Saturday, February 12, 2005

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So how are things in Saudi Arabia?

The Chicago Tribune has two stories on developments within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today -- kind of a good news/bad news deal.

The bad news is that those provincial elections didn't turn out like Saudi reformers had hoped. Evan Osnos explains:

In a blow to reformers in Saudi Arabia, candidates backed by Islamic clerics appear to have won a key region in the country's first nationwide election.

Preliminary tallies Friday for the capital city of Riyadh showed that at least five of the seven winning candidates in Thursday's municipal elections have close ties to Saudi Arabia's clerical establishment. Though the results apply only to a municipal race for the capital, they had been widely anticipated here and in Washington as a rare referendum on reform efforts in one of the world's most traditional absolute monarchies.

The Islamists' victory in the political heart of the country could be a setback for reform-minded Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto Saudi ruler, who had gambled that elections could loosen hard-line clerics' grip on the government. Abdullah has clashed with more conservative royals who do not support his reforms and who had watered down his balloting plan by barring women from the election and setting aside half the seats to be appointed by the ruling family....

Moderate candidates say they are worried that a victory by the religious establishment might undermine Saudi Arabia's halting reform efforts, including expanding women's rights, strengthening the rule of law and revamping the educational system.

"We have enough religious power in our country, and they will increase it even more. The result is not promising," said al-Homeidi, a professor of public administration at King Saud University. "I am concerned about the future. Once they get into the level of municipality, then I'm sure they will get more power and will get into the higher levels [of government]."

Read the whole thing -- it's not clear how much of a setback this is, given that it was only one region, and a conservative one at that (though I'd love a Saudi expert to identify a liberal region in the country). Of course, the decision to exclude women from the vote probably didn't help the moderates much.

One other nitpick at this report is the history it provides of Islamist movements:

The success of Islamist political parties has roots that date to political events a generation ago. Political analysts point to the devastating Arab loss to Israel in the 1967 war and the death of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had advocated a secular pan-Arabism.

In the ashes of that secular vision stirred a revival of religion as the possible salvation of the Arab world, and that spirit gathered strength after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Islamist parties, which call for a greater role for Islam in the affairs of state, tend to have more unified messages and stronger organizations, while moderate candidates often spread votes across an array of agendas.

I'll be happy to be corrected on this, but if memory serves that's not quite accuate. It's true that the Six Day War was a triggering event for the rise of Islamist parties -- but the motivation was different. Secular Arab regimes were afraid of the growing political power of leftist/communist parties in their countries. As a result, they permitted the rise of Islamist parties to offer a counterweight.

On the good news side of the ledger, Christine Spolar reports that the Saudi regime is reaching out on the war on terror:

Saudi officials this week reached across borders and bureaucracies to underscore domestic efforts in pursuing terrorist networks and to refocus the nation's role in global discussions on combating terrorism.

For the first time since Al Qaeda surfaced, the Saudis publicly sought to trade and share technical information about counterterrorism operations with professional delegations from more than 50 nations.

The international anti-terrorism conference, a first for the Arab Peninsula, was deemed remarkable by several participants if only for the fact that the Saudis, once defensive about extremist elements within their borders, openly acknowledged that they needed counsel for their own "war on terror."

The four-day conference drew diplomats and intelligence professionals from the United States, France, Germany, Belgium, Pakistan, Turkey and other countries.

It produced a single resolution: that the creation of a global counterterrorism center should be explored. But participants in closed workshops that focused on the origins, financial underpinnings and criminal elements of terrorism said there was additional value in dialogue and building personal contacts.

"Two years ago, the Saudis wouldn't even admit the problem was in their back yard," said a European intelligence official who requested anonymity. "There is a shift in approach. They are being more open in their exchanges."

The internal steps to combat radicals is particularly interesting:

The Saudi remarks appear to be confirmed in a recent assessment by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, an independent research group in Washington.

During the first half of 2004, the kingdom fired 44 Friday preachers, 160 imams and 149 prayer callers for incompetence, according to a report released in January. Nearly 1,400 religious officials were suspended and ordered to undergo retraining, the report said.

The Saudis also have begun grass-roots campaigns aimed at promoting stability. Web sites have been created to seek discourse and chats with a younger generation. Cell phone users in Riyadh now are peppered with text messages that reject terrorism. The week of the conference, even the family of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden sought a public moral high ground.

"We strongly condemn all kinds of terror," exclaimed a large newspaper ad placed by the construction company owned by the bin Laden family. The family, close to the royal family, has previously condemned Al Qaeda's activities and said it has no ties to Osama bin Laden, who was stripped of Saudi citizenship more than a decade ago.

