Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, Washington DC
April 11, 2017
Saudi/US in Trumps Era, Women’s gains, religious or men of darkness, mass executions
CDHR’s Analysis and Commentaries
Trump and US-Saudi Relations: Projections and Proposals
By Ali H. Alyami, director
CDHR Analysis: The Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (CDHR) has received numerous inquiries asking for predictions about what US/Saudi relations will look like under the Trump Administration. While it is difficult to predict what President Trump and his senior team might do, especially in the face of the constantly changing landscape in the Middle East, there are pronouncements of parallel interests and objectives suggesting that US/Saudi relations are likely to follow historical tendencies despite President Trump’s characterization of the Saudis not only as “…the world's biggest funder of terrorism,” but who use “our petro dollars to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people while the Saudis rely on us to protect them.” Interestingly, President Trump’s characterization echoes former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement about the Saudis.
However, based on historical facts, the Saudi royals know that occasional criticism by US officials are not reflective of US policy toward them since FDR declared in 1943 that “the security of Saudi Arabia is a ‘vital interest’ of the United States.” FDR’s statement was formalized in 1945 with the signing of a pact establishing the foundation of US/Saudi relations: US access to Saudi oil in exchange for US protection of the Saudi monarchy and its kingdom. This beneficial arrangement survived many critical regional political and strategic developments that have threatened the survival of the Saudi monarchy and its close ties with the US.
Prominent among these developments are intra-Arab conflicts, rise of competitive regional powers and threats from Saudi/Wahhabi-inspired extremist and terrorist groups. In the face of these threats and despite a steady decline in US dependence on Saudi oil and military bases, the US commitment to defend Saudi Arabia and its oligarchy remains the same as FDR stated in 1943. With the exception of threatening to invade Saudi Arabia to protect American interests during the 1973 Saudi-led oil embargo (a threat the Saudis laughed at), consecutive US Administrations provided unconditional defense of Saudi Arabia even after the September 2001 (9/11) terrorist attack on the US by mostly Saudi nationals, an event that exposed the true nature of the Saudi ideological system and the mortal threats it poses to the American way of life.
That tragic event marked an irreversible turning point in US/Saudi relations. It changed the way the American people live their lives and turned American public opinion against Saudi Arabia and thus compelled Americans of all stripes (with the exception of lucratively paid lobbyists) to reconsider close US ties to and unconditional support for the Saudi monarchy.
Notwithstanding such historical jolts to US/Saudi relations and despite the Saudis’ role in the spread and financing of extremism and terrorism, the Trump Administration is showing signs that it’s not only going to protect the Saudi monarchy, but will reaffirm its declining influence, which was tarnished during the Bush and Obama Administrations. Reaffirming the Saudis’ diminishing influence may well undermine President Trump’s stated intention to eradicate Islamic extremism, given the Saudis’ centuries’ old reliance on religious zealotry to maintain control at home and spread their influence abroad.
Early signs of President Trump’s intended policy toward the Saudi regime were revealed by a phone call the President made to King Salman shortly after his inauguration. During the phone conversation, the two men were reported to share “identical views…on the fight against terrorism” and the creation of “safe zones” for displaced Syrians and Yemenis, albeit for different policy objectives. While President Trump’s goal is to keep refugees out of the US, the Saudi rulers’ objective is to control swathes of strategic Syrian and Yemeni lands and populations on whom they can impose their Wahhabi doctrine.
In response to President Trump’s early gesture of embracing the Saudis, the Saudi rulers responded by dispatching the King’s powerful son, Defense Minister and economic reform overseer, Prince Mohammed, to the US. Prince Mohammed was well-prepared and authorized to offer Saudi support for President Trump’s travel ban on some Muslims and for the President’s domestic fiscal plans. More importantly, Prince Mohammed is said to have presented President Trump with a detailed economic, defense and strategic blueprint whereby investments in each other’s economy will provide American companies with profitable opportunities in the Saudis’ economic reform plan, Vision 2030. As appealing as business opportunities sound, especially at this juncture of severe global economic competition, signing onto long term economic agreements with the Saudi regime will oblige the US to defend Saudi Arabia and its oligarchy for years to come, reminiscent of the 1945 US/Saudi pact.
