The U.S., Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring

MS. DIANE REHM

10:06:54
Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Saudi Arabia has been a powerhouse in the Middle East for decades, but its influence began to change last February when the first pro-democracy protest erupted in Tunisia. For the U.S., its longtime relationship with the oil-rich country has taken on new challenges.

MS. DIANE REHM

10:07:22
Joining me to talk about how the Arab Spring complicates the relationship between the two countries: Robin Wright -- she is a journalist and foreign policy analyst -- Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center. Feel free to join us. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.

MS. ROBIN WRIGHT

10:08:06
Good morning.

MR. CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK

10:08:06
Good morning.

MR. AARON DAVID MILLER

10:08:07
Good morning.

REHM

10:08:08
Robin Wright, how would you characterize the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia today?

WRIGHT

10:08:16
Well, after decades of being critical, both politically and economically, to each other, there are visible tensions between Washington and Riyadh over the course of the Arab Spring, over what to do about Iran, over even basic things such as, you know, the future of oil prices and what it takes to move forward in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and Egypt were once pillars of U.S. policy in the region.

WRIGHT

10:08:47
Today, you find the United States having made an adjustment on Egypt, but having -- coming into conflict increasingly with Saudi Arabia over democracy, over how far to go on Iran and its controversial nuclear program.

REHM

10:09:05
Is Saudi Arabia becoming a liability for the U.S.?

WRIGHT

10:09:10
To some degree, yes, and some -- to some degree, Saudi Arabia is the biggest obstacle in the U.S. push for democratic change in the region. It has not only backed Bahrain's repression, it is trying to mobilize an alliance of Arab states that will stand up to the protesters. It -- after years of tension with Syria, it would like to see, in some ways, the Assad regime stay in power because that is stability.

WRIGHT

10:09:42
Its primary goal is stability, whereas, for the first time, the United States is beginning to push increasingly for democracy, political openings, economic liberalization.

REHM

10:09:52
Robin Wright, her new book due out next month is titled, "Rock the Casbah." Turning to you, Aaron David Miller, give us a little background on that relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and how they became so closely allied.

MILLER

10:10:13
You know, it's fascinating. The United States developed two "special relationships" in the 1940s and early '50s. The first, obviously, was the U.S.-Israeli relationship, which is still designated as a special one. And the second relationship, which needs to be mentioned as well, was the emergence of a very special relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, premised basically on a tradeoff, that in return for security, our capacity to offer military assistance, collective security, to the degree we could provide it, Saudis would be a reliable producer and guarantor of oil.

MILLER

10:10:49
Now, what has happened in the course of the last decade -- well before the emergence of the Arab Spring and, of course, the Arab winter -- is the unraveling of that relationship. From the Saudi perspective, we're no longer viewed as a source of security. The Saudis see us -- in answer to your first question -- to some degree, a liability. We, for the first time in 1,000 years, put a Shia regime into Iraq.

MILLER

10:11:13
And that's just one of the problems they have with us. Increasing democratization, conflicts over Bahrain, the way we responded to Mubarak in Egypt -- all of these things have injected some serious tensions into the relationship.

REHM

10:11:26
Aaron David Miller, he's at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. And to you, Chris Boucek, I understand that you worked for four years at the embassy here in D.C. as a media analyst for the Saudis. Why do you believe the relationship between the two countries is now so strained?

BOUCEK

10:11:54
Well, I think there's this growing perception in Riyadh that the Americans don't know what they're doing. I think the Saudis look out and are very concerned about how the Americans are going to go in from problem to problem without a larger plan. And, I think, when you look and you see that the Americans very quickly turned on Mubarak, from a Saudi perspective, I think this is especially troubling in a part of the world where loyalty and personal relationships are the most important thing.

REHM

10:12:20
So you're saying that the Saudis felt the U.S. should have stayed with Mubarak longer?

BOUCEK

10:12:29
I think the Saudis wanted to see Mubarak stay and did an awful lot to try to send that message, not only in Washington, but in the region. And I think there's also a concern that as the United States draws down from Iraq, how the United States will engage in Gulf security. And I think there is, you know, for some time, there's been this building feeling in Riyadh that American national security interests maybe don't overlap 100 percent with Saudi foreign policy interest. Therefore, Saudi Arabia needs to go out and do its own thing.

REHM

10:12:57
Christopher Boucek, he's an associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Robin Wright, would you agree that the U.S. handling of Hosni Mubarak changed everything? Or was it much, much more than that?

WRIGHT

10:13:18
Well, it was clearly a turning point. King Abdullah personally intervened with President Obama to try to get him -- convince him to allow Hosni Mubarak to remain in power through the -- through September when the Egyptians are supposed to hold presidential elections anyway. And this was to allow the dignity and a period of a more natural transition.

