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Saudi Arabia, the US, and Arabic Political Reform

Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Political Reform in the Arab World

Philip Zelikow, Counselor of the Department
Remarks at Conference on U.S.-Saudi Relations
Washington, DC
May 24, 2005

I was invited to talk about U.S.-Saudi relations. I will do that, and then pursue some of the broader themes opened up by that subject.

Since King Abd al-Aziz and President Roosevelt met on the USS Quincy 60 years ago, the United States and Saudi Arabia have shared a close, and intensely personal, relationship. This continued through the decades, and most recently manifested itself at the April summit between President Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah in Crawford.

Americans are deeply bound up in the modern history of the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia developed its energy resources in close partnership with the United States. Thousands of Americans contributed to the development of the Kingdom's energy and economic infrastructure, and thousands of Saudis came to the U.S. to take advantage of our world-class education system. As the holder of approximately one-quarter of the world's oil reserves, the Kingdom is obviously important to the United States, and the rest of the world.

In the Cold War, the Kingdom was anti-Communist. So the two countries often shared common cause.

In the political struggles in the Middle East, the American and Saudi worldviews were quite different. Yet the Kingdom cared little for the secular, socialist, and nationalist ideologies that were so fashionable from the 1940s to the 1970s, and its rulers generally sought peaceful solutions to local problems. So again our two countries often shared common objectives.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Kingdom faced the challenge of great wealth, rising responsibility, and deadly challenges to its rule and legitimacy--including its religious legitimacy--from countries such as Iraq and Iran. The American relationship intensified at the top, cemented by experiences like the common efforts to oppose the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the first American-led alliance against Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

But, in a way, our societies did not really know each other very well at all. The Kingdom is one of the most religious and socially conservative societies in the world. On the other hand, America is an open society that encompasses communities and beliefs of almost every description. Americans did not understand Saudi society, and often what they did understand they did not like. For their part, many Saudis were--and are--deeply conflicted about America. In both high policy and ordinary society, they are attracted to some aspects and they are repelled by others.

So the relationship, even as it became closer, was conducted mainly behind closed doors. Saudi and American leaders did not find it to be in their political interest to publicize their dealings, including the often constructive role the Kingdom played in supporting the Middle East peace process. The relationship thus naturally became an object for suspicion and mistrust.

Then came September 11. The 9/11 Commission found that, "At the level of high policy, Saudi Arabia's leaders cooperated with American diplomatic initiatives aimed at the Taliban or Pakistan before 9/11. At the same time, Saudi Arabia's society was a place where al Qaeda raised money directly from individuals and through charities. It was the society that produced 15 of the 19 hijackers."

There is much more in that report and some of the specialized staff studies we produced that discuss Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom's choices during the 1990s, and the world that produced 9/11. As the former executive director of the 9/11 Commission, I played my part investigating and trying to comprehend that world. The report speaks for itself. There is no need to recapitulate it today.

After 9/11, many Saudis at first simply could not believe what had happened. That denial took various forms. As the truth became evident, denial then gave way to many reactions, including self-examination. Was their vision of Islam truly peaceful and inclusive, or was their society being taken over by the "takfiris."

The Kingdom redoubled its commitment to fighting Islamist terror. Now the terrorists hated the Kingdom's rulers, but left them alone as long as they could operate without substantial interference. When the Kingdom truly joined the war on terrorism, the terrorists brought the war home. On May 12, 2003 al Qaeda launched a bloody domestic terrorism campaign against the Saudi Government and against Western interests in the Kingdom.

The Kingdom has been meeting this challenge. Saudi security forces have been fighting terrorists in gun battles, with new laws, and with strong political messages from the country's leaders. I have met with some of the people fighting those battles, at least one of whom was later badly wounded when the terrorists tried to kill him.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have indeed become allies in the war against transnational terrorism.

The May 12, 2003 attacks also underlined the urgency of Saudi Arabia's own domestic problems. Although Saudi Arabia is seen as a wealthy country, it faces major demographic challenges and societal factors that have fed extremism. The 9/11 Commission report and staff statements discussed these issues. Despite the current price of oil, Saudi Arabia has experienced steadily decreasing standards of living over the past three decades. With one of the world's highest birth rates, the Kingdom has a burgeoning population of young people whose prospects are uncertain, passing through an educational system facing the task of preparing these young people for the modern and interdependent world of the 21st century.

