Saudi Arabia today actually reminds me vividly of Egypt circa 2004, with a rapidly transforming public sphere and rising citizen demands finding little opportunity for expression in the formal political realm. While such comparisons are fraught with problems, I could not avoid the echoes. Almost everyone I met pointed to Twitter as a dramatic new Saudi public sphere in a country that never used to have a meaningful public sphere at all. I'm primed to be skeptical about such claims, but they ring true in a country with exceptionally tight control over all other media and exceptionally high levels of social media use (among the highest per capita in the world for YouTube and by far the most Twitter users in the Middle East). The willingness to openly discuss the most sensitive and contentious issues and the role of social media in widening the zone of open debate was there, as was deep frustration with formal politics and the inability to sketch out a clear path to political change. It isn't just the famous @mujtahhid spilling royal family secrets. It is the ferocious, no-holds-barred online discussion of virtually everything -- and the open mocking of those royals brave enough to join the discussion. One prominent journalist told me that officials had recently allowed a slightly more independent political talk show onto the airwaves primarily because they were all too aware of the far more critical discourse routinely circulating on Twitter.
Thus far, the virtual protests have not been able to move into the streets in force, except in the east, which has experienced a sustained, serious challenge to the systematic discrimination against Shiite citizens. Activists from Qatif with whom I met while visiting the Eastern Province gave a consistent account of pervasive, systematic discrimination and a dangerous cycle of violence. They rejected the common claim that they had been inspired by Bahrain or by Iran -- they claimed inspiration from Tunisia and Egypt, and made constitutional and citizenship rather than sectarian demands. But while those protests have not spread to the Sunni majority areas of Saudi Arabia, in part due to the active promotion of sectarian discourse at home and abroad by the regime, the crackdown against reformers pushing for legal accountability, the release of political prisoners, and constitutional change strikes me as a sign of regime weakness, not strength. The imprisonment of the liberal writer Turki al-Hamed over his tweets, or the throwing of youth into prison without charges over their Facebook posts, suggests a regime uncertain about itself and over how to manage the sudden transformation of the public debate.
What should the United States do about this changing Saudi Arabia? Its real dependence on Saudi oil, Riyadh's key role in the current security architecture, and the transition costs of a new strategy can't be wished away. Allies should be engaged with a presumption of partnership, not one-sided lectures or sudden, erratic policy shifts. But America cannot continue to ignore the increasingly clear tension between its stated policy goals. It should at least avoid accepting or endorsing the status quo, and should do far more to nurture the emerging new Saudi public sphere. For instance, the symbolism of President Obama's unusual meeting with new Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, which looked to many Saudis like an endorsement of someone they identify with the most repressive and anti-democratic trends in the kingdom, was unfortunate.
Does Washington have any leverage? Maybe. The day after his lengthy interrogation over various ill-defined charges, the impressive human rights campaigner Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani told me that the United States urgently needed to do more to support these emerging voices. Qahtani, like others, thinks that Obama could significantly help this emerging new reformist discourse -- and that engaging with them would ultimately be decisively in the interests of both Washington and Saudi Arabia itself. While many were dismissive of the 30 women appointed by King Abdullah to the Shura Council, for instance, one women's rights activist with whom I spoke argued strongly for its significance. Their presence, she insisted, was symbolically important and would make it far easier for them to get women's issues onto the Shura Council's (admittedly lean) agenda. If this were simply a public relations move to appease the United States ("the Hillary Clinton Council," as several Saudis called it), she argued, then it should be taken as a positive example of how American pressure could help. Change will not come quickly, but Obama should speak out against the prosecution of such liberal reformists and apply the same standards on the right to free expression in Saudi Arabia that he does elsewhere in the region.
In his inaugural address, Obama declared again, "We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom." If the president is serious about this, and genuinely hopes to shape a regional order based on more democratic and open allies, then he will not be able to avoid the Saudi exception indefinitely. It will not be welcome, but he should support the demands of all Arab citizens for transparency, accountability and pluralism -- even in hard cases like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.