Here's a link to the one-page summary of that CSIS report. Click here for a copy of the draft reports by Anthony H. Cordesman and Nawaf Obaid.

posted by Dan on 02.12.05 at 10:50 AM


I remain cautiously optimistic. The main thing is that Saudi Arabia is flirting with Democracy. Its citizens are also observing the ongoing developments in Iraq. There is one thing we can do to help these people: stop placing idiotic obstacles in the way of the Saudi students who wish to study here! We have far more to worry about if these young people are wallowing in the self pity and victim mindset which pervades their homeland.

posted by: David Thomson on 02.12.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

... identify a liberal region in the country

How about Jidda? It's all relative of course.

posted by: EG on 02.12.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

The Hijaz, it is said, has always been more open than the Najd.

posted by: praktike on 02.12.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

I can't say I'm too surprised. The sad thing about these elections is that the conditions the Saudi royal family stacked upon them ensured an electoral boost for the clerics. Women, of course, were excluded and the power of the new local authorities is sufficiently restricted that many men who resent the theocracy simply responded by not bothering to vote.

I hope Iraq succeeds. That's probably about the best hope now, and we've screwed up enough that we ought to admit as much and give more weight to Iraqi advice than our own prognostications when it comes to making decisions about US troop levels, US policy and US aid.

posted by: daniel on 02.12.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

“I hope Iraq succeeds.”

Huh? What are you talking about? Iraq is already a success. It's merely a question now of how much more rapidly the citizens of that country can build up their democracy. The “insurgents” are now a relatively minor irritation. What about the continuing murders? Looking at the big picture, they probably don’t total three hundred victims a week---and Iraq has an overall population of some 25 million people!

posted by: David Thomson on 02.12.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

Happy to correct, Dan: Actually, you are both right - there are numerous examples of both phenomena. That is, as you argue, there are examples where the shift to Islamism was due to rulers using the Islamists as a bulwark against Communists and anti-regime Leftists. Two clear examples are Egypt under Anwar Sadat and Morocco under Hassan. And it wasn't just as a bulwark against the Left; Saddam Hussein did it during the 1990s to shore up his regime.

But there are examples that back up the writer you are disagreeing with here. Let me quote the example of Tareg al-Bashiri, a prominent Egyptian Islamist, (this quote comes from "The Islamist Movement in North Africa" by Francois Burgat, page 51, ch. 3, "From Natinalism to Islamism"):

"In the beginning, I belonged for my part to the first of these tendencies [secularist]. The idea of political and economic independence dominated until the defeat of 1967. It (the defeat) has had an importance that has remained considerable until our time. It is what forced us to reconsider all the foundations of our system of thought, all our presuppositions..." And so he became an Islamist.

To this I would add that it was more the generalized failure of Nasserism/Socialist Arabism on all fronts rather than just the 1967 war that led to a reconsideration. In economic failures of Arab statism has been huge; e.g. the wreck that Tunisia made of its economy and agricultal system during the 1960s had a shattering effect. And for others it was a conversion from Arabism to Islamism based on a consciousness the state had turned against their relgion and culture. The book I quote above has an example of this in the same chapter from Rashid Al-Ghannushi, later leader of Tunisia's Al-Nahda (his conversion was in 1966, before the war).

So you are both right in different cases, but it was more than just the defeat in 1967.

Kirk H. Sowell

posted by: Kirk H. Sowell on 02.12.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

To add a bit to the perspectives given in the main post, you may want to read an article that I have translated from a pro-Islamist Arab newspaper. The main post focuses on the moderates and the pro-regime clerics, but there is another group saying the Saudis themselves aren't Islamic enough. This article quotes from an alleged supporter of Osama bin Laden who leads a Saudi dissident movement. See this link.

posted by: Kirk H. Sowell on 02.12.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

Having lived and worked on and off in KSA for nearly twenty years I'll name you a liberal (and greater repressed liberal) area of Saudi Arabia - the Eastern Province. It has the largest expat (US, European, Indian, Other Arabs) population in the kingdom, for two generations has conducted business alongside western management and has now very successfully adopted, and proactively pursues, western management techniques throughout the governments "Saudi-ization" program. Depending on the company anywhere from 20 to over 50% of the management either holds degrees from western universities or has done multi-year assignements living and working in modern western cultures. And it's no longer the management - promising individuals in Saudi companies have a career path planned for them that includes undergraduate, graduate and work assignments in western countries consciously designed to broaden business experiences and open their minds to both value and accept the opinions of subordinates (not a Arab cultural dictum) and to make them comfortable speaking to and working in organizations employing women. With the modern Arab world of Bahrain only 35 minutes to an hour away by car, the day to day restrictions are easily pushed away for those who want to breathe easier for a day or two.

