Instability, violence, and radicalism dominate Middle Eastern politics of today. In Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine a combination of the continued failure of state institutions, the rise of radical forces, and foreign interventions have brought these societies to the brink of civil war. In contrast, domestic conditions in Saudi Arabia seem stable. Radical Islamist violence has been going back in the past few years, the economy has recovered from the stagnation of the 1990s, and King Abdullah is considered to be one of the most popular kings the country has ever had. Yet, Saudi Arabia remains a clear case of authoritarian stability and therefore represents a serious challenge to the declared objective of the United States to promote democratic transition and human rights in the Middle East.
Saudi Political Dynamism in Recent Years
Recent years has witnessed a degree of political dynamism in Saudi Arabia. Since 2002, the government has pursued different reform policies. Most relevant measures have been the reform of the consultative Shura Council, the holding of municipal elections, the legalization of civil society actors, the implementation of educational reform plans, and the institutionalization of the national dialogue conferences. Although these measures appear less significant when compared to political developments in other Arab countries such as Morocco and Yemen, they constitute elements of a meaningful opening in Saudi authoritarian politics.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Saudi Arabia represented a clear case of authoritarian consolidation. The royal family, Al Saud, used high oil revenues to boost its control and expand existing networks of patrimonial allegiance across the country. The state apparatus swelled and with it the role of the security forces and the Wahhabi religious establishment grew dominant. The authoritarian grip over society was tightened. A degree of pluralism rooted in the tribal structures of the Saudi society and in the benevolent rule of the first kings was replaced by an emerging repressive state and an intolerant fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology.
However, this political scene began to change slightly in the 1990s. The Gulf War 1991 impacted negatively on the Saudi economy and diminished to an extent the religious legitimacy of the royal family due to the presence of American troops. Rising unemployment and poverty rates led liberal intellectuals and religious scholars alike to demand substantial political and economic reforms. Most significantly, a Memorandum of Advice was addressed to late King Fahd in 1991, in which almost fifty signatories called on him to create legislative councils, enact anticorruption measures, and promote an equal distribution of the country’s resources among citizens. After harsh reactions by the security forces against the signatories, the king announced in 1992 the establishment of an appointed national consultative council, the Shura Council, and detailed a plan to appoint municipal councils in all provinces of the kingdom. However, neither the Shura Council nor the municipal councils were endowed with legislative or oversight powers. In the second half of the 1990s, other minor reform measures, primarily administrative, were implemented to quiet down growing popular dissatisfaction.
The authoritarian grip of the royal family did not loosen. Indeed, by the end of the last decade the government, faced with the rise of violent jihadist groups, resorted to outright repressive instruments and systematic human rights abuses in dealing with dissenting views in general and leaned heavily on the religious establishment to generate legitimacy among the population. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 exposed the Saudi society to the catastrophic outcomes of its authoritarian lethargy. Of course, the most immediate impact of the 9/11 attacks was to subject the royal family to increasing international pressures to introduce significant reforms aimed at combating terrorism and extremism. But, domestic calls for reform were also suddenly better heard. In recent years, these two factors—international and domestic reform demands—have injected new elements of dynamism and opening into Saudi Arabia’s political reality.
The Shura Council has undergone two meaningful transformations. First, the council’s competences have been expanded. In December 2003, King Fahd announced that the council would be empowered to play a more active role. Yet, it was only in 2005 that several amendments were enacted. Most significantly, article 17 of the council’s regulatory provisions was changed to allow the council to raise its decisions directly to the king, instead of the cabinet, ensuring in this way an improved degree of responsiveness on the side of the executive. Also, article 23 was amended to give council members more autonomy in proposing, discussing, and enacting new internal regulations. But, the popular expectations—specifically among liberal reformists—that the amendments might provide for partial elections of the council’s members and endow it with some oversight powers, did not materialize. Second, the council’s role has grown more politicized due to the diversification of its membership and agenda. In addition, since 2003, the president of the council—while making it clear that full membership for women is not on the council’s agenda—has frequently extended invitations to female scholars and activists to attend open sessions and to consult members on social issues relevant to women.
In 2005, and in direct response to domestic reform demands, the Saudi government decided to hold partial elections for the country’s 178 municipal councils. The elections took place in three stages over the period of three months, from February to April 2005 and were highly contested. In Riyadh, for example, 646 candidates competed over 7 municipal seats. The voter turnout ranged between 25 and 35 percent of eligible voters. Moderate Islamists, both in Sunni as well as in Shiite dominated provinces, emerged as winners in most races. Women were excluded as voters and candidates. In spite of all their limitations, the municipal elections have served two important purposes with regard to the process of political opening in Saudi Arabia. First, they have set a precedent for opening up existing consultative bodies for pluralist contestation. Second, the elections have garnered great attention among the Saudi population and in so far helped to better place reform debates in the public space.
Over the past two years, the Saudi government has approved the establishment of two human rights organizations, institutionalized professional syndicates, and permitted the participation of women as voters and candidates in board elections of some of them. This has indicated a greater readiness on the part of the government to expand civil society and create modern mechanism for interest representation in society. The legalization of different non-governmental organizations has created new spaces for citizens’ participation. The government’s measures in this regard—modest in absolute terms but bold when compared to steps taken in other areas—have also highlighted the fact that the reform process in Saudi Arabia is bound to be uneven. Women acquired the right to vote and candidate for syndicates’ board elections, only to be completely excluded from the municipal elections.
