Saudi Arabia will only become a true ally to the U.S. in the war on terror through political reform.

On October 19, in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, President Bush declared, “I hereby certify that Saudi Arabia is cooperating with efforts to combat international terrorism and that the proposed assistance will help facilitate that effort.” U.S. law requires this step to allow previously appropriated financial assistance to be delivered to Riyadh. But the President’s certification comes amid debate over a much more consequential form of assistance to Saudi Arabia--a deal to sell $20 billion worth of arms to the kingdom and other Gulf states over ten years. First proposed in July and currently pending further action by the White House, the terms have met opposition in Congress, where concerns about the real level of Saudi commitment to fighting terrorism remain. A letter by Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY), signed by a bipartisan group of 114 members of Congress, argues, “Saudi Arabia has not behaved like an ally of the United States. They have exported fighters and suicide bombers to the war in Iraq. They have provided funding for terrorist activities throughout the world.”

But this, and most other recent criticisms of Saudi Arabia, omits what may be the most troubling aspect of the country’s behavior and the most threatening to long-term U.S. interests: The appalling state of human rights and the lack of meaningful political reform in the kingdom. The problem is not that the Saudi regime directly encourages terrorist activity, as Weiner's letter suggests, but rather that the political situation in the country provides the conditions that spur disenchanted Saudis to violence. Surprisingly few U.S. politicians--and none of the leading presidential candidates--have raised this concern in response to the arms deal, even though Saudi repression isn't exactly a secret.

Empirical studies increasingly point to the lack of democracy as a key cause of terrorism. Drawing on the findings of their important 2003 study of terrorist attacks, Princeton's Alan Krueger and Czech scholar Jitka Malecková noted that “the only variable that was consistently associated with the number of terrorists was the Freedom House index of political rights and civil liberties.” Their conclusion is a troubling one, particularly in a region where our closest allies in the war on terror are among the most repressive: “Countries with more freedom were less likely to be the birthplace of international terrorists.” In a 2006 paper, Harvard University’s Alberto Abadie uses a different data set of terrorist incidents, but confirms Krueger and Jitka Malecková’s findings, observing that “lack of political freedom is shown to explain terrorism … Over most of the range of the political right index, lower levels of political rights are associated with higher levels of terrorism.”

The data strongly supports what has long been an intuitive argument--when legitimate avenues for expressing grievances and influencing policy are unavailable, people are more likely to resort to radicalism and political violence. In this context, it is hardly surprising that Saudi Arabia has been a main source of international terrorism--not only were 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers Saudi, but, according to various reports, more suicide bombers and foreign fighters in Iraq are from Saudi Arabia than from any other country. The kingdom, a font of Wahhabi ideology and dominated by retrograde clerics, produces so many radicals that the regime has long followed a policy of funding militants to fight abroad rather than face their wrath at home. This practice dates to the early 1980s, when the royal family began issuing visas and providing other support to citizens willing to fight in Afghanistan, a strategy that diverted extremists away from the Arabian Peninsula.  

The established link between tyranny and terror means that Saudi Arabia’s internal political situation should be cause for much greater alarm. The country is among the world’s most undemocratic, according to every respected independent assessment. Freedom House ranks the Saudi regime as one of the seventeen most repressive governments in the world. There is no “opposition” to speak of--political parties of any kind are banned. Human rights activists, and anyone else who publicly criticizes the regime, are routinely jailed, barred from foreign travel, and blacklisted in the press. Meanwhile, the notorious mutaww’in, or morality police, have broad discretion to harass anyone not meeting arbitrary standards of propriety. In one particularly tragic incident, the mutaww’in prevented rescuers from saving fifteen girls trapped in a burning school, because the students weren’t wearing their headscarves. The introduction to a recent Amnesty International report states bluntly that “fear and secrecy permeate every aspect of the state in Saudi Arabia.” It is a consistent, unambiguous picture drawn by nearly all international observers. Furthermore, most empirical studies show that it is political repression--not poverty or unemployment--that is most responsible for generating terrorism. In fact, many of those who have turned to extremism, including most of the 9/11 hijackers, have been relatively well-educated, and middle or upper-middle class

That is not to say that there have been zero positive steps recently. The king has promised a huge increase in education spending and begun a review of textbooks to address concerns of fostering intolerance and extremism. And notably, the government recently announced a judicial reform plan which includes $2 billion for training judges and building new courts, as well as provisions for separate family, commercial, and criminal courts, and an appeals process. Perhaps most importantly, the reforms will create a Supreme Court which will be more independent from the religious establishment than its predecessor, the Supreme Judicial Council. The new Court will be staffed by the king rather than by ultraconservative clerics, and it may provide the first opportunity for reform-minded elites to influence the judiciary.  

Despite these reforms, Saudi Arabia remains an absolute monarchy, in which the king is the highest judicial authority, able to rule by decree. Officially, the Koran is the Saudi constitution. A code of laws known as the “Basic Law” governs issues not discussed in the Koran, but its authority is subordinate to the monarchy and the religious establishment.

Other much-heralded reforms have been underwhelming. Even the 2005 municipal elections, lauded by the United States as a major step, saw little voter interest in an election for local councils with no real power. The move was a cosmetic gesture, meant to appease liberals and ease pressure for change. This is not a new story in the Middle East, where regimes have become increasingly adept at using piecemeal “reforms” to distract the international community and deflect citizen demands.

Yet policymakers should not mistake the difficulty of reform for the intractability of autocracy; America can leverage its support to shape Arab regimes’ decisions on democratization. This is particularly true for the ruling al-Saud family, which is intimately tied to the U.S. and dependent on its military backing. The arms deal presents an opportunity for Washington to exert influence in Riyadh. This opening should be seized to push the Saudis along the path of reform, the only path that will lead to long-term security.

We have leverage, and we should use it. First, all arms sales should be contingent on the implementation of the promised educational and judicial reforms. Second, the United States should require progress on political reform, beginning with greater freedoms of press and assembly, and allowing public dissent on policy matters. Beyond this, deadlines should be set for long-awaited Shura (Consultative) Council elections, followed by benchmarks for the steady evolution of the council from an advisory role to a genuine legislative body. Third, transparency and fairness in the justice system, even when dealing with terror suspects, should be required. Such measures can be enforced much as Saudi cooperation on counterterrorism efforts is maintained today--through a certification process mandated by law.

Making assistance, and particularly large weapons deals, conditional upon clear, political reform benchmarks will not only offer hope for the beleaguered Saudi population, but also chip away at the repression that breeds the very terrorists whom we need the Saudis’ help in fighting. Only then can Saudi Arabia be rightly considered a true ally in the fight against terror.


Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy. Stephen McInerney is director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and editor of the POMED Wire blog.

By Shadi Hamid and Stephen McInerney