Saudi Arabia Is the Problem and Solution to Extremism – Iyad El-Baghdadi/NYT
Saudi Arabia is a big contributor to the Middle East’s problems, but also a big part of its potential solution.
The regime presents itself as a bulwark against extremism, but the similarities between its own jurisprudence and ISIS’ are striking enough. Saudi Arabia is, after all, the “heartland” of the most illiberal reading of Islam, and has spent billions to spread and normalize it. Meanwhile, its foreign policy has committed resources to thwarting the Arab Spring, supporting Egypt’s coup, intervening in the Syrian civil war and invading Yemen – all in the name of “stability.”
But underreported is the story of Saudi society, which underwent rapid demographic modernization over the past two decades. Family size plummeted, while youth literacy rose to nearly 100 percent. Significantly, online connectivity rose sharply. The country has the second-highest smartphone penetration in the world, the Arab world’s biggest online population and the world’s highest per capita consumption of YouTube.
It is within this context that we must understand the phenomenon of Raif Badawy, Ashraf Fayyadh, Waleed Abulkhair or Hassan Farhan Al Maliki. These men are, after all, products of Saudi society. Their close contact with extremism makes them among the most sophisticated voices against extremism.
If Saudi Arabia “breaks,” it would be catastrophic for the region and the world, but also a tragedy of missed opportunity. Saudi society is one of the most promising in the region, and is likely to produce some of the most interesting and courageous Arab and Muslim voices for reform.
The world, therefore, needs a two-pronged strategy: It has to stand up to the Saudi regime’s incompetence and intransigence, but it has to steadfastly support native reformist voices. We need to stop enabling the Saudi regime – but we need to start believing in Saudi society.