Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts, I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: Today, we’re joined by our colleague, Emma Ashford. Welcome back to Free Thoughts, Emma.
Emma Ashford: Good to be here.
Aaron Powell: I want to start with, I guess, a thumbnail sketch of Saudi Arabia. Before we get into the details of this rather perplexing place, how long has this country been around and how did [00:00:30] it get started?
Emma Ashford: As a state, Saudi Arabia has only existed for 75, 76 years, something like that. It really only got unified in the middle of the 20th century. Smaller subsections of it existed for a lot longer than that and actually one of the reasons why Saudi Arabia is often regarded as the home of Islam and that its ruler tend to speak for Muslims in general is because the city of Mecca which falls inside Saudi Arabia [00:01:00] is where the Prophet Muhammad found God and basically founded the religion of Islam. There has been a cultural center in that area for a very long time but they really only became a unified political entity basically in between the world wars.
Trevor Burrus: The name Saudi Arabia is related to the royal family correct?
Emma Ashford: Absolutely. The man that actually unified Saudi Arabia was Abdulaziz Al Saud [00:01:30] so that’s the Saud family. They’re still the rulers today. It’s his grandchildren and great grandchildren that are several thousand of them at this point because he had many wives and many children. The royal family is itself, in a lot of ways, synonymous with Saudi Arabia.
Trevor Burrus: Before it was a unified country, was it colonized by Britain or another Western power?
Emma Ashford: No, actually. The interesting thing [00:02:00] is that unlike a lot of states in the region, the rulers, at that moment who are mostly just tribal rulers before Abdulaziz basically united the country, they had relationships with the British and the French who were in surrounding countries but there was nothing there that was anyone would want. Basically, it’s not until after the kingdom is unified and then particularly, as we start to realize that there might be oil there, that that’s when the colonial powers start to take an interest. [00:02:30] They don’t annex Saudi Arabia, they just work with the royal family, work with Abdulaziz to use the Saudi oil fields.
Aaron Powell: Why didn’t they annex it? It seems like MO to do something like that so …
Emma Ashford: I’m not sure I can speak for them back then but to be honest, it’s a lot easier just to work with people and buy things. The royal family was nothing, if not, accommodating to the foreign powers that came in. They worked with the British a little prior to World War [00:03:00] II, they worked with, particularly, the British and the Americans during World War II to actually supply a lot of the oil that helped us fight that war and then the aftermath of the Second World War, the Saudis actually relied on American companies to come in and not just extract the oil but help them to setup a modern government. Saudi Aramco which is, today, a state-owned enterprise was actually part of Standard Oil of California that was setup as a subsidiary by the American company.
Aaron Powell: [00:03:30] What’s the government of Saudi Arabia look like now? What sort of system do they have setup?
Emma Ashford: It’s really fascinating. Saudi Arabia is basically the world’s only remaining absolute monarchy. I’m sure there are maybe a couple of small places, principalities but Saudi Arabia is fairly unique in the modern world. It is ruled by a king. The king is chosen, traditionally, from among the brothers, the sons of Abdulaziz. The current king, King Salman, is a son [00:04:00] of Abdulaziz. The succession is beginning to switch over to that third generation but were not quite there yet and the family basically comes to a consensus as to who gets to be king.
The family and other prominent Saudis staff up ministries and decide on policy and there’s really not much in the way of political representation at all. What there is, however, is a consultative system where the royals have good relations with the tribes [00:04:30] throughout the region. They have good relations with the bedouin, many of whom still roam throughout Saudi Arabia. They have relations with specific cities so somebody would be setup as a governor of a certain province and that part of the family will help to manage things. Then, they have particularly good relations with the religious elites, often known as the Ulama who are, again, performing a consultative function. This is all very old-fashioned and [00:05:00] not at all the way we would think for modern legislation-driven system.
Trevor Burrus: Is it Sharia law? Is it fairly fundamentalist in its legal system?
Emma Ashford: The Saudi political system is quite fundamentalist. If you look at things like laws for punishing criminals, you actually find that the Saudis are among the most extreme. There’s a commonly told story from the last couple of years that when ISIS was looking for school [00:05:30] text books, they just took Saudi text books and used them because they were actually extreme enough for them.
They stick to a very hard line interpretation of criminal statutes in particular. The government of Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a constitution and that’s in part because they believe that no constitution can supersede the law of God. This is part of the problem that they have when they’re talking about reforming their system is how can they continue to adhere to that belief [00:06:00] and then try and pull the system a little more into the modern world.
