I write from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
I lived in Saudi Arabia when the current king came to the throne and I have several Saudi family members—it’s certainly good to be back. In a region engulfed in instability, the malls and mosques of Riyadh offer calm and continuity. But for how much longer?
I am set to meet government officials and others during my visit to better understand the domestic and regional challenges facing Saudi Arabia, and the responses they offer.
Saudi Arabia is at the helm of Muslim monarchies. It remains a key strategic ally of the United States: the symbiotic relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States sustains global oil supplies, fuels economic growth, maintains international security, and bolsters the indirect leverage of the United States in regional dealings with Syria, Yemen, Palestine, Tunisia, Iran, and even Pakistan. Riyadh’s role in quelling protests in Bahrain, or lack of positive results in combating Iranian influence in Lebanon and Iraq tell a different story, however.
Saudi Arabia has a long history of defying the odds. In 1953, when the founding king of the country King Abdul Aziz passed away, most predicted the breakup of the kingdom around sectarian and regional lines. It did not happen. When in 1954, Nasser unleashed revolutionary fervor from Cairo, many thought the House of Saud would fall promptly. Again, nothing happened. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, another wave of talk of overthrow and change swept Saudi Arabia. Nothing materialized. King Fahd’s reign between 1982 and 2005 led to a flood of books written by royals and other insiders who proclaimed the imminent downfall of the government. Between 2002 and 2006, al-Qaeda’s campaign of attacks in Riyadh and elsewhere caused fear that the House of Saud had lost control of the country.
At every juncture, the Saudi establishment has proven that it has staying power. Those that predicted and planned for its downfall were wrong. To continue to survive, the monarchy needs to urgently introduce political and social reforms. Western obsession with wanting to see Saudi women drive cars is a red herring. In Princess Basma Bint Saud Bin Abdulaziz’s recent article with the BBC she presented a wise, visionary way forward for liberalizing Saudi Arabia. She argues this should happen through the writing of a constitution, changes in divorce laws, ending the role of male chaperones, and reforming the education and social services systems.
I hope to better understand Saudi Arabia during my days here. I invite you to join me in learning more about this important country by following me on Twitter @Ed_Husain. From Saudi Arabia, I will travel to Bahrain.