Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Can the Saudis Lead the Middle East into the Future?

 

Slowly but surely, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to bring the Saudis into the 21st century. It is happening in fits and starts, and there are still many signs that the country has a long way to go, but I am cautiously optimistic.

Just last Tuesday, the Crown Prince talked about moderating Saudi Arabia’s practice of radical Sunni Islam at an economic forum in Riyadh:

We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.

We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today. We will end extremism very soon.

Moderating Islam in Saudi Arabia will be a complicated and potentially dangerous task. The country and its rulers have long been associated with the Wahhabi (a radical) form of Islam, and the Wahhabists will not take this change lightly, nor will others within the government. There is also the question about whether the Crown Prince will try to stop the teaching of Wahhabism in the United States, through schools and mosques, as well as in other countries.

The second positive development is the alliances the Saudis are building not only with other Arab nations, but with Israel. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain have condemned Qatar for supporting or funding 59 people and 12 entities that are connected to terrorism. The reasons for this alliance are not entirely clear; certainly all these countries might be concerned about terrorism. In addition, Qatar has a relationship with Iran, a country feared and despised for its efforts to continue to expand its influence in the Middle East. Stopping Iran is of primary importance.

It also appears that the Saudis are taking steps to improve its relationship with Israel, although discreetly:

Prince Turki Al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief, has defended his frequent and public meetings with senior Israeli officials at an event in a New York synagogue yesterday, according to Al Jazeera.

Speaking alongside a former director of Mossad, Efraim Halevy, Al-Faisal thanked the Israel Policy Forum for hosting him and expressed hope that it would not be his last meeting of its kind.

‘We have to talk to those we disagree with, not necessarily with our agreement, especially if we have a point of view in which we try to convince others, such as the question of peace in Palestine, where there is a difference of opinion between the Arabs and the Israelis,’ he said.

The Saudi public is not on board, and Saudi officials are saying that there must be a resolution between Israel and the Palestinians before Saudi Arabia will normalize its relationship with Israel. Still, other efforts are being made:

…the Saudi delegation avoided condemning Israel at the United Nations last month, calling only for the implementation of a two-state solution as agreed upon by the international community. The lack of mention of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories, and the use of the word “conflict” instead of occupation, was considered as a move meant to soften Tel Aviv.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also working to build an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, in order to disable Iran’s impact on the war-torn country and help Iraq rebuild:

His [Tillerson’s] participation in the meeting comes as U.S. officials step up encouragement of a new axis that unites Saudi Arabia and Iraq as a bulwark against Iran’s growing influence from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. Amid the push for that alliance, the Iraqi government is struggling to rebuild recently liberated Islamic State strongholds and confronts a newly assertive Kurdish independence movement.

History, religion and lots of politics stand in Tillerson’s way, but both the Saudi king and the Iraqi prime minister appeared optimistic about the prospects.

In addition to moderating Islam and building alliances, the Saudis continue to make steps toward modernization. Recently the Crown Prince removed the restriction on women driving. He also has plans to develop an independent economic zone along Saudi Arabia’s northwest coastline:

The project, dubbed NEOM, will operate under regulations separate from those that govern the rest of Saudi Arabia. NEOM covers an uninterrupted coastline of nearly 470 kilometers (290 miles) in northwestern Saudi Arabia and will extend into territories in neighboring Jordan and Egypt, a statement released by the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund said.

Still, according to Amnesty International, the kingdom has also “stepped up its repression of peaceful rights activists,” arresting more than 20 people without disclosing charges. Repression of other groups no doubt continues.

Yet the Crown Prince seems to be moving in the right direction, and might be a practical alternative to the dangers of an Iranian dominance in the area. Iran’s influence and its effect on peace in general and the existence of Israel in particular are my primary concerns.

Do you think supporting the Saudis to take a more significant leadership role in the Middle East is a step in the right direction? If so, in what ways might we support them? If not, what do you see as the drawbacks?

There are 44 comments.

  1. Rodin Member

    Let’s assume he is successful in a way nearly unimaginable a decade ago, but not completely in bringing Saudi Arabia to current western civilization standards. In 250 years the Saudis will be pulling down his statue.

    • #1
    • October 29, 2017, at 8:11 AM PST
    • 1 like
  2. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Rodin (View Comment):
    Let’s assume he is successful in a way nearly unimaginable a decade ago, but not completely in bringing Saudi Arabia to current western civilization standards. In 250 years the Saudis will be pulling down his statue.

    What would be the reasons, Rodin? Because he abandoned Wahhabism, or because those who followed him couldn’t maintain his efforts? Not a challenge, just curious.

    • #2
    • October 29, 2017, at 8:22 AM PST
    • Like
  3. I Walton Member

    No, they’re the problem. Iran could play a role, but by returning to the deeper civilization the Saudi’s lack. They’d have to have an Ataturk cleansing for half dozen decades.

