Demystifying Saudi Arabia


I had a three and a half hour long dinner with a Saudi notable in Jeddah the week before last. I asked him whether the liberalization I felt I was witnessing in various academic, NGO, and government arenas in Riyadh was a function of the King’s own unique vision for the country or whether the King, or the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” as he is formally referred to, was triangulating between the contending forces of conservatives and progressives in his country, with the trend moving in the progressive direction.
My host said that it was a bit of both — and more. He said, one needs to listen to the King’s own words, to hear him in Arabic and to answer the question not through the filter of handlers and public relations personnel but to the off the cuff remarks the King often made but which Westerners rarely if ever listened to. But my host didn’t answer my question about the King’s relationship to liberalization.
By numerous accounts, the King is a very blunt person.

I didn’t meet him during my recent trip, but I met several people who regularly interacted with the King and then talked with an individual who had some insights into the King’s off the cuff remark-making. While I don’t yet have a good roster of these statements my Jeddah dinner host recommended I investigate, I have come by a few lines from King Abdullah now and have the sense that he is consciously unleashing some liberalization forces in Saudi Arabia that will be practically impossible for his successors to bottle up.
My dinner companion replied that many Americans and Europeans looked for quick answers in Saudi Arabia. He felt they invested little time, according to him, and looked for validation of cliches and stereotypes rather than sorting out the currents and counter-currents of a complex, evolving society.
I agreed that I would not report on the broad substance of our dinner and would not divulge my host’s identity — and in return, I was treated to a very thorough and deep discussion about what was happening inside Saudi Arabia.
Thus, I’m not going to offer a quick snapshot of my experiences and thinking about my Saudi trip. Instead, I’m going to blog a series of observations and am going to try to avoid being captured either by the anti-Saudi human rights crowd or those who want to turn a blind eye to problems inside Saudi Arabia.
As someone primarily focused on the deteriorating state of America’s national security portfolio and position and the consequences of that on our allies, like Saudi Arabia, I don’t tend to elevate the internal arrangements inside other countries as the principal lens through which I judge the strength, intentions, and direction of another state. But at the same time, I want to have some understanding of the nuts and bolts of Saudi society — and why it has the internal organization it does.
My colleague and friend, Nicholas Schmidle, has recently tried to provide some quick trip snapshot essays for Slate — and with all due respect to Schmidle who writes richly in his travelogue, I found my own reactions to Saudi trends to be quite different.
In order to ward off accusations that observers have somehow seen only what Saudi handlers wanted them to see, some writers check off the stereotypes about the morals police, mistreatment of women, the harsher edge of sharia law, and the like. I feel that Nick Schmidle engages in some of this and feels the need to quickly tell “novelty stories” rather than provide a broader survey. Schmidle is my colleague — and writing the snapshot piece he did is something he is celebrated for doing in this country, but I think it under reports the deeper trends and realities in Saudi Arabia today.
As I begin this set of comments and observations, I also want to be clear that I don’t purport to be an expert on Saudi Arabia.
My bias that I bring to this topic is that I believe that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a vital ally of the United States in the Middle East — and that the U.S. as a whole has poorly served that relationship and alliance.
Some of our own policies — particularly the extra-legal handling of combat detainees in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram — have been factors in radicalizing some Saudi youth — but what is far more negatively consequential has been the border harassment at airports of Saudi students and academics who wanted to train and learn inside the U.S. I’ll write more on both the visa and airport entry horror stories later — but my fundamental point is that Saudi Arabia is a key player in the Middle East, in Israel/Palestine issues, in oil and energy politics, in Iraq, in managing Iran, and in the entire Muslim world.
I feel that we have allowed this vital relationship to be under served by elites on both sides who felt that they didn’t need to care about broad public awareness of the importance of that relationship on both sides — and by writing in the US about the Saudi system that reflected a high-handed moralism on the part of the author that emphasized some of the most significant divergences between American and Saudi societies over some of the points of convergence and common interest.
I have never been on a country trip in which the experiences I had ran at such odds with general preconceived notions I held of the place I was visiting. But more on that later.
— Steve Clemons


19 comments on “Demystifying Saudi Arabia

  1. PissedOffAmerican says:
    Abdullah to ask Bush to cancel visit
    According to the report, Abdullah is expected to meet with Bush in Washington before his upcoming visit to the Middle East and to deliver a message from the moderate Arab states. He will ask the US president to cancel his visit to the region “if there is not an agreement of principles between Israel and the Palestinians on the horizon.”


  2. Kathleen says:

    Speaking of blunt people, NGO’s, Human Rights, and Saudi-US realtions, John Bolton was quoted by Eli Lake in a NY Sun piece about the UN study of 9/11.
    Bolton’s worst nightmare?


