With Saudi Arabia a critical player in the latest flare up in mid-east violence, while domestically the country faces increasing financial and economic pressure as a result of the collapse in oil prices coupled with the recent fomenting of a "royal coup" in Saudi Arabia, an honest and fresh perspective, not one pre-approved by the mainstream US media, into what is really going on in the kingdom was long overdue.
We are grateful to regular contributor Erico Matias Tavares who has kindly shared this interview with Dr. Ali Alyami, a native of Saudi Arabia and a citizen of the US for the past four decades. From an early age he has been advocating for political, economic and social reform in his native homeland. He is the founder and Executive Director of the Center for Democracy & Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, a Washington, D.C. based non-profit tax exempt organization.
Previously, Alyami was a Senior Fellow at the Saudi Institute in Washington, D.C., Director of an educational peace program for the American Friends Service Committee in San Francisco and a Representative for the Arab Organization for Human Rights (a Cairo based group) in North America. Dr. Alyami has spoken at conferences throughout the US, Egypt, Sudan, Israel, France, Belgium, Spain and the UK, has offered expert testimony before Congress and has advised senior officials at the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the Department of State.
E. Tavares: Dr. Alyami, thank you for being with us today. We would like to discuss the current state of affairs in your native Saudi Arabia. Has the recent rise of King Salman to power change any major policies? Can you describe the main factions influencing Saudi politics today?
A. Alyami: Thank you for inviting me. The current situation in Saudi Arabia is very complicated. King Salman inherited a very big problem in terms of Saudi foreign and domestic policies.
Saudi Arabia has been surrounded by revolutions in neighboring countries, including Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia - basically in Arab countries that were ruled by dictatorial regimes and traditional Saudi allies.
King Salman made unprecedented changes immediately after he inherited the Saudi throne. He had been waiting impatiently to restore his wing of the family (known as the Sudairi clan) who controlled the country's decision-making until King Abdullah ascended to power in 2005. King Abdullah (who was marginalized by the Sudairis) slowly replaced them by putting his sons and supporters in key positions, reshuffling ministers and other heads of government’s agencies is normal in Saudi politics.
However, King Salman went further than any of his predecessors. He appointed and empowered a third generation of royals, specifically his son Mohammed Bin Salman and nephew Mohammed Bin Naif. His son became the Minister of Defense and deputy to the Crown Prince (third in line to inherit the throne) and his nephew became Crown Prince in addition to his powerful position, Minister of the Interior.
That in itself can be described as a Palace coup and it could not have happened that easily. However, because of the secretiveness of Saudi politics people can only speculate about this, including me. Maybe I know a bit more because I know some insiders, but insiders themselves have limited proximity to the real decision-making processes.
So King Salman inherited a mess, and he created his own mess within the royal family internally and by adopting perilous foreign policies.
Invading Yemen under King Salman's watch was a miscalculated step and a foreign policy plunder. Many Saudi Princes and commoners don’t know why that happened because they knew invading and destroying Yemen will not achieve anything other than more extremism, terrorism and can potentially destabilize the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. Nonetheless, the Saudis decided to invade Yemen and they probably will be there for the foreseeable future.
ET: There have been stories in the press about a coup, but going in the other direction, meaning to replace King Salman. Have you heard anything about this?
AA: Yes, there is a Prince in London, England, highly educated and outspoken, who is assumed to be behind a letter which the British Guardian quoted that was circulated amongst other Princes, at least those agree with him, but possible others as well, asking for a regime change because he feels the royal family will destroy itself and the country will suffer as a result.
I agree with that since the only rulers that the Saudis have known is the Saudi royal family. The country is divided along tribal, religious, gender and ethnic lines as a result of the regime’s “divide and conquer” policy and practice. The country is held together only by sheer force under the Saudi ruling family absolute rule.
The Saudi population, especially the younger people, are growing restless because they see what is happening in the world through social media of which they are among the highest users - that’s the only means they have to communicate. So the situation inside the country is also very fragile and the foreign policy conducted by the current regime is very perilous.