WRIGHT

10:13:40
And one of the most telling moments in U.S. foreign policy on the region was when President Mubarak rebuffed the king and publicly issued a statement that said that it was time for Hosni Mubarak to go and that they -- he appreciated the Saudis' interest and assistance in the region but, basically, gave them the cold shoulder, which is publicly embarrassing for the Saudis. And they have felt slightly betrayed by the United States, particularly after putting their neck on the line on the Arab-Israeli peace process.

WRIGHT

10:14:14
The Saudis in the early 1980s came up with the so-called (word?) plan that then became the Arab League plan to accept Israel diplomatically and to recognize Israel in exchange for a peace process. The Saudis, taking that very daring initiative two decades ago, almost three decades ago now, and having backed it over and over and over despite the fact the Israelis have not been as cooperative as the Arabs would like to see, particularly on issues having to do with settlements.

WRIGHT

10:14:46
And the Saudis felt that when the United States turned on them on an Arab issue, that the United States was acting beyond its territory, its domain, that this was something that was -- something for the Arab world to decide, not the United States.

REHM

10:15:04
Aaron.

MILLER

10:15:05
I think that Robin accurately describes the nature of the difficulties. We have -- but I don't want to allow the pendulum to swing too far to the other side. The reality is we have common concerns with the Saudis: Iran, al-Qaida, the situation in Yemen. But common concerns do not -- and this, I think, is a key point -- invariably translate into a common strategy, and here is where the basic problem lies.

MILLER

10:15:29
Because if you look at the core issues in which we are now involved -- Iraq, democratization, the Arab-Israeli peace process, even our view in Bahrain -- they seem to all be at odds with the Saudi view of realities. The Saudis increasingly see themselves as encircled, and they look at the United States as some sort of Gulliver wandering around -- modern day Gulliver wandering around in the part of the world that tied up by its own illusions and its -- the imperfections in its policies.

MILLER

10:15:58
So like many other aspects of the Arab Spring -- and I want to add the Arab Winter in Syria, in Bahrain and in Yemen, where there is no Arab Spring -- the space available for America in this region in the short term is going to contract and contract very seriously. And we have some serious challenges in the next year.

REHM

10:16:18
Christopher.

BOUCEK

10:16:19
Well, I would completely agree. I mean, I think the one thing that I think Saudis loathe the most is uncertainty or instability. And I think they look at what's going on as all of their friends in the region are following, and this is terrible for Saudi foreign policy. You know, the United States and Saudi Arabia used to disagree on internal Saudi political matters, but they generally would agree on regional and international issues.

BOUCEK

10:16:46
But I think that's starting to change with Bahrain and with a number of other issues. And it seems, typically, the United States goes to Saudi Arabia and wants the Saudis to get involved in American foreign policy endeavors, if it's Taliban mediation or if it's the peace process or whatever. This relationship needs much better management.

BOUCEK

10:17:06
And it needs the Americans to go to Riyadh and say, Saudi Arabia has certain foreign policy interests, and we have foreign policy interest that overlap. And this is when the relationship is the best, when we're both working towards a common goal.

WRIGHT

10:17:18
There's another issue that's looming, and that is the price of oil. And one of the things Saudi Arabia has done since the Arab uprisings began was use its very vast resources to buy off its population. King Abdullah, since March, has pledged $130 billion, basically in economic perks, having to do with everything from unemployment to literary clubs, to helping people get out of debt and debtors' prison.

WRIGHT

10:17:48
These are buyouts, and that has affected the price of oil. A decade ago, Saudi Arabia's break-even point in oil income was $20 to $25. Last year, it was $68 a barrel. Because of the sedition, it's today $88 a barrel. And by 2015, it will be $110 a barrel just to break even on its own budget, not to have any surplus. And so Saudi Arabia has very different interest today than we do when it comes to the price of oil.

REHM

10:18:19
Robin Wright, she is journalist, foreign policy analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and we'll take just a short break and be right back.

REHM

10:20:03
And welcome back. Here in the studio, Christopher Boucek. He's at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, he's former adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, author of a forthcoming book, "Can America Have Another Great President?" And Robin Wright, she's a journalist and foreign policy analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

REHM

10:20:43
And the lines are open if you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Chris Boucek, why do you believe we have not seen any pro-democracy uprisings, outbreaks, strikes in Saudi Arabia?

BOUCEK

10:21:13
I think there are a few reasons. I think -- first of all, I think King Abdullah is still incredibly popular, relatively speaking, right, compared to others in the region. But, typically, how the Saudis deal with challenges is through a combination of three different things. It's either force, money or religious ideology. Force is probably the least that they use. But in March, you know, when the protests were called, the Saudi security forces were out in strength.

REHM

10:21:38
Police. Huge numbers.

