Churchill’s description of the Soviet Union as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma also applies to Saudi Arabia—an authoritarian regime that makes every effort to prevent the world seeing too much of its internal affairs.
Saudi Arabia has long been the home and educator of many who today inspire and lead worldwide Islamist militancy (not least, Osama bin Laden). The country’s leaders nevertheless strive to show the world they are ‘modernizing’ and subduing domestic militancy—anything required to keep the country stable and oil production dependable.
Indeed, in 2008, King Abdullah launched the highly publicized campaign for ‘Inter-faith Dialogue’ and called for the mixing of men and women in Saudi universities—moves meant to blur the country’s tough Islamist reputation. But foreigners should be wary of the smoke and mirrors game being played in the kingdom.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The Saudis always put their best face forward (and hire the West’s best public relations firms to help them do so). But they also have the advantage of addressing an oil-buying clientele of nation states that want to believe the kingdom is stable. And while this hungry-for-good-news audience includes all Saudi-oil customers, it’s hard to imagine any being as hopeful that all’s well as Asia’s big economic powers: China, Japan, South Korea and India.
China, for example, imports about a third of its oil from Saudi Arabia and its Arab Peninsula neighbours, while for Japan the figure is double that at 65 percent. They’re not alone in their dependency—India relies on the region for more than 35 percent of its oil, while South Korea gets more than half from there. With these percentages projected to rise, long-term Saudi domestic stability is essential for continued economic expansion.
And today, on the surface, all really does seem well. King Abdullah has taken steps to make Saudi Islam appear less threatening, and he, his ministers, the state-controlled Saudi media and a corps of Western PR firms are conducting a media campaign to persuade their audience that the Saudi system of ‘re-educating’ former Islamist militants, insurgents and terrorists is overwhelmingly successful and has dramatically reduced the domestic militant threat.
So what does this programme involve exactly? People being locked up and taught to paint, listen to classical music, encouraged to marry and raise a family and tutored on Islam material less martial than what they learned in school. Saudi spokesmen have repeatedly described the programme’s ‘wonderful’ success. The nations of the non-Muslim world, always eager to believe man is perfectible, have responded with applause and sighs of relief all round.