Experts Discuss Effects of Mideast Turmoil on Saudi Arabia

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The National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations (NCUSAR) held a March 2 briefing at the DC offices of Miller and Chevalier to examine "The Arabian Dimension in Today's Mideast Turmoil." Session moderator and NCUSAR president Dr. John Duke Anthony noted that the U.S. is in a self-imposed bind. On one hand, he said, it has had little choice but to weigh the potential implications of regional turmoil for its regional strategic, economic and national security interests. On the other, he noted, it was simultaneously confronted with how best to promote its officially declared additional interests in furthering political pluralism, economic reforms, a range of human rights issues and democratization.

He indicated it hardly helped to burnish America's credentials regarding the latter goal when Washington recently thwarted the democratic will of the world's highest political body, the U.N. Security Council, by vetoing an otherwise unanimously supported resolution denouncing the illegality of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Robert Lacey, who moved to Jeddah with his family in 1978, wrote The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Sa'ud in 1982. His recent book, Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia, has won acclaim both inside and outside Saudi Arabia. The author acknowledged that Saudi Arabia is "facing some major challenges," including development issues. For example, he noted, in November 2009 floods in Jeddah killed residents and destroyed thousands of family homes. Since then yearly floods have killed people, cut off power supplies and angered many Saudis who blame flawed building codes and emergency preparedness plans for the repeated disasters.

Lacey brought up a fascinating poll recently conducted by the British Embassy regarding change in the Kingdom. The poll results showed that 20 percent of Saudis said they wanted "much more change"; another 20 percent said things "were about right"; but a startling 60 percent of Saudis said "things have changed too much."

Lacey said he asked a Jeddah businessman what he thought about the latest reforms announced by King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz upon his recent return to Arabia. Lacey's friend responded that the changes "were long overdue," adding that "so much of the Saudi economy is linked to government spending. There is a need for a more diversified economy."

"What is happening in the Arab world is in line with much of what King Abdullah has spoken about during the past few years," Lacey added. "King Abdullah views what's going on in the Arab world as an endorsement of what he stands for as a leader."

According to Lacey, noticeable changes are occurring in the Kingdom, particularly in Saudi newspapers, which, he said, "have become more open and more investigative" about issues within the Kingdom. …