Aaron Powell: You said that they were an absolute monarchy so that the Saud family controls things. The laws come out of religion, so who, I guess, has interpretative authority over what the religious laws mean? If they were interpreting Sharia, the king gets to say, “Well, that’s what [00:06:30] this means and that’s what we’re going to do,” or does the priestly class do this? How do they settle those issues?
Emma Ashford: It’s not the king at all, it is this religious elite, the Ulama. Calling them a priestly class is also a little misleading because while many of these are preachers or religious scholars, there’s not a hierarchical organized church. Over in Iran, what we have is a hierarchical Muslim church that looks a lot more like the Catholic church but in Saudi Arabia, what we have are these networks [00:07:00] of independent or affiliated preachers, religious scholars.
They are the ones that sit down and they read the Quran and they read the Hadith and they interpret the words of Muhammad and they try and come up with answers for what is permissible and what is not. One of the things that make Saudi Arabia relatively unique, even in the Arab world, is that those scholars have traditionally taken really quite a hard line approach to those issues. It’s a very conservative form of Islam [00:07:30] that came out of the Nadj, which is the central region of Saudi Arabia where the royal family is from, and they have fairly broadly applied that throughout the kingdom’s history.
Trevor Burrus: What type of Islam do they practice mostly in Saudi Arabia?
Emma Ashford: It’s commonly described as Wahhabi and that’s the term that we’re hearing more and more in the media as the Saudi Arabians are spreading Wahhabi Islam. That’s one way to describe it. Wahhabis are basically Muslims that adhere to the teachings of [00:08:00] a relatively hard line scholar from about 100 years ago known as Ibn Wahhab and he advocated, again, just a relatively hard line interpretation of Islam. That’s what they’ve mostly put into effect but it’s not a distinct school of Islam. This isn’t Protestants or Catholics, this is just an interpretation of Islam and it’s one that you will find all over the Middle East [00:08:30] in different countries, it’s just that Saudi Arabia’s the place where it’s probably most prevalent and the place where it influences the government the most.
Trevor Burrus: Is that different than Sunni or Shia? Can you be a Sunni or Shia and Wahhabi? How is it related to the ones that we hear about a lot?
Emma Ashford: It’s a form of Sunni Islam. Saudi Arabians are all Sunni or at least above board, they’re all Sunni. It’s not legal to practice other religions inside Saudi [00:09:00] Arabia although they do allow Shia Muslims in to perform the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Aaron Powell: If the official version of the religion is this hard line conservatism, how widely shared is that among the people? Are the ordinary citizens of Saudi Arabia as conservative as their rulers?
Emma Ashford: I think we can interpret a lot from the fact that Saudi citizens really liked to go on holiday to Bahrain, they really liked to go on holiday to Dubai and [00:09:30] if they’re richer, they go to Europe. They do it because they get to be freer there. Women get to take off most of the coverings that they have to wear and they can go out and eat in restaurants and men and women can eat in the same place if they’re not family.
The fact that the Saudis liked to travel abroad when they can says that perhaps the population is somewhat more moderate than the religious elite. The fact that there’s been a lot of support for some of the reforms [00:10:00] that’ve been talked about in recent months permitting movie theaters to open up and show movies for the first time, there’s been a lot of support for that, permitting concerts where both men and women can actually attend these concerts. Again, these things have all been hugely popular inside Saudi Arabia and so to the extent that the new crown prince is trying to modernize things. He has a lot of popular support, he just has to deal with the backlash from the religious elite in doing so.
Trevor Burrus: I assume there’s no drinking [00:10:30] in Saudi Arabia? I would assume, I don’t know. I know there’s not in Dubai, right?
Emma Ashford: There is no drinking in Saudi Arabia unless you’re in an embassy, for example. No, they don’t serve alcohol. It’s not even like some other Muslim countries like Pakistan where you can, if you are a non-believer, if you’re not a Muslim, you can go and buy alcohol. No, they’re much stricter in Saudi Arabia. No alcohol, no pork products and you are supposed to generally, if you’re a Westerner and you’re there, abide [00:11:00] generally by the rules of the society.
Aaron Powell: What does their economy look like? Is it all just oil money?
Emma Ashford: The Saudis are probably the quintessential example of a petrostate. A state that’s almost entirely dependent on oil. Before they found oil, the kingdom was entirely dependent on the fees that Muslims would pay to come and perform the Hajj and that’s what made up the entirety of the budget, the budget was well in the red when they discovered oil and that’s one reason why the Saudis were so keen to start exporting oil in the ’30s. [00:11:30] Since then, it has basically dominated the economy.
