Lessons From Egypt : Encouraging Saudi Democracy & Beyond

I posted recently that the situation in Egypt provides important lessons for US foreign policy.  Specifically, the US should have been pressing for democracy in Egypt decades ago, and making US military aid to Egypt contingent on steps towards a free press, free elections, and personal civil liberties, instead of coddling and financially supporting the convenient dictator there.

Obama Meets with Egyptian Dictator Hosni Mubarak in Happier Times
President Obama meets with Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in happier times

Without rehashing the whole post, there are two separate reasons for that:

1) Supporting dictators tends to produce blowback, as in the case of the Iranian Revolution, where revolutionaries saw the US, accurately, as the sponsor of the dictatorial and corrupt Shah of Iran who oppressed them.

2) The US is founded, as a nation, on the idea that governments should be of the people and for the people.  To actively support dictatorships that oppress their people is not only shortsighted and counterproductive (because it produces inevitable blowback), it’s also hypocrisy of the worst sort, and a violation of the values upon which the United States was established.

It seems that the US administration is warming a bit to this, at least rhetorically.  For instance, Business Week reports that:

Clinton said in Munich that governments in the Middle East must make the transition to openness and democracy “a strategic necessity,” warning that “all of our interests will be at risk” if they don’t.

I agree with Secretary Clinton’s remarks.   Worldwide democracy is a strategic benefit to the United States, and indeed to the world as a whole.  The interests of both the US and residents of Middle East are indeed at risk if democracy isn’t embraced, as non-democratic regimes will eventually fall, and the less democratic they are, the more dangerous and chaotic their falls will be.

An Egyptian protester stands in front of a burning barricade. 30 years of repression led to explosive protests.

So, if we take this seriously, and not just as lip service, then the US should be using its political and economic might to encourage democracy worldwide, and in particular in the Middle East.  As I’ve posted before, encouraging worldwide democracy should be the # US foreign policy goal, for both moral reasons and out of enlightened self-interest.

Where do we start?  An example in Saudi Arabia

Freedom House is a non-profit that has spent years tracking, analyzing, and trying to rally US and world support around the cause of freedom throughout the world.   I consulted their 2010 Freedom in the World list, searching for the least free places in the world.

There are many.  One, however, stands out as being both extremely repressive, and a close US ally:  Saudi Arabia. On a scale of 1 through 7, where 7 is the most repressive, Freedom House gives Saudi Arabia a 7 on political rights (essentially none) and a 6 on civil rights (close to none).   Saudi Arabia scores an overall 6.5 on Freedom House’s 7 point scale of repressiveness, just barely better than 7-scoring North Korea, Burma, Somalia, and Libya.  Saudi Arabia is in the same category of freedom as Cuba, China, Syria, and Chad.   In comparison to Saudi Arabia’s 6.5 score on the 7 point of repression, dictatorial Egypt scored only 5.5.

Indeed, Freedom House goes so far as to rate Saudi Arabia as half a point less free than Iran, one of the countries that George W. Bush labeled as part of an Axis of Evil.  If you’re less free than a member of the Axis of Evil, what does that say about you?   It says that you’re a repressive dictatorship of truly world class proportions.

How repressive?  Perhaps the worst is the plight of women in Saudi Arabia.   Women cannot vote.  Women cannot drive.  Women cannot be seen in public without the presence of a male relative, by law.  Women cannot represent themselves in court – they must have a man represent them.  If a woman is a witness in a trial, her testimony, by law, counts 1/2 as much as any male witness.   In cases of inheritance,women in Saudi Arabia receive a half share relatively to their male relatives.

The anti-female attitudes of the regime go beyond ridiculous and into the despicable.  Freedom House reports that:

The religious police enforce a strict policy of gender segregation and often harass women, using physical punishment to ensure that they meet conservative standards of dress in public. In 2007, a court sentenced a Shiite woman from Qatif, who had been raped by seven men, to 200 lashes and six months in jail for being alone with a man who was not her relative at the time of the attack

The woman was eventually pardoned by the King for her “crime” of being alone with a man who was not a relative.