BOUCEK

10:21:41
There are a number of arrests in the Eastern Province with Shia, et cetera. The message was sent not to protest. The money that Robin mentioned, the $136 billion, is unbelievable, right? In fact, all of this came out of the bank with no impact on the Saudi economy. But the biggest aspect is probably the use of official clerical establishment and religious ideology.

BOUCEK

10:22:05
They got the official Ulama's issue -- fatwa saying that protesting was un-Islamic, that you couldn't do this and that if you want to effect political change, it was not by going out into the streets. And the clerical establishment and the religious establishment have been very well-rewarded in this recent round of spending. They've gotten large amounts of money. All of this comes together to send the message that this is not tolerated in Saudi Arabia.

REHM

10:22:33
Aaron.

MILLER

10:22:34
You know, the kings have fared much better than the presidents. I'd like to believe that it was something inherently compelling about monarchy and bonds with public opinion that account for that, but I'm not sure that's it. Either in Jordan, in Morocco, in Saudi Arabia, you have situations in which there appears to be more compelling bonds between the royals. You have smaller countries -- in the case of Saudi, you obviously have tremendous financial resources to throw away the problem.

MILLER

10:23:08
And you also, I think, have the fear of sectarian violence and conflict in these societies, which didn't seem to constrain the other movements. One additional point, though, we really do -- we, the United States, increasingly do have a problem. I mean, we cut deals 50 years ago with acquiescent autocrats and adversarial autocrats, people like Ben Ali and Mubarak, and people like the Assads and even the Saudis.

MILLER

10:23:37
And these bargains are now coming unraveled. And the question is -- let's be happy about the fact that the Obama administration, which has had a very difficult time responding to all of these things, didn't have a major crisis on its hands with respect to Saudi Arabia. What would we do, given the Saudi's centrality in the oil market and their security, strategic position, if the kingdom faced serious unrest and we were forced, in the response to (word?) oppression...

REHM

10:24:10
How do you answer that, Aaron?

MILLER

10:24:11
...to make a -- well, I -- I mean, two very smart people are to my right here. And I think it's -- I pose the question because I'm not sure, frankly, in view of the way the Obama administration has reacted over the last five months -- because they've reacted in so many different ways -- what, in fact, they would do.

REHM

10:24:30
Robin.

WRIGHT

10:24:31
Well, U.S. policy has been inconsistent when it comes to countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on one hand, and Egypt and Tunisia on the other. And that's one of the criticisms, I think, history will have of the administration. But I do think Saudi Arabia is incredibly vulnerable. And even though it's been able to co-op its population right now with its oil money, that, long-term, it faces the same realities that all of these countries do.

WRIGHT

10:24:55
The demographics are the same. The majority of the Saudi population is under 30. They have huge -- I think it's one-third of the population between the ages of 20 and 24 are unemployed. That -- you have education levels growing, and people now, including among women, have aspirations that exceed beyond the home. They want to be part of society, whether it is professionally or personally, and they want to drive.

WRIGHT

10:25:18
I mean, there are a lot of things that -- issues that are on the table. And the reality is the average age of the cabinet ministers in Saudi Arabia is 65. The king is 87, and the next two in line for the throne are both in either late 70s or early 80s. And so we're talking about a real generation gap that actually is two generation gaps. And so the same factors come into play in Saudi Arabia. They may be able to buy time, but that's all they're able to buy.

REHM

10:25:47
And, Chris, what about the growing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

BOUCEK

10:25:54
I think this is how the Saudis look at most issues, especially in the region, as a zero-sum game, that if Iran wins, Saudi Arabia loses. And you definitely saw this in Bahrain. Both Bahrain and Yemen are not foreign policy issues in Saudi Arabia. These are domestic policy issues. And when you talk to the Saudis, they will say, you know, we could not tolerate having a Shia Iranian-style government in Bahrain.

BOUCEK

10:26:17
We couldn't let Hezbollah be right on our border like that. Why would anyone allow that? But I think this is how Saudi foreign policy gets viewed through this competition with Iran. Even people who should probably know better still talk about Iran as this huge specter that they need to confront.

REHM

10:26:38
And, Aaron, both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia continue to believe that Iran has some nuclear weaponry.

MILLER

10:26:50
Yeah, or it will at some point.

REHM

10:26:52
Or will.

MILLER

10:26:52
Yeah, there's only one country, frankly, that will stop that. And that's the Iranians themselves should they reach the conclusion that the costs of crossing this nuclear threshold are prohibited. It's just that the Saudis, as much as they fear the Iranians and want them emasculated, do not want to become the centerpiece in the Obama administration's collective security pact with respect to countering Iran. So it's ambivalent, very ambivalent.

