Saudi Succession, Media Nil

How a Critical Decree in Saudi Arabia was Forgotten

Whatever else it is, “successful” is not the word to describe the Bush Administration’s stated policy to spread freedom and democracy in the Middle East. Until recently, ink-stained fingers and a faux-parliament provided enough wool to convince American voters of imminent success in Iraq, but even the bigots on Borat now seem to understand democracy entails more than playing multiple-choice at the ballot box.

After the serious defeats in last week’s elections, it remains to be seen if President George W. Bush will stubbornly cling to his rhetoric on spreading liberty across the globe. Iraq has failed, and the population has caught on, but the battle to hold the White House responsible for its Middle Eastern mess is far from over and the media’s ongoing failure to analyze critically promises to spoil the occasion yet again.

When excuses start surfacing about Iraq, it’s important to remember the original asserted intention of this administration was to institute democracy throughout the Middle East. And, as a corollary, it’s important to remember the media’s role of holding the President accountable for his ambitious reform program, “a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East,” to use the president’s words. While the truth about Iraq eventually found the front pages, the administration’s policy in other countries still goes virtually unreported.

Take Iraq’s neighbor, Saudi Arabia, a country overlooked both in America’s ostensible plan to effect democracy through invasion and the media’s reporting of that policy. Like some other favorite allies, Saudi Arabia is not a democracy—the Al Saud family has held absolute power since the nation’s unification in 1932—and its leaders are not particularly pleasant.

For example, Freedom House describes Saudi Arabia as one of the world’s “most repressive” societies. Ordinary Saudis have few civil liberties, no religious freedom, no rights to assembly or association, no independent judiciary, and suffer racial and ethnic discrimination, to name but a few everyday problems. The utter repression of Saudi women needs no comment. Freedom House classifies Saudi Arabia as “not free,” all of which suggests a pretty serious oversight in Bush’s policy.

And, in case it’s not clear, Saudi Arabia is indeed considered part of the democratization program in the Middle East. It’s just that the president’s democratic implementation strategy seems to range from full-scale invasion in Iraq, to a gentle tut-tuting for favorite allies.

In his 2005 State of the Union address, the president gently urged the Saudis to follow the path of democratic reform: “The government of Saudi Arabia can demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future.” Speaking more recently, Bush reiterated the administration’s desire for Saudi democracy in a September speech to the UN, even making passing reference to some minor improvements seen in the last few years. “Some of the changes in the Middle East are happening gradually,” he conceded, “but they are real…Citizens have voted in municipal elections in Saudi Arabia”—evidence, it seemed, of a country on the right track.

And then, just like Iraq, something went violently wrong: The House of Saud decided it wasn’t so thrilled about relinquishing its stranglehold on oil profits. On Oct. 20, King Abdullah demonstrated his country’s attitude toward democracy by announcing a new succession system. The royal decree establishes a committee comprising all descendents of the kingdom’s founder, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, which will choose, in a secret ballot, a new leader from the nominees selected by the outgoing monarch.

In an interview on Nov. 8 with Dr. Ali Alyami, Executive Director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, a Washington-based NGO, Alyami told me the Saudi people’s false hopes for genuine reform in their country were shattered. “The people will have no voice, only the princes will determine who’s going to be the king. So this puts an end to all of the speculations about King Abdullah being a reformer,” Alyami said.

For his part, Alyami still believes in the administration’s democratic program for the Middle East, but says Bush has his hands full with Iraq and Afghanistan: “America is an international power with an interconnected economy, when the administration adds up all the Saudi influence in Washington and elsewhere, it has to stop and think about the consequences of pushing the Saudis to do more than they feel like doing at this time.” So that means waving adieu to Bush’s alleged plans for democratic reform.

You’d think a story about close allies openly rejecting democracy would scream “newsworthy” to any journalist, no matter what the political perspective—but you’d be wrong. Finding a story about this watershed decree took some diligence, some searching for that cursive mention in “world briefing” sections of newspapers.

But it isn’t necessarily the small space given to landmark issues in other countries that is the problem. Clearly, the media must synthesize masses of information everyday to create the news. In this case, the Saudi decree put the lie to one of the president’s most controversial policies, embarrassing the administration. How such critical news could be left off TV screens and magazine pages right before the election is a mystery, but one worth worrying about.



Bede A. Moore ’06-’07 is a history concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears regularly.