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This weekend, dozens of women drove in a protest to win greater rights in Saudi Arabia — the only country that does not issue driver’s licenses to women. While the kingdom’s human rights record recently came under fire from the U.N., the organization offered Saudi Arabia a seat on its Security Council. In a surprise move, the Saudis declined the offer, sending a message about the effectiveness of the Council and recent U.S. Middle East policy. The Saudis are said to be angry over the Obama administration’s perceived weakness in dealing with Syria and its recent overtures toward Saudi’s arch-enemy, Iran. Diane and her guests discuss new pressures on Saudi Arabia at home and abroad.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. A decades-old partnership between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is showing signs of strain. At the same time, the country faces increasing domestic pressure over women's rights. Joining me in the studio to talk about the challenges facing Saudi Arabia both at home and abroad, Paul Danahar of the BBC and Ali Al-Ahmed of the Gulf Institute.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining us from WAER in Syracuse, N.Y., Tamara Wittes of the Brookings Institution. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to all of you. But first, joining us from Beirut, is Deborah Amos. She covers the Middle East for NPR News. Deb, I know you recently rode with the organizer of the protest. Tell us what happened.
MS. DEBORAH AMOSWell, there isn't one organizer, which is one of the successes of this movement. It's a bit leaderless. There's a webpage and a Twitter page. And when I arrived in Saudi Arabia, I already had a list of telephones and emails, and women showed up at my hotel, four or five of them. And the next day, one of them invited me to take a cruise around the city. And we were driving on one of Riyadh's main highways, and she pulled to the side -- or she asked her driver to pull to the side of the road. He got in the back. We got in the front, and off we went.
MS. DEBORAH AMOSIt was a -- it's a very hectic driving situation in Riyadh anyway. Nobody noticed. And she decided that she was going drive past the police station, and she assured me -- I was a little nervous about that. She assured me that the head of Saudi's traffic police had said he would not arrest any woman who was driving as this drive-in picked up steam and culminated in a drive-in on Saturday, Oct. 26.
REHMHowever, weren't there actually some women or at least one who was arrested?
AMOSDetained, and there were about 12 of them on Saturday out of the 60 who drove and posted videos. They were pulled over, brought to the police station, asked to sign a statement that said that they would not drive again, and -- here was the interesting addition that activists said they hadn't heard before -- until they had a Saudi license.
AMOSNow, at this point, it is impossible for a woman to get a Saudi license, and some of them actually tried to provoke that issue. They went to the licensing bureau. They asked to have their Saudi identity cards processed, and the computer spit back, cannot give license to a woman. They wanted a copy of it, but they didn't get it.
AMOSBut they saw it. So activists are saying this is a very Saudi way of perhaps signaling that there will be licenses for women because this campaign has moved the goal post closer to success, they say, than they have seen. You know, this is the third challenge, and they are hoping that this one is the winner.
REHMIs there any reaction from King Abdullah himself?
AMOSNot himself. You saw the government give mixed messages. On the one hand, the ministry of interior started sending out warnings on Thursday, two days before the organizer had called for this drive-in on Saturday. The mosques warned -- there were sermons on Friday. Saudi state television amplified those warnings.
AMOSBut, on the other hand, the newspapers, commentators, were certainly allowed to publish pro-driving articles. There were three or four almost every day. There is a hilarious video from a pro -- a lot of men were pro, and a comedian put out a video called "No Woman, No Drive" which is a takeoff on a Bob Marley song. And that went viral, 3 million downloads for that.
AMOSRotana TV, which is a privately-owned television station -- I was in the Riyadh studios. They had hours of coverage on driving, and this is owned by a very, very senior Saudi prince. And the activists said, look, there wouldn't have been so much coverage if somebody within the leadership didn't want this. The king has said to Barbara Walters, famously in 2005, that he does believe that women should drive. He didn't say when. And so they are counting on him.
REHMNow, I wonder to what extent this whole driving issue is representative of much larger freedoms for not only women, but Saudi men as well that could lie ahead. What is this whole thing about?
AMOSWell, in particular, it is about driving because for women, driving is a big issue. It's a financial issue, an economic issue. Fifty-eight percent of Saudi women make up the university population. When you look at where they are in the job market, it is in the low teens. And part of that is because they can't drive. They have to depend on a male relative or a hired driver, or they stay home.