    • #3
    • October 29, 2017, at 8:37 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  4. Ansonia Member

    I know this isn’t fair, but the guy in the picture with your post looks like how I’d imagine Satan.

    • #4
    • October 29, 2017, at 8:37 AM PST
    • Like
  5. DocJay Inactive

    His biggest barrier will be the Wahabbis and their cancerous belief system.

    • #5
    • October 29, 2017, at 8:38 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    I Walton (View Comment):
    No, they’re the problem. Iran could play a role, but by returning to the deeper civilization the Saudi’s lack. They’d have to have an Ataturk cleansing for half dozen decades.

    How are they the problem, I? I understand Iran’s deep history, but I see no indication that they will go in that direction, none at all. We’ve also seen deep civilizations destroyed over time.

    • #6
    • October 29, 2017, at 8:42 AM PST
    • Like
  7. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    DocJay (View Comment):
    His biggest barrier will be the Wahabbis and their cancerous belief system.

    And quite frankly I can’t see him abandoning them, Doc. They’ve been intertwined for a long time. I hope people don’t think I’m “recommending” the Saudis. But if not them, who else?

    • #7
    • October 29, 2017, at 8:43 AM PST
    • 1 like
  8. Front Seat Cat Member

    This is an opportunity and I think, a direct result of President Trump’s speech, important enough to make it his first foreign visit, to the Middle East this year. It was a courageous challenge and if you watch the member states, you can see his words fell on deaf ears and to some, it made an impact.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tE3LY8399yc

    Iran with it’s diabolical tentacles is surrounding Israel – I suspect the young Saudi leadership knows it must modernize and embrace a more moderate path with our president and other partners for peace, or risk being squashed by the region’s thugs:

    “Iran is present in Gaza by virtue of its influence (or control) over Hamas. Gaza is on Israel’s south-western border. It has a strong presence in Syria, which is on Israel’s northeastern border. The western part of Israel’s northern border is Lebanon, which is controlled by another Iranian proxy, Hezbollah. If Iran is able to establish a presence in the Jordan Valley (Israel’s eastern border) by virtue of its influence over the new soon-to-be-controlled-by-Hamas unity government, then Israel will be virtually surrounded by hostile forces. On Israel’s southern border lies the Sinai peninsula. Though the Sinai is formally Egypt’s, practically, it is controlled by ISIS. That’s why Mr. Netanyahu warned, “If we are not here, Iran and ‘Hamastan’ will be here.”

    • #8
    • October 29, 2017, at 9:17 AM PST
    • 1 like
  9. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):
    Iran with it’s diabolical tentacles is surrounding Israel – I suspect the young Saudi leadership knows it must modernize and embrace a more moderate path with our president and other partners for peace, or risk being squashed by the region’s thugs:

    Thanks, FSC. There is no indication at all that Iran will back off without significant pressure. Anyone who thinks that resisting them is not important does not realize the consequences of their ultimate dominance. Never mind Israel, it will be devastating to that part of the world and ultimately to us.

    • #9
    • October 29, 2017, at 9:55 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  10. DocJay Inactive

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    DocJay (View Comment):
    His biggest barrier will be the Wahabbis and their cancerous belief system.

    And quite frankly I can’t see him abandoning them, Doc. They’ve been intertwined for a long time. I hope people don’t think I’m “recommending” the Saudis. But if not them, who else?

    I don’t know. If the Arabs and Persians can’t reject their nut job religious leaders then tens of millions of them, hundreds of millions even, are going to die prematurely. They are on a collision course as a religion with the modern world. It will be a tough road, but in their favor they at least know it.

    • #10
    • October 29, 2017, at 9:59 AM PST
    • 1 like
  11. Steve C. Member

    Once upon a time there was a king. The king became wealthy and powerful by riding a Tiger. One morning he woke up and realized there was no safe way to dismount.

    • #11
    • October 29, 2017, at 10:24 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  12. Fritz Member

    There is also the question about whether the Crown Prince will try to stop the teaching of Wahhabism in the United States, through schools and mosques, as well as in other countries.

    The reaction of Islamists to a cessation of this and to other moderating policies would not be positive. Although across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia, the assassination of Anwar Sadat by the Muslim Brotherhood for departing from the radical line vis-a-vis Israel is illustrative.

    • #12
    • October 29, 2017, at 11:03 AM PST
    • 1 like
  13. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Fritz (View Comment):

    There is also the question about whether the Crown Prince will try to stop the teaching of Wahhabism in the United States, through schools and mosques, as well as in other countries.

    The reaction of Islamists to a cessation of this and to other moderating policies would not be positive. Although across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia, the assassination of Anwar Sadat by the Muslim Brotherhood for departing from the radical line vis-a-vis Israel is illustrative.

