I'll toot my own horn here and see if I can get a discussion going about Saudi Arabia...
I think that US-Saudi relations are terribly important and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Oil is one reason, of course, but it's something like third on the list of priorities.
First, I think, is the fact that 1.3 billion people look to Saudi Arabia for guidance in their evaluation of world events. Simply for pragmatic reasons, it's useful to have those people listening to a more-or-less friendly voice.
Second is also pragmatic. Ask anyone involved in military logistics about how important overflight rights in Saudi Arabia are. US political interests at present are mostly east of Saudi Arabia. To get there, you need to either overfly that country or go around it. At present, going around it is not feasible, for either political or simply geographic reasons.
Third, I think, is oil. While the US imports only 14%-17% of its oil from Saudi Arabia, it represents up to 80% for countries in Europe and the Far East. If Saudi oil goes off-line, there will be a global economic collapse, to put it bluntly.
I think there's a lot of misunderstanding about Saudi Arabia in the US. Many use stereotypes that are grossly out of date. They also--in my opinion--put far too much weight in emotional arguments. The same criticisms go for the Saudis' knowledge and feelings about the US.
I'm setting up a non-profit to try to change some attitudes and opinions. Right now, I've got a weblog (blog) going at Crossroads Arabia. Later this month, I'll have a full-fledged website up at a different address, which I'll provide to you all once I get content up.
Interested in your comments on Thomas Barnett's perspectives on the world (as set forth, e.g. in his book Pentagon's New Map).
Why JB! You retired curmudgeon, you! Of COURSE I would LOVE to have a discussion on S.A.!
Your new site is quite impressive. Must have taken a lot of effort to set up.
Of course, you know that I don't agree with a single assertion you have made.
So it's not primarily about oil? Since when?
Since oil was found on the peninsula, the entire construction of Saudi Arabia has been about oil and the politics of its control. I think it is disingenuous of you to claim otherwise. You have, after all, been there - I have not. You should know that if not for the oil and the money it has brought to the erstwhile "princes" of the sands, no one would give the slightest damn what they said or did.
Doug: I don't know the Barnett book, but will look into it.
Tim: You confuse past with present. Yes, indeed, certainly, absolutely, oil was the reason the US got involved with KSA in the first place. Since then, though, the relationship has deepened. I strongly recommend Thomas Lippman's new book Inside the Miragefor a wider look at the situation.
You're welcome to argue whether getting into the relationship was worthwhile, or even wise. But you can't argue that the current situation is far more complex than a simple supply of oil.
As I believe I noted, the US currently gets something like 14%-17% of its oil from the KSA. Losing that oil would certainly hurt. But it wouldn't hurt nearly as much as the rest of the world would hurt.
Keeping the KSA stable, encouraging reform and assisting the reformers with a light hand are primary USG goals. And believe it or not, it's having some affect. Not to fall into self-promotion, but I'm doing daily updates on my blog and will, within a week or so, have a fully fledged website that provides information, context and links to other sources of information.
Well, JB, saying that the situation is more complex than simply oil does not assert anything specific.
It is about oil. First, second and last. All oil - all the time.
If you took the oil "off-line", and out of the mix, which we all know is not likely to happen, exactly what socio-economic, cultural ties would we have to the nomads? None.
But we both know that with a resource as valuable as the Saudi crude, it is NOT going to stop flowing. It is simply a matter of who will control the flow. I assert that the princes must change their approach to our culture or they will find themselves on the wrong end of a very big sword. There will always be someone else willing to step up and take over a more reasonable stance if the current bandits won't.
My point is:
--It is far better to have influence with a country to which 1.3 billion people look for guidance than to not have influence.
The USG, right now and ever since the 9/11 wake-up, has been working with Saudi Arabia to create reform, political, social, and economic. Those three, of course, are intertwined.