AMOSSo for the Saudi middle class where two incomes have become a necessity, this issue is important. We've also seen gains for women even in the past two years. They will be allowed to vote in the municipal elections of 2015. The king put 30 women on the Shura Council, which is an advisory body. It is true what you say about young Saudis.
AMOSMore than 60, 70 percent of the population who many of them are educated, they are on the web, they have a wider vision of the world, they want to define themselves and their religion and not have the state do it. And so there is a push for more opening in this ultra-conservative, slow-changing society.
REHMAnd finally, Deb, your take on Saudi Arabia's break with the U.S. on Middle East policies and the decision to turn down the seat on the U.N. Security Council.
AMOSLet's start with the seat. I think that there's two things that that is about. One is domestic. You cannot underestimate how strong the Syrian issue plays in Saudi Arabia. There are a million, at least, Syrians there. It is every emotive. I had one commentator say to me that he thought it had replaced the Palestinian/Israeli issue in terms of emotions and how strong people feel about it.
AMOSIt was also a pointed symbol to the United States. The Saudis certainly are upset with U.S. policy, the decision not to bomb, to make a U-turn to diplomacy with the Russians was a huge disappointment to the Saudis. They see that that decision made Bashar Al-Assad stronger and the opposition weaker and so you started getting these very frustrated, very public complaints from Prince Bandar, the intelligence chief, from Prince Turki who is not part of the ruling regime, but certainly is a recognized voice talking about dithering in Washington, talking about going their own way.
AMOSIt is not clear to me, and certainly not after conversations with Saudi policy thinkers, if they can go their own way. You also have to put this breach in perspective. This is the 40th anniversary of the 1973 oil embargo. The relationship survived that. It survived 9/11. I think it probably will survive this, but the Saudis are wary of the United States. They think that they are not interested anymore in what happens in their region.
REHMAnd, of course, we shall see how this continues to play out. The last time there was a driving protest, the first major one in 1990, 50 women were arrested. They had their passports confiscated. They lost their jobs. Do you think anything like that is going to happen this time or is it just going to get smoothed over?
AMOSI was in the car on Saturday, she wasn't driving, with Madiha Alaroush (sp?) who was one of the women who was part of that protest in 1990, and she took part again in 2011. Then she again lost her job, and she's back out on the road again in 2013. This time, she says she doesn't think the price will be as high, but she's willing to pay it anyway.
AMOSNow, she's with this younger generation who are leading the movement, who are very smart, learning from the past, making sure that they don't challenge the government, that they demonstrate to the government that this now is accepted in a huge part of the country. It is just this minority of the religious establishment who see it as a symbolic issue, who worry that it undermines Saudi culture. And the king is just going to have to figure out how to balance these two important parts of society. It appears that it is moving in the direction of the women.
REHMAnd, of course, one prominent cleric caused a stir when he said last month medical studies show that driving a car harms a woman's ovaries.
AMOSIndeed. And there was so much pushback on that. In fact, it is one of the parts of the lyric in "No Woman, No Drive." And so one of the weapons that these women are using is humor. I was with an activist who was followed all day by what appeared to be Saudi security, and at some moment, she got up, went to the toy store and bought them a toy car and presented it to them and said, today is Oct. 26, and I am giving you a car.
AMOSAnd he was angry, and he grabbed it out of her hand. But she said, but he took it. He did take it. So this is what I mean about how important it is that these women have learned how to organize a social movement in a country that has such restrictions, and they have been very successful.
REHMDeborah Amos, she covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her new book, "Eclipse of the Sunnis." Thanks for joining us, Deb.
AMOSThanks for having me.
REHMAnd welcome back. Joining me here in the studio as we talk about U.S. and Saudi Arabia, Paul Danahar. He's the BBC's Washington bureau chief. He's the author of "The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring." Ali al-Ahmed is director of the Gulf Institute here in Washington, D.C. Tamara Wittes is on the line with us from Syracuse. She's director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Paul Danahar, your thoughts about Saudi Arabia's decision to decline the seat on the U.N. Security Council.