    Excellent example, Fritz. I suspect he knows the danger. Yet he persists. Naive?

    • #13
    • October 29, 2017, at 11:08 AM PST
    • Like
  14. Nanda "Chaps" Panjan… Inactive

    I have more reason to pray – and hope, SQ…I know I’m the odd one out, but…I guess if the Prince is naive, I am, too.

    • #14
    • October 29, 2017, at 11:49 AM PST
    • 1 like
  15. Painter Jean Member

    Certainly there is cause for some hope here. That being said, I fear that Wahhabism is simply too much a part of the culture for there to ever bring about much actual progress. When Christians are allowed to build churches in Saudi Arabia, the same as they are allowed to build mosques in the West, then I will believe that real change has occurred.

    • #15
    • October 29, 2017, at 11:54 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  16. Kozak Member

    DocJay (View Comment):
    His biggest barrier will be the Wahabbis and their cancerous belief system.

    Having lived in Saudi for 2 years I can second this. The Western veneer of the Saudi Royals is a thin coating on a thick layer of unbelievable ignorance and xenophobia that is the average Saudi. If the Wahhabi clerics call on the masses, it will not be pretty.

    • #16
    • October 29, 2017, at 12:41 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  17. Profile Photo Member

    DocJay (View Comment):
    They are on a collision course as a religion with the modern world. It will be a tough road, but in their favor they at least know it.

    The two “they”s each represent a different “constituency”. The former, all in the ME. The later, only the upper echelon of ME leadership. Because of that distinction, the deadliest of collisions is likely.

    • #17
    • October 29, 2017, at 1:13 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  18. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    Only if they abandon Islam. Which is impossible, so no.

    • #18
    • October 29, 2017, at 1:49 PM PST
    • 1 like
  19. Rodin Member

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Rodin (View Comment):
    Let’s assume he is successful in a way nearly unimaginable a decade ago, but not completely in bringing Saudi Arabia to current western civilization standards. In 250 years the Saudis will be pulling down his statue.

    What would be the reasons, Rodin? Because he abandoned Wahhabism, or because those who followed him couldn’t maintain his efforts? Not a challenge, just curious.

    It was a reference to the current fervor to pull down the statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and all those foundational characters who just are not politically correct enough for today’s SJWs.

    • #19
    • October 29, 2017, at 2:22 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  20. Zafar Member

    I suspect there will be no statues in Saudi Arabia.

    • #20
    • October 29, 2017, at 2:29 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  21. Zafar Member

    Robert Fisk’s alternative voice:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/donald-trump-saudi-arabia-iran-iraq-kurdish-population-shia-muslims-a7742276.html

    Expecting the Saudis to lead anybody into modernity seems quixotic.

    • #21
    • October 29, 2017, at 2:44 PM PST
    • Like
  22. Kozak Member

    Zafar (View Comment):
    Robert Fisk’s alternative voice:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/donald-trump-saudi-arabia-iran-iraq-kurdish-population-shia-muslims-a7742276.html

    Expecting the Saudis to lead anybody into modernity seems quixotic.

    A blast from the past. I remember ol Robert predicting the Iraqi defense of Baghdad would be like Stalingrad….

    • #22
    • October 29, 2017, at 2:56 PM PST
    • 1 like
  23. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Painter Jean (View Comment):
    Certainly there is cause for some hope here. That being said, I fear that Wahhabism is simply too much a part of the culture for there to ever bring about much actual progress. When Christians are allowed to build churches in Saudi Arabia, the same as they are allowed to build mosques in the West, then I will believe that real change has occurred.

    Excellent point, Jean, about the churches. That action would send a powerful message.

    • #23
    • October 29, 2017, at 3:52 PM PST
    • 1 like
  24. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    So let me ask this question, given that most of you are understandably skeptical about the Saudis being able to effectively lead the Middle East: is there anything to be done about Iran? Are there any steps at all that we can take to stop their grabbing power in that part of the world? Or should we simply say there’s nothing we can do, and it will be what it will be? I’m not asking cynically; I truly want to know if there’s anything to be done to stop Iran, and if there’s any other country we can support to stop them.