They have tried frequently to startup other industries, manufacturing, whatever but because of the way that oil is sold and the way that oil is produced, Saudi Arabia has ended up with all the pathologies of your typical petrostate. They have Dutch disease which means it’s hard to start other sectors because the currency is overvalued because oil is [00:12:00] the primary export so nothing else is really profitable to manufacture or export.
The result is a society where the government owns the main companies, Saudi-Aramco. It’s responsible for the vast majority of exports and profits. The government turns around and uses that money, not just on social programs, but to fund a really large civil service so many Saudis are actually employed by the government. Often, the jobs are really necessary but they can’t get jobs in [00:12:30] the private sector because there isn’t a good private sector, that’s the only thing that they can do.
Today, we are seeing another attempt at reform in Saudi Arabia. This one’s a little different than usual. Usually, they just try to attract investment and then it fails and the oil price goes back up and they give up. Today, they’re talking about spinning off some shares of Aramco using those to fund an investment fund and then they’ll live on the proceeds of the investments rather [00:13:00] than the proceeds from oil.
It’s not clear if that’s going to work in the near term and they still have all the same problems with the attracting investment that they had before. It’s not an attractive country to go and invest in, Westerners particularly don’t want to go and live there. Saudis are not well-trained for the jobs that are available and often feel that particularly menial jobs are beneath them because they have these civil service jobs. The economy is rather a mess.
Trevor Burrus: [00:13:30] They took a big hit with the shale-oil revolution and the price of oil going down, I think, even $35 a barrel or around there.
Emma Ashford: I think it hit 27 at one point which is impressive.
Trevor Burrus: With green and climate change and some states in Europe saying that they’re going to have no gas cars by 2030 or something like that, are they concerned? Do you think one of the reasons for this reform is their concern about the future of oil?
Emma Ashford: Yeah, I think, [00:14:00] for all his flaws is many flaws. The Saudi crown prince today, a young man called Mohammad bin Salman, I think he is looking ahead and he’s saying, “Well, we need to think about diversifying now before it’s too late.” I’m not even sure that he’s looking at things like electric cars or some idea that the world will eventually wean itself off of oil because that may be in the future but it’s not foreseeable and we don’t know when it’ll happen if it does.
What we can see and what is very clear [00:14:30] is that the rise of these new technologies particularly shale gas, hydraulic fracturing has allowed production to grow in a whole bunch of countries around the world that were oil producers before. If you look at the US, for example, we’ve gone from a position where we a net importer just a decade ago will be a net exporter sometime within the next five years of oil and gas.
That’s a huge change and so what the Saudis are looking at is saying, “Well, world production patterns are changing, it’s not going to be just OPEC members [00:15:00] anymore which means that we have less influence on the world oil price.” Diversification and trying to move away from oil is one response to this and the other response that they have made is over the last couple of years, they’ve tried to keep the price of oil low enough that it drives shale producers out of business. On that front, they’ve not been successful at all.
Aaron Powell: What is OPEC?
Emma Ashford: OPEC is the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Trevor Burrus: It’s a cartel.
Emma Ashford: It is, it’s a cartel. [00:15:30] Although social scientists, economists, political scientists are really divided in whether OPEC actually works as a cartel. The idea was it was setup in the late ’60s or early ’70s by a bunch of these Middle Eastern states and also Venezuela and a couple of others and the idea was that these states were poorer states and they would be able to seize more of the value of their resources rather than it going to Western companies.
[00:16:00] They all nationalized their industries, seized the profits of the oil and then set out to try and create this cartel where they controlled the price of oil. As I say, political scientists are basically unsure whether OPEC really functions as a cartel, instead what most people agree on is it’s actually Saudi Arabia that functions as almost a single player cartel. They control so much of the world oil supply. It’s slightly or a quarter of the world oil supply comes out of Saudi every year. That [00:16:30] actually enables them to act as a swing producer and so when Saudi Arabia shifts their production up or down, it impacts the entire global oil market and oil prices globally.
Trevor Burrus: It’s hard to get people to behave in a cartel, generally, even if you’re all in the same country because there’s always a striker that’s going to break the picket line and go and work. I assume that it’s hard to get countries to just abide by their word and say, “We’re not going to produce more oil,” which seems to be the case. In terms of American [00:17:00] relation, you said that it began with World War II. Was that pretty much … ?