MR. PAUL DANAHARI think you can only really look at it as petulant in many ways. I mean, the Saudis lobbied for this seat. They really want it. They're diplomats. The U.N. really wanted it. And then suddenly -- and I think it almost took the diplomats by surprise. The message came, we're not taking it. I think realistically the Saudi foreign policy is run on its own. It doesn't really need to sit down with a bunch of world leaders and have a discussion. Because whatever they say in public at the table, they will do their own thing.
MR. PAUL DANAHARWe've seen that in Syria. In Syria they've done pretty much everything they wanted regardless of whether or not the West, America or anybody else felt that was going to make things worse in Syria. So I don't think it's that surprising. The Saudis are unhappy. They wanted to make a big play of something and make a bit of a noise. But at the end of the day, that's almost an illustration of how powerless they are to really change things within international institutions. Because they know they're not going to get much of a voice.
REHMAnd yet, Tamara Wittes, it would seem that Saudi Arabia is pursuing a new and more assertive foreign policy.
MS. TAMARA WITTESWell, I think in Syria, for a long time, they have subsumed their preferences to American preferences in one key way, which is with respect to what types of rebels received support, cash, arms, training. And when the United States finally, at the beginning of this year, said that it would begin that equipment train project, the Saudis and the other Gulf factors said, OK, you lead, we'll follow.
MS. TAMARA WITTESI think a lot of the message last week was, we're done with that. We thought that you were investing in the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad but you seem now to be acceding to a process that may keep him in power. And we're not OK with that so we're going to go our own way.
REHMAli al-Ahmed, your reaction.
MR. ALI AL-AHMEDIt's -- the Saudi decision is not really about Syria itself. I think it's an excuse. The Saudis have been used to getting their own way in the Middle East for a long time. The U.S. supported them in many of their regional conflicts, even used armed forced to support the Saudi monarchy. Here Syria is an excuse for Iran because if they lose that in Syria, that means that Iran will be more powerful. They will be weaker, and they are fearful.
MR. ALI AL-AHMEDThey have problems inside the country. And if Iran and the U.S. come together, their position in the region will be compromised greatly. In addition to the increasing pressures from the inside, they will be in a weaker position.
REHMSo, Paul, it's not only about Syria, it's about Iran.
DANAHARIt's all about Iran. I mean, Syria is about Iran. Everything that the Saudis do is about Iran. You have this kind of strange set of bedfellows. You have Israel and Saudi Arabia on the same sheet where Iran is concerned. And they've both been expressing concerns about American foreign policy towards Iran and towards Syria. So the big elephant in the room always with the Saudis is Iran. And they are petrified about them.
DANAHARAnd since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam, they've seen the whole region get turned upside down. They saw Saddam as a bit of a pit bull that could keep the Iranians in check. And that all changed. And since then they've been kind of looking for another policy that would contain the Iranians. And Syria has been their big opportunity to try and do that. And that's why they're so upset now, that they see the Americans willing to compromise on this issue.
REHMTamara, I was interested in National Security Advisor Susan Rice, her comments in yesterday's New York Times saying that the U.S. cannot be consumed 24/7 by one region, and her comment suggesting a turning away somewhat from that area. And I wonder to what extent that figures in to the Saudis' reactions.
WITTESWell, I think there's no question that there's an underlying anxiety on the part of Saudi Arabia and a number of other U.S. partners in the region, this sort of narrative of abandonment. The notion on the part of the Obama Administration that they would like to shift resources and attention, relatively speaking, away from the Middle East and toward other parts of the world like Asia. That's been a longstanding theme.
WITTESAnd that inevitably creates some abandonment fears, if you will, on the part of regional partners at a moment when the region is simply not in a state that's stable. There's not a stable regional order. And those regional governments don't know how they're going to maintain the regional order without the active involvement of the United States.
WITTESSo I think the Saudi move at the United Nations, the angry speeches and comments to the press, yes, there's some petulance, as Paul was saying. But it's a strategic sort of tantrum. It's designed to get Washington's attention and to draw the United States back into regional politics.
REHMA strategic tantrum, Ali?
AL-AHMEDI think they're trying to get a better deal. You know, they want to pressure the United States by appearing to be upset. Really the Saudis cannot afford to really damage this relationship because they need the U.S. much more than the U.S. needs them. You know, for a long time people in the think tank world in Washington said, oh, the U.S. needs the Saudis. I think it's the other way around. The Saudi monarchy really needs the United States for protection.
