How Saudi Arabia can help Win the War on Terrorism

Saudi Arabia has long been aligned with US interests in the Middle East, a partnership going back to the 1940s. Even after 9/11, with 15 of the 19 hijackers being Saudi, the conventional wisdom was that we needed Saudi Arabia on our side to prevent future attacks and to keep stability in the Middle East. At most any point in the last 20 years, it would have been reasonable to argue that without Saudi support, oil prices would skyrocket and the Middle East could fall apart opening the doors for more terrorism. However, even with unflagging support for the Saudis, that is exactly what happened, oil stayed over $100 a barrel for years, the region went up in flames and ISIS become a global force. So what did we really get for our bargain?

We certainly didn’t get stability, but we did allow Saudi to remain the symbol for any extremist in the world who wanted to subjugate women, religious minorities, or really anyone for that matter, and point to Saudi Arabia and its institutional subjugation as its justification. The difficult thing was that even though women in Saudi Arabia were forced into a govt imposed dress code, limited in their occupations, needed a males permission to do many ordinary acts like buy property or travel overseas, and lived in the only place in the world that didn’t allow them to drive, life for women was better than in many other places. Contrary to popular belief, stonings for adultery, honor killings, and female circumcision were virtually non-existent. While these are often more a result of tribal traditions than Islam itself, it is clear that Islam is used to justify these practices in other predominantly Muslim countries, and thus has to play a role in stopping them.

When govt officials visit Saudi Arabia ready to argue for greater rights, they were faced with the reality that it simply wasn’t as big an issue for Saudis as they were led to believe: many women had drivers, didn’t need to work and actually had much more freedom to shop, socialize and work than the western media usually portrayed. Therefore their arguments were blunted by a steady stream of Saudi govt supplied, well-educated and well-spoken women that argued that immediate change in their country wasn’t necessary and would happen at its own pace. Saudis have perfected the art of hospitality and disarming visitors with charm and just enough truth to sufficiently obfuscate the issues.

Of course these voices were not universal and many women had been campaigning tirelessly, and with many consequences, for greater rights for many years. The first women’s driving protests happened in 1990. However, the social situation in the country allowed most women to live generally comfortable lives, and exceptions were carved out, such as for foreign drivers being allowed, even though they were unrelated males. Hypocrisy is perfectly acceptable in Saudi Arabia, I would say even encouraged by the government if it helps them meet their end goals, such as pumping oil. For example, women aren’t allowed to drive, work with men or go out in public uncovered, and churches can’t operate, except on the grounds of the national oil company where the Kingdom discovered westerners were not willing to remain without these freedoms, so all of those things are allowed there and a few other select locations.

The social situation in the country may finally force change on the Kingdom, oil prices have crashed, requiring government spending cuts. Furthermore, as the cost of living has increased more women need to work just to make ends meet, but without the luxury of a driver or a usable mass transit system, they can’t get to work. The most compelling reason may be that the Saudis have spent massive sums educating women, many overseas, and are now seeing this incredible resource go untapped, further endangering their economy.

It drew worldwide news when women were allowed to run and vote in municipal council elections in 2015. While many people noted it as a sign of progress, it is also misleading because the councils have virtually no power and no one outside the Royal family, including Saudi males, have any meaningful vote in the country. Women were also recently granted the right to access their marriage contract, which previously could be kept by their husband, again, astonishing that it only occurred in 2016, but viewed as progress. Gradually society is going to force changes on Saudi Arabia, but the religious establishment will continue to fight them, encouraging extremists around the world to fight against greater rights themselves. Often times these extremists, whether in Bangaldesh, N. Africa or London, are actually far more extreme than most Saudis, and are usually disappointed to find out some of their role models actually drink alcohol, let their wives drive and go out uncovered when outside the Kingdom.

Rather than let the issue fester and encourage extremists to keep fighting, the Saudi leadership should announce an immediate end to all discrimination against women and religious minorities. In practice this would probably be phased in relatively slowly, but publicly it should be made clear to the world that Saudi Arabia abhors the practices of ISIS, the Taliban and other extremists groups and regrets any role it played in their formation, including funding mosques that preached subjugation in many of these places.

The Saudis shouldn’t need the threat of losing US support to undertake these measures, and if it appears they are doing it under threat or extortion from the west, it will only make matters worse by giving fuel to religious extremists. Regardless, we shouldn’t be so worried about the Saudis turning away from us now that we have essentially reached energy independence, China and India are the ones mostly reliant on Saudi oil now, and the Saudis have shown no ability to broker peace in the region. On the contrary, their indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen, using weapons bought from the US, has only made things worse.

The best chance we have to turn the tide against Muslim extremists is for Saudi Arabia to completely rebuke the extremist’s philosophy. The Saudis have tried to avoid this because they are afraid of the consequences within the country, preferring to export extremism rather than have an internal battle. But for once, everything is aligned to make it happen. Support for these changes is probably at its highest level ever in Saudi, and the specter of Islamic extremism has finally gotten so bad that it can’t be ignored. Unfortunately the disaster in Syria and Iraq have already created a generation of radicals, but taking away their legitimacy would be a huge step in combatting them.