Emma Ashford: Right around that time, yeah.
Trevor Burrus: What kind of chapters have occurred in American-Saudi relations since World War II?
Emma Ashford: Well, so there’s a really great picture, actually, of Franklin Delano Roosevelt sitting on the deck of a ship and he’s in the Great Bitter Sea in Egypt and he’s sitting and he’s talking to Abdulaziz also. That’s the first meeting between [00:17:30] an American president and a Saudi king and that’s during the war. I think, FDR was on his way back from, maybe, Yalta but one of those conferences and he stopped in to see, also, because the Saudi oil was so important to the war effort.
Then, if you move forward in history, what you’ll find is basically a similar picture of every US president meeting with the Saudi king of the time, trying to make sure that the US kept access to [00:18:00] Saudi oil, that the money that we paid them for that oil was funneled back into Western financial markets and that we’ve maintained good relations with them.
That relationship was perhaps more fraught in the ’60s and into the ’70s as we see the oil embargoes, that Saudi Arabia reacted against US support for Israel in some of the Arab-Israeli wars of that time. As we move into the ’80s and into the ’90s though, the relationship [00:18:30] dramatically improves again.
One of the Carter Doctrine which Jimmy Carter put forward in 1980 basically he said, “Any threat to the Gulf or the security of energy in the Gulf,” and he meant Saudi Arabia, “Will be a national security threat to the United States and we will respond if necessary.” That declaration leads almost directly to the First Gulf War and the US decision to push Iraq back out of Kuwait and to protect the Saudi oil fields.
This relationship [00:19:00] is strong for decades. In the last, however, decade or so, we have started to see some slippage and it’s basically as American production has grown, we’re less dependent on Middle Eastern oil and as the political environment in the Middle East has shifted, our interests don’t always align with Saudi Arabia’s anymore. We started to see more friction, particularly under President Obama, there was a lot of friction between him and Saudi leaders that we historically hadn’t seen.
Aaron Powell: [00:19:30] How does Saudi influence work in this country? You outlined that for a long time we basically needed their oil, they were giving us oil so we were friendly with them. You hear stories of more like the amount of influence they have over American companies, American contractors over people in the government. How deep and pervasive is Saudi influence within the US?
Emma Ashford: [00:20:00] I don’t want to give credence to conspiracy theories because I don’t think that kind of interpretation of it is correct. What I do see is that the Saudis, as extremely rich as providers of a scarce good, have always had fairly good connections with America’s political and commercial elites. Close connections with companies like Exxon or Chevron and then close connections to US [00:20:30] political leaders.
I think the Bush family is an excellent example of this. Bandar bin Sultan, who is a fairly notable Saudi diplomat was the ambassador here for a number of years, was extremely good friends with Bush elder and then with also the second president Bush and he’d been a friend of the family for years because of their involvement in oil politics in Texas.
There’s that aspect to it, there’s the personal relationship building aspect to it. The Saudis have always been very good [00:21:00] at that, at building person-to-person ties. Then, they also have a fairly direct lobbying efforts in which a lot of PR companies in DC are paid, basically, to help smooth things along, particularly with arms sales, to Saudi Arabia. There’s always been some doubts about whether arm sales to Saudi Arabia were a good idea or not. The Saudis have had this fairly extensive lobbying effort in DC [00:21:30] aimed at promoting their interests as well so I don’t think it’s necessarily a sinister thing but they do have very good connections.
Aaron Powell: Well, on the topic of sinister influence, I just have to ask, what was the orb?
Emma Ashford: I’m so sorry that Time Magazine didn’t make the orb Person of the Year. This was President Trump went out to the Gulf earlier in 2017 and he, basically, engaged in the opening ceremony for [00:22:00] a new counter terrorism center. This is show piece so a lot of things that the Saudis do, this is designed to convince us that they’re really trying to fight against terrorism, that they are on our side and all of this but it’s mostly just for show.
It’s not really actually going to do anything. How they opened it was Trump and King Salman and I believe it was LCC of Egypt as well, put their hands on this glowing orb and pushed it to startup this big [00:22:30] center full of computers. I will say though, that was part of a broader visit that President Trump made to Saudi Arabia, it was the first country he went to abroad and they really impressed him. The Saudis did an excellent job of rolling out the red carpet, treating him like a king and it all appears to have gone down well, even the orb.