In June 2003, the government announced an initiative to host national dialogue conferences to discuss needed reforms and promote freedom of expression. A series of meetings was subsequently launched and invitations were extended to male and female university professors, intellectuals, and activists. Representatives of the Shiite minority and liberal reformists participated in the meetings alongside Wahhabi clerics and government officials.
The Role of the United States
Reforms implemented by the Saudi government over the past years have revitalized existing consultative councils and introduced the mechanism of elections at the municipal level. New spaces for citizens’ participation in civil society have emerged and the margin of freedom in the public space has expanded significantly.
However, this opening in Saudi politics has not altered the authoritarian nature of the political system fundamentally. The royal family and the Wahabi religious establishment have sustained their domineering positions in society. Their ability to block reforms, bring them to a standstill, even to reverse them in case of changing conditions has not diminished substantially. In the absence of competing power centers, the reform process has remained inherently vulnerable and limited. In spite of the expansion of the Shura Council’s competences, it has not acquired real legislative or oversight power to hold the royal family accountable. Government promises to ensure the independence of the judiciary and provide for a better respect of human rights have not materialized in more than a series of minimal administrative reforms. Although two human rights organizations were legalized, human rights violations and discriminatory treatment of specific groups of the population as well as religious intolerance have not decreased.
Within these limits and given the unchanged concentration of power in the hands of the royal family and the religious establishment, the United States faces a set of difficult challenges in promoting freedom and human rights in Saudi Arabia. The US lacks in the Saudi case the leverage of economic or military aid that can be conditioned to the implementation of further reform measures. On the contrary, the American economy depends to a great extent on Saudi oil, which has grown even more important in recent years. Promoting reform in a country like Saudi Arabia is also inherently difficult. Domestic dynamics generate but very few possibilities for a significant American role.
American pressure since 9/11 has had an impact in pushing for reforms in Saudi Arabia, but it has rather been wavering. Shocked by the high level participation of Saudi citizens in the attacks, the Bush Administration has pressed the royal family to combat terrorism and extremism. Beside cooperation in the global War on Terror, the administration has also pushed for educational reform and political opening. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, specifically in 2002 and 2003, the administration sustained an unprecedented strong rhetoric with regard to Saudi reform. Faced with the danger of losing its strategic alliance with the US and amid growing domestic demands for change, the royal family was more inclined to implement reform measures.
However, the emergence of the Iraqi turmoil has pushed the pendulum of US-Saudi relations in the opposite direction. Over the past three years, the Bush Administration has softened its stance vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and kept a low profile on Saudi domestic issues. The royal family, on its side, has resorted to scare tactics arguing that uncalculated reforms would undermine its authority and eventually lead to a jihadist take-over, tactics that are used by many authoritarian rulers in the Middle East.
The United States, worried about the possibility of total destabilization in the Gulf region, has abated its pressure for reform. American security needs in Iraq and with regard to the rising regional influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran as well as dramatic increases in oil prices have also contributed to this change. Today’s bilateral relations demonstrate growing areas of convergence. The rift, which 9/11 created between the US and Saudi governments, has largely been repaired.
In its search for entry points to promote freedom and human rights in Saudi Arabia, the US is also constrained by domestic realities. While the current political opening is important, it is by no means the beginning of a Saudi democratization process. This is not a country that can be expected to legalize political parties or organize truly competitive elections in the near future. By the same token, the emergence of a powerful legislative authority or an independent judiciary is unlikely. Reforming the authoritarian polity in Saudi Arabia is bound to follow a slow path. It is an uneven process, which entails the gradual expansion of political representation and the creation of new spaces where citizens enjoy part of their civil and political freedoms. Ambivalence towards certain issues such as the mélange of religion and politics as well as the role of women in public life are integral parts of introducing reforms in a country like Saudi Arabia just as potential setbacks.
The US needs to think of reform in Saudi Arabia in a different way than in other Arab countries. It lacks leverage and is strategically constrained in its possible actions due to regional developments. Saudi domestic realities also demand great cautiousness on the American side in identifying policy preferences with regard to promoting reform.
Given these conditions, the US has two realistic entry points: First, at the government-to-government level, especially in the context of the Strategic Dialogue between the United States and Saudi Arabia that was initiated in 2005, the administration should focus on taking up the cause of Saudi groups advocating democracy, human rights, and religious tolerance. Specifically, with regard to consultative councils and civil society actors, the administration should push for more elections and for easing legal restrictions respectively. Pressing the Saudi government on these levels is likely to garner popular support due to the fact that domestic platforms have articulated similar demands.
Second, at the non-governmental level, the US should intensify its contacts with civil society actors in Saudi Arabia. This will necessitate joint efforts by the administration as well as American foundations operating in the fields of democracy promotion and human rights. The Saudi government can be pressured to lessen its authoritarian regulations with regard to the international cooperation of domestic non-governmental organizations. American foundations have long ignored Saudi Arabia. Although the current opening has induced some of these foundations to reach out to domestic counterparts, the scope of cooperation needs to be expanded. Including Saudi non-governmental organizations and professional syndicates in ongoing regional programs as well as devising country-specific measures can help developing their capacities and embolden their reform platforms by exposing them to the international democracy promotion agenda.