One can only hope that some of the more visionary and enlightened male and female royals will prevail in terms of replacing the current very outdated thinking regarding the population's growing needs and expectations. The Saudi people are directly affected by the root causes of the Arab Spring – which is irreversible, will continue and more likely will spill over to the Gulf States. It is only a matter of time because the Gulf States are ruled by oligarchies who maintain control through bribery and the sword.
So this is a challenging time for the Gulf States despite all the public commentary suggesting they are immune to the uprisings.
ET: How would you describe the current relationship with the US? There has been much talk of a rift on the back of the US’ Iran nuclear deal.
AA: The Saudi relationship with the US has always been based on one thing and that is oil. In 1943 President Roosevelt signed an agreement with King Abdel Aziz, the founder of the country, where the Saudis agreed to provide the Americans with access to cheap oil and in return, the Saudi ruling family Princes would be protected and their kingdom would be defended by the US. That remains the case until this day.
However, things began to change after 9/11, where 15 out of the 19 terrorist attackers were Saudis. That vicious event changed US-Saudi ties forever. The split has materialized in key aspects of the relationship: different views on key policies and the US moving its military bases from Saudi Arabia to Qatar and other neighboring Gulf States. So the US’ need for the Saudis has been drastically reduced since that event.
Additionally, the Arab Spring affected the US-Saudi relation even further. The Saudis wanted the US to help keep the Arab dictatorial regimes in power because they were Saudi allies and supporters. But the West in general saw that it was better for their businesses and national security interests in the long run to see these dictators go.
They also realized that the Arab people for the first time in centuries decided to take things into their own hands. And that’s why this Arab revolution happened. There was also a recognition that Arabs were no longer afraid – of their rulers and of people outside their region. So the West not only declined the Saudis’ appeal to support their former allies, but helped getting rid of some of them.
Now, the deal with Iran is not just about the nuclear issue. I’ve written about this in the past, and so have other Saudis. The Saudi rulers’ fear is not of Iran’s bomb, but of Western and other commercial super powers moving towards Iran to take advantage of the Iranian enormous opportunities, economically and strategically. The Saudis greatly fear being marginalized in this process and being replaced by the Iranian theocracy. They have had been able to convince the Western powers and businesses that they (the Saudis) are the only ones who can protect their interests in the region and in the Muslim lands in general. That proved to be incorrect.
Iran has about 80 million people, offers a huge market for Western companies and an important strategic location. And it is also a powerful country. Look at what happened during the sanctions: they continued to develop their nuclear program, science progressed and they survived very difficult times – in fact going back all the way to 1979. If the same sanctions had been imposed on the Arab Gulf States, they would not have survived.
ET: Why do the Saudi rulers view the Iranians as their “mortal enemy”? Is this because they fear the emergence of a Shia crescent across the region, which could affect their own significant Shiite population?
AA: I used to work for the oil industry as a young man and am very familiar with that region of Saudi Arabia. The Shiite minorities, the Ismaelis, the Sufis and other minorities in the Gulf States and in most Arab and Muslim countries have been repressed by their Sunni rulers and their societies. These are all Arabs who have existed long, long before the Wahhabi movement first emerged in the Arabian Peninsula in the middle of the 18th century.
So these minorities have no other recourse except to seek help from anyone who can help them. Iran has stepped into that role as they are Shiites, but also as a way to extend their influence, for instance in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and anywhere they can. If these minorities were treated with the respect they deserve as full citizens of their own homelands they would have not sought help from anybody.
A human being is a human being, like you and me. When pushed into a corner we react in any way we can to survive. And that is exactly what minorities in the Arab World are doing. They are being repressed by their own rulers because of their religious orientations. Therefore, they are seeking help from where they can get it. And in this case, Iran is the one providing it.
ET: Why are the Saudis so keen to see the back of Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad? Does this relate to Iran or is there a grander opportunity lurking in the background?
AA: Assad is a brutal dictator, there’s no question about that. But his brutality prior to this war pales in comparison to the brutality of the Saudis.