AL-AHMEDIn the past 60 years, it is the U.S. that provided the external and even internal protection for the monarchy from its own people, from the regional power. So they know this very well. And recent, over the weekend, I got some information that the Saudis are basically saying, oh, we didn't mean it. Bender (sp?) -- it wasn't Bender who said this. It was some officer there. So they are realizing this, that this is not a good thing for them to pursue because overall it will damage them first. And their survival is the key driver here for them.
REHMOn another element of this, Alan writes an email saying, "To what extent is our current willingness to go against the wishes of the Saudis based upon only recently found energy independence on the part of the U.S.," Ali?
AL-AHMEDI think this is one of the issues that the -- if you (word?) the Saudi media, they are very upset with Obama personally and even use very vulgar language with him, unfortunately. So the fact that the U.S. is becoming more independent, alternative energy is growing -- fracking is influencing this.
AL-AHMEDThey find their position in the region to be -- their importance has been declining because of Iraq is purchasing more oil, the U.S. is purchasing more oil. Alternative energy is coming so they realize this is their insurance for survival. So if they lose their importance, this is going to be very tough for them.
DANAHARYeah, they have nothing else. They haven't educated their population. They don't have any other industries. Unless they have oil they have nothing. And I think what's really alarmed them most recently is Obama came out with his priorities for the Middle East. And they were primarily Iran and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There was nothing about Syria. There was nothing about Egypt. In many ways, he didn't deal with the biggest chaos in the region, which is those two countries. (unintelligible) the Middle East along with Iran, not the Palestinian-Israeli issue.
DANAHARSo I think the problem that the -- the Saudis were upset right from the beginning when Mubarak was kicked out because they see their politics very much in terms of personal relationships. And they saw Obama dumping this guy after 30 years. And that's alarmed them because they thought they had a relationship with the Americans and they thought Mubarak had a relationship with the Americans. And they saw how easily America dumped that relationship overnight. And that's made them nervous.
REHMAnd then what happened as Morsi came in and he was taken out?
DANAHARYeah, but they were very happy about that because if there's one thing they hate almost as much as the Iranians is the Muslim Brotherhood. So they were quite happy about that. And they're also unhappy with the Americans because they thought they were playing along with the Brotherhood and that they weren't strong enough in defending the CC takeover, the takeover of the Egyptian general. So on every level, the Saudis can find something to be unhappy about. And that's why they're making some noise now.
REHMAnd I wonder, Tamara, what the U.S. reaction to all this actually is.
WITTESWell, look, I think Paul is getting at something very important, which is that Saudi Arabia and the United States increasingly have different views and different preferences about what's happening in the Arab world, a different understanding of where these revolutions came from. For President Obama, very clearly this is bottom-up demand for dignity, for opportunity, for governments that are accountable and responsive.
WITTESAnd even though he's now deemphasizing America's support for democracy, that's still the American view of what's caused this roiling in the region. In the Saudi view, it's about leaders who aren't strong enough. And the support for the military-led government in Cairo on the part of Saudi and other Gulf states I think is a good example. So there's an underlying divergence here that I don't think we can paper over.
WITTESI do want to emphasize though an important point about the changes in the global energy market. It's certainly true that America's prospect of energy independence is causing a lot of people here to question whether the United States really needs to play that role of security guarantor for energy supplies coming out of the Gulf and going to global markets. Can't somebody else take up that burden now?
WITTESBut the fact is, although it's China and India and Europe that are the main customers for Gulf energy, nobody else has the capacity to play that security role. And energy is a global market, so for the United States, as a producer, as a seller, caring about the price of oil, we still have a stake in the security of energy supplies from the Gulf. And it's important for the United States to continue playing that role.
DANAHARI think the important thing also is that if the price of oil does go down below say $100 a barrel and it continues to go down a bit further than that, that would change the way the Saudi people live. It won't leave them destitute but it will begin to impact on their economy. And people have got used to a certain standard of living in the Gulf. And if that begins to go down, no matter how fractionally, they will begin to make more and more noises.
DANAHARAnd that's a real problem for the Saudis. So if you do get these alternative energy sources and they spread across Europe and across China and across the Soviet Union -- or former Soviet Union, you will have a decrease in the value of -- well, not a collapse but a decrease. And that will upset the Saudis because they really need that money. He dropped $130 billion on the table after the Arab Spring to keep everybody happy. He can't keep doing that if the price of oil doesn't stay high.