Using Riyadh as a bell-weather test for democratic progress in Saudi Arabia is like using Little Rock , Arkansas in 1957 to test public opinion for support of integration. I know and have worked with devote Saudi Muslims in the East who dread and refuse to reside in, work in or even travel to Riyadh. The mutawah and the clerics have a pyschological lock on the people as a whole and maintain their position via mentally fierce and sometime physically violent presense that restrains by fear as well as any forties era facist.

Sorry, I'm not familiar with Osnos' work; he may be a good reporter of fact. But his lack of presenting balance and awareness of Riyadh viz the rest of Saudi culture shows he's no analyst and knows squat about that society. Or worse - he does know the reality of today's Saudi Arabia and has restrained balance for sensationalism.

posted by: Jon on 02.12.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

Hey Kirk! Nice seeing you on this side of the internet.

The article says that this is a setback to the "reform-mindeD" Prince Abdullah, given that the majority of those being elected are closely tied to the clerics. But since half of the seats are being appointed by the Saudi family, couldn't they appoint the reform minded? Is this a possiblity?

posted by: Robert Mayer on 02.12.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

The question of whether the Islamists were 'allowed' to develop by Arab nationalist governments or whether their increasing popularity was due to the failure of those very nationalists to extirpate Israel is an interesting one. It gets right to the heart of a theoretical debate as to whether institutions or ideologies are more the key factor in politics, and to the relative importance of issues of identity (religious,ethnic) in the success or failure of political mobilization.

What is true is the Sayyid Qutb, who after Hassan al Banna is the most important Islamicist theorist, was developing anti-American and anti-Western feelings in the late forties and the fifties, and America support for Zionism was one of his explicitly stated reasons. (Among many others, such as the sexual liberation and equality between men and women --in the 1950's! -- that he saw as an exchange student. Qutb is the single best argument against the whole 'Let's educate the world' crowd)

Could Arab nationalists crushed the Muslim brotherhood and other Islamicist organizations influenced by Qutb? One answer is that they have tried, quite frankly. But the ideas of the Islamicists seem to have wide and deep appeal, and there is a limit to what repression can accomplish.

On a trollish tangent -- can't we all just be grown-ups and admit that (1)American support for Israel, and indeed Israel's existence itself, pisses off a lot of Arabs and Muslims in general and (2) that this is not some irrational hatred but an understandable response to the establishment of an ethnocracy where Arabs and Muslims will always be second class citizens on land that was formerly controled by Muslims. Once we admit these things, we can begin to discuss rational policy alternatives, or at least be aware of the consequences of our policy in the Levant.

posted by: stari_momak on 02.12.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

Response to Stari's comments:
(1) It is true that Arab anti-Americanism was based pre-1967 on the perception that the U.S. was supporting Israel, but the perception was inaccurate. The U.S. refused to even sell, much less give, Israel weapons in the 1950s, and intervened on Egypt's behalf against Israel (and Britain and France) in 1956. The US-Israeli alliance started rolling under Kennedy, but didn't really have tangible reality until 1967. (There was a lot of support from certain U.S. citizens previously, but it wasn't supported by the govt.)

(2) I agree that Arab and Muslim hostility to Israel is not entirely irrational and has been fanned by Israel's settlement building activities, which I have critized in print. That said:
(a) Arab countries have shot themselves in the foot time and time again over the last 80 years, whenever a reasonable offer has been made, it has been rejected out of hand, usually with terroristic violence, with very few Arabs willing to compromise.
(b) The suffering of the Palestinian people, which has been great, is not simply the "collateral damage" caused by Israel's creation but has been intentionally perpetuated and exacerbated by Arab governments and Islamists for political purposes. No Arab country other than Jordan has even attempted to help, and Syria and Hamas have deliberately attempted to prevent a peaceful settlement. Arabists and Islamists need Palestinian refugees to be out there suffering for the world to see.
(c) Until the Muslim world accepts Israel as an independent Jewish state there can be no peace. The traditional dominance of Muslims over non-Muslims which Islamic Law requires is not acceptable today, and the "ethnocracy," with Israeli Arabs free to move to an independent Palestinian state, is the only genuine alternative. Although some have advocated a Western-style biethnic state in Israel, the reality is that Muslims will attempt to subjugate Jews in Palestine, just as everywhere else in the Arab world. The degree of anti-Semitism in the Arab world today is comprable or worse than Germany in the 1930s. The Arab media consistently refers to terrorists who kill Israeli children as "martyers."

