This is the second of a series of “be careful what you wish for” posts, the first dealt with Iraq.
This one has to do with Saudi Arabia and its role in the messianic Bush/Rice rush to transform the Middle East into a redoubt of Democracy.
Just as the recent exercise in democracy and elections has done more to reveal the geopolitical fault lines in fictitious Iraq, so have the recent elections in Saudi Arabia cast a focus on the underlying dangers of the Saudi political picture.
The fanfare which greeted the Saudi elections in February has suddenly, but not surprisingly, quieted. The elections were hailed by the UK’s Daily Telegraph and various American media with joy and exclamations such as “Welcome to today’s free elections in Saudi Arabia, the first since the country’s creation and an extraordinary display of democracy after 70 years of absolute monarchy”. The joy was somewhat dampened by a following paragraph in the Telegraph stating that “The wave of enthusiasm that swept the country when the election was announced last year rapidly dissipated when it emerged that women would not be taking part and that real power would remain with unelected council members”, but the US State Department with its usually head-in-the sand (no pun intended) view, was quoted in a news report: “A US state department spokesman said the polls were ‘a sign that Saudi Arabia is not immune to the reforms sweeping the region’”.
Reforms? Really? In what direction will the reforms take Saudi Arabia?
The Riyadh results have already given the pollyannas in the US Department of State, not only pause for thought, but probably considerable concern. “Islamist-backed candidates have taken a commanding lead in Saudi Arabia’s first municipal election, in Riyadh, according to preliminary results”, announced BBC News following the Riyadh poll on 11 February.
The elections will be phased and take place over three months, already completed Phase 1 – 10 Feb (Riyadh region); then come Phase 2 – 3 Mar; (5 regions) Phase 3 – 21 Apr (7 regions).
The electoral results in the outlying and remaining 12 regions could bring even greater disquiet, being farther from the more westernised Riyadh region. If the clerics can prevail in Riyadh, what can we expect in the other 12 regions where they hold greater sway?
For anyone even vaguely familiar with Saudi history it will come as no surprise to know that the extremist Wahhabi religious movement has held the Saudi royal family’s feet to the fire for almost two centuries. It was and remains the price the Saud family paid and is paying to remain in power. While presenting a modernised, urbane face to the West, the Saud have virtually conceded control over social and religious matters in the peninsula to the Wahhabi clerics. There are few if any Islamic groups more fanatical, more anti-Semitic and anti-West than the Wahhabi.
Recently, and just a disturbing as the election results, comes the news that an ultra-conservative religious leader, Abdullah bin Saleh al-Obaid, was apponted as the new education minister for Saudi Arabia. This announcement was made only one day before the elections and buried by the Western press in favour of trumpeting the “free and democratic” elections in Saudi Arabia.
John Bradley, Asia Times, wrote, “Al-Obaid’s appointment was, one would wager, among the most significant political developments inside Saudi Arabia since the September 11 attacks. It showed, first of all, that the local elections, rather than being proof of the spread of democracy in the wake of the war on Iraq, had merely provided a cover for the al-Saud to pacify the Wahhabis by appointing one of their own as the head of what it considers the most important ministry. But it also put the final nail in the coffin of a now truly dead and buried domestic reform agenda.
Unlike the town councillors, the education minister wields a great deal of influence, not least over the minds of the next generation of Saudis already steeped in a school curriculum that oozes anti-Semitism and the celebration of jihad.”
Whether the unelected councillors or the council wields significant power or, if the clerics do prevail in the forthcoming regional votes, it must bode poorly for future of reform in Saudi Arabia.
Well now, is this where America’s vaunted Democracy on the March is leading us? We have an Iraq, or fragments thereof, in the hands of Islamic clerics manipulating events behind the scenes; a regional government council in Saudi Arabia, half of whom could be allied with the dreaded Wahhabi?
Democracy could indeed turn out to be a vehicle for change in the Middle East, but Democracy does not necessarily produce a more democratic, freer or pro-American government.
Be careful what you wish for….