  3. pauline says:

    “All that foreign oil controlling American soil,
    Look around you, it’s just bound to make you embarrassed.
    Sheiks walkin’ around like kings, wearing fancy jewels and nose rings,
    Deciding America’s future from Amsterdam and to Paris
    And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend.”
    Copyright © 1979 Special Rider Music


  4. JohnH says:

    And where is Steve to defend Carter? He chewed Obama out for not wanting to talk to Hamas. But when Carter gets raked over the coals, Steve is silent.
    It sure looks like Steve could give a whit about talking to Hamas–that was not the point. The real point was to do a hit job on Obama, knowing full well that in this media environment no politician could advocate talking to Hamas.


  5. PissedOffAmerican says:

    It isn’t only the “press” that is raking Carter over the coals, it is all three Presidential candidates as well.
    I see Hillary is using phrases like “obliterate Iran”, and has now chosen to employ the all purpose boogie man, Bin Laden, in her campaign ads.
    And this Obama jerk is running a close second to her, with his gushing claims of devoted loyalty to “Israel’s security”, and right to defend itself.
    Meanwhile, this ineffective criminal, perjurer, and fugitive from Congressional testimony, Rice, expects the Arab Nations to assist us in pursuing peace, while these nation’s leaders can’t help but notice that all Jimmy Carter is getting for his efforts to secure peace is demonization and accusations of treason.
    Look, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there is no fucking way these Arab countries will respect us or take us seriously when they see the complete and utter clusterfuck Bush has made of Iraq, notice our unabashed and criminal financing of the Israeli abuse of the Palestinians, and our politician’s and media’s despicable attacks on a man that is willing to apply logic and common sense to achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
    The comments of both Hillary and Obama these last few days has pretty much removed any illusion of “change” they wished to foist off on us in their posturing for the presidency. It is painfully obvious that the dying is going to continue, and that none of these three will make any substantive changes in Middle Eastern policy, or our obscene and criminal endorsement of Israeli policy.
    And any “alliances” or “partnerships for peace” with the Arab nations will be what they have always been; High dollar arrangements between global corporate interests and unimaginably wealthy Arab businessmen. The rest of this horseshit is just media fluff, propaganda, and think tank blather.
    I ain’t voting for any of these pieces of shit, nor am I optimistic for our nations future. These fuckers have sold us out, and it isn’t about “the people” anymore.


  6. Bandar Raffah says:

    Some great thoughts here ..


  7. Shannon says:

    Jimmy Carter is getting hauled over the coals in the US press. It is their job as representatives of the military industrial complex to promote more warmongering and Israel is their favorite reason to warmonger…..


  8. David says:

    I read this by Ira Chernus after I made my comment about Jimmy Carter:


  9. David says:

    “My dinner companion replied that many Americans and Europeans looked for quick answers in Saudi Arabia. He felt they invested little time, according to him, and looked for validation of cliches and stereotypes rather than sorting out the currents and counter-currents of a complex, evolving society.”
    Mostly Americans and Europeans, especially the Brits, look for oil in the Middle East. Everything else is secondary, the highest-ranking secondary consideration being Israel. But I also think the dinner companion is correct, and that that has always been true.
    I don’t blame the king for saying leave the new oil in the ground for his posterity. Amazing. I guess he’s figured out that the Saudis have more petro-money than they can spend, and so other considerations begin to take on importance, at least to the king. Don’t know whether he means the royal posterity or Saudis in general. And certainly, given the sorry state of the western media, I probably have no way of knowing.
    But once again, the fact that Steve Clemons would make this trip, have these conversations which require trust on the part of the people with whom he meets, and share what he encountered gives me one more bit of information that can reasonably help me gain a bit more understanding. Not sure what more one can ask of a single investigative journalists driven by concerns over major policy issues.
    This is why I say I gain more insight in one day on The Washington Note than in a week of reading and listening to the major media. I also look to Juan Cole, Dahr Jamail, and my recollections of conversations with a Biblical archaeologist who worked with Sir Flinders Petrie (damn, that better be spelled correctly) and who was in the Middle East when Israel was created. The man is long dead, sadly, so I cannot ask him how he sees what is unfolding now.
    I will add that I look to Jimmy Carter as a source of uninhibited honesty and legitimate moral outrage. He has paid his dues, is one of the greatest ex-presidents in American history, and deserving of far better than what he is receiving, especially from those Israelis who refuse to see that Mr. Carter is as good a real friend as they have ever had.


  10. Mr.Murder says:

    this is bigger than any one country now.
    The world wide web is bringing ideas to places.
    Good to see you are along for the ride.