MILLER

10:27:19
They don't want American forces in the kingdom. It's a serious problem for them. Nor do they want to be associated with an American, let alone an Israeli, effort to attack Iran and deal with the nuclear issue.

REHM

10:27:36
Chris?

BOUCEK

10:27:36
Oh, I would agree, and I think the -- for all of the difficulties in the relationship, ultimately, the United States and Saudi Arabia are stuck with one another. And this relationship still is a relatively strong relationship when you consider all of the ways in which we work together. It's changing, though, and I think the points that Robin raised about the price of oil are really significant, the fact that this new spending package has driven up the price of oil, which the Saudi budget has set.

BOUCEK

10:28:04
So now it's about $86 to $88 per barrel. The Saudi budget has fixed that. We need to break even. Saudi Arabia used to be, you know -- or people used to talk about Saudi Arabia as being a moderating force in the international oil market. And I don't think that's probably going to be the case anymore. I think, instead, they'll be working to prevent the oil market from overheating instead of driving the price down.

REHM

10:28:23
And, Robin, Yemen's president, Saleh, is now receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. What role does Saudi Arabia play in the outcome for Yemen?

WRIGHT

10:28:40
This is one issue where the United States and Saudi Arabia are totally in synch. They're both concerned about whether it's al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula, which was once based in Saudi Arabia. They are concerned about instability. Yemen is the poorest and the most populous country in the Persian Gulf. It's not a member of the GCC. Osama bin Laden's family -- his father -- came from Yemen.

WRIGHT

10:29:02
And there is the real danger that because of tribalism, secessionist campaigns, that Yemen becomes so unstable it is the new Afghanistan. And so this is the one place that, in the short-term, the two sides are likely to chart a common course. Saudi Arabia has helped negotiate an offer to President Saleh. It's been on the table now for several months. Saleh originally agreed to it, that he would hand over power to his vice president.

WRIGHT

10:29:28
He would, you know, walk away over a short period of time. He agreed to that three times, backed away, which led to increased strife. He was injured. He's now in Saudi Arabia. And the big question, of course, is will the Saudis try to keep him there? It looks, short-term, as if his injuries are such that he won't be able to return anytime soon. And that's...

REHM

10:29:50
Fairly serious injury, you're saying.

WRIGHT

10:29:53
Serious injuries, reportedly burns over 40 percent of his body, other injuries as well, in which case, you could let facts on the ground begin to play out politically. The danger is, without a resolution, something tangible, which all parties in Yemen agree, then you have continued chaos, and that's where United States and Saudi Arabia, short term, will agree.

WRIGHT

10:30:17
But once -- if there is a resolution on that, then we get in to the broader area -- other areas of the Middle East where they are largely in disagreement. And the Saudis have even split with their own GCC neighbors. Qatar and the UAE, for example, are -- have -- are part of the NATO-led campaign against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. And Saudi Arabia has not been as supportive, let's say, of that initiative.

REHM

10:30:47
Mm hmm. Aaron.

MILLER

10:30:49
Relationship is too important to use that oft now repeated phrase, too big to fail, so to speak, given the amount of proven reserves of the Saudis. It's not even that we're dependent. I mean, we import 50 percent of our oil. The Saudis, I think, are the fourth largest producer -- importer behind the Mexicans, the Canadians, the Nigerians and Venezuela.

MILLER

10:31:09
But all that oil on which others are dependent, given the nature of Saudi proven reserves and its strategic location, that will prove to be an adhesive. But Robin's quite correct. There are elements of tension, Arab-Israeli peace process, democratization and Bahrain, which is a continuing issue.

REHM

10:31:30
All right. Let's open the phones here. We have a call from Riyadh. Let's go to Nais. (sp?) Good morning. You're on the air.

NAIS

10:31:43
Yeah, my comment goes to Ms. Robin. She mentioned, I guess, before the break, the effect of the Saudi spending, I guess, buyouts on raising the break-even point of the Saudi budget. I was wondering, doesn't -- most analysts I hear talk about the -- lowering the weakening dollar as a manipulatory (sic) effect on the purchasing power of the Saudi government. Isn't that the main factor rather than just these (word?) spending?

REHM

10:32:09
Robin.

WRIGHT

10:32:10
No. In fact, I think it really has to do far more with, you know, Saudi's pledge to create an environment that -- in which people would not want to rise up against it. I think the price -- the fluctuating value of the dollar has very little to do with it.

REHM

10:32:28
Chris?

BOUCEK

10:32:30
I mean, I think the weakening of dollar was a way -- when he came back, there was going to be a spending package that was announced, a new social welfare package. Initially, there was a much smaller package that did not satisfy people, and then we saw a much, much larger package, $136 billion. I mean, I think this is not just buying off the population, but it's cycling money through the economy. It's things like a mortgage law. It's things like getting housing for people.