REHMAll right. And let's now go to the phones, after I remind you that you are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's take a caller in Washington, D.C. Abraheem, you're on the air.
ABRAHEEMI'm grateful for taking my call, the first one. I am an Egyptian American and Muslim. And I'm very much interested in this discussion because I believe Saudi Arabia is still run by the Wahhabi Islam, an extreme literal interpretation of a great religion, which I belong to. And, unfortunately, the oil and the money that the Saudi Arabians have acquired or have found, gave them more voice than -- and also gave the Wahhabi Islam and the extremist interpretation -- literal interpretation of a great religion has been spread over the world and it's very unfortunate.
ABRAHEEMI'd like to say as far as the driving for women, Khadiijha, the first wife of Prophet Muhammad was an international businesswoman. And Muhammad was her employee, God bless his soul. So Islam have -- give the opportunities to a woman and this driving nonsense is really an insult to Islam.
REHMAll right, sir. Thank you for your call. Ali.
AL-AHMEDI think -- look, I think most Western reporters who commented on women driving are absolutely wrong. It has nothing to do with the religious establishment. The religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, they work for the monarchy. It's the monarchy's business to run the country, and they know that when they keep women imprisoned in their homes, that keeps their husbands, too.
AL-AHMEDI love this article by the Saudi woman who's been driving now because she said that the Saudi man, most of his work is driving his woman around because they have no way to move around. If you keep women behind the walls, you keep their husbands as well and children. And it's really a regime security issue. It has nothing to do with tradition. It has nothing to do with their religion obviously. But this is the monarchy's way of keeping people down and controlled.
AL-AHMEDOne of the issues of mobility for Saudi women, the health issues. Imagine, I have lost friends and family members because they had heart attack at night. They couldn't go to the hospital. Their wife couldn't drive. And Saudi Arabia, you know, it has no street addresses. Ask any Saudi, what's your street address -- home address? We don't have street addresses. We have no...
REHMAnd why is that?
AL-AHMEDBecause, as Paul was saying, they have failed -- the monarchy has failed to give their people very much. Even this $130 billion, that was on paper, not real. You know, you have 70 percent of the population could not -- they not own homes. You have diabetes across the board. Thirty percent of the people, especially women, diabetic.
AL-AHMEDAbout 15,000 women die every year from diabetes in Saudi Arabia because sports are not allowed. You know, women cannot play sports in Saudi Arabia. It's one of the issues as well that is before women. It's not only about driving. It's about a lot of things.
REHMWhat about schooling?
AL-AHMEDSchooling. Women can go to school, but they cannot study engineering, for example. They only started recently studying media and law. So there is a lot of movement in Saudi Arabia. There are no, like, theater. There is no -- you cannot study drama, or you cannot study music. It's the only country in the world you cannot go and study to be a musician.
DANAHARAnd the big problem with Saudi Arabia is nothing in the history -- their recent history has been about change. It's been about keeping everything exactly the same. The region is changing, and they just don't know how to deal with it. Because all of these princes, whichever generation you look at, they've been taught how to keep things the same.
DANAHARAnd suddenly this massive change has happened in the region, and they don't know what to do. And they don't have the experience to know what to do. And they don't trust anybody else to help them. So they really are stuck on their own with lots of money but not knowing where to take this thing forward.
REHMPaul, why do you think people in this country ought to be interested in what's happening in Saudi Arabia?
DANAHARBecause at the end of the day, the Saudis have an awful lot of influence because they have an awful lot of money. I mean, they drove the -- the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets was driven by the Saudis. Although the Saudi government may be now trying to only support certain moderates, they're paying for the Islamists in Syria.
REHMPaul Danahar. He's the BBC's Washington bureau chief, author of "The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring." Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd as we talk about growing tensions between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, recent comments by Saudi spokespersons that expressing disappointment in U.S. behavior towards Syria, toward Egypt, and most especially in regard to Iran. Paul Danahar, just before the break, we were talking about why Americans should be at all interested in this.