While one of President Trump’s major presidential campaign commitments is to advance American economic interests (“America first”), his other major theme is to defeat “Islamic terrorism.” Saudi Arabia is a country where these two goals intersect and compete. Can these two formidable challenges be reconciled by President Trump, who vowed to re-invent the US economy and keep America safe from Islamic terrorism? While this undertaking is likely to be the key to President Trump’s success, it might prove to be his spikiest foreign policy dilemma. Nevertheless, the following approaches can go a long way in creating an environment where defeating extremism (without which terrorism cannot survive) and providing tangible economic benefits can be achieved:
1-Make it clear to the Saudi religious and political old guard that Saudi Arabia will not be exempt from the US war on Islamic extremism and terrorism. The Saudis are very pragmatic; they will heed this warning if they know that the Trump Administration is not bluffing.
2-Support Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, overseer of the ambitious Saudi economic reform plan (Vision 2030), if he proves to be serious about breaking away from his family’s habitual deception and manipulation of their people and the international community, especially the US. One way the Administration can do this is to help Prince Mohammed create a political cadre of non-sectarian technocrats and progressive royals (men and women) to be the decision-makers, not proxies for extremists and traditionalists, like King Salman and his anti-modernity and anti-human development generation.
3-Support Prince Mohammed’s economic reform plan (Vision 2030), which will not only generate profitable opportunities for Saudi and American companies and peoples, but will undermine the stifling influence of the Saudi religious extremists, whose defeat will significantly contribute to the success of the economic reform project and to the defeat of Saudi extremism.
4-Anticipate and be prepared to deal with discord within the royal family over empowering young prince Mohammed and non-royal technocrats to implement massive economic reform, which many have argued cannot succeed without concomitant social and political re-arrangements of the status quo. However, the royals will heed matter-of-fact discussions that their income, survival and the defeat of extremism will depend largely on the success of Vision 2030.
5-Support freedom of opposing viewpoints regarding political, social, religious, gender and economic reforms via social, visual and print media, largely controlled by the royals and their zealot establishment. Use social media to advance social change in Saudi Arabia in order to undermine the influence of extremists and anti-modernity elements, something like “Radio Free Europe,” but using pervasive modern technology.
6-Convene an inclusive international Muslim conference to consider revisiting the 15- centuries’-old interpretation of Muslim texts. The participants should include male and female representatives of all Muslims, most importantly of reformers known for their rejection of Muslim extremism, terrorism, religious intolerance and oppression of women and religious minorities. Such an event may not result in an immediate reformation of Islam, but will create a badly needed and overdue public debate among Muslims.
7-Avoid supporting Saudi controlled “safe zones” in war-torn Muslim countries. This will only result in the production of more extremists and terrorists.
Finally, Mr. Trump, his advisors and western allies have to understand and accept that “Terrorism is the final threshold in the hierarchy of extremism. Terrorism cannot be eliminated without fighting extremism. This fact should not be neglected by those interested in it.”
Saudi Clerics: Religious or Agents of Subjugation and Backwardness?
CDHR Commentary: According to this article (Saudi clerics keep mum about concerts in the kingdom) by a well-known Saudi journalist, the Saudi Mufti and his senior clerics recently abstained from criticizing or opposing a concert organized by an enlightened Princess, Adila Bint Abdullah (daughter of late King Abdullah) on February 14, 2017. Normally, the clerics publicly oppose all forms of entertainment and non-religious celebrations, characterizing them as “depraved” and their advocates as despicable. However, in this case the clerics realized that musical entertainment has been initiated recently by King Salman’s powerful son, Prince Mohammed as part of his economic reform plan, “Vision 2030.”
Given this reality, it’s not surprising that the clerics acquiesced to the wishes of the royals who hire, finance and control them. However, royal wishes do not exclude the clerics’ ruthless treatment of the Saudi population, especially women and promoters (male and female) of free expression and personal choice. The clerics’ ongoing assignment is to render the population fearful of authority and to enforce total obedience to the king and his family. This is the power bestowed on them by the Saudi ruling clan since the start of the Saudi/Wahhabi alliance in 1744. Now more than ever, the clerics have a staunch ally, King Salman, who shares their Salafist way of thinking regarding how the country should be ruled.