So there are hard tasks ahead. As our two countries look to the future, there we can find an open basis for U.S.-Saudi partnership, a partnership that leaders in both countries will be proud to explain and defend.

We can build on the visions we have for the future. As the Kingdom forms constructive plans, the United States can help. The state can no longer guarantee lifetime employment for young Saudis, demonstrating the urgency of economic liberalization that can turn the private sector into a more effective engine for job creation. WTO accession, which we hope can be achieved by the December 2005 Hong Kong Ministerial, will move in the right direction. The Kingdom has made important progress.

There are also political challenges, in developing civil society and expanding citizen participation in government. Crown Prince Abdullah's National Dialogue has been a notable development. It has opened more space to discuss issues. Curriculum development is another key area, to prepare young Saudis while understanding that modern life requires a certain understanding for others, promoting moderation and tolerance. The United States is seeking ways to increase scholarship and exchange programs for Saudi students and educators.

As the President has recognized, "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe--because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty... it would be reckless to accept the status quo."

The President also noted in his State of the Union address that countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt can and should play a leadership role in the Middle East in promoting change and building healthy societies, societies that naturally marginalize and reject violent extremism.

We have said what freedom means. The President has called them the "non-negotiable demands of human dignity." They include:

* freedom of speech with a vibrant free press; * a free economy to unleash the creativity of citizens and give them economic independence from the state; * an independent judiciary to guarantee rule of law and assure impartial justice; * religious tolerance; * respect for women; and * freedom of assembly, so citizens can press for reform and so that a peaceful opposition can provide choices.

But the President has also stressed the freedom of others to choose their own path. The President also said this: "When the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way."

We recognize that change must come from within if it is to endure, and must be based on the strong cultural foundations of Saudi society. Nevertheless, we have seen the tragic consequences of deferring the process of change, and others - such as the series of Arab Human Development Reports written by regional scholars--have catalogued the cost incurred by economies and societies.

The United States welcomed the holding of municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, which offers the opportunity for greater citizen participation in government and greater accountability by government toward its citizens. It was remarkable to watch the energy and political activity opened up by even these limited elections.

We were disappointed that women were not permitted to participate. The First Lady spoke in Jordan a few days ago about the part that half of Arab society can play in strengthening the whole. She used an arresting metaphor, of a bird trying to fly with only one wing.

Elections are important, and we hope to see them expanded in the Kingdom. However, there are other areas the Kingdom can consider. Political institutions independent of the Royal Family have provided only limited accountability or transparency. Institutions like the Shura Council could be strengthened and given greater independence. The local councils that have just been elected should have real powers, including over budgets.

Through the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and our multilateral effort for the Broader Middle East and North Africa that Deputy Secretary Zoellick described in Jordan in his address to the World Economic Forum, the U.S. is working to strengthen freedom, the democratic process, and good governance. We look to the high-level committee that was established at the Crawford Summit to provide overall direction and focus for an expanded dialogue.

We support voices in the region--both in government and civil society--calling for change. We express our views both publicly and privately. In the case of three reform activists arrested in March 2004 who were recently sentenced to lengthy prison terms, we have already expressed our disappointment over these harsh sentences. These verdicts seem inconsistent with the leadership role Saudi Arabia should be playing in the Arab world.

Saudis justly regard themselves as living in a land that has been blessed by providence. They are the custodians of the two holy sites. They live atop vast and valuable natural resources. They cherish traditions of family and honor passed down from generation to generation. This generation of Saudis has the chance to define the legacy they will now pass to their sons and daughters.

And Americans, in turn, should respond with understanding. It is too easy to demonize or scapegoat Saudi Arabia because of the differences between our societies. The relationship must turn on the way we see the future, based on mutual tolerance and mutual respect.

The winds of change are also blowing elsewhere in the region. Egypt has the region's largest population and a tradition of political pluralism, women's rights, and a free market economy that pre-dates any other in the region by decades. But it has been struggling for decades to throw off the closed political and economic systems that were its Nasserist legacy. The Prime Minister and younger, reform-oriented ministers who entered the cabinet in July 2004 got off to a quick start on economic reform: cutting tariffs, taxes, and subsidies, privatizing state-owned companies, and in general tearing down the barriers that have kept Egypt largely closed to world trade and investment flows.

