In the following report we discuss a week-long trip to Riyadh and Jeddah that included our attendance at the Jeddah Economic Forum. The bulk of our meetings in Saudi Arabia were with business leaders, academics, journalists, and civic activists.
- Many Saudis welcomed the emergence of a more open atmosphere, pointing to King Abdullah’s ascension to the throne, dynamism in neighboring Gulf states, and a new “post-post-9/11” environment as key catalysts for the change. Yet, there was frustration at the unpredictability and arbitrariness of the newly expanded social and political space.
- Many liberal activists realize that they are not only more divided and disorganized than the conservative social forces they oppose, but also represent a minority view within society. Reformers recognize that the appointed members of the municipal councils and the Shura Council, as well as the King himself, are their allies in the struggle for greater reform.
- There has been some progress in legal reform, with international institutions perhaps being the most effective catalysts (Saudi Arabia’s accession to the World Trade Organization as a full member in 2005 was repeatedly cited as a major motivator of legal reforms) but many laws are yet to be codified, creating opportunities for over-zealous clerics and judges to exercise arbitrary authority.
- Macroeconomic challenges, such as unemployment and inflation, are emerging in Saudi Arabia as critical issues, given the large proportion of young people in the population.
- The next U.S. administration may have a new, but narrow, window of opportunity to reintroduce itself to Saudi Arabia. Many Saudis argued for the creation of a deeper, multi-dimensional relationship between both countries that engages society and culture, not just business and energy opportunities. The next president’s ability to take advantage of this window will be constrained by urgent issues in Iraq, Iran, and the Arab-Israeli conflict, all of which affect Saudi views of the United States.