In Riyadh last week, where I was speaking to a small private workshop, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to the United States, introduced me by reading several excerpts from my recent FP column: "Bahrain crushed its opposition with impunity," he read. And then: "Obama chose to rely on the Gulf monarchies against Iran, which made it exceptionally difficult for him to meaningfully pressure them to reform or to block their counterrevolutionary intervention in Bahrain." His polite but pointed comment: "These words are not accepted in the Gulf."
That was putting it mildly. For much of the week, I heard sharp disagreements from Saudis on Bahrain, which they for the most part saw not as a peaceful uprising but as an Iranian-backed campaign of violent subversion that had to be put down to restore order. Perhaps a few agreed, at least privately, on the unjustifiable nature of the campaign of repression that followed -- even if the protesters had sympathies with Iran, could that justify their torture and indefinite detention? -- and the dim prospects for stability without a serious new political initiative. But that rarely extended to an acceptance of the authenticity or legitimacy of the Bahraini protest movement.
The yawning gap in our views of Bahrain reflected a more general disconnect between Washington and Riyadh on regional order. Saudi Arabia's hostility toward the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and its coordinated efforts to block change in the Gulf and in allied monarchies across the region, works directly against the stated American goal of promoting reform. Its support for the crushing of the Bahraini protest movement and rehabilitation of an unrepentant regime left a gaping hole in American credibility. Saudi domestic policies, from women's rights to the treatment of its Shiite minority to the absence of democracy and repression of the public sphere, are manifestly incompatible with any liberal vision. And should the Obama administration attempt serious negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, it will find a skeptical partner indeed in Riyadh.
The tension cuts to the heart of my vision for U.S. Middle East strategy of a "right-sized" military and political presence combined with stronger commitment to political reform and public engagement. Indeed, America's alliance with Saudi Arabia remains the greatest contradiction inherent in its attempt to align itself with popular aspirations for change in the region. A Saudi exception certainly makes things such as coordinating the containment of Iran easier for diplomats on a daily basis. But it sustains and perpetuates a regional order which over the long term is costly to sustain and clearly at odds with American normative preferences.
Some American analysts, notably Toby Jones, have therefore called repeatedly for a wholesale rethinking of the U.S.-Saudi alliance. He argues persuasively that "Washington's clear preference for the status quo in the Gulf has come at considerable cost to activists in the region. The U.S. has enabled the Gulf regimes to behave badly; the regimes, for their part, have exploited geopolitical rivalries to consolidate power at home." What would such a rethinking actually look like, though? We should recognize and attempt to break that vicious cycle. I don't think that the United States can or should abandon its strategic posture in the Gulf -- certainly not overnight. But it should be much more forthright in pushing for reforms and supporting universal human rights in all of its allies. This is the time for Washington to be actively thinking about how to use its very real strategic imperative of reducing its military commitments to the region as leverage over those allies to reform. Putting those together, along with sustained dialogue with Saudis from the royal family down through all sectors of the public, could help to create a greater coherence in America's regional strategy.
I don't believe that Saudi Arabia is poised for a revolution (though a lot of people in Riyadh wanted to know whether Bruce Riedel's views were widely shared in Washington). Even the most determined reformers with whom I spoke told me that they expected meaningful change in a longer time frame (some said three to five years, others five to 10 --- an eternity in American strategic practice). But "revolution" sets the bar too high. The changes that have already taken place -- from the furious protests in the Eastern Province to the renewed push for women's rights to a legal campaign for human rights to the dramatic opening of online public debate -- strike me as profoundly important. It simply does not seem plausible that a country with such a young and intensely wired population can maintain indefinitely a system which denies transparency, accountability, or equal citizenship.
Saudi Arabia has clearly been deeply affected by the Arab Spring, even if demands for political change have thus far been blocked through a mix of repression and co-optation. Recurrent economic and institutional problems, along with widely perceived corruption, generate significant distress among Saudis. Almost everyone I met, from Shiite activists in the Eastern Province to youth activists, women's rights campaigners, and human rights lawyers in Riyadh, identified Tunisia, Egypt, and the Arab Spring as the spark for a new form of domestic mobilization. The connection between Saudi Arabia's domestic crackdown and its regional policy seems clear. Riyadh's crackdown on its own reformists and massive domestic spending boom mirrored the support it offered for beleaguered monarchies in the Gulf, Jordan and Morocco.