Trevor Burrus: Well, if you’re into Illuminati theories and things like that, I guess the orb is a pretty good props for those kind of conspiracies. You mentioned that waning relations, [00:23:00] for the last 15 years or so, and a lot of people have put it out consistently that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis. This idea that they’re the nice Middle East state who we don’t really have to worry about is severely overblown as a lot of people argue. Is that a valid argument?
Emma Ashford: It’s entirely true on a factual basis. I mean if you look at terrorism, [00:23:30] Islamic terrorism, inside the United States, there has not been, at least in the last two, two and a half decades, there has not been a single attack by a Shia or Iranian associated figure. They’ve all been connected, in some way, to Saudi Arabia itself or Saudi funded mosques or even just these more hard line interpretations of Islam which isn’t to say that Saudi Arabia is directly responsible for any of these terror attacks but there is something worrying [00:24:00] and disturbing in their philosophy. That philosophy that they have spread around the world for many years that has helped to push some of the radical terrorism that we’ve seen in recent years.
Trevor Burrus: What is the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran because you mentioned about the Shia like that’s not actually what we’ve seen. Saudi is supposed to be the nice Middle East country and they don’t seemed to like each other that much.
Emma Ashford: Until the 1979 Iranian [00:24:30] Revolution, the US actually pursued a foreign policy in the Middle East known as the Twin Pillars Policy which was we didn’t have a lot of troops in the region but we basically work with Saudi Arabia and with Iran as the twin pillars of US policy. They helped us achieve our goals. At the Iranian Revolution in 1979, that shifts and we basically go to dealing with Saudi Arabia and we deal with lots of other countries, we are with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, etc. etc. but Saudi Arabia becomes the one country [00:25:00] in the region that we consistently work with and back.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have always had tensions and hostilities between them. They’re among the two biggest states in the region especially today with Iraq in shambles and Syria in shambles, Saudi Arabia and Iran are two of the most powerful states in the region. They had hostilities and tensions even back when we were friends with both of them and it’s not so much about sectarianism as some [00:25:30] people say, it’s not Sunni versus Shia.
It’s really just that they’re two big countries that are neighbors and don’t always get along. Those tensions have worsened in recent years and particularly, I’d say since about 2009, 2010, we have seen those relations spiral downwards quite dramatically. We saw the two countries, basically being opposed, backing opposite sides in Syria, they’re backing opposite sides in Yemen, in that civil war and tensions [00:26:00] are just far higher in the region than they have been in many years.
Aaron Powell: Yemen has been in the news a fair amount, in large part, because of just how absolutely awful what’s happening there is. What is happening in Yemen and what role is Saudi Arabia playing in this?
Emma Ashford: What’s happening in Yemen is absolutely horrifying. It is a humanitarian crisis on a scale that’s almost hard to believe. There had been outbreaks of cholera that are larger than any we’ve seen [00:26:30] in decades. Yemen was a basket case for many, many years. There were, I think, something like five civil wars since 1991 so this is not a country that has typically been stable and it’s worth even noting, I think, that when Abdulaziz united the Arabian peninsula, he failed to include Yemen. He tried and failed.
The Saudis, basically, have always tried to keep Yemen weak and subordinate in order to not have it as a threat. [00:27:00] In the mid-2000s, an insurgency swept down from the north of Yemen known as the Houthis. They actually managed to take a bunch of territory, they didn’t do so great for a couple of years but in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, they allied with the dictator that was overthrown, the Yemeni dictator, Ali Abdul Saleh who actually died just last week.
They allied with him, seized the capital and started firing off rockets in the direction of Saudi Arabia. [00:27:30] The Saudis, then, started a military campaign against Yemen and that’s what we’re talking about when we say the war in Yemen or the conflict in Yemen today. It’s a Saudi-led, Emirati-backed, American-backed campaign to try and drive the Houthis out of the central part of Yemen and back where they came from. It’s been almost staggeringly unsuccessful. The Saudis have seized some territory, not that much and they’ve initiated a blockade but basically has [00:28:00] the population starving while they do it.
Trevor Burrus: The Houthis, are they sectarian? Did they come from a different religious background or are they just a political movement or maybe they’re not that separable but do they have a different interpretation? Is there a religious undertone to this also?
