Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The View from Riyhadh

Surely, the story is monumentally important. It’s so important that our news media have largely ignored it. 

Happily, Karen Elliott House has traveled to Saudi Arabia to witness the cultural transformation taking place in the kingdom. We recall the bright eyed New York Times columnists who camped out in Tahrir Square to welcome democracy to Egypt—how did that one work out?—so we ought at least to give passing mention to the one place where Islam is being modernized, rapidly.

Considering how many of the world’s problems derive from the fact that one of its major religions has failed to modernize, we ought to pay some attention to what is happening in Saudi Arabia. Surely, we prefer the course taken by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to that proposed by the reactionary forces running the Islamic Republic of Iran.

And yes, I know, Jamal Khashoggi was most likely murdered by people who are very close to the crown prince. Unfortunately, we do not choose our allies on the basis of a moral purity test. How does it happen that everyone is up in arms about Khashoggi and no one cares about the thousands of people who have been executed in Iran for crimes like…homosexual behavior.

As for life on the ground, House offers this sense of the public mood:

During a three-week visit, the public delight is visible everywhere from the capital city to remote rural provinces like Jizan in the south and Tabuk in the north. Teenage Saudi girls scream hysterically at a performance here by the Korean boy band BTS. Young Saudi women with bared faces run a 5K through city streets clad only in short-sleeved T-shirts and tight leggings. Groups of young men and women relax together in Starbucks. Hotels are no longer permitted to ask Saudi couples for proof of marriage at check-in. All this change and more in a society where until very recently women, uniformly clad in floor-length abayas, couldn’t exercise, drive or appear in public with men other than close relatives.

House believes that the nation is anticipating the day when it will no longer be able to rely on oil revenue. She suggests that it is modernizing in order to attract tourism and investments, but I suspect that there is a larger and more profound reason. The crown prince, whatever his faults, has correctly decided that Islam needs to be part of the modern world. It cannot stand apart and watch other cultures surpass it.

House continues:

This most puritanical of Islamic societies is increasingly mirroring Western mores as the government seeks to attract foreign tourists and investors whose money is needed to diversify the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy.

The regime no longer worries about the erosion of the kingdom’s distinctive culture. Its view is that in a world of ubiquitous social media all cultures are destined to blend and it is no longer feasible, let alone desirable, for Saudi Arabia to shut itself off from inexorable global trends.

As it happens, the kingdom does not allow dissenting opinions. It does not have first amendment rights to free speech and free expression. Naturally, this offends us to the marrow. And yet, do you believe that change would have been possible if the religious police had been allowed to constitute a countervailing faction:

There is no doubt that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 34, effective ruler of the kingdom, has decided to press ahead full speed with economic and social change (the former much tougher than the latter). Nothing will deter him. The crown prince, those close to him say, is absolutely convinced his reforms are essential and urgent. So in his view, debate is pointless. There is no possibility of reversing course—and no apparent concern about a conservative backlash. The once-powerful religious authorities have been reduced to mouthpieces for the regime and are widely ignored by the public. Even immediate foreign threats are more distraction than deterrent to Crown Prince Mohammed’s domestic agenda.

To be clear, such rapid change is difficult to impose, even when one can exercise authoritarian control over the culture. Attitudes and social habits change more slowly:

The government is spending billions on bringing entertainment—wrestling, tennis, car racing, expensive restaurants, musical performers—to the kingdom to jump-start tourism. Joining a Saudi family for dinner, I am driven by golf cart through a park to the restaurant by a young Saudi woman with a bare face, cropped hair and no abaya. Such dress or employment for a Saudi woman was unthinkable even a few months ago. “I feel out of place in my own country,” says one Saudi woman in shock at seeing a Lebanese singer entering a Riyadh hotel in a sleeveless midthigh dress. Such “indecency,” unlike dissent, runs no risk these days.

Given its neighborhood the Saudi government requires American assistance. It needs a reliable ally in Washington, especially since Western European nations want to align themselves with Iran. Some say that we should completely withdraw from the region, but we are also part of the world oil market. It’s nice to be self-sufficient energy wise, but what happens if our vendors, suppliers and customers run out of fuel.

Meantime, the Saudi government is putting maximum pressure on the U.S. to provide additional military support to the regime. Failure to stand visibly with Saudi Arabia, say officials here, could encourage Iran to strike again and lead to higher oil prices for the U.S. and world-wide. Or the Saudis could opt to price oil in a currency other than the dollar, with severe ramifications for the U.S. and the global economy.

Crown Prince Mohammed is said to have been livid about the slow U.S. reaction but mollified by the Trump administration’s recent decision to dispatch 2,000 additional American troops to Saudi Arabia along with two Patriot missile batteries and a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or Thaad. The American buildup looks intended to deter future Iranian aggression, but whether the Trump administration would engage or duck is anyone’s guess given the lack of a formal U.S.-Saudi mutual-security treaty. The Saudis are understandably nervous after President Obama failed to enforce his “red line” in Syria and President Trump made no response to Iran’s downing of an American drone in June or its attack on Aramco six weeks ago.

The Trump administration seems to have come to this understanding. If it does not support the Saudi reform effort, the chances for backsliding will increase exponentially.


Peter B said...

The Saudis would be fools to put all their eggs in the US basket, and whatever else they are, fools isn't it. Trump's policies are more favorable to changes the Saudis want—except for the part where the US is now energy independent to the point that it is driving oil prices down, and the part where if Trump is succeeded by a Democrat, while US dependence on Saudi oil might return, the political climate would probably deteriorate.

Not to worry, the Chinese are investing a lot of money in Saudi Arabia and China is becoming a good customer for Saudi oil. And China provides a model for (and no doubt technology and servicies supporting) authoritarian rule plus maintaining ethnic nationalism plus modernization that will probably prove at least as attractive to the Saudi royal family than whatever the US may turn into.

Anonymous said...

Trump is a master of His domain. He is the highest power, the leader of the pack!