Saudi Arabia's announcement on Monday that within a year it will hold elections for municipal councils could be the first tremor in a slow-moving Middle Eastern earthquake.
First, some caveats. We don't have all the details yet and, as things often do in the Middle East, this might not live up to its advance billing. A year is a long time away. The initiative might get derailed. The elections may not be as fair and free as promised. We do not know if women will be allowed to vote. And it is only a baby step toward addressing vast structural flaws within the Saudi system.
But still, the Saudi announcement is potentially a very big deal, and the cynics should take note: more so than even the pluralist maelstrom in Iraq, moves toward democratization in Saudi Arabia could have ripples throughout the Middle East.
In fact, because Saudi Arabia is the most conservative of the Arab states, Riyadh's decision to start a process of democratization, no matter how gradual, is already beginning to force many Arabs to rethink where the tides of Middle Eastern history are headed. As long as the Saudis keep moving down this path, no matter how sluggishly, it will be hard for the other countries of the region not to follow. The other governments will have no answer when their people ask why, if the Saudis can adopt more pluralistic political institutions, can't they as well?
What's more, such reforms are the only way to deal with the two major threats that the United States faces from the dysfunctional Saudi system. The first is that Saudi society has become an important contributor to violent terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden himself is Saudi, and he has found many of his recruits among his disaffected young countrymen. And, knowingly or not, many wealthy Saudisincluding, probably, members of the royal familyhave contributed to Islamic charities that were fronts for terrorist organizations.
The second threat is that much of the anger and frustration that makes Saudi Arabia a fertile recruiting ground for Osama bin Laden have also made Saudi internal politics increasingly volatile, raising the specter of a violent upheaval. As long as Saudi oil production remains a linchpin of the global economy, we cannot afford an Islamic revolution there. Even if civil war or a fanatical new regime did not shut Saudi oil production altogether, either might result in a reversal of the high-production, low-price oil policy that the Saudi royals adhere to. This would set off recessions around the globe.
Both of these threats spring, at least in part, from a common source: more than any other Arab state, Saudi Arabia is in desperate need of comprehensive political, economic, social, legal and educational reform. The economy is faltering badly, which in turn has meant that the kingdom can no longer afford the profligate ways of the royal family or the cradle-to-grave social welfare system erected during the fat years of the 1970's and 80's. The Saudi educational system is useless, emphasizing the humanities and Islamic studies at the expense of science and mathematics. Because of its reliance on rote memorization, even college graduates have few marketable job skills. Saudi Arabia's decrepit legal system is distorted by xenophobic strictures, like laws limiting foreign investment, and is undermined by abuses by the royal family.
The result is that unemployment probably exceeds 30 percent, and among males in their 20'sthe talent pool for terrorists and revolutionariesit is probably even higher. No job means no income, no dignity, probably no wife, no sons and no place in Saudi society. Many of these angry young men focus their wrath at the autocratic Saudi regime, for not addressing these problems and for giving them no legal method of redress, and at the United States, for supporting that regime.
The only way for the Saudis to get at these deep-seated problems is through modernization, and that process has to start with the political system. Until there is greater transparency, accountability and participation in the political process, Riyadh will not be able to deal with the corruption and inertia that have paralyzed the economy and society. And as long as the royals are seen as running the kingdom purely for their own benefit, those preaching violent change will find plenty of willing executioners.
So what can the United States do to see that Monday's announcement actually leads to something significant?
First, we should endorse it, but not trumpet it. Crown Prince Abdullah, the leading reformist in the kingdom, and his supporters need to know that America appreciates what they are trying to do. Likewise, the opponents of reform among the royal family and the bureaucracy need to understand that Washington will hold accountable anyone who impedes change. However, the United States can't be seen by the Saudi public as embracing the effort too tightlySaudi demagogues would no doubt make political hay by claiming that anything America favors must be bad for Saudi Arabia.
Second, we may need to hold the Saudis' feet to the fire. We must make sure that electoral progress continues and is not an excuse for backsliding in other areas: legal reform, foreign ownership of Saudi businesses, educational reform and others. Yet Americans should keep in mind that the pace of reform is likely to be slow (if only because everything is slow in the kingdom) and that this is actually good for us and for them. As F. Gregory Gause III, a Saudi expert at the University of Vermont, has pointed out, if we could magically create democracy in Saudi Arabia tomorrow, we would probably find Islamic fundamentalists elected by overwhelming margins. It will take years of political liberalization before enough moderate political leaders emerge to offer an alternative to the Islamists and the regime.
In addition, we should come up with measures that might remove other pressures on Riyadh. Crown Prince Abdullah and his supporters will be loath to push electoral reforms if they face other problems at home. We could start with quiet conversations between Bush administration officials and members of the Saudi government to get a better feel as to how we can help them. For example, one good reason (among many) for the United States to work more vigorously with the Israelis and Palestinians is that the Saudi population's anger over the Arab-Israeli standoff has made the Saudi leadership cautious of taking actions that they expect could be unpopular.
But above all, we have to stay focused on our long-term priorities: shutting down terrorist financing and recruitment, supporting the reconstruction of Iraq and pursuing Saudi internal reform. Too often, we have saddled the Saudis with a host of other demands, from financing our pet projects (like Bosnian reconstruction) to purchasing expensive American military equipment, to lobbying members of the United Nations Security Council on our behalf. The more we press the Saudis on unpopular secondary issues, the slower they will move on terrorism and reform. And in the end, those are the issues that really endanger American interests and lives.