Thus, the only way for these regimes to peacefully maintain power is to moderate and begin to hand control to their citizens. It’s no coincidence, for example, that Jordan is one of the countries that the Arab Spring largely passed over.
The wisdom of reform is something that even Saudi Arabia’s leaders now publicly acknowledge. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud recently stated, “The revolution that took place around us was a wake-up call. No one will say it, but it was the catalyst.”
And over the past few years, reforms in Saudi Arabia have accelerated. Examples include the regime’s decisions to send women to the Olympics, promote reform-minded leaders, and relax restrictions on media outlets.
The U.S. should be doing everything it can to encourage and hasten these efforts. Unless the Saudi monarchy reforms, it will fall. It may take decades, but it will happen. And if it does, the consequences for the United States could be severe.
First, our access to oil could be cut off or severely restricted, whether because a radical regime rises in Riyadh or because there is no central government to continue and maintain production.
Second, Saudi Arabia could transform from a country that strongly supports our interests in the region to a radical theocracy or a listless state ruled by warlords or sects.
Finally, if the Saudi government falls, we would lose a stabilizing and moderating force in the region, and a bulwark that has proved helpful to the U.S. on numerous priorities (Iran, Syria, and Israel being some current examples).
And all of this ignores the compelling human rights and morality arguments for encouraging reform, which are just as strong as our direct security interests.
During his brief presidency, John F. Kennedy told the Saudis that internal reform was the best way to preserve their monarchy. Realists argue that Kennedy was mistaken, simply because the Saudi regime thrived for decades without reforming. In the wake of the Arab Spring, however, Kennedy’s warning looms ominously. And if the Saudis don’t heed his advice, they will prove him prescient.
David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.