The Saban Center for Middle East Policy hosted a luncheon roundtable discussion with Visiting Fellow Dr. Mai Yamani, of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, on March 13, 2008. Yamani presented a draft of her forthcoming Middle East Memo entitled “Reform in Saudi Arabia.”
Yamani said that Saudi Arabia enjoys a reputation as a stable, legitimate monarchy, global swing producer of oil, and staunch strategic ally of the United States, ruled under the meticulous stewardship of an organized and homogenous royal family. From this perspective, she noted, it might seem foolhardy for the United States to press Saudi Arabia for reform—what leverage does the United States have over the kingdom? She stressed that the U.S.-Saudi Arabian alliance is key source of supoort for the ruling family. Two other key sources of support are the country’s possession of the world’s largest known reserves of oil and the state’s manipulation of the Islamic faith. The royal family’s sense of the strength lent by these three pillars is what determines the prospects for domestic reform.
Yamani explained how the U.S.-Saudi Arabian relationship has helped to ensure the Kingdom’s survival in the face of external threats to al-Saud rule. The intimacy of the U.S.-Saudi Arabian relationship, she argued, provides cover for the ruling family’s repressive domestic policies. U.S. support, Yamani held, provides its own form of legitimacy: international standing and stature. Thus, she asserted, the survival of the Saudi regime is not dependent on domestic legitimacy, and the regime is able to shrug off both domestic and international criticism of its deviations from international human norms.
However, Yamani noted that, though the United States has a degree of influence over the kingdom’s domestic policies, it is in no manner the country’s “puppeteer.” Yamani noted that the U.S.-Saudi Arabian relationship is likely to remain close as long as the United States believes that its national interests are better met by the familiar Saudi ruling family and the domestic security they guarantee than a more democratic polity.
Yamani then turned to oil, the second pillar of support for the al-Saud. Yamani noted that world oil prices are at their highest levels ever and that this has translated into a substantial windfall. She said that Saudi oil revenues help the regime to buy off and shore up control over Wahhabi clerics in the country, who have become “more addicted than ever to oil.” King Abdullah uses the revenues from the latest oil boom to create more jobs and to slowly diversify the economy. However, despite significant revenues pouring into the state coffers, public services like education, health care, sewage systems, and water distribution have not improved for many inhabitants of the country.
Yamani then discussed how Saudi Arabian government uses religion as a legitimating tool. Yamani said that the Saudi regime exploits its control over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The rulers thus insist that the kingdom’s “Islamic duties” necessitate a particularly slow pace of reform that does not offend religious sensibilities. To further bolster its legitimacy the regime relies on an alliance with fundamentalist Wahhabi clerics, whose very beliefs, she argued, are anathema to democracy. The Wahhabis for their part maintain that the political rulers of the kingdom are owed unquestioning political obedience. They reserve infallibility for themselves when it comes to the interpretation of Islam.
Yamani noted that the royal family suffers from internal power struggles between those who are more open to economic, political, and social reform and those who are more conservative and wedded to the status quo. In addition, she said that despite their best efforts to present Saudi Arabia as culturally and socially homogenous, it is home to a wide variety of faiths, sects, and tribes, and this heterogeneity contributes to domestic pressures for reform. She suggested that while the United States could not, and should not, impose a new political order from the outside, it is in U.S. long-term interests to recognize the heterogeneity of Saudi Arabian society and to identify domestic actors who could articulate and organize a more solid foundation for the government. She said that U.S. support could give rise to a stronger domestic civil society that could work toward a government rooted in popular sovereignty.
Following Yamani’s presentation, the discussion focused on three core issues: the divisions within the Saudi royal family and their ramifications; the U.S.-Saudi relationship and the best ways for the United States to support reform; and the contours and significance of the Saudi Arabian-Iranian relationship.
Yamani said that the members of the Saudi royal family hold disparate views on a full range of subjects regarding the state’s future. At the heart of their differences lies the issue of diversity—some within the royal family recognize that the country is home to a diverse sects and tribes, others insist on limiting the boundaries of Saudi identity more narrowly and insisting on conformity. King Abdullah is a member of the former camp and has made some attempts at promoting national integration with such projects as the National Dialogues. In the other camp are personalities like Prince Nayef and Prince Salman, she said, who are tacit and sometimes explicit supporters of the more conservative elements in Saudi society like the mutawwa (religious police).
Yamani argued that the United States needs a clearer understanding of the possibilities for Saudi Arabia to implement policies that would encourage the blossoming of a more open and dynamic society. She said that the United States could and should encourage King Abdullah to continue his current policy of “decompression,” pressure the Saudi government to exert more control over Wahhabi clerics, and encourage further reform of the succession process to ensure a more transparent vehicle for choosing the next monarch. Yamani noted that the Saudi Arabian authorities are sensitive to international criticisms of the country’s human rights record. She recommended that the United States sustain its criticism of Saudi Arabia in this respect, otherwise it risks providing cover for state repression. She said that the United States should also work to identify and then support those within the state currently calling for reform, including reformist members of the ruling family.
Yamani argued that Iran represents the most significant external threat faced by Saudi Arabia. She said that ideologically Iran could be considered by some the guardian of the Arab cause given its support for Hamas and Hizballah. She cited the invitation extended to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to be King Abdallah’s special guest at the annual Hajj pilgrimage as evidence of the significance the Saudis give their relationship with the Islamic republic, but did not view this visit as signaling true rapprochement as much as a careful, arms-length embrace of a dangerous neighbor.