    • #24
    • October 29, 2017, at 5:25 PM PST
    • Like
  25. OkieSailor Member

    Saudi Arabia will not become Westernized but they are aligning with Israel and the US because they rightly fear Iran. Iran has designs to dominate the ME and could possibly become an existential threat to both Israel and Saudi Arabia, especially if they successfully obtain deliverable nukes. The Saudis are no fools and are well aware of the risks to their family and country if that should happen. But they can’t and won’t suddenly abandon Wahhabism and certainly not Islam as that has been, is and will be the actual basis of their power in Saudia Arabia. They will moderate their rhetoric though in order to curry favor with the US and probably will reign in some of the worst excesses of their Wahabist missionary troops in an effort to slide under the radar here. So, no, I don’t think real modernization is in the cards but look for a thaw with the western powers in order to stymie Iran’s hegemonic plans. There will be some ‘window dressing’ developments such as letting women drive and such things. Now really, is that a huge development? It is of much less importance than how it is portrayed in our media. If other, more significant liberties are granted to women as well as men, that would actually be something to make me believe they are serious about bringing their country into the Modern Era. Still the thaw with the US and Israel is a positive development just not the whole nine yards. And it will be temporary but then all such things are temporary.

    • #25
    • October 29, 2017, at 5:28 PM PST
    • 1 like
  26. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    OkieSailor (View Comment):
    Saudi Arabia will not become Westernized but they are aligning with Israel and the US because they rightly fear Iran. Iran has designs to dominate the ME and could possibly become an existential threat to both Israel and Saudi Arabia, especially if they successfully obtain deliverable nukes. The Saudis are no fools and are well aware of the risks to their family and country if that should happen. But they can’t and won’t suddenly abandon Wahhabism and certainly not Islam as that has been, is and will be the actual basis of their power in Saudia Arabia. They will moderate their rhetoric though in order to curry favor with the US and probably will reign in some of the worst excesses of their Wahabist missionary troops in an effort to slide under the radar here. So, no, I don’t think real modernization is in the cards but look for a thaw with the western powers in order to stymie Iran’s hegemonic plans. There will be some ‘window dressing’ developments such as letting women drive and such things. Now really, is that a huge development? It is of much less importance than how it is portrayed in our media. If other, more significant liberties are granted to women as well as men, that would actually be something to make me believe they are serious about bringing their country into the Modern Era. Still the thaw with the US and Israel is a positive development just not the whole nine yards. And it will be temporary but then all such things are temporary.

    This is, I think, a realistic take on the situation as I understand it. Each of your points make sense given all the complicated relationships (social, political, cultural and religious). I expect that they will try to effect some moderation to Wahhabism, but a full blown change would be next to impossible for many reasons. But we sure could use them as a strong ally against Iran. Thanks, Okie.

    • #26
    • October 29, 2017, at 5:34 PM PST
    • 1 like
  27. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn Post author

    Zafar (View Comment):
    Robert Fisk’s alternative voice:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/donald-trump-saudi-arabia-iran-iraq-kurdish-population-shia-muslims-a7742276.html

    Expecting the Saudis to lead anybody into modernity seems quixotic.

    Zafar, the link isn’t operational; I tried it earlier, too. Would you mind sharing the gist of what it said?

    • #27
    • October 29, 2017, at 5:38 PM PST
    • Like
  28. Steve C. Member

    How does one separate the church from the state, while maintaining the legitimacy of the state? Tricky.

    • #28
    • October 29, 2017, at 7:02 PM PST
    • 1 like
  29. Zafar Member

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):
    Robert Fisk’s alternative voice:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/donald-trump-saudi-arabia-iran-iraq-kurdish-population-shia-muslims-a7742276.html

    Expecting the Saudis to lead anybody into modernity seems quixotic.

    Zafar, the link isn’t operational; I tried it earlier, too. Would you mind sharing the gist of what it said?

    He vents a bunch but it boils down to:

    “Even for those used to the insanity of Arab leadership – not to mention those Westerners who have still to grasp that the US President is himself completely off his rocker – the Arab-Muslim (Sunni) summit in Saudi Arabia is almost beyond comprehension. From Pakistan and Jordan and Turkey and Egypt and Morocco and 42 other minareted capitals, they are to come so that the effete and ambitious Saudis can lead their Islamic crusade against “terrorism” and Shiism. The fact that most of the Middle East’s “terrorism” – Isis and al-Qaeda, aka the Nusrah Front – have their fountainhead in the very nation to which Trump is travelling, must and will be ignored. Never before in Middle Eastern history has such a “kumidia alakhta” – quite literally “comedy of errors” in Arabic – been staged.”

    ///

    I’m accessing it via iPhone, perhaps I pasted a mobile only link format?

    But I think Fisk has an arguable point: going to Saudi to talk about Iranians sponsoring terrorism is Kafkaesque.

    • #29
    • October 29, 2017, at 11:07 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  30. Zafar Member

    Letting women drive is a big deal, because it is the first step towards their freedom, and it will progressively [!] transform Saudi society.

    The same sort of thing happened in Iran when the Islamic Revolution paradoxically (and perhaps unintentionally) made it possible for more Iranian women to leave their homes and enter the world of work.

    • #30
    • October 29, 2017, at 11:14 PM PST
    • 2 likes