DANAHARIt's because the Vegas rules don't apply in the Middle East. What happens in the Middle East doesn't stay in the Middle East. And whether there it is oil or whether that is about funding Islamic extremism, or whether it's about impact on one of America's closest allies, Israel. It matters because it changes the rest of the world. And it feels like it's a long, long way away, but the economy is affected by it, our security is affected by it, and the relations and security of our closest allies is affected by it.
REHMBut, you know, even as you say our closest allies, we know that 9/11 came about because of individuals who were connected to, if not involved with Saudi Arabia. How come then we continued to call Saudi Arabia one of our closest allies?
DANAHARLet's be honest. If they didn't have oil, the U.S. wouldn't touch them with a long stick. They have absolutely nothing in common, either value wise or historical wise, anything. There's nothing in common. They allow child marriage. They suppress human rights. There's no democracy. You can't openly express your religion as a Christian in Saudi Arabia without getting locked up.
DANAHARThere's nothing in common but oil. In 1973, the anniversary which has been going on this year, the wall that when the -- when the Saudis realized the power they had with their oil. And that changed the game for everybody in the world.
DANAHARThe question now is, will the new energy resources change that? Will they have less power in the future? And that may mean that America can start stepping back and saying, well, hang on, you know, we will look after the global economy, but we personally, we won't have another collapse of -- virtual of our economy, which was what happened in 1973, we can run things on our own, but it will affect the global market.
AL-AHMEDI think oil is a factor, absolutely, but what a greater factor, with a lot of (unintelligible) in the U.S. avoid to talk about is the fact that the Saudis have been able to purchase a lot of loyalties, a lot of sort of patronage that were in the United States media. They have bought into the largest media companies. They have bought into a lot of the think tank in Washington. They have bought into a lot of presidents.
REHMFor example, think tanks?
AL-AHMEDFor example, Carter -- from Carter to Clinton, every one of the U.S. presidents -- Carter started it -- they have received tens of millions of dollars, and they have bought that influence. It's not for free. They don't give you money for free.
REHMAnd what about think tanks in which they're involved?
AL-AHMEDThink tanks, CSIS, for example, Brookings, and other organizations that receives a lot of money from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Look, Venezuela sends more oil here than Saudi Arabia. Yet what is the Venezuela and the U.S. relationship? It's not very good. So it's not about oil because the Chinese have, like, 10 times, 100 times more economic ties with the United States than Saudi Arabia.
REHMThen what do you think it is about?
AL-AHMEDIt's about, like I was telling you, that it's a lot of, you know, buying and lobbying in the -- they have the PR, the law firms, the think tank funding, the money that goes to U.S. officials directly, and through business deals. The oil companies, the armed deals -- the arm manufacturer companies, that every single -- almost every single ambassador to Saudi Arabia comes -- be coming, then consultant for Saudi Arabia.
AL-AHMEDThe head of the FBI, Mr. Louis Free, is now the lawyer for (unintelligible). So this influence, this is really what makes the difference. It's not oil. It's a factor, but it's not the leading one.
REHMAll right. We'll go...
REHMSure. Tamara, go right ahead.
WITTESThank you. You know, I think Ali is giving a bit of short shrift to the U.S. interest's side of this equation. Like any strong international partnership, this relationship is based on mutual interests. And it's not simply that Saudis, as Paul would have it, have us over a barrel. Although, it's certainly true that their ability to produce helps smooth out bumps and saves the world a lot of grief.
WITTESFor example, when the Libyan uprising against Muammar Qaddafi began, and Libyan oil went offline, it was Saudi's spare production that saved us all skyrocketing gas prices. And the American public, of course, would love to get its military out of the Middle East, but it also doesn't want to pay $10 a gallon for gas. That's one common interest.
WITTESAnother common interest I think increasingly since 9/11 is counter terrorism. There's a great deal of intelligence, cooperation and a lot of work that's been developed over the years in which the Saudi government and the American government work together to combat violent extremism that both of them see as a threat. Saudi support on and off I would say with some ambivalence has also been important to the Middle East peace process and to other international diplomacy over the years.
WITTESSo there really some mutual interests at the heart of this partnership, and I don't think we can ascribe it simply to Saudi manipulation of American public opinion. And for the record, since Ali made the allegation, let me say clearly that, to my knowledge, The Brookings Institution does not receive any funding from the Saudi government.
AL-AHMEDI don't think so. They do from Qatar as well.