President Mubarak and Prime Minister Nazif have gone on record as saying that the era of subsidized goods and services and government jobs for everyone who wants one is over, and that the private sector economy is the future of Egypt.

We would like to see that economic opening matched by a political opening. In his state of the union address this year, President Bush called on Egypt to lead the way to democracy in the Middle East, as it had led the way to peace. Clearly the Egyptian people also would like to see more political openness. Over the past year, in advance of scheduled presidential and parliamentary elections in the fall of 2005, there has been an increasingly public debate on the need for political as well as economic reform in Egypt. That debate fills Egypt's media--mostly opposition and independent newspapers, but also increasingly in the government-controlled media. It has spilled onto the streets in demonstrations by the "Kifaya" (enough) movement. It has been taken up by pillars of the state such as the judiciary.

In February 2005, President Mubarak responded to those Egyptian calls for reform. He announced that he would seek a constitutional amendment allowing for the president of Egypt to be chosen through a direct, multi-candidate election, rather than through a referendum on one candidate nominated by the parliament, which remains overwhelmingly dominated by the ruling party. The constitutional amendment subsequently drafted goes to a national referendum May 25. We believe that constitutional amendment is potentially an important step forward. Its implementation over the next few months will obviously be important too.

We should not kid ourselves--there are still substantial barriers to political reform and human rights in Egypt. The emergency law in place since 1981 sharply limits the freedom of assembly and other civil rights. As our annual human rights report documents, it is still too difficult to register political parties and NGOs, intimidation of opposition and civil society activists has been a long-standing problem, and human rights abuses by security forces, particularly in the prisons, are widespread. But that should not diminish the cause for optimism.

Prime Minister Nazif of Egypt, who visited here last week, told President Bush and the press that the Government of Egypt is committed to holding freely contested and transparent elections. The Egyptian people and the international community should hold him to his word. The international standard for such elections is clear: it includes the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly; freedom of the press and access of all candidates to the media; freedom of candidates, campaign activists, and voters from harassment; strong supervision of the elections process by a neutral elections body; and domestic and international observers. Freer, fairer, and more transparent presidential and parliamentary elections that reflect the will of the Egyptian people could have a powerful demonstration effect in the rest of the region.

In Egypt they are used to measuring change by the passage of centuries. Yet here, again, visionary leaders have the opportunity to decide what legacy they will leave to their children, seizing a historical moment.

And, in Iraq, the historical moment is at hand. Many freedoms are at stake in Iraq's political process, and we will assist the Iraqi government in protecting these freedoms. Polling data consistently show that the Iraqi people are optimistic and see their future as brighter than the past or the present.

When the Iraqi people voted on January 30, they liberated themselves from their painful, tyrannical past. In defying the insurgents who seek to sow division and hatred through violence, millions of courageous voters said they wanted a united future. It is not for the United States, or the international community, to try and determine the details of this future. This is now a freely elected government in a sovereign nation.

If Iraq asks the United States what freedoms we hold dear, what we think of as the demands of human dignity--the President has answered that question.

And the process of writing that constitution matters too. In both process and substance, the whole international community has a stake in an Iraq that is unified, with a governing structure that represents the views of all of Iraq's ethnic, religious, and political groups.

The Iraqi people--whatever their ethnicity, religion, or political belief--suffered under the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime. This shared burden can translate into shared reconciliation, in which all Iraqis work together on democratic processes. We are encouraged that Iraqis are committed to the principle, it is now time to commit to the practice as well.

Some might say that the President's forward strategy of freedom for the Middle East is idealistic. Earlier this week my boss, Secretary Rice, reemphasized that strategy, and noted what it had already achieved. Putting on some of my old academic garb, I spoke at Stanford University, earlier this month, on the false dichotomy of idealism versus realism, and emphasized the administration's commitment to a time-honored conception of practical idealism. The President summarized his doctrine best in his address last week to the International Republican Institute: "This is a period of great idealism, when dreams of liberty are coming true for millions. Yet, to achieve idealistic goals, we need realistic policies to help nations secure their freedom, and practical strategies to help young democracies consolidate their gains."

Thank you.


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