WRIGHT

10:32:57
But they have -- Saudi Arabia has a very significant unemployment problem. That's one of the ironies, that the majority of, I think, professional workers are non-Saudis. And yet you have youth -- you have an unemployment across the board that's something like 10 to 12 percent.

REHM

10:33:12
And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Joining us now is Ali al-Ahmed. He is director of the Gulf Institute. He grew up in Saudi Arabia. Good morning to you.

MR. ALI AL-AHMED

10:33:27
Good morning. Thanks for having me.

REHM

10:33:29
I'd be interested in your response to -- as the violence increases, for example, in Syria, Saudi Arabia has been fairly silent. Why is that?

AL-AHMED

10:33:45
The Saudi government has really practiced what I call soft oppression, you know? It's not like other countries where they shoot people in the streets. There are thousands and thousands of prisoners in Saudi Arabia that you don't hear much about them because of the nature of the society. There were protesters, protest -- attempt to protest even last week and even with the women driving.

AL-AHMED

10:34:08
So -- but Saudi Arabia, because its oil money has been able to build this magnificent media empire and buy off media even across the world to manipulate the media coverage in that country, it is really the modern Iron Curtain because a lot of stuff that happens in that country does not go out in the international media.

REHM

10:34:34
Modern Iron Curtain is quite a phrase, Robin.

WRIGHT

10:34:37
It is. Well, you asked about Syria, and I think this is a really important question. Now, there's a tremendous irony that Syria and Saudi Arabia were often rivals in the region on peace process, on ideology, and the Saudis were -- often found the Syrians the most difficult on peace process issues. And, today, the Saudis actually would like to see the Assad dynasty in Damascus remain in power because of this issue of stability.

WRIGHT

10:35:05
There is a general fear in Riyadh that if Syria goes through upheaval and the Assads are ousted, that the kind of uncertainty in Syria, the instability spreads and that the Sunni, you know, the dynamics change throughout the region.

REHM

10:35:24
Despite the fact that, apparently, the ruling Saudi family doesn't like President Assad.

WRIGHT

10:35:32
Absolutely, and this is one of the ironies. This is the one place where Iran and Saudi Arabia actually share a bit of a common interest in seeing the Damascus regime remain.

REHM

10:35:43
Ali.

AL-AHMED

10:35:44
Well, I think Robin is not right here because Saudi Arabia -- and first knowledge of mine that it's been supporting the Syrian opposition and sponsoring and paying for the conference that they've been holding and helping the Syrian uprising through its media arm, Al Arabiya, with extensive coverage and really sometimes going overboard. If you use the same arm in Bahrain, they're going the opposite direction on that.

AL-AHMED

10:36:13
So they are characterizing the uprising there as an Iranian plot. In Syria, they are showing all the bloody scenes and even adding some more. So you are really seeing a very clever monarchy that is smiling in your face, but, at the same time, they are, you know, helping your enemy. And that's how the Saudi, you know, classical policy has been always.

REHM

10:36:36
Aaron.

MILLER

10:36:37
First time I've heard it, but it's an intriguing perspective because what it suggests is Saudis really are striking out on their own and have made decisions, both exercising influence to the GCC and behind the scenes to guarantee and secure their own interests. They may well be hedging their bets as well as the arc on the Assads continues to head south.

REHM

10:36:57
Hedging their bets, Robin.

WRIGHT

10:36:59
To a certain degree. But, you know, I think Saudi Arabia would rather see if there's going to be some kind of change in Damascus. And there clearly has to be in some form. They would rather see a natural reform process rather than an upheaval that leads to instability in a country that is so critical. Syria borders Turkey and Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Iraq and this -- what happens in Syria affects everybody else.

REHM

10:37:26
Robin Wright. And when we come back, we'll open the phones. We have many callers. We'll try to get to as many of you as we can, your emails, your Facebook and tweets.

REHM

10:40:03
We have a most interesting email here, and I'd like to get your reaction to it. Our email user says, "Just to let you know, I was listening to this broadcast on my way home from work as I do each day. And 30 seconds into the show about Saudi Arabia, the broadcast was cut. It came back for a few minutes and then was cut off again. I work in a Saudi company. I've been in the kingdom for 10-plus years. My only comment would be that the youth of the country are very loyal to the king." Ali?

AL-AHMED

10:40:53
I think this is a presumption. Reality, I think, is a different matter. The fact that -- just from personal experience, my nephew with 200 other people are in prison today because they happened to be driving their cars or some of them participated in protest. And most of the prisoners in that country, 10,000-plus, are youth. Most of the youth in that country does not have access to jobs.

