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Towards a Saudi Constitutional Monarchy

What Condoleezza Rice can do to help the Middle East during her visit to Saudi Arabia.

12:00 AM, Jun 17, 2005 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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IN A FEW DAYS Condoleezza Rice will visit the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. She will not be the first woman secretary of State to visit the territory of Wahhabism, the extremist state religion imposed on the people of historic Arabia. Madeleine Albright preceded Secretary Rice. But of course U.S.-Saudi relations have changed dramatically since the end of the Clinton administration, with the events of September 11, 2001, and the revelation that 15 out of 19 perpetrators of terror on that terrible day were Saudi subjects.

Secretary Rice should take the opportunity of visiting Riyadh to make several urgent points. Some of these are stylistic; she might choose not to put on the radical covering or abaya imposed on women in the kingdom. She might even tell her hosts she would like to drive her limo in from the airport--repudiating another Saudi restriction. By refusing compulsory covering and insisting on a right enjoyed by women throughout the Muslim world, the secretary would provide an inspirational example for the millions of women who make up an indispensable section of the Saudi reform constituency.

Nevertheless extremely serious issues impinge. These range from the financing of al Qaeda by Saudi subjects, who walk the streets of the kingdom's cities with impunity, to the high rate of Saudi-Wahhabi participation in Sunni terrorism in Iraq, to official Saudi-subsidized indoctrination in hatred of Muslims around the globe. And then there is the recent Saudi rejection of U.S., European Union, and Australian calls for nuclear inspections in the kingdom, reinforcing previous reports that the Saudis have dealt in nuclear technology and know-how with Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia's continued flouting of ordinary standards for governance and participation in the international community stands in sharp contrast to what some Saudi dissidents call a "crescent of normality" on the northwestern border of Saudi Arabia and on the eastern and southern coasts of the Arabian Peninsula. This phenomenon is especially notable in matters involving rights of religious expression. From Jordan and Kuwait through Yemen, the smaller Arab states, although they lack the vast Saudi oil and financial resources, and remain distant from full, Western-style democracy and transparency, are nonetheless increasingly modern in their freedom of worship, as well as in their treatment of women and development toward representative government. Kuwait, for example, includes as many as half a million Christians--Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants--as well as Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Baha'is.

This pattern is common in the "crescent of normality." Bahrain has the same range of religions, along with a small Jewish community--and Saudi subjects eagerly cross a causeway to Bahrain to experience life outside the reactionary utopia of the Wahhabis. Qatar, for its part, has diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Last year, the evangelical Promise Keepers held a convention in Dubai, another place to which Saudis rush for regular samples of reasonable social life. Even impoverished Yemen allows Christian and Hindu worship in its south, and a scattering of Jews remain in its north. Christian missionaries operate publicly in these countries. Meanwhile, Iraq is slowly making its way to a status as a modern and pluralistic country, representing another example of normalization in the Arab world.

Saudi subjects travel to Bahrain, Dubai, and other places in their regional surroundings and ask themselves, why, when their country is so much richer and more powerful than any other state in the region, they must still labor under the intolerant, repressive, and backward rule of the Saudi state and its religious establishment. The visible examples of its saner neighbors are a powerful incentive, along with the Internet and satellite television, for the growth of the Saudi constituency favoring liberal reform.

The "crescent of normality" has entered on the road of transition to more complete popular sovereignty and political stability. How, then, may we encourage the acceleration of Saudi Arabia's transformation?