We are encouraging political reform by saying nice things about how the Saudis are running their first, nation-wide elections for municipal councils. This is the first of a three-stage process that will culminate in the election of a Shura (Consultative) Council which is now appointed. The Shura Council will server, approximately, as a parliament.
I am individually working on political reform there by trying to bring some young Saudis to the US to work as volunteers in the upcoming elections. Most other countries--outside the Middle East--have been doing so for decades; the major political parties even have offices dedicated to recruiting them. But those offices have pretty much given up on Arabs of late. I haven't.
Social reform is taking place and is worthy of our notice and approval. My blog quotes newspaper articles and columns in which Saudi women are discussing their situation and where they want to be (which is not necessarily the same as where some western feminists would like them to be, btw). I also quote pieces of self-reflection wherein Saudis are looking to see just what's gone wrong in their society--and Arab and Muslim societies in general. Recent pieces on the massacre at Baslan are indicative of the changes taking place.
I also comment on what's going on in the oil sector (e.g., Saudi Arabia still has masses of oil and lots of unproven reserves using just contemporary recovery tech), as well as the changes the Saudis are making to ensure their accession to the WTO. They see WTO as providing many benefits. Among the most important of them are access to world markets (bi-directionally), and leverage to break up existing monopolies and monopolistic licenseeships. WTO provides the political cover the government needs: "Sorry brother, but our international obligations require that you...."
Finally, I'm trying to provide some context for a country that is actually struggling to make changes. But those changes are largely invisible in the US, particularly when other agendas get in the way. While the US certainly has an issue with Saudi Arabia concerning abducted children, the attention it gets is disproportionate. There are exactly four/4/four current cases of American children having been abducted to Saudi Arabia. There are currently over 300 cases active in Germany and Mexico, individually. Who gets slammed in the media? The answer does not include Mexico or Germany.
I think maintaining--and improving--the US-Saudi relationship is critically important. There are alternatives to the current set-up, but most of them are not what we want. We can move reform in directions favorable to us on a broad spectrum of issues, but not if we can't talk to each other. Right now, there's a whole lot more scream and yelling than talking.
I'm trying to change that by providing better information to those who simply don't know. I'm not apologizing for the Saudis--if you read my blog you'll find critical comments. Nor am I trying to make anybody love them. The Saudis are responsible for some pretty hateful stuff that we don't have to accept. But we do have to understand how they got into the corner they've painted themselves into. And, I think, we (or at least I) have an obligation to help them find a way out of that corner.
I am not sure who you are speaking to on your blog, but here is a little unsolicited critique:
The format is very muddy. It is very difficult to follow or respond to the threads in the format you have selected. The responses are hard to get to. There are no "critical comments". Doesn't seem to me you'll reach your fellow citizens whom you claim to want to educate by posting the S.A. government line. But hey! It's 'Merka, bud - and the blogosphere is your apple!This message has been edited. Last edited by: Hallmonitor,
Thanks for the comment about the focus being unclear. I'll take that under advisement. The blog is supposed to be only a part of an overall website, currently in production. Check for the site at the beginning of next week.
You err, however, in suggesting I'm posting the KSA government line. When I do cite a Saudi gov't source, I identify it as such. The rest is coming from a variety of Saudi media.
Contrary to some opinion--including that of MEMRI--Saudi media is not government controlled. There is no "guidance"; there is no prior censorship.
The Saudi media is not "free" in the sense that we use it for American media, absolutely. But neither is it as controlled as that of, say, Iran or Egypt.
If you do read my commentary, you'll note that I'm critical of both the Saudi media and the Saudi government.
The point of my blog is to provide informed commentary, not just drop facts cold, leaving them for uninformed interpretation.
My basic points I made above. The Saudis are neither our best friends nor our worst enemies. They need to explain a lot and to change a lot. I believe they are making real efforts to do both.
Have you ever read Ralph Peter's essay " Spotting the Loosers: 7 Signs of a Non-competitive State"? He talks about why a third-world country is a third-world country and will always be, unless it undertakes extensive reforms.