AL-AHMED

10:41:21
And the unemployment is very high, more than what Robin said, 10 percent. It's probably 40 percent, maybe more, according to bank statements, the Saudi French Bank. So there is some loyalty. The king has been able to gain a lot of goodwill with the population to paint himself as a reformer. And that is a very typical Saudi policy since the 1950s. Every king is a reformer, in the West and in the country. But he has hurdles in front of him.

REHM

10:41:47
And...

AL-AHMED

10:41:47
He's trying to do his best.

REHM

10:41:49
And, Robin, here's another email from Jeddah. "The broadcast was cut shortly after the introduction -- pardon me -- and while Robin Wright was speaking, it came on briefly again and then was cut."

WRIGHT

10:42:11
Well, Saudi Arabia tries to control its media and has for a long time. I'm not surprised, frankly, that they would cut off a broadcast that talks rather candidly about the problems inside Saudi Arabia and between Riyadh and Washington.

REHM

10:42:27
Chris.

BOUCEK

10:42:28
I would agree. And I think -- to pick up on Ali's point, I think when you look at what has been going on in Saudi Arabia for the past 10 or so years, this is not about reform, right? This is about institutionalizing the state. And I think there's a certain amount of perspective that's probably useful, right? If you think that, in the course of 80, 90 years, this country, Saudi Arabia, has gone through what it's taken other countries, our country, hundreds of years to go through, right?

BOUCEK

10:42:51
So within living memory of your father, your grandfather, they are working out issues, social issues, educational issues, issues about women, about gender. And all this leads to incredible tension and dynamism in society while they figure all of this out, unlike any place else in the region.

REHM

10:43:08
All right. To Zephyrhills, Fla. Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN

10:43:14
Good morning. I would just like to give a grassroots perspective of how financial entitlement informs any possibility for democratic reform in the kingdom. I recently returned from Jeddah after working there for almost five years as an English teacher for the Saudi Royal Air Defense Forces as an American defense contractor. The regular soldiers were incredibly ignorant on just what King Abdullah provided to them.

BRIAN

10:43:35
Basically, they thought everything that they had. The NCOs and the officers were almost completely focused on what they could get from the government, many of them having second jobs, for example, import, export business. They really weren't concerned about things related to the military. And my last officer class before I left in December actually had one of the grandsons of the king.

BRIAN

10:43:56
And he was very interested in showing me, for example, one day, his $36,000 phone, his $20,000 watch the next day. I mean, these -- because of the oils that they've had and the petrodollars, it has given them a sense of financial entitlement that puts the sense of entitlement here in the States to shame. And I think this is real -- and this is in the military, so you can imagine what it is for the civilian population.

BRIAN

10:44:29
I just think that all this taken together really puts -- really quashes any kind of serious democratic reform in the near, middle or even in long-term future.

REHM

10:44:39
Ali.

AL-AHMED

10:44:40
I disagree tremendously. And I think that's the problem sometimes with even analysts going to the country is they see one side and they implement it or use it to characterize the situation. In Saudi Arabia, for example, nobody talks about that there are at least five million poor people in that country. Eighty percent of the population, approximately, do not own their own homes.

AL-AHMED

10:45:04
In a country that is large and with oil money, that oil money is limited to a section of society, the ruling family, their allies and some parts of the society. The rest of the society really does not have the financial prowess to buy their own homes, for example.

REHM

10:45:21
Chris?

BOUCEK

10:45:22
But I think this goes into the perception that a lot of foreigners have about Saudi Arabia, that it's all gold-plated Mercedes and astronomical wealth.

REHM

10:45:29
Yeah, but hold on a minute. Robin was talking earlier about the money that the government distributed. How narrowly was that distribution, Robin?

WRIGHT

10:45:41
Well, I think they're trying to widen it, and I think that's the whole purpose of the initiative. But the truth is that Saudi Arabia, in many ways, is a country of extremes. There is extreme wealth, and there is extreme -- and I'm not sure -- poverty. But the -- I think the average annual -- they're trying to bring up the monthly minimum wage to just $800 a month -- it's $830, something like that.

WRIGHT

10:46:02
Saudi Arabia is a country that was created, in many ways, artificially by a group of tribes pulling together, gaining legitimacy over religion, so you've always had this internal tension between the religious clerics in the state. And when Chris talks about the institutionalization that this is where the government is trying to say, we want to be a modern state, and we want to have the clerics as, you know, advisors, but not as the ones who would confer legitimacy or direction on the state.

WRIGHT

10:46:28
And in an age of transition, at a time the last 20 years were Islamic extremism or Islamic ideology has defined the political spectrum in the region, that's been increasingly difficult. So Saudi Arabia faces pressures from both sides, from the clerics who don't want to let go of their power of the state and the young people who are saying, hey, we want to be a part of the 21st century.

REHM

10:46:49
Aaron.

