In recent months, several delegations of American diplomats, elected officials, and Middle East specialists have visited the Saudi capital Riyadh, met with the country’s senior leadership, and gone on to publish articles about their findings. Among them, veteran American peace negotiator Dennis Ross wrote in the Washington Post, “There is an awakening underway in Saudi Arabia … being led from the top,” including a plan for “comprehensive educational reform.” He saw the Kingdom’s April decision to strip its notorious religious police of their authority to arrest and interrogate citizens as a potential harbinger of further changes to come. Former Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, while conveying more skepticism in his article in Politico, also described a “new and unprecedented degree of honesty” from senior officials, in that they acknowledged the country’s history of promoting extremism at home and abroad.
Hopes for positive change in the country tend to revolve around “Vision 2030,” an economic restructuring plan announced over the spring by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. It aims to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil by diversifying its economy. The Kingdom has since cut government salaries and lifted subsidies on gas, water, and health services. Future plans call for the partial privatization of oil juggernaut Saudi Aramco, a push for transparency and accountability in government, and an overall shift to the private sector as the country’s primary creator of jobs. Optimists outside the country believe the economic restructuring will inevitably be accompanied by social reforms — though traditionalists within the country want to see the former achieved without the latter.
Special insights as to the likelihood of sweeping change can be gleaned from Saudi Arabia’s own longtime proponents of social reform, who have seen high hopes dashed before. Prominent among them is Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, who served as General Manager of the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channel during its formative years, after a memorable stint as editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab daily Asharq Alawsat and its sister news magazine, Al-Majalla. Over a four-hour discussion, we explored the relationship between the Kingdom’s planned economic overhaul and the reform of Saudi religious and educational institutions. We discussed the potential role of nascent civil society organizations in fostering change, and what Americans and others might be able to do to strengthen their hand. Finally, we touched on what changes Saudi reformists hope to see in American policy toward Saudi Arabia under the Trump Administration, and how Saudi relations with Israel and Jews generally might be encouraged to improve.