Emma Ashford: There is a little of both actually. The Houthis are, technically, they’re Shia Muslims of a form known as Twelver Shia Muslims. [00:28:30] Iranian Mullahs, for example, would probably consider them heretics so it’s semi-religious in that they are religious minority inside Yemen. It’s mostly political, it’s mostly this group wants more power and more say in Yemen. Almost every political conflicts debate that we’ve had in Yemen since the country re- [00:29:00] unified from two separate halves, all of these debates were basically about how much power the regions would get, how much autonomy they would get from one another, whether it was the south, whether it was the Houthis in the north, whether it was the east which just has a bunch of Jihadi groups and is basically the wild west. That’s what all Yemeni political debates are about, this one is just the same.
Trevor Burrus: You said that we’re involved, our weapons are always involved with the Saudis but are we actually fighting with them, [00:29:30] doing strikes and stuff?
Emma Ashford: We don’t fight them directly. What we are doing, in addition to selling them weapons, we are refueling Saudi planes as they engage in bombing runs, we’re helping them with logistical chains, we have ships that are helping with the blockade. They’re basically there to examine incoming ships and check if they have weapons on them but in doing so, we’re basically helping the blockade. For a longe time, we were also providing them intelligence and targeting [00:30:00] support. We were basically telling them where they should bomb. Now, actually under President Obama we stopped doing that, in part because the Saudis were just ignoring what we told them and bombing civilian sites so we’ve dialed back our involvement a little bit. We’re still, I mean, effectively complicit in this military campaign even if we’re not dropping the bombs ourselves.
Aaron Powell: As you said, we are complicit in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is [00:30:30] an authoritarian regime with horrendous human rights abuses, they’re bad guys. Yet, it seems like we bend over backwards for them, we sell them arms, we protect them, we’re super friendly with them. I guess, is that okay? Should the US government, should the US people, should we, as a nation, [00:31:00] be allying with and, to an extent, propping up regimes that are as antithetical to the values that we hold?
Emma Ashford: I’m not going to tell you that we should always listen to values when we’re talking about international affairs because, I think, oftentimes our interests and our values don’t line up. If we’re talking about national security, interests have to be more important. What is the case, at least, today in Saudi Arabia [00:31:30] is that our interests don’t align with theirs and our values don’t align with theirs either and maybe that was different 20 years ago.
Today, it’s not clear to me why we still have such a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia and why we’re still so supportive of the things we’re doing even though their behavior has changed and they’re actually helping to destabilize the region.
If you look, for example, of the things that Iran is doing in the region, arming various [00:32:00] terror groups, supporting rebels in different countries, we agree, we all agree that that is destabilizing and it’s bad even if we don’t necessarily agree that the US should do something about it.
The Saudis engage in very much the same behavior and instead, we treat them as if they’re our closest friends. Historically speaking, the close relationship that we have with them is really the only reason that I can suggest for this. We have always had a good relationship with them, we tend to think [00:32:30] of them as our friends, elites, foreign policy elites in particular are very fond of Saudi Arabia. Public opinion is actually far less supportive so this just seems to be that we’ve always done it and we’re going to keep doing it.
Aaron Powell: What would happen, though, if we were to back off of our alliance with them? What sort of effect it would have on them and on the Middle East?
Emma Ashford: Well, if you listen to a lot of people these days, you’ll hear them say, “Well, Obama withdrew from the Middle East and that’s why things are as bad as they are [00:33:00] today.” That’s not really true at all. Obama dialed up our participation in a lot of Middle Eastern conflicts but what people mean with regards to Saudi Arabia is they say, “Well, he didn’t do what the Saudis wanted,” which was he didn’t intervene in Syria, he didn’t do what they wanted in various other countries. The US didn’t support the Saudis during that period and the Saudis just acted the way that they were going to anyway. [00:33:30] Trump, since he came into office, it’s been almost a year, has basically supported the Saudis wholeheartedly in everything they’ve done.
Aaron Powell: Because of the orb.
Trevor Burrus: Because of the orb, of course. Have you consulted the orb?
Aaron Powell: Not yet.
Emma Ashford: Yeah, perhaps because of the orb or because they’re very good at flattery. Trump has supported them in everything they do and they’ve almost got worse in many ways. The Saudis have taken additional steps in Yemen, they’ve got engaged in more saber-rattling in the region since they were thrown the support and so [00:34:00] I basically would suggest that if we were to back off from our relationship with Saudi Arabia, they might be less willing to try and upset things in the region if they know that we’re not going to come racing to their aid.
