Ed Husain

The Arab Street

Husain examines politics, society, and radicalism in the greater Middle East.

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Secretary Clinton in Saudi Arabia: Questions for the King

by Ed Husain
March 28, 2012

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah speaks in Riyadh in February 2012 (Handout/Courtesy Reuters). Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah speaks in Riyadh in February 2012 (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.


  • Posted by Dmitry

    Saudi Arabia is veeeery long way from becoming pluralistic and open society.

    Not sure the king is interested. Not sure Americans are interested either: medieval laws, public executions et cetera did not prevent the “friendship” based on oil and arms trade.

  • Posted by Bruce Fenton

    These kind of questions pressume a bit of American arrogance : why on earth should we be questioning the way a sovreign nation does things? How would Americans react to Secty Clinton’s counterpart, the Foreign Minister coming to lecture President Obama on changes we should make in religious, education and foriegn policy reform? Do we ask for religious reform in China, Russia, Israel, the Vatican or elsewhere? Saudi Arabia is not perfect, but neither are we. I’d suggest we get our own house in order before lecturing the world on what it needs to do.

  • Posted by Mohammad Saatnia

    These engineered events taking place in the Middle East and even in the West claiming to be struggle for reform, freedom, and democracy looks like a parent trying to answer a child’s question about sex. We keep turning away from the main subject, lie, and pretend.

    We say we believe in democracy, we respect human values, and we want to export Western ideology on freedom, separation of church and state.

    These values neither have been recognized, nor respected, nor established, in the west for example the separation of the church and state. We keep working with two major countries in the Middle East that their very being is because they are religious states Israel and Saudi Arabia the two most ultra orthodox and/or fundamentalists’ in the world.

    Countries like Saudi Arabia have no moral authority to tell others what to do. May be in 50 years women in Saudi Arabia will have the rights that women in Syria have now. We cannot wait for a few months to see the result of the elections in Syria, now we have to wait until 2015 to see even if Saudi Arabia is going to hold elections for the first time, let alone a true and free election. Half of the people in Saudi Arabia are 3rd citizens yes women.

    Based on what has taken place in this world in last 1000 years, based on the behavior of the West towards their colonies. The method used in the creation of many Western countries for example U.S. The treatment that Palestinians and Israeli neighbors have been receiving from the government and offensive armed forces in Israel. We have no moral authority to tell any one what to do.

    If majority of 9/11 terrorists came from Saudi Arabia then why did we go to Iraq and Afghanistan and after 1.5 trillion dollars national debt and over 8000 soldiers killed in the process; What is the reason for treating Saudi Arabia as a great country and/or the crown jewel of the Middle East? Or a role model for the rest of the 1.7 billion Muslims in the world?

    I am not sure whether we should care about the possibility of Hillary wearing a headscarf.

  • Posted by Jon

    Bruce said “Saudi Arabia is not perfect, but neither are we. I’d suggest we get our own house in order before lecturing the world on what it needs to do.”

    As an American who lives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia I can attest to the fact that our “house” is in excellent order compared to Saudi Arabia’s “house.” According to Bruce’s logic we would have to perfect ourselves before excepting or asking for even an iota of change from anyone else, not a realistic, or morally justifiable, option.

  • Posted by AMM

    regarding question # 2:
    you seem missing the true point on the role of religion in SA. The issues of the religious police and the ban on women driving ARE political tools in the hand of the Saudi gov to score few points in the eyes of the largely deceived population. Prince Nayef who is supposed to be the one behind the ban is just using it for political agendas and he could allow women to drive any time if he wish and he WILL have the religious clerics on his payroll to issue Fatwas supporting him.
    I suggest this book to understand how the Al Saud are manipulating religion to rule unquestionably.