Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, spoke to a September 23rd Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the changes within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the status of its relations with the U.S. and Israel.
Schanzer, who has visited KSA multiple times since 2017 and studied the Kingdom's current social and political climate, said the social changes since then have been "nothing short of remarkable." The most momentous change is the "role of women in society." "No longer is it the case that women are ... not seen nor heard," he said.
Whereas in the past, women would be "sitting off to the side" with faces completely covered "except the eyes," they now walk around "quite freely and openly." Aside from the requirement that women representing the government in ministry presentations wear hair coverings, the "veil culture" has changed to the point where a Saudi woman remarked that how women dress "is a matter of choice now." The Mutawa, the religious police who patrolled the Kingdom to ensure that women were modestly dressed, still maintain offices but are "no longer prominent." Women who drive no longer require "male chaperones," but "it's not 100 percent going in all the right direction," Schanzer said. Polygamy is still legal, there is no interest in "building churches or synagogues," and according to a U.S. diplomat, any woman freed from prison still requires a male guardian "to approve [her] release."
Another change Schanzer underlined is the tourism industry, which has markedly increased since 2019 when the Saudis first made tourist visas available. Mecca and Medina are still not open to non-Muslims. "I don't particularly appreciate that policy," Schanzer said, "but it is their sovereign right to impose it." He hopes that at some point they understand these destinations could provide "one heck of a tourism industry," with visiting the Grand Mosque "akin to going to something like the Taj Mahal."
Meanwhile, the Saudis attract Western tourists with "fun in the desert, beautiful hotels, [and] outdoor nature activities." Among those offerings are Boulevard, an open pedestrian mall he likened to Times Square with live music, where men and women can mix, giving Schanzer "a sense that there is real freedom."
A major project "near the Jordanian and Israeli border" is NEOM, a city the Saudis are building to include innovative technology and luxury resorts. Recent reports claim the Kingdom will relax laws prohibiting alcohol there.
Schanzer said the ambitious growth in tourism reflects KSA's efforts to increase domestic spending and thereby stanch the "seepage of finance" that results when Saudis choose to travel to Bahrain "to go drinking on the weekends or to go watching movies." However, he is convinced the reform process "is truly about change."
A notable change on the political front occurred in 2017 when then-President Trump, Egyptian President Al-Sisi, and Saudi King Salman appeared at Etidal, KSA's center for countering extremism. By publicizing the event, Schanzer said the Saudis' messaging reinforced the ongoing decline of Wahhabism, "the radical ascetic brand of Islam that got the Kingdom in so much trouble over 9/11." "We don't know if it's dormant or dead, but we do know that the footprint of Wahhabism in the Kingdom right now is far less than it ever used to be," he added. One upshot of this decline is that KSA's "proselytization abroad has dropped immensely."
Schanzer was "shocked" when an "interlocutor" described the country as "non-ideological," given the role Wahhabist ideology formerly played in there and attributed the shift to "how the Saudis interface with others." He said that although the Kingdom will not become a "Jeffersonian democracy," the positive changes are steps that "make the country less of a danger to other countries in the region."
Schanzer is still bothered that there is "no owning [up to] the mistakes of the past" for what happened "during or after 9/11." Rather, the Saudis' priority is "the importance of stability and prosperity." The irony is that the key driver behind all of the reforms is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), who has "cracked down on clerics" by "centralizing the messaging" now found in all mosques. As it reforms from the top down, Schanzer said younger Saudis are receptive, but he does not know how older Saudis regard the transition.
The main factor fueling the growth of KSA's mega projects is oil, which makes up to "ninety to ninety five percent of the state budget." The relationship between the U.S. and the Kingdom has traditionally been based on the former's interest that "the Saudis supply oil, the United States provides security."
KSA's current concern is that the Biden administration is "less committed" to the Kingdom's defense as it "pivot[s] away from oil" and is more focused on the Saudi role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Schanzer asks, "at what cost and for how long" will the State Department focus Khashoggi? While "it's perfectly reasonable to try and hold Saudi Arabia to account for this crime," Schanzer said, the question is "at what cost, and for how long?" Moreover, "will the United States use this as a means to prevent the production of oil or to prevent normalization with Israel?"
Overall, Schanzer sees KSA's ties with the U.S. as "a mixed bag." While relations with the Biden administration are "thawing," the fact remains that the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia "when it comes to the Chinese, or the Russians, or Iran." The main problem that could cause the Saudis to "pull back further" is if the U.S. strikes a deal to provide "significant amounts of funding to the Iranians and legitimizes the regime."
Regarding Israel, the Abraham Accords encourage the Saudis and Israelis to move "in the right direction," and contribute to the region's stability. Concerning "normalization," Schanzer said leaders of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) want the process to "move organically," leading him to believe it will not move quickly.
The Saudis would like to see the Palestinian issue "out of the way," a positive development since if Israel makes peace with more of its neighbors, Palestinians will be pressed to control "violence and chaos." The official KSA position still supports its Saudi Peace Plan, maintaining that if Israel vacates the "territories conquered in the '67 war," the Jewish state would receive "full recognition of the entire Arab league." Yes, Schanzer said, "whether that's the only game in town ... remains to be seen."
With Israel's inclusion in the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) a year ago, Schanzer said Israel's "opportunities for ... engagement" through meetings between the region's intelligence communities have increased. The Saudis "have a broad appreciation" for Israel's conduct of "asymmetric warfare" with Iran — the "so-called 'war between wars.'" Schanzer said the beneficial consequence of "Israelis just simply fighting for their own interests when it comes to Iran" is that the Arab states will see Israel as aligned with their common interest.
Whether the changes in KSA are "sustainable" as Saudi officials prioritize "stability and prosperity" in the Kingdom is unknowable. Schanzer anticipates Saudi Arabia's declining support for Wahhabism will have a positive effect elsewhere in the Muslim world, and he said the changes are a "good sign for now." Although he does not even try to "predict" how the future will unfold in the Middle East, he is hopeful the "longer this goes on and the more that we see reform, the more it's likely to stay."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.