The Real Role Saudi Arabia's Dissidents Can Play

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman attends the Annual Horse Race ceremony, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 30, 2017. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout/File Photo via REUTERS

Dissidents can become Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s greatest assets, if he continues to reform and modernize.

In a New York Times op-ed in February, Raif Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, ascribed the recent liberalizing policies in Saudi Arabia, such as allowing women to drive and questioning the clergy’s insistence that women wear the abaya, to hard work by dissidents such as her husband, and decades of intensive women’s rights efforts by such famous activists as Wajeha al-Huwaider, Manal al-Sharif and Loujain Al Houthloul. She posits that the incremental changes are a testament to the effectiveness of grassroots activism.

In another article, Daniel Greenfield attributes Saudi Arabia’s movement away from support for Islamists, and its harder line on organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, to the influence and pressure of President Trump and his administration. Both premises are likely false; full credit should go to King Salman on reacting appropriately to the national-sovereignty concerns presented by Islamists, and to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on taking the initiative on more liberal policies. Yet both dissidents and the West have played an important role, and can be instrumental towards positive changes in the future.

The facts are as follows: after decades of exporting hard-line Wahhabi Islam around the world, Saudi Arabia found itself in a predicament, in which Islamists advocating revolutionary overthrow of the monarchy within its own borders. In March 2014, well over a year before Donald Trump announced his campaign for the presidency, Saudi Arabia designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Despite supplications from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries, President Trump has not yet designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, although he recently announced the designation of several proxies.

In fact, the leaders of countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have long approached the administrations of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump with concerns about the regional and international dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood and its sponsorship of various terrorist organizations around the world. If anything, Trump’s administration has been influenced by evidence from various Middle Eastern allies that the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence, and certainly that of a number of its proxies, are a serious concern.

In Saudi Arabia, the policy of confronting Islamists actually started under King Abdullah, but King Salman has aggressively pursued it, and continues to do so, with the understanding that the continuation of the monarchy, as well as stability and order in the Middle East, depend on state actors’ ability to confront insurgents. Likewise, Saudi Arabia’s growing regional defense alliances against Iran and other threats predate the Trump administration—and are, in fact, a direct response to the effects of the Obama administration’s nuclear deal. In fact, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief, appeared with Michael Herzog and Dennis Ross at the Asia Society in New York in the summer of 2016, months before the U.S. presidential election, advocating that reform in the Middle East should come from within.

The government, therefore, was already working on setting in motion plans for both internal reforms and security alliances.

What role did dissidents play in considerations for liberalization? Whether or not they have influenced the crown prince’s thinking, the fact that the decision was ultimately his own lies in the simple truth that his predecessor, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, paid no heed to women activists—and in fact made matters worse for the Saudi kingdom’s image by ordering the arrest of Raif’s sister, the women’s rights activist Samar Badawi. Raif Badawi’s personal fate aroused a great deal of international attention and pressure; however, despite the apparent suspension of the remainder of his lashing sentence, he remained in prison.

Likewise, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef took no action to respond to the actions of women’s-rights activists. Much of the negative publicity that Saudi Arabia received at the time was due as much to the Obama administration’s shift to Iran, where similar sentences are common and employed to this day, as to the nature of the gross human-rights violations inside the kingdom. There was no reason to believe that had Prince Mohammed bin Nayef remained in power, the situation would have changed considerably—or, for that matter, at all. The prince showed no interest in the decades of internal grassroots movements. One might argue that his inability to move with the times and to help Saudi Arabia gain positive PR that contributed to his political downfall.