Political decision-making processes reside exclusively in the hands of the Saudi royals; therefore, significant religious de-radicalization and meaningful political, social and economic reforms are unlikely to occur peacefully without active initiatives by influential and pragmatic members of the ruling family, like Prince Talal and Princesses Adila Bint Abdullah, Basmah Bint Saud and Loulwa Al-Faisal, as well as other members of the family who do not share their forefathers’ myopic, exclusive and reactionary way of thinking. This will require rearrangement of the palace deck chairs, including defying the established order or a palace coup. To save themselves and prevent the country from sliding into violent upheaval, like-minded pro-reform royals should form a faction to push for real change that will give the Saudi people (all citizens) hope for a better future.
Substantial political, economic, social and religious transformative measures are overdue for the sake of the country and all of its citizens, including royals.
Saudi Women’s Struggle Begins to Pay Off
CDHR Commentary: Never mind that they still have to hire poverty stricken expatriate Asians to drive them to and from their jobs because they are not allowed to drive; Saudi women’s struggle for their rights and place in society is paying off. While it’s encouraging to see a few women being hired to manage large financial institutions, the number of unemployed female university graduates, including Ph. D. holders, was estimated at 78.3% in 2012, which has not changed much, especially at the managerial levels.
Faced with an unprecedented domestic financial crisis and simmering demands for political reform, as well as regional military and strategic challenges, the Saudi rulers have to act before social unrest bursts into irreversible street confrontation, as Prince Mohammed Bin Salman bluntly stated. Regardless of the reasons that compelled the Saudi rulers and companies to promote a fraction of the millions of capable and qualified Saudi women to work at and manage prominent financial institutions, this step, while woefully overdue, is a move in the right direction, especially at a time when the country is in dire need of reducing its dependence on 10 million foreign workers and of preventing its economy from disastrous meltdown.
Many courageous Saudi women have been struggling for emancipation from the state’s institutionalized belittling policies for decades; consequently, if anyone deserves credit for the snail's pace of delayed social change regarding women in Saudi Arabia, it's not the Saudi royals as their lucratively compensated propagandists claim, but women themselves.
Ivanka Trump has an opportunity to influence her father “to do the right thing” for Saudi women, because their victory will weaken extremism and terrorism, a step toward President Trump’s campaign commitment to “destroy terrorism.”
Royals' Contempt for Economically Pinched Population
CDHR Commentary: As this article demonstrates, the Saudi royals continue to live extravagantly while the repressed Saudi people are forced into bearing the brunt of economic hardship that is distressing the country due to the drastic decline in oil prices, the costly war in Yemen, a military escapade in Bahrain and support for like-minded regimes like Sisi’s in Egypt. King Salman and his son, Prince Mohammed--the man in charge of exploring possibilities of finding other sources of income to make up for some of the radical losses in oil revenues--imposed new taxes, eliminated the state’s partially subsidized utilities and social programs upon which many Saudis rely.
The royals’ behavior at a time of economic crisis is indicative of the rulers’ contempt for their population, of which a large number is “poverty stricken” The Saudi royals’ waste of shrinking public revenues is a recipe for social strife and political instability in a society that is already seething with anger against a ruling family which suppresses and bankrupts them. The question is, how long will the US and its western allies continue to support the Saudi ruling family, praise it as an ally in the "war on terrorism" and as a stabilizing force in the Middle East while the contrary is so blatantly the case?
Rash of “Mass Executions” in the Gulf States and Jordan
CDHR Commentary: “Mass executions” arbitrary arrests and lengthy imprisonments without charges in countries like Saudi Arabia are not news, but why are other Gulf states and Jordan embracing the same barbaric practice at this time? Some Middle Eastern experts believe that the recent rash of executions carried out by the autocratic regimes of Jordan, Kuwait and the UAE, are designed to prove to the American decision-makers that these regimes are their best hope to defeat terrorism as promised by President Trump during his quest for the White House. It’s reported that the Trump Administration has designated the governments of Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait and the UAE as the bedrock of the US’s new strategy to “eradicate Islamic terrorism from the surface of the earth.”
No one disputes that Muslim terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban and Boko Haram are hooligans, but how do they differ from the regimes that commit the same savagery, such as mass executions, flogging, and denigration of women and oppression of religious minorities, especially Christians and Jews?
For decades, many Arab and Muslim human rights activists, scholars and experts have been saying that the West is fighting the wrong terrorists; it should be fighting the regimes and institutions that create, nurture and use extremists and terrorists to maintain control over their societies and blackmail the international community, especially western democracies.
Unless President Trump and his nationalist team address the root causes of extremism and terrorism, they will end up strengthening rather than defeating them.
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