Saudi Woman in Burka
Women enjoy few freedoms in Saudi Arabia.

Women are not the only victims in Saudi Arabia.   Like Egypt or Iran, the country has elections of a sort.   However, political parties are banned, as are most rallies and public gatherings.  Only roughly 20% of the populace can vote.  Those voting rights only extend to voting for seats in city councils.  At a national level, bills are created and voted on by the cabinet (all appointed by the King) and ratified by the King.  Speaking out against the King or the ruling family is illegal.  Saudi’s complain that in recent sweeps to pick up ‘terrorists’, Saudi police have used the opportunity to arrest unrelated reformers and political organizers.  Allegations of torture are common among those who fall into police custody.   The Shiite minority, who make up 10-15% of the population, are effectively barred from holding government posts and receive little state protection against assaults from the Sunni majority.  Shiites making the pilgrimage to Medina in 2009 were attacked by Saudi religious police.

The media is tightly controlled, with members of the ruling family owning part or all of most allowed newspapers and television stations.   Journalists are banned at the slightest provocation.   Saudi Arabia’s version of the Great Firewall blocks an estimated 400,000 websites that the Saudi’s consider dangerous.  While Twitter and Facebook are currently allowed in the country, Saudi officials have censored the twitter accounts of specific activists and in November of 2010 blocked Facebook entirely for a short period.

Any way you slice it, Saudi Arabia is a dictatorship.  The populace has no say in the governance of their country.  Women in particular face some of the worst repression anywhere on earth.

There are worse dictatorships on the planet, but none are such close allies of the United States.  In October of 2010, the United States approved its largest ever arms sale to any country, selling more than $60 Billion of advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia, including F-15 fighters and the latest generation of AH-64 Apache assault helicopters.  Those top of the line aircraft are only allowed to be sold to countries the US considers close allies.

The situation is reminiscent of Egypt.  Saudi Arabia doesn’t need direct US support to stay solvent – its oil wealth provides that.  But by selling the most advanced arms in its arsenal to the Saudi Kingdom, the US is indeed supporting the dictatorial regime there.

Obama and King Abdullah
President Obama and King Abdullah meet in June of '09. The summit was marked not by a press for human rights or democracy in Saudi Arabia, but by a press by the US for improved Saudi relations with Israel.

Could Saudi Arabia be the next Egypt?  In Egypt, 25% of people aged 20-24 are unemployed.  The frustration and lack of future opportunity this represents has been cited as a contributing factor, along with corruption and the lack of political freedom, in the revolution on Cairo’s streets.   In Saudi Arabia, by contrast, 40% of people aged 20-24 are unemployed and people have even less political voice than in Egypt.   The combination of lack of opportunity plus lack of political voice is an explosive one.

I don’t expect Saudi Arabia to collapse any time soon.  While unemployment is high, Saudi Arabia provides a wealth of social services to its population, which blunts their frustration for the time being.  Nevertheless, change will come eventually, and on current course and speed that change will not be gentle.  Saudi Arabia is a ticking time bomb.  The autocratic government keeps the pressure contained for now, but the higher the pressure builds, the more explosive the transition will be.  If the US wants long term stability in Saudi Arabia, and if the US wants to live by its own principles of freedom, equality, and a government ‘of the people and for the people’, then we should start acting now to press the rulers of Saudi Arabia to liberalize.

A good first step would be for the Saudi regime (and indeed, all regimes, everywhere in the world) to lift restrictions on speech, on the press, and punishments for criticizing the regime.  A vigorous debate on the future of Saudi Arabia, held by its citizens, can then help chart a future course towards greater equality of men and women, greater personal freedoms for both genders, and greater participatory democracy.   Those steps won’t be easy.  They’ll all come with their share of challenges and hiccups.  They’ll take time.  But as we’ve seen in Egypt, attempting to contain the pressure too long can result in a dramatic release of pent up steam.  Better a gradual release of that pressure in an orderly transition than a violent explosion.  And better we treat the people of the world according to the values we believe make us great than out of shallow and short term self interest.