Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to send two female athletes to the London Olympics is being scoffed at as regime propaganda and a “token gesture.” But while the gesture is a small one, it is the latest sign that the Saudi monarchy has heard the message of the Arab Spring: reform is the only path to survival.
Fifty years ago, during the proxy war between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in Yemen, President Kennedy told the Saudis that internal reforms were the best way to ensure the regime’s survival. In the ensuing years, many viewed Kennedy’s statement as absurd; they believed Riyadh would continue to rule with an iron fist, and that the Saudi people would never rise up and demand their freedom.
This conventional wisdom overlooked the universal principle that all people long to be free and control their destiny. And although the Saudi monarchy has remained in power for the last 50 years, the reasons for its success are disappearing. The Saudi people now have access to outside information and media outlets, they have the ability to mass communicate, they no longer accept the subservient role of women, and, thanks to the Arab Spring, they realize they have the power to effect change.
After seeing the downfall of autocrats in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya, the Saudis have also realized that an iron fist will no longer be enough to maintain power, and they have started making incremental reforms. Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud put it bluntly when he said, “The revolution that took place around us was a wake-up call. No one will say it, but it was the catalyst.”
Saudi Arabia held local elections in 2011, and announced that women would be allowed to participate in all elections beginning in 2015. Leaders who are open to reform have recently been promoted in the Saudi hierarchy. Other hopeful signs include the addition of women as voting members of the Shura Council, and a new mortgage law passed this month after a ten-year delay. The law will allow more lower- and middle-class Saudis to become homeowners, and this growing middle-class will continue to demand even more change.
The move to send female athletes to the Olympics is one of the most drastic changes yet. While the decision may have come in response to international pressure, its consequences will be long-lasting. The Saudis are implicitly recognizing the rights and value of women, and that women have been playing sports for years, despite the country’s lack of physical education for girls and a ban on official female athletic competition (that may not survive for long).
Even if the Saudi regime refuses to broadcast images of the female athletes, they will spread via the Internet. And they will embolden the same generation of women who’ve begun letting their hair out in public and recently forced the regime to staff lingerie shops with female clerks.
While the Saudis still have a long way to go on political reform and women’s rights, these are positive signs. Critics, however, claim these announcements are empty reforms, similar to those the Saudis have made in the past. But after witnessing the events in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, the Saudis have seen what happens if promised reforms never materialize.
Iran’s suppression of the Green Revolution, and the current crisis in Syria, shows that an autocratic regime willing to kill its own people can temporarily maintain its grip on power. But “temporarily” is the key word. The current uprising in Syria is a response to the failed democratic revolt of the 1980s, and this time the outcome is likely to be quite different. As for Tehran: It’s only a matter of time before the resentment and anger of the Green Revolution rises to the surface once more. And when it does, it will be even more vibrant and powerful than in 2009.
The Saudis clearly understand this, and are taking a long-term view of the situation. They may hope to model their gradual reforms on those used by the Communist Party of China, which still retains power in Beijing. But thanks to the advent of the Internet and social media, even the iron grip of the CPC is beginning to crack.
Americans who support a “realist” foreign policy warn that reform in Saudi Arabia could eventually lead to a new regime that would cut off the US’s access to Saudi oil. Putting aside the notion that American policy should be based purely on self-interest, this argument is still fatally flawed.
If the Saudis continue to harshly repress their people, it’s only a matter of time before the hatred in the Saudi streets leads to a violent overthrow of the regime. But if the Saudis continue to gradually reform, the outcome is likely to be a more open and popular monarchy and a soft, peaceful transition to more democratic rule. Which of these scenarios is the real threat to American national security?
President Kennedy’s warning that internal repression was the biggest threat to Saudi Arabia has proven prescient. And while it’s taken 50 years for the Saudis to accept Kennedy’s wisdom, the seeds he planted are finally bearing fruit.