For all of President Barack Obama’s talk of hope and change, apparently it stops at the water’s edge: Obama’s policies toward civil liberties in the Arab world are decidedly business as usual. Wednesday morning, Obama welcomed Saudi King Abdullah at the White House—on the last day of the second business quarter of the year, in case the relationship didn’t already appear transactional enough.
Washington’s Cold War policy of supporting any ally in the Arab world is back. The White House’s agenda for Abdullah’s visit is curiously silent on the issue of Arab political reform. The two leaders certainly discussed fighting terrorism, but counterterrorism requires a comprehensive strategy, including greater liberties for repressed populations. The lack of freedom in the Arab world – including Saudi Arabia – remains a significant driver of radicalization. No reform; no durable de-radicalization.
Since the attacks of 9/11, Islamist terrorism has always been a top issue when Saudi officials come to town. The difference was that under President George W. Bush, the U.S. government seemed to recognize that fighting violent radicalization also meant creating paths for peaceful political participation. Indeed, state repression combined with a lack of space for political action begets radicalism and violence.
As a result of pressure during the Bush years, in 2005 the Kingdom made modest progress towards political participation by holding its first ever local elections, which selected half the members of municipal councils. These councils are largely symbolic—with only as much power as the regime allows them—and some would say these measures are too little, too late. Still, democracy is a process, and any step is significant when it is followed by another.
King Abdullah’s accession to the throne raised hopes that Saudi Arabia would open its political system and make strides in women’s rights. Five years later, the country has not made any sweeping changes. Can we hope to de-radicalize the restive Saudi population without opening the political space for its people? The Obama administration doesn’t even appear to have a position on this question.
One can always hope that the White House is pursuing this matter actively behind closed doors. But, who can tell? The issue of Arab political reform must be tackled in the light of day. Only then will we know that the Kingdom is on the path toward de-radicalization and democracy.
Khairi Abaza is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.