Trevor Burrus: It’s been a big year or two for Saudi stories. The other one, not knowing much about the area, but it was in Qatar or Qatar, I guess is the proper way, I always say that incorrectly, got involved with a almost Cold War with the Saudis. I know that Al Jazeera had something to [00:34:30] do with it which strikes me as interesting but what was happening there?
Emma Ashford: Saudi Arabia has just made a series of really terrible decisions in foreign policy recently and the Yemen wars, by far, the most obvious. We also have this blockade against Qatar and basically, one day, there’s the announcement that something known as the Anti-Terror Quartet which is Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and just a couple of other countries are setting up an embargo of Qatar [00:35:00] because Qatar is a bad actor and a terrorist financier and they’re going to do something about it. This is very strange because Qatar is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council like Saudi Arabia. They have fairly close relations with Saudi. They share a border, they share, in many ways, a culture.
Trevor Burrus: With us too.
Emma Ashford: Exactly, the Qataris are also US allies. There’s a massive base, that biggest base in the Middle East, at Al Udeid in Qatar, the US base there. The Saudi [00:35:30] decision appears to, basically, have been that they want Qatar to shut down Al Jazeera because it was saying things that the Saudis didn’t like, it’s a relatively semi-independent media outlet, at least, for the region. They wanted Qatar to cut its ties with Iran which Qatar is very close to Iran geographically, they share a gas field.
It’s not really possible for them to cut off relations entirely. Then, I think this might be the crux of the matter though, it’s never really stated, the Saudis want the Qataris [00:36:00] to stop having an independent foreign policy. They want Qatar to basically come back and let its foreign policy be directed by Riyadh rather than being more independent on regional issues. All of this is just an extremely strange development. A lot of people assume that President Trump told them that it was okay to do it because I cannot imagine why they would’ve done it otherwise.
Aaron Powell: Didn’t he tweet there’s something odd about it?
Emma Ashford: He tweeted about how great it was and then his Defense Secretary [00:36:30] and the Secretary of State went out and said, “No, this is a terrible idea. This is going to harm the Anti-ISIL campaign and so the US government, again, has been split on this issue. The Saudis don’t appear to have an end game on this, the Qataris are actually willing to negotiate but the Saudis won’t negotiate with them. This is just another case where the new leadership in Saudi Arabia is pursuing foreign policy that doesn’t make any sense.
Trevor Burrus: Now, you mentioned a few times, maybe one of the reasons behind some of these recent developments [00:37:00] is the crown prince of Saudi Arabia who is a reformer but also controversial and he’s been trying to change things. Another story that came out, I think early November, was the arresting of 11 princes and other people and he was said to be the person behind it. Who is this guy and what is he pursuing?
Emma Ashford: Mohammad bin Salman, I think, he was just named by a publication as the Most Important Millennial in the World because he’s only, I think, 32 [00:37:30] or 33.
Trevor Burrus: I know I was waiting a direction.
Emma Ashford: Yes, don’t you feel like you haven’t accomplished enough with your life?
Trevor Burrus: Exactly, yes.
Emma Ashford: His father is king and initially, Mohammad bin Salman wasn’t even in the line of succession. Then, some moves were made and he got appointed deputy crown prince and his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, very popular here in Washington, very well-respected, was made the crown prince. Then after about six months or a year, Mohammed bin Nayef got elbowed out of the way and Mohammad bin [00:38:00] Salman became crown prince. The expectation at this point is that he will succeed his father. This is not how things typically went in Saudi Arabia at all.
He is shaking things up in a major way but he is basically also been the power behind the throne for his father. On the foreign policy side, he’s been very activist and on the domestic side, he has really pushed this economic diversification and reform package. The recent crackdown where they arrested hundreds of senior business [00:38:30] people and princes and influential Saudis is being presented as part of this effort.
It’s being presented as an anti-corruption drive. What’s really an interesting question though is in a country like Saudi Arabia, where the family’s finances are basically completely intertwined with those of Saudi-Aramco, there is really no such thing as a family budget and a state budget. Corruption is what the king or the crown prince says it is. While this purge has been widely popular [00:39:00] at home, it’s also, as in a lot of authoritarian states, it’s a really convenient way for him to crack down on political opponents too.
Trevor Burrus: Is he a more liberal guy? You said some of the things like the women driving. Is he someone we should be concerned about? Does he seemed a little bit more hard line, flip the country because this is something, I think, we should be concerned about. We give a lot of weapons, sell a lot of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the country could flip.
Aaron Powell: I mean, [00:39:30] Tom Friedman sat down with him and became convinced he was like the second coming on John Kennedy.