WITTESWe do have projects with Qatar, yes.
DANAHARBut I think the issue of buying influence is a small issue to the bigger global kind of connections between these two countries. And they have very similar interests. Along with Israel, the Zali (sp?) , in the Middle East. What they all want is stability for their own reasons. The Israelis want stability because they're scared of their neighbors, because they live in a very dangerous environment. The Saudis want stability because they don't want any change at home or anywhere else.
DANAHARSyria was the one place where they thought, hang on, we can make a difference. We can start to change things because we are worried about Iran. And, again, there are mutual interests, but at the end of the day, the Saudis at the moment are feeling nervous because they're not sure where this region is going and how it's changing.
REHMAnd here's an email from Bob in Sullivan, N.H. He says, "I heard your guest say Saudi Arabia's upset with the way the U.S. has handled the Syrian crisis. Why doesn't Saudi Arabia use its own military and weapons to stop Assad instead of expecting the U.S. to stop him?" Ali.
AL-AHMEDLook, their army -- the Saudis (unintelligible) have failed even to produce a decent army. In 2009, and Paul knows this, they couldn't fight a small, rag tag army over Yemeni rebels, so they couldn't even -- they lost territory to a Yemeni rebel that has no tanks, that has no heavy weaponry.
REHMSo you're saying they simply do not...
REHM...have an army or the equipment.
AL-AHMEDBecause they -- look, in the 1960s, if you look, what happened in the Middle East? We lost five monarchies to mostly military cause; in Egypt and in Libya and other countries. The Saudis were fearful from a national army. That's why they have not built a national army that will be a threat to them. They see monarchies fall down. They don't want to be next, so that's why their policy's about survival, and they will do anything. They will give money. They will make the United States fight for -- the war for them, but they will no build an army.
REHMIs that how you see it, Paul?
DANAHARWell, they certainly want stability, and they certainly -- they have power because they have money. I mean, you can talk about them, the Tunisian army was tiny deliberately so because Ben Ali was scared of his own army, so he put his money into security forces. But the Saudis have always used money, and sometimes it comes from the government.
DANAHARMuch of the Islamist extremists that are being funded in Syria, so I understand talking to people involved in it, come from wealthy individuals within Saudi Arabia and within the Gulf, whether they -- there is some funding around the (unintelligible) from the government for different aspects of it.
DANAHARSo the Saudis use money to express their power because they can. They can give lots of money, which can buy arms for people, and we've heard about these arms coming from Croatia into Syria to help sort of support different groups. They don't need a big army. They don't need to put all their guys in guns and fly ships and -- drive ships and fly planes. They can use their money to do that. Why do it yourself?
REHMAll right. Let's go to Tony in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hi there, you're on the air.
TONYHi, Diane, thank you for taking my call.
TONYI've been listening to your panel. And it's interesting, we in evolution -- a long evolution with our democracy. And I think, you know, the Saudis now thinking about having change, that's just not possible, not in today's world. Change is all around them. Change will always be there. And I'm sure they feel threatened. But there's really nothing that we can do to create more stability in the area. We have tried and gone in, and we've gone into Afghanistan and Iraq, and you see the situation with that. So for us to get involved in a third nation in Syria, I don't know what else we could do.
TONYAnd as far the monarchy is concerned, that's something that may go by the wayside, and that really has nothing to do with us. It's just, you know, the transition or the evolution in the area of what they see outside in their own world, you know. And so my question to the panel is, you know, do they really think that we can have some influence in the Middle East that can make a change and change it to stability other than what we've done so far?
WITTESI think in many ways what the Saudis see is a sectarian conflict that stretches across the region, and a power struggle that stretches across the region between themselves and the Iranians. And we've been talking about this quite a bit. What they see as most threatening in Iranian behavior right now is not necessarily the nuclear program, which is Washington's top priority with Iran. And so what they're doing in Syria is essentially fighting a proxy war. Now, the Iranians have IRGC, Revolutionary Guard Corps, on the ground in Syria. And the Saudis are fighting using these militia proxies.
WITTESBut I think there's no questions, it's a proxy conflict. In Bahrain, also, the Saudis see a fundamental effort by the Iranians to subvert and overthrow the Sunni monarchy. And I think for the United States the problem is that we don't have an interest in finding ourselves on one side of a sectarian conflict.
