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 seemed to wear 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 women and men alike 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.

Three and a half years ago, my program at CSIS was about to engage in a significant project with the Saudis. As we reeled from the murder of Jamal Khashoggi—a valued colleague with whom I shared several meals and even more thoughtful conversations—we cut off the program and returned money that had been put on deposit. I was confident it was the right thing to do.

I am less sure that continued disengagement is the right decision going forward.

I have heard a number of arguments against reengagement, and I am sympathetic to them. The human rights situation in the kingdom still troubles me deeply. One of the most promising young Saudis I have met was arrested for political activities two months after we spoke in March 2018 and has remained in jail since. On recent visits I have met with people who were released from jail, advised to keep low profiles, and barred from travel. People have disappeared, and others have been executed with little due process. Saudi law still systematically disadvantages women. The Saudi-led Yemen war has always seemed ill-advised, and it has added misery to an already shattered country.

And of course, there is still Jamal, a patriot who once told me that he agreed almost entirely with the direction of his country’s reform plan, but he thought doing so without consultation and a process of ongoing adjustment and correction jeopardized its success. For that sort of heretical thought, he was killed and butchered.

Yet, these tragedies are not the totality of the country. Young Saudis are looking forward to a different future than they contemplated just five years ago, and they see a new role for themselves and their country. The economy is expanding, as Saudis enter the private sector and even embrace entrepreneurship. The percentage of women in the workforce increased by 64 percent in just two years—between 2018 and 2020—and it is now close to countries like Colombia and Sri Lanka. Young women have especially promising prospects.

The legal system is changing, as religious courts are being nudged aside and technocrats are being brought in to enforce contracts. The military is being reshaped so it can do a better job defending the country, rather than relying on outside powers to do it. The Yemen war still does not cover the Saudis in glory, but it was being prosecuted with increasing skill and discretion in the spring and is currently in an extended truce.

And for all that Western commentary sees Saudi reform efforts as a tightly orchestrated top-down process, in practice it is a chaotic jumble. With so many priorities being pursued simultaneously, ministries undermine each other in pursuit of their own key performance indicators. One ministry may want to boost foreign investment, and another may want to boost tax receipts, while a third may want to increase the employment of Saudis. While it is possible to pursue all three goals simultaneously, it proves harder in practice.

The Riyadh metro is building six lines simultaneously, a task that falls somewhere between Herculean and Sisyphean. Reportedly, the decision to do so is a consequence not only of haste, but also of the lack of managers to handle a less concentrated construction schedule. Not entirely surprisingly, the project is lagging behind schedule.

And the lack of managerial talent is a persistent challenge in the kingdom. The government keeps leaning on Aramco to supply managers for new endeavors, but the demand far outstrips what Aramco can produce. The government has hard decisions to make about the trade-offs between importing managers from abroad and nurturing new ones at home.

Saudi success in transforming its society and its economy is far from guaranteed. Much can go wrong, and certainly much will go wrong. There remains a huge concentration of power at the center, and that will both help and hurt Saudi reform efforts.

But two things seem worth considering. The first is that the problems that Saudi Arabia is facing are genuine problems, and interesting ones. What the Saudis are trying to do is hard, and there is no obvious pathway to success. They are open to advice from outside, and they will need it, even while responsibility still rests with them.

The second is that the Saudi reform effort is important, and Americans have an interest in how it evolves. This is partly for narrow reasons of U.S. national security. A Saudi Arabia that is more secure and stable and partners with the United States advances U.S. interests, while a Saudi Arabia that is beset by challenges and swings wildly at its adversaries harms U.S. interests. More broadly, the United States has an interest in more inclusive governance around the world, and the course Saudi Arabian reform takes can either advance or hinder that trend. It is hard to influence the country’s transformation if one stays aloof from it.

I appreciate the argument that some make to insist on some further form of Saudi change to make reengagement possible. But frankly, no form of “accountability” will bring Jamal Khashoggi back or fully satisfy people rightfully outraged by his murder. Similarly, political openness in Saudi Arabia almost certainly will remain shy of what I’d like for the rest of my professional career, and the Yemen war will remain a stain for years to come. At the same time, the Houthis are by no means a benign actor, and insisting on a peace agreement prior to reengaging with Saudi Arabia gives the Houthis a veto. They are not the sort of people I’d like to hold a veto.

The nature of our national cynicism is that any willingness to engage with Saudi Arabia is called out as a venal quest for dollars, and the nature of our political cynicism is that such reengagement is interpreted as a willingness to shill for a foreign government. But three decades in the Middle East have taught me several things. One is that Saudi Arabia has a huge influence throughout the region; the second is that you learn more from engaging with people you don’t agree with than with people you do.

Reengaging with Saudi Arabia does not wipe away the country’s mistakes, and it doesn’t prevent the country from making new ones. Those mistakes will rightly put a drag on how much people are willing to engage with the kingdom for some time to come. But refusing to reengage on principle neither accelerates reforms nor improves conditions for Saudis or their neighbors.

President Biden’s upcoming visit is appropriate not because it marks an end in bilateral tensions, but because it marks a determination to work together to reduce them. There is still a great deal of work to be done, and many of us have constructive roles to play. We should not shy away from playing them.

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program