By Ali Alyami
February 21, 2014
President Obama is in a superior position than he was in 2009 to engage the Saudis in serious discussions about international issues.
The Saudi rulers lost America’s unconditional steadfastness to do their bidding throughout Arab and Muslim countries. When President Obama met Saudi King Abdullah in April 2009, three months after his inauguration as President of the United States, he was overwhelmed by the presidency itself. The US economy was on the verge of collapsing and America was involved in two mismanaged and draining wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Americans, their national security and interests at home and abroad were and remain the targets of Muslim terrorist groups who were, and still are, gaining the upper hand in the so-called “War on Terrorism,” a phrase the President and his advisors considered. Faced with these formidable challenges, President Obama needed all the help he could muster.
Given their economic and religious influence regionally and globally and their country’s financing of extremists and terrorists worldwide, the Saudi oligarchs were in a position to help or hurt the inexperienced President of the United States, a country committed to the defence of Saudi Arabia and its ruling family.
However, positions of strength have been reversed since President Obama bowed to King Abdullah in 2009. Today, the Saudis are more vulnerable than in 2009. The Saudi rulers now are more isolated than ever and their influence is dwindling on all fronts. This is due to domestic, regional and global events the Saudis ignored or failed to thwart such as their failed opposition to the raging “Arab Spring.”
Domestically, the Saudi people are challenging their rulers to implement political, social and economic reforms
For example, Saudi women are demanding the removal of the male-guardian system (modern slavery), defying the no drive prohibition and are publically defying stifling religious restrictions. Saudi pro-democracy and human rights activists are promoting real political reforms, including a constitutional monarchy, free elections and development of independent civil society, thus far banned in Saudi Arabia. Even the core partner of the ruling family, the insolent religious establishment, is questioning the monarchy’s religious legitimacy to rule. Regionally, the assumed invulnerability of the Saudi ruling family was thrown into doubt by the unpredicted “Arab Spring,” which shook the foundations of and threatens the remaining Arab autocracies.
The Saudi position has been further weakened by other events in the region. The Saudi rulers lost America’s unconditional steadfastness to do their bidding throughout Arab and Muslim countries. For example, the Obama Administration rebuffed the Saudi rulers’ demand to topple the Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad militarily and to invade Iran, the Saudis’ stated archenemy in the Middle East.
Failing in their attempt to bully America, the Saudis went shopping, frantically, to find powerful replacement allies, but did not succeed in persuading anyone to support their policies. The Russians, the Europeans and even the Arab League rejected the Saudi overtures, especially in regard to Syria. These realities reveal the Saudi monarchy’s artificial influence and showed that even America’s enemies and competitors are not willing to risk their long-term interest with the US in favor of appeasing the Saudis.
As President Obama meets with the Saudi rulers in March 2014, he will be in a superior position than he was when he met with King Abdullah in London in 2009. This time, the US economic recovery andenergy dependence are improving significantly. America’s friends and foes realized not too many global political, economic or military conflicts could be solved without direct US involvement, approval and or leadership as exemplified by the bloody civil and religious war in Syria.
Culturally, the Saudis always pretended that they are invincible and resistant to foreign interference in their affairs even when facts contradict their claims. As soon as the media confirmed a planned “fence-mending” visit to Saudi Arabia by President Obama in March 2014, King Abdullah immediately ratified a severely criticized law ostensibly intended to deter and punish terrorists.
While this is the Saudi rulers’ stated claim, Saudi reformers and human rights activists described it as a catastrophe. “The law states that any act that ‘undermines’ the state or society, including calls for regime change in Saudi Arabia, can be tried as an act of terrorism. It says that any Saudis and non-Saudis, both in the kingdom and abroad, can be tried under the new law for assisting in such acts. Police can also raid homes and offices without prior approval.”
This law reaffirms a decree issued by King Abdullah in 2011 which “…prohibits anything that violates the ‘reputation, dignity, or the slander or libel’ of the chief mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or any other government official or government institution, and publishing proceedings from investigations or court trials without official consent. These restrictions extend to online expression.”
The law the absolute Saudi monarch decided to enact on the eve of a visit by the President of the United States, the world’s most powerful democratic country and thus far the most committed defender of the Saudi state and its monarchy, is not only an insult to President Obama, but poses a threat to freedom of expression. This so-called anti-terrorist law criminalizes all forms of political, religious and anti-oppression expression by anyone including American citizens. This draconian law empowers King Abdullah’s nephew, Interior Minister Mohammed Bin Naif to decide arbitrarily (rather than via a normal judicial process) who is a terrorist, what kind of punishment and the length of prison sentences accused individuals and groups should receive.
A Weakened Saudi Position
This is not the first time the Saudi ruling princes have committed a contemptuous action on the eve of a high-ranking American official’s visit to their kingdom. On the eve of a visit by former Secretary of State General Colin Powell in 2004, Crown Prince Abdullah, who was the caretaker of the Saudi state’s affairs at that time (he became king in 2005), and his Interior Minister, the late Prince Naif, rounded up Saudi pro-democracy reformers and threw them in prisons. Saudi decisions to carry out provocative actions on the eve of visits by representatives of the world’s leading democracy and the regime’s staunch defenders are intended to silence critics who accuse the Saudi ruling family of a life-long dependence on the US for its protection from foreign and domestic threats.
Although President Obama was pursuing a conciliatory approach to the Saudis and Arabs in general in 2009, his inexperience, domestic and global afflictions and his lack of appreciation for the extent of America’s global political, economic and military might caused him to be over-humbled in his first official meeting with King Abdullah. However, due to transformative domestic and global events since 2009, President Obama will find the Saudis eager to bow to him, given their significantly weakened positions and unprecedented isolation. This is what the Saudis seem to be doing to appease President Obama.
Obama’s Position Is Strengthened
By contrast, President Obama’s position has considerably improved, mostly due to two major factors: One is the improved US economy upon which the world’s economies depend and the second is the world’s realization that there is no substitute for America’s economic, military and idealistic leadership.
Given this setting, President Obama is in a superior position than he was in 2009 to engage the Saudis in serious discussions about issues that affect the interests of the US and the international community. As a committed military defender of Saudi Arabia, America’s President is charged with the task of potentially sending American troops to protect a government whose policies and practices pose a threat to American national security and democratic intuitions.
President Obama is in a position to make it clear to the Saudis that their continued support for Muslim extremists, the spread of intolerant ideology, the oppression of women and religious minorities, the imprisonment of peaceful pro-democracy activists and the lack of religious freedom for all faiths in Saudi Arabia are not acceptable to the US and to the international community.
Will President Obama have the vision, courage and commitment to challenge the Saudis to embark upon transformational democratic reforms as demanded by an increasingly restless new generation of Saudi men and women and by the 21st century’s economic, political, religious and technological exigencies?
Or will he continue to embrace an undemocratic and unpopular monarchy that has become a liability to the US due to its anti-democratic policies and destabilizing interference in many Arab and Muslim countries for which the US has to pay the price?
Dr. Ali Alyami is the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, in Washington, DC. CDHR focuses on promoting peaceful and incremental democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, including empowerment of women, religious freedom, free flow of information, free movement, free press, privatization of government industries, free elections, non-sectarian constitution, and codified rule of law, transparency and accountability. Read other articles by Ali.