WITTESWhether it's Bahrain or Iraq or Syria, the United States sees the need for Sunnis and Shias to figure out how to get along and live together ideally through democracy, and that is what will bring stability to the region. So I think we have two very different visions of what would return the region to stability.
REHMTamara, I'd like to go back to the issue of women, not only not being able to drive, but for the most part not being able to work. To what extent does that affect the economic structure of the entire Saudi nation?
WITTESAbsolutely. And here there really is a slow earthquake underway, I would say, despite the fact that this is an oil rich country. There is poverty. There is a middle class that's struggling. As Deb said at the beginning of the hour, for middle class Saudis, two incomes are necessary now to provide for their families. And what that means is that slowly over time it is shifting social norms.
WITTESI've talked to Saudi families who tell me that they want their daughters to get a good education because that actually will make them better marriage prospects, because their prospective husbands think that they can go out and get a good job, help support the family. So driving is just the thin edge of the wedge. The Saudi government, I think, acknowledges this, and it's trying to encourage more women to get into the workplace. But, of course, given all of the institutionalized gender discrimination and gender segregation in this society, that's very hard.
REHMTamara Wittes of The Brookings Institution, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." A caller in Chesapeake, Va. Hello, Anita, you're on the air.
ANITAHello, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
ANITAAs a woman, I must say that I think all women that have freedom, especially American women, are very sympathetic to what's going on in the Middle East and in Saudi Arabia in particular. However, from an oil point of view, the Saudis are rapists over a barrel of oil for many, many, many, many years. There's no sympathy here. We have nothing else in common with them. Thank you.
DANAHARYeah, the issue of women's rights in Saudi Arabia is a big one. They have a big problem with their economy (unintelligible). There's a lot of unemployment in Saudi Arabia, and they've tried to change that, but they've created meaningless jobs. They've created government jobs to keep people from basically going onto the streets and complaining. So it's not only about creating jobs for women, it's about creating useful jobs for women...
DANAHAR...where they actually feel that they're being empowered and can actually create -- have that trickledown effect into their own families.
REHMAnd to what extent, Tamara, as you say, the women's issue only the edge of the wedge, to what extent could that really lead to a much, much bigger change inside Saudi Arabia's society?
WITTESI think that change in some ways is already underway. And the shift is from a society that relies on the government to structure its lives, to provide goods, to a society that is more self-reliant. This younger generation of Saudis are more interested in starting their own businesses, rather than working for the government in one of those dead-end jobs.
WITTESYoung Saudi women all over the country and their mothers are engaged in forming social organization to advance special education needs, to combat domestic violence, to clean up their local environment and prevent factories from dumping chemicals in the water supply. All of that civic activism I think over time says that Saudis are going to do on their own what they think is necessary to build a better society. They're not going to wait for the government to do it for them.
AL-AHMEDLook, this is an absolutely monarchy that controls every aspect of life. They will not give their people something because the people wanted them. The king has to give and present and confer these things. It's not for demands, because people want things. Like Paul said, high employment rate. Women are 80 percent-plus unemployed.
AL-AHMEDWomen are studying, graduating college just to teach other women who will teach other women. And this is the cycle. Women are not penetrating. The World Bank said that Saudi women -- Saudi Arabia is the worst in the world in terms of economic opportunity for women. And, you know, women in Saudi Arabia don't work in many jobs, except education and some other limited jobs, because the government decided.
AL-AHMEDThe society is ready and beyond ready, but the ruling family, the faces that you see in the west says that these people are savages, we want to give them, but they don't want these rights. It’s not true. It's the monarchy's decision. And I send you a secret document that the king prevented healthcare workers, ordered them not to drive carts inside the hospital to move from one wing to another. It's the kings who ban the women driving. It's not the clerks. It's not the society.
REHMAnd yet doesn't the king have a great deal of support from the women?
AL-AHMEDThat is the PR image. The true image is that they know constraining women is controlling society, makes their job easy. That what they do in education. That's they do in the media. Thy control -- they have to appear liberal outside, but inside is a different job.
REHMAli al-Ahmed, director of The Gulf Institute, Paul Danahar, BBC's Washington bureau chief, and Tamara Wittes of The Brookings Institution, thank you all so much. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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