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.