  11. andrew says:

    You keeping mum on President Carter and Hamas?


  12. JohnH says:

    Steve apparently didn’t fancy my question about helping King Abdullah with democracy.
    So here’s another question: what does liberalization mean? Liberal means one thing in Europe, another in America, and probably something entirely different in Saudi Arabia. And do they mean social liberalization, which the wahhabi clerics won’t like or economic liberalization, which means that the King will have to forego ownership of some of the kingdom.
    In Arabic, the word for king–muluk–is generally translated as king. However, it is closely related to the word malaka (to have, to own, to posses). The connotation of malik therefore is closer to “owner” or “possessor,” etc. So will the owner give up some of his treasure? Don’t hold your breath. Historical precedent for voluntarily sharing wealth are virtually non-existent. Maybe he’ll leave a somewhat more generous inheritance to the myriad princes. Or more likely, they’ll do as the mafia expression suggests: they’ll “change everything,” so they can keep doing what they’ve been doing. It’ll just look different.


  13. TonyForesta says:

    Your admitted “…bias that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a vital ally of the United States in the Middle East — and that the U.S. as a whole has poorly served that relationship and alliance” exposes you as a “message-force multiplier” bruting the dangerous fiction that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is ally of America in any sense other than US oil dependence.
    Did you visit Mecca or Medina? Tell your faithfull readers why?
    How many public beheadings have their been in the Kingdom since January.
    Did you, or has any US official recieved any cooperation or assistance on tracking down those Saudi’s who aided, abetted, financed, and supported the mass murder operations on 9/11?
    What percentage of citizens in the Kingdom hold favorably opinions about America or American?
    Addressing any of these questions will undermine the false assertion that the Kingdom is an ally of America.
    America long ago entered into a Faustian arrangement with the duplicitious wahabist American and infidel hating royals in the House of Saud. The House of Saud gleaned otherworldly wealth and power, and America taps the largest oil reserves on the planet. Our relationship with the Kingdom is based on oil, and nothing more.
    You are being disingenuous and are exposed as a “message-force multiplier” carrying the Bush government “Saudi’s are good friends “water and bruting the insulting fiction that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, (which remains the primary funding and nurturing source of all the jihadist massmurder gangs including Al Quaida) is a friend of America.
    The House of Saud seeks our petro dollars, weapons, and certain crown jewels, – but most of the kingdoms royals, and most of the kingdoms citizens are mortal enemies of America.


  14. erichwwk says:

    Good choice (keeping confidentiality) and thanks for sharing.I have little doubt that Steve’s observations will be invaluable as to how broad public sentiment plays here. Things do seem to be changing.
    Reported by FT:
    Saudis put off longer-term oil capacity rise
    By Carola Hoyos in Rome
    Published: April 20 2008 18:54
    “Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil producer, has put on hold plans to increase long-term production capacity from its vast oil fields beyond existing proposals, its most powerful policymakers have said.”
    “King Abdullah, reported by the official news agency this month, said: “I keep no secret from you that when there were some new finds, I told them: ‘No, leave it in the ground, with grace from God, our children need it’.”


  15. dalivision says:

    You touch upon the liberalization of the Saudi king but could this be a result of Al Queda and other “terror” groups within Saudi Arabia? Could our invasion and occupation in Iraq result in this? If so, then the neo-cons were right even though it might be a slow process.
    My tone may appear harsh but my intent is to see if this liberalization will result in benefits not only for Saudi Arabia but also for the region and to see if it may have negative effects.


  16. Barnaby Levy says:

    can’t wait…will they be collected so when I miss them I can find them in one place?
    Thank you.


  17. Ahmed says:

    Hi Steve,
    I appreciate your comments on Saudi Arabia and i am looking forward to your series of articles in that regard. Regarding the liberalization movement which the king is leading in the kingdom, i believe as you hinted in this blog that his objective is not to achieve full liberalization of the Saudi society under his term, he understands that it is a slow long process, and transformation can’t happen overnight. His objective is to kick start the liberalization process in the kingdom to a level of no reversal, and then allows the society to mature at its own pace. The key challenge for him in this regard, is to balance that change with all the economic and political forces that are affecting the kingdom currently.


  18. Zathras says:

    How very odd. My own bias has been that the Saudis have poorly served their relationship and alliance with the United States, and I do not confine that attitude to the Saudi government.


  19. Johnh says:

    Given that the seems set to unleash the “forces of liberalization” (Note: not democratization), do you think that the United States should offer the same “democracy building” support to Saudi Arabia that it has provided to Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Iran. If not, why not?


Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *