As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads for Saudi Arabia this week, some may ask whether she will wear a head scarf in the conservative kingdom. Well, President Obama bowed to the Saudi king in 2009 (in an unexpected, unwarranted moved that was widely rebuked) so his top diplomat wearing a hijab would not be out of the ordinary. Former first lady Laura Bush donned a head scarf in Saudi, as did former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in Tajikistan. But that’s not the real challenge—what matters most is that Secretary Clinton’s agenda in Saudi Arabia should include the following questions:
- When it comes to religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, where is tangible progress? The king hosted a Saudi interfaith conference in Madrid in 2008 and the assertion was that now that Shia Muslims, Jews, Christians and others were at the Saudi top table they would soon be invited for a similar, high-profile event inside the kingdom. When is that to happen? Legitimizing these minorities, alongside Hindus and others, allows for Islam’s homeland to become demonstrably pluralistic. If Saudi Arabia leads, other Muslim communities in Egypt and Pakistan will follow.
- Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education deserves applause for the recent removal of anti-Semitic and openly jihadi material from their school curriculum. But the control of the mutawwa’a, or Saudi religious police, of the public space in the kingdom remains strong. Forbidding women to drive stems from the control of this Wahhabi force. Speeding up and implementing women’s right to travel freely within and without the kingdom, equal inheritance, gender parity in court, full participation in politics, and yes, the right to drive sends a strong message to Wahhabi extremists that they do not control the country through their proxy princes and ministries. When will the king deliver?
- Saudi Arabia cannot credibly seek to empower the Syrian opposition while crushing its own Shia minorities in the Eastern province and while quelling Bahrain’s revolt. Saudi foreign policy, and its proximity to the United States, gains depth, worth, and impact by demonstrably accepting the demands of sensible Saudi opposition activists. What measures are in place to ensure that the 2015 municipal elections will be free and fair, where women and minorities can partake fully?
No doubt trade, economic, terrorism, and energy issues will be on the table too. But these all become increasingly threatened if the sociopolitical imbalance of the Saudi state and society is not addressed as a matter of immediate urgency.