Saudi Arabia, Mysterious Ally

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[Kudos to our great intern Danielle Bennett for sniffing this one out.]

traditional saudi door

What’s the conversation behind the door? [Drew9678 / Flickr]

When Dick Cheney went to Saudi Arabia last month, King Abdullah apparently warned him that if the US pulls out of Iraq, the Saudis might be forced to back the Sunnis in the Iraqi civil war. The idea being that someone will have to keep Iran in check.

Just a few days later, Nawaf Obaid, a foreign policy advisor to the Saudi royal family, reminded the world in the Washington Post that the US had gone into Iraq against the express wishes of Saudi Arabia. And that US withdrawal now, by forcing Saudi intervention, would create a regional widening of the conflict.

Sabre-rattling or not, these warnings point back to the longstanding but uneasy relationship between the US and its decidedly undemocratic ally. We want to know more about it. More, too, about the mysterious Kingdom itself — its culture and internal political tensions especially.

On the partnership front, how strategically important are our complicated ties to oil-rich Saudi Arabia today? In what ways do they possibly undermine US foreign policy goals?

Inside Saudi Arabia, what are the power dynamics within the royal family (which showed briefly this week in Prince Turki’s apparent resignation as Ambassador to the US)? To what extent do the royal family and conservative Islamic leaders see eye to eye? How are the Saudis dealing with terrorism and al-Quaeda internally? And in what ways — apart from the growing Saudi blogosphere — does the rising generation express itself, on the street and behind closed doors?

Bernard Haykel

Associate Professor, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, NYU

Returned in July 2006 from a year in Saudi Arabia researching the religious politics of the Kingdom

Toby Jones

Assistant Professor, Middle Eastern history, Swarthmore

Spent a research year in Saudi Arabia in 2003; returned in 2005 for the International Crisis Group

Mai Yamani

Saudi social anthropologist

Author, Cradle of Islam: The Hijaz and the Quest for an Arabian Identity and Changed Identities: The Challenge of the New Generation in Saudi Arabia and Feminism and Islam

Ahmed Al-Omran

Blogger, Saudi Jeans

Student, King Saud University, Riyadh

Extra Credit Reading

Thom Shanker, Saudis Endorse New U.S. Strategy for Iraq, The New York Times, January 16, 2006: “Although Prince Saud’s endorsement of Mr. Bush’s new Iraq plan was lukewarm at best, the prince declined to be drawn into a discussion of potential Saudi actions in the event that Iraq slides into full-blown sectarian civil war.”

Toby Jones, The Iraq Effect in Saudi Arabia, Middle East Report: “As many as two million Shi’is live in Saudi Arabia, where they make up between 10-15 percent of the population….Although sectarian violence has only been episodic in the twentieth century, leading religious scholars in the kingdom have denounced Shi’a as apostates, and since the founding of Saudi Arabia in 1932 have periodically called for their extermination.”

Nawaf Obaid, Stepping Into Iraq: Saudi Arabia Will Protect Sunnis if the U.S. Leaves, The Washington Post, November 29, 2006: “One hopes [Bush won’t ignore] the counsel of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who said in a speech last month that ‘since America came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited.’ If it does, one of the first consequences will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.”

shadmia, Saudi Arabia vs Iran in Iraq?, Shadmia’s World, December 4, 2006: “If US troops leave Iraq before the sectarian violence between the Sunnis and the Shiites is resolved, the situation could explode into a regional crisis, with the Saudis backing the minority Sunni Muslims and Iran bankrolling the majority Shiites. This could turn into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.”

Princes at Odds, The Economist, December 19, 2006: “If there is anything thicker, stickier and less transparent than crude oil, it is the inner workings of Saudi Arabia.”

Faiza Saleh Ambah, New Clicks in the Arab World, The Washington Post, November 12, 2006: “‘You can’t write whatever you want in the newspaper here; you can’t even lift up a poster in protest,’ said Farhan, 31, a computer programmer who attended Eastern Washington University in Spokane. ‘On the blog, it’s a different world. It was the only way to express myself the way I wanted.'”

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