MILLER

10:46:50
Now, we're given then to two somewhat conflicting views of how serious and severe and how potentially disruptive things could become in Saudi Arabia. On one hand, you have a society in which vast majority of people are under the age of 20, an aging gerontocracy. You have throwing money at problems, which is clearly not going to address the issue of political reform.

MILLER

10:47:11
On the other, it's stunning to me, and as this Arab Spring and Arab winter sweeps this region, the Saudis appear to be not touched in any way, shape or form as their Arab neighbors have been touched. So my question, again, a question, how do you reconcile this? Will the bell eventually toll for the Saudis as well? And that, I think, is a core question. What can they do? What could they do to preempt and co-op this?

REHM

10:47:42
Ali.

AL-AHMED

10:47:44
I think the Saudi Arabia is not immune to this. It's not a special -- it doesn't have any special characterization that stops people from, you know, from going into the street. They have been doing that. It's been limited in comparison to the size of the country.

REHM

10:47:57
But look at what happened to the woman who was driving the other day, arrested for driving.

AL-AHMED

10:48:04
Exactly.

REHM

10:48:05
If that can happen...

AL-AHMED

10:48:07
It's known to happen.

REHM

10:48:08
...it seems to me that, you know, you've got a situation where any tiny infraction can be put down. So, then, what happens to big ones?

AL-AHMED

10:48:21
And I think that the June 17 day of women driving is going to bring in some women to the streets. They will be arrested. They will be released. But this will encourage -- it takes time. And I disagree with what my friend Chris said about -- that Saudi Arabia did so many things in short period. You know, the Saudi king's plane has more gadgets than the president of the United States. They did that very well, that they'd have to wait open up the political system.

AL-AHMED

10:48:47
It is because this is the largest monarchy in the world. It's the largest ruling family in the world. And they do not want to share power.

REHM

10:48:55
All right.

AL-AHMED

10:48:55
They don't want to give power to anyone. And the Wahhabi influence is really overstated. It's overstated.

REHM

10:49:02
Do you believe that?

WRIGHT

10:49:03
Well, I don't think the Wahhabi influence is overstated. But I do think that the two -- we've already historically seen uprisings in Saudi Arabia, the Grand Mosque takeover in 1979, the Shiite uprising in the eastern provinces in 1981. Saudi Arabia has experienced challenges from its own people.

WRIGHT

10:49:21
And over the last five months, you have begun to see very small protests, predominantly in the eastern provinces where the minority Shiites have long felt that the Sunni monarchy has repressed them, not shared its wealth when it comes to basic things like education and health care. And that will continue. But the young people in Saudi Arabia are a force to be reckoned with.

WRIGHT

10:49:41
We're unlikely to see Tahrir Square or Liberation Square, as we saw in Egypt, play out in Saudi Arabia. It will be very different. But Saudi Arabia is vulnerable.

MILLER

10:49:52
But, see, that, I think, is the question. As you look at these changes that have swept the Arab world now over the last several months, you actually only have three outcomes. You have regime change, Tunisia or Egypt. You have repression, Bahrain and Syria. Or you have what is, increasingly clear, a civil war in Libya and in Yemen. And the question is, which future, which of these three futures or which of these processes will the Saudis be subjected to?

BOUCEK

10:50:21
I mean, I think when you talk to Saudis, especially young Saudis, it's not -- I don't get the impression that they want a wholesale change of the system. I think they want the system to be better. They want more accountability, less corruption. They want more jobs. They don't want to see the system overthrown.

REHM

10:50:33
But are they willing to fight for it?

BOUCEK

10:50:36
And I think that's a big question, right? I mean, we -- our young Saudis is going to go out in the streets like we've seen in other places.

REHM

10:50:42
But with that kind of police presence. All right. Let's go now to Jamel (sp?) in Rockville, Md. Good morning to you.

JAMEL

10:50:52
Good morning, Diane. Thanks for having me on the show.

REHM

10:50:53
Sure.

JAMEL

10:50:54
I have a question for your panel with the near or distance future with the Saudi-U.S. relationship. With the increasing restriction, alternative fuels and then becoming more reliable, do you believe that the U.S. will have the same type of relationship with the Saudis, seeing that U.S.'s ideology is a "pro-democracy ideology," and the Saudis are anything but that and are funding many of these radical groups that are causing unrest in the region? And I'll take my answer off the line. Thank you.

REHM

10:51:24
Chris.

BOUCEK

10:51:25
I think it's a great question. I think, you know, Western economies are increasingly going to move towards non-carbon based fuel. That's -- I mean, for environmental reasons, ethical reasons or whatever. In the future, I think we're going to see, you know, the emergence of these special relationships between producers, like Saudi Arabia, and polluters -- those countries that cannot quite jump that far, the Philippines, India, et cetera. Those countries that continue to need carbon-based, especially oil.

