What should the United States do about this changing Saudi Arabia? Its real dependence on Saudi oil, Riyadh’s key role in the current security architecture, and the transition costs of a new strategy can’t be wished away. Allies should be engaged with a presumption of partnership, not one-sided lectures or sudden, erratic policy shifts. But America cannot continue to ignore the increasingly clear tension between its stated policy goals. It should at least avoid accepting or endorsing the status quo, and should do far more to nurture the emerging new Saudi public sphere. For instance, the symbolism of President Obama’s unusual meeting with new Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, which looked to many Saudis like an endorsement of someone they identify with the most repressive and anti-democratic trends in the kingdom, was unfortunate.
Does Washington have any leverage? Maybe. The day after his lengthy interrogation over various ill-defined charges, the impressive human rights campaigner Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani told me that the United States urgently needed to do more to support these emerging voices. Qahtani, like others, thinks that Obama could significantly help this emerging new reformist discourse — and that engaging with them would ultimately be decisively in the interests of both Washington and Saudi Arabia itself. While many were dismissive of the 30 women appointed by King Abdullah to the Shura Council, for instance, one women’s rights activist with whom I spoke argued strongly for its significance. Their presence, she insisted, was symbolically important and would make it far easier for them to get women’s issues onto the Shura Council’s (admittedly lean) agenda. If this were simply a public relations move to appease the United States (“the Hillary Clinton Council,” as several Saudis called it), she argued, then it should be taken as a positive example of how American pressure could help. Change will not come quickly, but Obama should speak out against the prosecution of such liberal reformists and apply the same standards on the right to free expression in Saudi Arabia that he does elsewhere in the region.