With the above points in mind, the U.S. cannot sacrifice Israel's security in order to placate Islamists and others which seek to bring about a second holocaust. We must seek the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but we should not expect this to solve the problem of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, which has other causes (which I haven't discussed here to avoid getting too far off topic). To the extent that preventing a second holocaust puts American lives at risk, either here or abroad, so be it. We cannot stand by and do nothing again.

posted by: Kirk H. Sowell on 02.12.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

"..and indeed Israel's existence itself, pisses off a lot of Arabs and Muslims in general.."
followed by-
"Once we admit these things, we can begin to discuss rational policy alternatives, or at least be aware of the consequences of our policy in the Levant."

O.K, I'm listening. What is a 'rational policy alternative' to 'Israel's existence itself'?

Are you saying that Israel should cease to exist?

posted by: Les Nessman on 02.12.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

“Are you saying that Israel should cease to exist?”

I think you are starting to understand this individual. Their e-mail address indicates that they reside in the UK. However, this is also the view of a high number of Democrats within the United States. The Howard Dean people are particularly hostile toward Israel. But isn’t his wife Jewish? Yes, but self hatred has perhaps become the norm for America’s left of center Jews.

posted by: David Thomson on 02.12.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

David -- I don't think you can possibly call Iraq's current insurgency a "minor irritation" unless you're smoking something very strong. Your hubris reminds me of the president's Mission Accomplished banner in May 2003.

Iraq is under the triple pressure of a litany of US mistakes (and in the case of Abu Ghraib, crimes) in the occupation, the insurgency with its many atrocities and crimes, and what are no doubt sky high Iranian expectations for a strong return on the hundreds of millions of dollars Tehran has plowed into Islamic religious parties, groups, media and so on. That's a lot of baggage for any country to carry, especially one that's starting out with democracy after 40 years of Ba'athist kill, divide and conquer governance.

The response of Shiite, Kurd, and (thankfully) Sunni leaders to the election is very encouraging. But success, defined as a functioning democracy in a free society, is by no means to be taken for granted and those who take it for granted are belittling and jeopardizing the process.

posted by: daniel on 02.12.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

“David -- I don't think you can possibly call Iraq's current insurgency a "minor irritation" unless you're smoking something very strong. Your hubris reminds me of the president's Mission Accomplished banner in May 2003.”

What world do you live on? You definitely need to study some history. Are you aware of the death totals during our own civil war? The terrorists in Iraq are now killing no more than 150 people a week. That works out to some 7,8000 annually. Iraq’s population totals around 25 million people. What is the murder rate in Chicago for 2004?

“The hard work appears to have paid off, the paper said. As of Tuesday, 418 killings had been reported, while the city appeared set to close out the year with fewer than 500 murders for the first time in 40 years.”

No, it is indeed very accurate for me to describe the “insurgency” as a minor irritation. The facts are on my side. It’s not my problem that there are a lot of silly “elite” intellectuals who are unable to think and follow a logical argument. Did they obtain their advanced degrees from a diploma mill? Iraq is now a success story. This is the reality---and the Bush administration along with Democrats such as Joseph Liebermann deserve to take a bow.

posted by: David Thomson on 02.12.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

To David -- I do indeed reside in the UK, although I am a native-born American, retain my US citizenship, and served in the US Navy, including in country in the 'hottest' thing during my active duty time, Bosnia (nothing compared to Iraq, of course). I am neither Jewish nor a Democrat. I was a Republican and voted for George Bush in 2000, Bob Dole in 1996 etc.

If I have less than kind feelings toward Israel it is because of its interference in the affairs of the United States, just as I am hostile to Mexico and the Vicente Fox regime for interfering with our immigration policies. At home I am not wildly fond of Cuban immigrants and progeny who have held our policy toward that island hostage for 4 decades now.

To Les Nesman -- Kirk Sowell has done a pretty good job outlining a rational policy. He has done it honestly, admitting that Israel is an ethnocracy -- I would make explicit the argument that this ethnocracy is of a type that is not normally tolerated by Western liberals, libertarians and neoconservatives. He recognises that US policy could be risking US lives and that that is worth it to 'prevent a second Holocaust'. Well, I don't think the second Holocaust is even a remote possibility, in that Israel has an atomic bomb. But I am glad to see actual risks, costs and benefits being discussed candidly.

posted by: stari_momak on 02.12.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

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