visited the Russian Embassy to pay his respects to the victims of last week's terrorist attack at a Russian school and to express his admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Please pass on my very best wishes to President Vladimir Putin, a man who I admire," Bush told the Russian ambassador.
It is worth noting that Russia is one of the biggest oil exporting countries and that it has more energy reserves in the form of natural gas than Saudi Arabia has in the form of oil. Plus, the US military finds it helpful to be able to ship stuff across Russia to get to Central Asia and Afghanistan.
I've argued a lot for a great increase of the scale of federal funding for energy research in order to improve national security. Look at US policy toward Saudi Arabia (and to a lesser extent Russia as well) and see how much US policy has been bent by concerns about energy supplies. It took the 9/11 attack plus 3 years just to get the State Department to admit a glaringly obvious truth which it would not refrain from admitting about some country deemed less important to American interests. The world's dependence on oil is creating a distortion in US policy toward the Middle East that continues to damage US national interests.
Sakaka Saudi Arabia, capital of a province bordering on Iraq, is the scene of a low grade rebellion against the rule of the Saudi royal family.
Residents of al-Jouf province say recent months have seen the assassination of the deputy governor and the execution-style killing of Sakaka's police chief by a group of men who forced their way into his home.
Earlier, the region's top Shariah, or religious law, court judge was shot at point-blank range as he drove to work.
Given that Saudi Arabia is stuck in an internal power struggle between reformists and Islamists which is preventing the Saudi school system and other institutions from substantially reducing their teaching of hostility against non-Muslims does the United States have any stake on the continued stability of the Saudi monarchy? The answer is not clear. It is quite possible that the Saudis could fall and be replaced by some theocrats who would be even worse.
However, if the Saudi government fell and the Shias who probably make up a majority of Saudi Arabia's oil-producing province were to split off and form their own government then the Wahhabis would be defunded. Those Shias would have a lot of money but my guess is that it is unlikely they'd use it it in as harmful a way as the Wahhabis are currently doing. So that outcome would be a net benefit to the United States. Though during the interim period of revolution the Saudi oil fields might be knocked out of action for months and we'd experience a large rise in oil prices. This would not be as disruptive once the Iraqi fields get ramped up to be able to produce much more than they are currently.
There are other signs that Saudi society is experiencing major problems. Saudi Arabia has long been known as a society which has an incredibly low crime rate. But the low crime era in Saudi Arabia is now long gone.
A report this year by the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency said crime among young jobless Saudis rose 320 percent from 1990 to 1996 and is expected to increase by an additional 136 percent by 2005.
Although official crime and unemployment statistics are not available, the number of jobless Saudis is estimated to be as high as 35 percent, and the al-Riyadh daily newspaper has reported that in 1999, courts dealt with 616 murder cases.
If the courts dealt with 616 murder cases then the total number of murders was problem even higher given that not all murders even result in a suspect being identified. But in 1999 Saudi Arabia probably had less than 22 million people given that it had 22 million in mid 2000 and its population is growing at an astounding rate of 3.28% per year (women who are not allowed to drive have a lot of time to make babies). But at 22 million population and 616 murders that would be a murder rate of 2.8 per 100,000. That is still only half the murder rate of the United States though it is a few times higher than the murder rate of South Dakota.
The continued lack of liberalizing change inside of Saudi Arabia (and in Pakistan for that matter) shows just how little the United States has accomplished post 9/11 in terms of changing the Middle Eastern societies which produce the terrorists who want to attack the United States.
As for what the United States should even seek to do about Saudi Arabia, the answer is by no means clear. James Q. Wilson has an excellent essay in the Winter 2004 issue of City Journal entitled What Makes A Terrorist? in which he covers the types of terrorists and the motives of nationalistic and religious terrorists:
That terrorists themselves are reasonably well-off does not by itself disprove the argument that terrorism springs from poverty and ignorance. Terrorists might simply be a self-selected elite, who hope to serve the needs of an impoverished and despondent populace—in which case, providing money and education to the masses would be the best way to prevent terrorism.
From what we know now, this theory appears to be false. Krueger and Maleckova compared terrorist incidents in the Middle East with changes in the gross domestic product of the region and found that the number of such incidents per year increased as economic conditions improved. On the eve of the intifada that began in 2000, the unemployment rate among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was falling, and the Palestinians thought that economic conditions were improving. The same economic conditions existed at the time of the 1988 intifada. Terror did not spread as the economy got worse but as it got better.
This study agrees with the view of Franklin L. Ford, whose book Political Murder covers terrorist acts from ancient times down to the 1980s. Assassinations, he finds, were least common in fifth-century Athens, during the Roman republic, and in eighteenth-century Europe—periods in which “a certain quality of balance, as between authority and forbearance” was reinforced by a commitment to “customary rights.” Terrorism has not corresponded to high levels of repression or social injustice or high rates of ordinary crime. It seems to occur, Ford suggests, in periods of partial reform, popular excitement, high expectations, and impatient demands for still more rapid change.
Will worsening economic conditions in Saudi Arabia as population dilutes the oil money over a larger number of people eventually decrease the motive for committing terrorist acts? Will the terrorists and the populaces that support them eventually become demoralized by a failure to cause large changes in their own and Western societies? Or do they measure their own success by their ability to block change by, for instance, preventing the Saudi government from liberalizing?
In my view the limited ability of the United States to change the internal evolution of Arab and other Muslim societies ought to drive home the need for other approaches. The US ought to mount a very major effort to develop technologies to end the entire world's dependence on Middle Eastern oil (also see here). If we fail to do this our ability to influence the Middle East will likely decline as the increase in energy demand from China and other countries is going to increase the amount of oil revenue flowing to the Wahhabis. The United States also needs to develop a greater amount of language skills among intelligence and law enforcement agents and increased ability to run agents in Muslim societies and in Muslim communities in the West.