Middle East Notes and Comment: Rethinking Saudi Arabia

Rethinking Saudi Arabia

When I first went to Saudi Arabia more than 20 years ago, everything was black and white—literally. Saudi women were rarely seen without a billowing black abaya. Saudi men all wore seemingly identical white thobes, until you noticed how collars, cuffs, and pockets offered endless options for personalization.

Saudi Arabia is no longer so black and white. An increasing number of Saudi women wear colorful abayas and often leave them open; an increasing number of Saudi men opt for jeans and t-shirts. Young Saudi men and women have flooded into service jobs, from working in coffee shops to driving Ubers. There is energy and creativity. It is a different place, and it prompts a rethinking.

Read Jon Alterman's commentary on the CSIS website

From the Middle East Program

Babel: Translating the Middle East

In the latest episode of Babel, Jon sat down with Nadia Oweidat to talk about Russian disinformation in Arabic media outlets, how authoritarian states in the region are amplifying those efforts, and how she thinks Western governments should respond.

In another episode, Jon spoke with Ambassador Frederic Hof about his new book, Reaching for the Heights: The Inside Story of a Secret Attempt to Reach a Syrian-Israeli Peace. They talk about Ambassador Hof's efforts to negotiate peace between Syria and Israel from 2009 to 2011, what complicated those efforts, and what he thinks he could have done differently.

Jon also spoke with Haider al-Abadi, an Iraqi politician who served as prime minister from 2014 to 2018, while the country was battling the Islamic State Group (ISG). They talk about his decision making as prime minister, the Iraqi government's response to ISG, and the limits of decentralization in Iraq.

We also released three new mezze episodes: one on growing food waste in Bahrain, one on how a new dam in Iraq shows that the wounds of the ISG period have still not healed, and another on the debate in Morocco over whether to use DNA testing to prove paternity.

In the News

Jon spoke with Reason about President Biden's upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia next month. Jon said that there are issues on the president's agenda that go well beyond oil prices. He said that "as long as [abuses] continue, they are going to inhibit Americans' willingness to engage with the kingdom broadly," but that those abuses do not "automatically disqualify the United States [from] having anything to do with the kingdom." (6/21/22)

Jon also spoke about the trip with Voice of America News. He told VOA that President Biden's meetings with the Saudis are "especially fraught," given Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's alleged role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. But Jon said that the U.S. response to the killing is "not the totality of the U.S. government's relationship with Saudi Arabia," and that the United States needs to think "about how that fits into a broader context." (6/14/22)

We're Hiring

The Middle East Program is looking for a creative, hard-working, and energetic junior staffer with 1-2 years' work experience (including internships) to join our fast-paced and highly collaborative team to work on mostly administrative activities. The Program is aiming for a July 11, 2022, start date.

Please share with your networks. Interested applicants can apply through the CSIS website.​​