Trevor Burrus: Really? I did not know this.
Aaron Powell: There was a Tom Friedman column where he’s like, “Over drinks, I hung out with him and he’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened ever.”
Emma Ashford: The article, the Tom Friedman article, was so widely criticized. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything made fun of so much on Saudi Arabia because it was …
Trevor Burrus: He was made fun of a lot so …
Emma Ashford: It was basically just an interview with the guy where he said the guy is so, so great. [00:40:00] There are some reasons to like what he’s doing. He is making these liberalizing steps on some social issues, things that we wouldn’t even consider as steps to be taken but like letting women drive, letting men and women go to concerts together.
These are liberalizing steps in Saudi Arabia so he’s doing that, he’s talking about economic reform which is a necessity and there are worries that maybe he can’t pull it off, maybe he’ll make things worse. [00:40:30] That is probably a necessity but none of this is being matched by political liberalization.
If anything, the Saudi political system has become more authoritarian and more centralized over the last three years. You know how I said right at the start that this was a consensus-based system for many years so there was something called the Ascension Council that’s a bunch of senior male-only royals.
They would get together and they would decide on who the next king was but they’d also get together and they deliberate on important issues. The king would sound [00:41:00] them out on policies and then he would make a decision. Most of that has basically gone away now and Mohammad bin Salman is making decision largely by himself, perhaps with a few advisers, and deciding what is best of Saudi Arabia and he’s not really listening to the religious elites. He’s basically portraying himself as the hero of the people and I know what I’m doing. It’s good in one sense but in the political sense, it’s not good at all.
Trevor Burrus: He’s not the king. I mean, was the king’s just [00:41:30] going golfing or something. Does he have all that power? Is the king just letting him do it?
Emma Ashford: King Salman is almost 90, right?
Trevor Burrus: Okay.
Emma Ashford: One of the reasons why Saudi Arabia has been going through this transition period is because we reached the end of the viability of the sons of Abdulaziz. I think even the youngest son of Abdulaziz is in his 70s now. At some point, the torch was going to have to pass to the next generation. King Salman is quite elderly, [00:42:00] he’s been rumored to be in ill health for many years. I remember, back when I was in grad school a number of years ago writing my dissertation, at that point when he was, I think, deputy crown prince, everyone said Salman had dementia, Alzheimer’s. He couldn’t do a day’s work. Clearly, that turned out to be not entirely true, this is part of the problem with looking at internal developments in Saudi Arabia, we don’t have good sources. Whatever the story is, Salman is not taking an active [00:42:30] interest in running the kingdom. Mohammad bin Salman is, for all intents and purposes, king, even if he’s not in name yet.
Trevor Burrus: What are the future relations between US, Saudi Arabia, the Middle East? I know this is obviously an area of the world where something like the Arab Spring have come up which I’m not sure many people predicted which now …
Aaron Powell: Predictions are difficult.
Trevor Burrus: Predictions especially about the future but what do you see going into the next few years at least?
Emma Ashford: That was the title of the Tom [00:43:00] Friedman column that got so much complaints about was he said, “This is Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring,” which is just an absolute mockery of the motivations of the original Arab Spring Movements. In terms of where Saudi Arabia goes from here, Mohammad bin Salman is clearly going to try and push through these reforms but there is a limit to what he can do and we’ve already seen them back off on various things like re-instituting some of the social allowances after people complained.
[00:43:30] There is a limit to how much reform they can do in a short period of time if they are successful at that. I think one of the problems or one of the things that is increasingly becoming a problem for his domestic reforms is how active he’s being on foreign policy. Even though the Trump administration is backing this fully right now, I would say that in the US, political opinion is swinging against Saudi Arabia. Public opinion is fairly [00:44:00] consistently opposed to a lot of things Saudi Arabia’s doing now.
You even see political leadership in both parties, actually, standing up and saying, “We’re not sure of the arms sales to Saudi Arabia.” We’ve got people like, I think, Chris Murphy of Connecticut has been very active in opposing Saudi arms bills on the basis of the Yemen conflict. This is something that a decade ago would have been unthinkable so even though the Trump administration is bringing us closer to Saudi Arabia today, even though they’re trying to reform, [00:44:30] I don’t think this relationship is going to be good in the medium-term future. I think we are going to continue drifting away from them and that’s probably good for us, it may not be good for the Saudis.
Aaron Powell: Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more, visit us at www.libertarianism.org.