June 21, 2007


The Magic Kingdom’s Wild New Ride: Everywhere you look, it seems, the Middle East is in flames. Yet, almost unnoticed by outside observers, the most conservative country in the region has embarked on a historic journey of reform. (Jean-François Seznec, Afshin Molavi, June 2007, Foreign Policy)

Last week, a senior official in one of the world’s wealthiest states suggested that one third of all government jobs should go to women.

Switzerland? Denmark? France?

Wrong, the country is Saudi Arabia, and the senior official is Sultan bin Abdulaziz, the crown prince. In a state that has embraced the most misogynous readings of the Koran and a society that remains deeply patriarchal, Prince Sultan’s statement was truly revolutionary.

As Sultan’s older brother, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, visits Spain, Poland, and France this week, it may not be obvious that Saudi Arabia is undergoing a substantive transformation, but it is. Although the Kingdom’s diplomatic exploits capture the headlines—its efforts to counter Iranian influence in the Arab world, support for peace in Lebanon, and the Saudi-sponsored Arab League peace initiative to name just a few—its domestic changes are likely to be more far-reaching, durable, and consequential.

The Saudi monarch is pushing forward a surprisingly reformist domestic agenda, but his task is delicate. Five key actors will determine how this drama plays out: The 20 or so senior princes (including the king), the civil service, the merchant class, younger princes, and the religious establishment. King Abdullah can win this fight, but he can’t do it alone. By seeing Saudi Arabia as more than just a place to sell arms, buy oil, or fight terror, Europe and the United States can tilt the balance of power toward more reformist elements and marginalize the forces of religious reaction. The stakes couldn’t be higher: King Abdullah is battling not just stubborn conservatives and parts of his own family who are resistant to change, but Saudi history itself. [...]

Perhaps most illustrative of King Abdullah’s vision is the new university to be opened in his name. It will focus on science and technology. It will have coeducational classes (another small revolution). And it won’t be in the hands of the Salafists: A separate curriculum is being planned to ensure that the remaining holdouts in the education ministry don’t scuttle things. What’s more, a mood of dialogue has taken hold: the King Abdulaziz National Dialogue Center, named after King Abdullah’s father, brings together leading figures in public life—including the Shiites, who make up 10 to 15 percent of the Kingdom’s population and are despised by the Salafists—to debate pressing issues of the day. And technological advances are breaking down social barriers: Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones have become an essential item for the young Saudi who wants to meet members of the opposite sex. And the religious police, the fearsome mutawain, have been reined in.

Reformation led by a monarch is the ideal. George missed a vital opportunity to side with the American people against Parliament and we're still paying for it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 21, 2007 6:29 AM

Yippee!! I expect them to begin curtailing the funding of their international wahabist schools for the insane any day now. Abdullah and Geo III have so much in common, they're both men of the 18th century.

Posted by: fred at June 22, 2007 9:25 PM