Leading officials in Saudi Arabia now concede that support for extremism turned on them, metastasizing into a serious threat to the Kingdom and to the West, says Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations, and the author of “The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World.”
They had created a monster that had begun to devour them. “We did not own up to it after 9/11 because we feared you would abandon or treat us as the enemy,” a Saudi senior official told him. “And we were in denial,” he writes for Politico. Why this new frankness? asks Khalilzad, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group:
First, it’s fair to ask how far the new policy really goes. Clearly, there are some questions about whether some extremist Sunni groups, such as al-Nusra in Syria, are still getting Saudi money. But as the Saudis described it to me, this new approach to grappling with their past is part of the leadership’s effort to make a new future for their country, including a broad-based economic reform program.
In their current thinking, the Saudis see Islamic extremism as one of the two major threats facing the kingdom—the other threat being Iran. On Iran, there is continuity. I remember when King Abdullah asked me to pass on to President George W. Bush in 2006 that he needed to cut the “serpent’s head” and attack Iran and overthrow the regime. The new leadership, like their predecessors, blames Iran for regional instability and the many conflicts going on.
The new Saudi leadership, in other words, appears to be downgrading ideology in favor of modernization. In fact, one senior Saudi official explicitly said that the Kingdom was pursuing a “revolution under the cover of modernization”—meaning that modernization was now the driver of Saudi policy, Khalilzad adds:
Can it succeed, when so little has changed politically in a country still run autocratically by the House of Saud? The biggest unknowns are the temptations of the past—whether the Saudi leadership is united behind the new program and whether those who benefited from the old order will attempt to derail the reform agenda and thus destabilize the country. The opposition could come from the powerful religious establishment, which might oppose the opening of entertainment centers, the reform of religious institutions, even limited coeducation and increased female participation in the workforce.
There have been many reform programs announced before in Saudi Arabia, only to fade into insignificance. Also, modernization undermines two pillars of Saudi political legitimacy, the endorsement of the Wahhabi clerical establishment and the traditionalism that undergirds any monarchical government. As modernization creates economic uncertainty for those benefiting from the present inefficient order, the result could be political turmoil. And it is an open question as to whether the Saudi people have been sufficiently prepared at all relevant levels in terms of education and skills to compete in the world economy, as they will need to do in a modernized economy.