Saudi Arabia: the end of progress without change

A reader alerted me to a speech Chas Freeman gave earlier this year in a noble effort to educate fellow Americans on the little understood nation of Saudi Arabia (where Freeman served as US ambassador from 1989 to 1992).

I have been asked to speak to you about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This is a topic I have never before addressed to an American audience. Why bother?

We Americans reserve the right to have strong opinions on the basis of little or no knowledge. There are few countries that better exemplify our assertive ignorance of foreign geography, history, and culture than Saudi Arabia. Most of us are convinced that Saudis are Muslim zealots, control the world’s oil prices, and are absurdly rich, anti-feminist, and undemocratic. They hate our values and want to destroy us. Talk radio confirms this. What more needs to be said?

On reflection, a lot does. Neither caricature nor a priori reasoning is a sound basis for policy. A distorted view of foreign realities precludes success at dealing with them. There is much at stake in our relationship with Saudi Arabia. We can ill afford to get it wrong.

That country is, of course, the heartland of Islam and the custodian of the world’s largest oil reserves. It lies athwart transport routes between Asia, Europe, and Africa. It is at the center of a growing concentration of global capital. Under any circumstances, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would be important. It is all the more so in an era when we Americans are at war with ever more peoples in the Islamic world, depend on ever greater amounts of imported energy, and need ever larger foreign loans to run our government and sustain our life style.

Yet Saudi Arabia is little known. It is the only society on the planet not to have been penetrated by Western colonialism. No European armies breached its borders; no missionaries; no merchants. Its capital, Riyadh, was long off limits to infidels; the holy cities of Mecca and Medina remain so today. When Westerners finally came to Saudi Arabia, we came not as the vindicators of our presumed cultural superiority, but as hired help. As a result, some say that Saudis secretly see the world’s peoples as divided into two basic categories: (1) fellow Saudis; and (2) potential employees. Be that as it may, foreigners, Western, Asian, or Arab, who have lived in Saudi Arabia all see it as a very strange place — one that is not easy to understand and that remains at odds with many of the values non-Saudis profess.

The Kingdom has long stood apart from global norms. Its system of government draws on tribal and Islamic traditions rather than Western models. Its king presides rather than rules over the royal family and Saudi society. His responsibility is less to make decisions than to shape and proclaim consensus, while assuring a share of the national wealth to all, especially the least privileged. Saudi Arabia levies no taxes on its citizens, other than the religious tithe known as “zakat” — a two-and-a-half percent annual donation of private capital to charity and other public purposes. All Saudis enjoy free education and medical care from birth to death and can pursue these services at home or abroad, as they wish. The Kingdom has no parliament, though it does have elaborate informal mechanisms for consultation with its citizens on policy matters. Saudi Arabia reverses and thereby affirms a basic principle of American political philosophy. “No representation without taxation.”

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One thought on “Saudi Arabia: the end of progress without change

  1. scott

    You really should have published the entire speech. That is the most hopeful thing I’ve read in some time. It also stands as an utter rebuke of our own policies and ignorance.

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