MILLER

10:51:52
So you will see countries like, I would guess, Saudi Arabia, other oil producers, move towards locking in special relationships with these countries that cannot quite jump towards (unintelligible).

REHM

10:52:01
So how might that affect the U.S.-Saudi relationship, Robin?

WRIGHT

10:52:08
Well, I think it's going to be a long time before you see the United States move quickly enough to alternative energy sources. In the meantime, you're -- we're going to see increase in competition with countries like China particularly, where its industrial base is going so quickly and its need for oil is exploding. And so there'll actually probably be a good bit of rivalry. I think something like 20 percent of China's oil comes from Saudi Arabia as it is. And that relationship, I think, will deepen.

WRIGHT

10:52:33
So we're not moving fast enough when it comes to oil, and that's why -- the kingdoms need for resources to buy off its people is going to end up being paid for by the United States.

REHM

10:52:44
And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." On that very point, let's go to San Antonio. Good morning, Michael. You're on the air.

MICHAEL

10:52:57
Good morning, Diane.

REHM

10:52:58
Hi, there.

MICHAEL

10:52:58
The comment and the question for your panel is, you know, the economics of the oil are -- it takes anywhere from $1 to $4 a barrel to get it out of the ground over there in the Middle East. And why should the American user, end user, be required to pay for a Saudi entitlement program that is -- that far exceeds even the wildest expectations of the rest of the world?

REHM

10:53:35
Ali.

AL-AHMED

10:53:35
I think these entitlements are overstated. In my whole life as a person who is a Saudi citizen, I have not received a single dollar from the Saudi government.

REHM

10:53:45
But some have.

AL-AHMED

10:53:46
Yes, some -- some...

REHM

10:53:46
Many, many people have.

AL-AHMED

10:53:47
Absolutely. But when you say that, that's because they send 50,000 students to a scholarship in the United States. If you compare it to other countries, it is sometimes less. So there is an overstatement of what the government gives the people. What -- I want to talk about the oil for a second. The fact that people talk about Saudi Arabia is important because there's oil. Venezuela's export more oil to the United States than Saudi Arabia, yet we don't see that relationship.

AL-AHMED

10:54:14
We don't see the same relationship. Saudi Arabia needs the United States. The United States does not necessarily need Saudi Arabia. The problem is in the policymakers in Washington. They are petrified to re-examine this relationship because there are alternatives to Saudi Arabia, but -- in the eyes of the Americans, but there are no alternative for America. If the Saudi monarchy loses the U.S., they have nobody else.

AL-AHMED

10:54:36
The Chinese are going to have their own oil in the South China Sea in a few years. And the Indians, what are they going to do to support the monarchy, to support -- to protect the monarchy? And this is true for the rest of the Gulf monarchies, too.

REHM

10:54:48
Aaron.

MILLER

10:54:48
I think the relationship is going to change as a consequence of certain practical realities, but not anytime soon. And the earlier comment that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is too big to fail, and I would argue, too big to be fundamentally re-examined anytime soon, will still...

REHM

10:55:02
Really?

MILLER

10:55:02
...apply, I suspect, yeah. Even in the wake of 9/11, in the wake of the fact that the Saudis have exported their Wahhabi philosophy to our disadvantage, all of these things. But, you know, double-entry visas have been renewed. The fact that Saudis are sponsoring additional Saudi students to the United States -- there are aspects to this relationship which actually have improved since 9/11.

MILLER

10:55:27
It's just that on the fundamental question of democratization and reform, we will -- if my colleagues are correct, and Saudi vulnerabilities give rise over time to greater calls on the part of Saudis for change, we will be put in the position of trying to figure out how to deal with that change, how to support it and at what phase and at what rate.

REHM

10:55:48
Robin.

WRIGHT

10:55:49
Yeah, you know, I think that we're headed for a period of real uncertainty. And it's not just the issue of price of oil. It also is what happens on Iran's nuclear program. And I think Iran is a canard when it comes to Bahrain in terms of the political issue. But the nuclear issue is one that's quite real in the eyes of a lot of folks. The Arab-Israeli peace process, which takes on a particular urgency in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and what opportunities are there that need to be taken advantage of today and not allowed to get even worse on the (word?).

REHM

10:56:21
So the U.S. is going to have to weigh every single step along the way, but at same time, as you've said, Aaron, it's probably going to take quite a while for this to happen. Last comment is from Anne in Bradenton, Fla. She says, "What a mess the Middle East is. We need to elect a chess player as president." Thank you all so much for joining us. Robin Wright, Christopher Boucek, Aaron David Miller, and Ali al-Ahmed, thank you very much for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

ANNOUNCER

10:57:04
The Diane Rehm Show is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, and Sara Ashworth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts, and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is drshow@wamu.org. And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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