Making Sense of Saudi: King’s Decree, Yemen Policy, and Wikileaks

By Matthew M. Reed

Simon Henderson’s newest article is a great springboard for a good Saudi discussion. Titled “All the King’s Women,” the article reflects on the recent decree allowing women to participate in Saudi politics. Henderson has written about Saudi for decades now–first with the BBC, then with the Financial Times, and now with the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, a heavyweight think tank. I certainly admire his prolific authorship and steady commentary on Persian Gulf matters. But there’s a lot more to talk about.

First, the good: Henderson rightly questions whether or not Abdullah’s reforms will outlive him since they will be instituted years from now. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia could endure multiple succession crises. King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan may pass from the scene before women are allowed to campaign and vote in the 2015 elections and some believe the  conservative Prince Nayef could reverse Abdullah’s reforms if or when he becomes king. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not the weight of Abdullah’s reputation and vision will force his successors to keep his promises. Henderson addresses this issue, albeit briefly. This is, I think, the most pressing question moving forward.

As for Abdullah’s announcement, Henderson admits, “Saudi watchers, certainly including yours truly, didn’t see this announcement coming.” Fair enough—most didn’t, and I doubt anyone could point to a specific date on the calendar and say “Abdullah will make the announcement then.” But Abdullah’s decree was unsurprising in retrospect. Saudi officials have been hinting at it for months while most commentators focused instead on the fate of Saudi Arabia’s only real activists—female drivers. Their preoccupation is understandable: Western audiences are especially interested in women’s issues and, frankly, there’s not much else to cover if you’re focusing on Saudi unrest.

On May 5, two months after the “Day of Rage” failed to materialize, Abdul Rahman al Dahmash, the head of Saudi Arabia’s election committee, confirmed Saudi women would be allowed to vote in municipal elections in 2015, according to Gulf News. The mayor of Riyadh offered similar remarks a month earlier. On April 20, the Saudi Gazette quoted Mayor Abdul Aziz Bin Ayyaf and opened with this line: “municipal constituencies have all the facilities in place and are fully prepared for women to vote and run for election to municipal councils.” The mayor admitted he could not permit women to vote before new legislation allowed it. Even then, women’s suffrage was being spoken of by government appointees in a positive way and in the nation’s capital no less. That same day, Arab News reported that Saudi Arabia’s National Society for Human Rights refused to monitor elections slated for this month because women could not participate.

The Saudis almost never make bold decisions at break-neck speed, although monarchies can be impulsive given their top-heavy, personality-driven structure. This tendency explains Abdullah’s announcement, which was presaged by other, less dramatic official comments, as well as the extended timeline for implementation.

Up next is Yemen. Henderson suggests that President Saleh’s sudden return to Yemen was the result of indecision on the part of King Abdullah. His exact words are:

[…] King Abdullah hasn’t seemed to be making any decisions recently. A diplomatic friend recently described the monarch as “lucid for only a couple of hours a day.” And last week, there was what seemed to be the height of Saudi indecision: Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was allowed to return home from a Saudi hospital after recovering from injuries sustained nearly four months ago — despite an apparent agreement between Riyadh and Washington that, for the future good of troubled Yemen, this shouldn’t happen.

Saleh began his recovery from an assassination attempt in Saudi Arabia in early June. He returned to Yemen five days ago without warning. While I can’t speak to claims that Abdullah is only active for a few hours a day, it seems unfair to assume Saleh’s return was the result of indecisiveness; the stakes involved in Saleh’s return were dire and clear to the Saudis since his presence could ignite civil war. Given these risks, it seems more likely that Saleh’s return was a product of calculation rather than apathy. Of course we can second-guess the wisdom of permitting his return. But a poor decision is different from indecision.

Although the Saudis enjoyed immense leverage over Saleh, whose life they no doubt saved, can we really expect the royal family to hold foreign heads of state hostage? Saleh and the Saudi royal family grew closer in recent years as their concerns intersected, these being security, border integrity, and the presence of al Qaeda, which the Saudis forced south into Yemen around 2005. Yemen’s president could not return home without Saudi permission, true—and so we must now ask what logic drove their decision. Riyadh may now be convinced that Yemen’s future hinges on Saleh, for better or worse; either he signs a forthcoming version of the flawed GCC deal or he campaigns to reinstate his authority and secure his son’s position.

In the end, the Saudis want security. The situation in Yemen deteriorated steadily leading up to Saleh’s return. And just prior, Saleh met with King Abdullah in what can only be described as an official, public, high-profile meeting. The timing of that meeting and Saleh’s quick departure afterwards may signal Saudi Arabia’s expectations: even though the Saudis have invested billions of dollars over decades supporting Saleh’s opposition, this move could be a shift to “honey diplomacy” rather than “vinegar diplomacy,” which they hope will achieve more. There’s also speculation that Saleh duped the Saudis last weekend, went to the airport under false pretenses, and escaped to Yemen. (I refuse to comment until more sources confirm the Financial Times account.)

Then there’s the juicy State Department cable Henderson cites from 2008. In all fairness, Henderson is not trying to draw any profound conclusions from the cable. But other claims made in that cable are critical because they reflect poorly on the source’s credibility. My musings here are aimed at the cable’s author and not Henderson since I’ve been itching to address this for weeks. Consider section two of that diplomatic cable:

It was related that King Abdullah is 92 years old (born 1916), he remains a heavy smoker, regularly receives hormone injections and “uses Viagra excessively.” The SAG has always kept close-hold any personal information on Royal family members, including not making public statements of individual ages.

The cable’s comment reads, “The King has been rumored to be between 82 to 87 [as of 2008]. He is in fact older if this information is correct.” That information is absolutely incorrect. Abdullah’s mother was Fahda bint Asi al Shuraim, who was married until 1920 when her Rashidi emir husband was killed. Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia and Abdullah’s father, married her shortly thereafter—meaning that 1920 is the earliest he could have been born, making him 91 now although he was most likely born around 1924. Not convinced? Remember that Abdullah’s predecessor, King Fahd, was most likely born in 1921. Why does this matter? If Abdullah was born in 1916 then he would have been Fahd’s elder. Fahd would never have succeeded King Khaled in 1982 because it would have been Abdullah’s throne to assume.

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