I'd read Peters' piece before. But you know what, it reads as though he fired a shotgun at a wall, then drew the target around the spread of the shot. That's one way to "hit the target," I suppose...
Mostly, though, I dispute his claim of historical invevitability, at least in the case of the KSA.
This is primarily because he seems to find the "Seven Factors" as unalterable. In the case of the Saudis, all of these conditions exist, but they're also in the process of change.
To take them in order:
* Restrictions on the free flow of information.
The Saudi press isn't as free as the American press. Not by any means. But it becoming both more free and more responsible. You find articles today that could not have been written even five years ago, never mind 10 or 20. The print media is becoming more critical about social and political issues, from wife and child abuse to government incompetence. (Saudi gov't TV is utterly worthless, which is why only 2% of Saudis admit watching it. Instead, look at Saudi-owned satellite TV like Alarabiya, ART, MBC.)
* The subjugation of women.
Saudi women are fighting quite vocally (not to mention successfully) to define the rights they want. One thing they don't want is somebody else (even another women) to tell them what they're supposed to want. They're rather decide for themselves what's important. Driving, for instance, is not terribly important to many, if not most, right now. Most (and I mean 90%+) like wearing abayyas for the privacy and anonymity it gives them. They do want more political and economic power. They've got the King's ear and they're getting what they want. Slowly.
* Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure.
This is a real problem, but I see it changing, mostly through media pressures. Increasingly, I see people demanding accountability and responsibility in government. Judicial rulings are criticized as are government ineffectiveness and inefficiencies. Here, there's much room for improvement, though.
* The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization.
This is breaking down rapidly in the KSA. For the first time in its history, the country is having to quickly build orphanages and nursing homes; programs for the handicapped, the ill, and substance abusers. This strongly suggests that the extended family isn't there to do its traditional jobs.
It's also little noted that when Abdel Aziz first formed the kingdom, one of the things he tried to do first was to diminish the power of the tribes. He largely succeeded, at least in all urban areas. In some of the rural areas, tribes still have considerably weight, but are definitely subordinate to the central gov't.
* Domination by a restrictive religion.
There's no religious freedom in the KSA, so maybe this is true. But we're going to get into definitional problems over "restrictive." If you mean restrictive to an American, then no question. If you mean restrictive to a Saudi, then lots of questions. But here, too, the Saudis are backing off of their "our way or no way" attitude because they've seen the damage it can do. Shi'a and Sufis are now included in government and in policy making. Still room for improvement, of course, but also far, far different from what it used to be 10 or 20 years ago.
* A low valuation of education.
The Saudis value education highly. They just have a really sh*tty education system. They do realize this and are in process of changing it. This is being driven both from the top and bottom.
* Low prestige assigned to work.
Only to manual labor, but that's changing, too. The gov't has opened numerous trade and technical schools and all of them are filled to capacity. Saudi youth is waking up to the realization that life is no longer being served on silver platters. They're working as cashiers in grocery stores, pumping gas, working in hotels. Women are being even more ambitious. Not only are they taking more jobs in retail (against strong social taboos) and nursing (even stronger taboos), but also pushing for licenses in more and more areas. Just yesterday it was reported that the first Saudi woman got her architect license. Last year, the first female Saudi pilot got licensed.
I think the biggest problem is that for over two generations, the Saudi education system has been utterly derelict. Not only has it taught hateful things, but it didn't teach any useful things. I mean things like critical analysis. Saudis do get sucked into the emotional trauma of the day involving Arabs and Muslims. They're not stupid, but very poorly informed and unable to make critical judgments. Unfortunately, this goes to people who seem to be educated, too.
I'm certainly not seeing Saudi Arabia as a lost cause.
Islamic Revival in Syria Is Led by Women
You also might be interested in another essay of his -- "Winning Against Warriors", which I subtitle "Why the US Will Never Win the War Against Terrorism".
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