The Saudis don’t fear Assad, or Israel for that matter. Their interest is to establish an Islamic state wherever they can: Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, and Egypt among others. That’s their goal – to establish an Islamic state that corresponds with their ideology. The only legitimacy they have in this regard is that they want to remain the self-proclaimed guardians of the holy sites of Islam upon which their legitimacy and survival depend. The Saudi population consists of less than 3% of the 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide.
Of course the Saudis are afraid of Iran gaining regional and global recognition and power. This translate to less dependence on the Saudi rulers politically, economically and strategically. Now, the Iranians may be crazy but they are not suicidal. They know very well that if they attack any country in the Gulf region, they will be cremated by the West, the East and everybody in between. That’s not because they love the Arabs, but rather because the Arab Gulf States have oil and billions of dollars of reserves mostly invested in the West. Additionally, Saudi significance is declining as other energy sources are being developed and consumers are much less wasteful.
ET: How can a ragtag army like the Islamic State, which started with a few thousand fighters, defeat much larger Iraqi and Syrian armies and have the capability to recruit from all over the world? The latest US intelligence states that they may have 5,000 fighters with Western passports in their ranks. Where do they get their financial support from?
AA: Well, originally ISIS consisted of different groups that the Saudis, the Qataris, the Iranians and everyone else had used for their own particular agendas. They came from the Islamic Army front, parts of the Iraqi army and other factions. So when ISIS took over many parts of Iraq they inherited oil, money from the banks and a huge amount of weapons which had been supplied by the US to the Iraqi army. They still control large areas and they sell women and sell children – they do anything that contradicts basic human norms to get money.
But they also got money from wealthy Arabs, including Saudi Arabia. Hillary Clinton is on record stating that Saudi Arabia remains the major financier and exporter of radical ideologies worldwide. You can google that. And I agree with that statement because, as amply documented, Saudis support these types of activities.
Many wealthy people in the Gulf States support the Saudi ideological views and practice for their own reasons and interests. It has been reported time and again that the Saudi religious establishment contributes large sums of money to extremists around the world. This couldn’t have been done without the approval of or the knowledge that this is the Saudi rulers’ wishes. So the Saudi powerful religious establishment is actually sending money to extremists around the world.
As you can see the money comes from all over the place. And I’m sure this includes many other people in the Arab world, including secular Muslims, who don’t like their regimes and see in ISIS a way to get rid of them. As the cliché goes, the enemy of my enemy is my fried, especially in the Middle East.
ET: You are bringing up a very important point. By supporting all these extremists, don’t the Saudi rulers themselves become exposed to the same extremists they are propping up? The intelligence community calls this “blowback”.
AA: This is already taking place. Over the last four to six months, there have been attacks inside Saudi Arabia, particularly in the Eastern Province, but also in the southwest region of the country.
Why? Because they now know that violence and extremism are working so they are becoming more aggressive against the Saudi regime. And that’s actually the biggest threat to the Saudi regime and the stability of the state at this point.
Ironically, the only people who can freely express their thoughts and views in Saudi society are the clerics. These people are actually finding out now that they have more in common with ISIS than they do with the Saudi royal family. So they are plotting against the regime that has always supported them and promoted them to important positions. They can use media outlets like satellite and cable TV to promote and propagate their ideology.
So the extremists are turning against their royal partners and this is not likely to go away soon, if ever, as long as they are used by the regime to legitimize it and justify the system’s misdeeds. In reality, the Saudi regime’s insistence that Assad has to go is partially to appease its own religious establishment who see Shiites as heretics and who want to establish their dominance over Syria as if they are entitled to do so. And I hope they never succeed.
ET: You have advised many senior US policymakers over the years. How do you view the US’ role in the region, particularly after the interventions in Iraq and Libya? Is it helping to stabilize what is a delicate political situation in the Middle East?
AA: Look, I am very familiar with US policies. I have been here for a long time and talk to and consult with many people across the board. The US and the Western powers, in general, are not directly responsible for the stability or instability in the Middle East. It’s the repression of the Arab people, the promotion of religious intolerance, creation and exportation extremism, corruption and even the use of terrorism that are responsible for the stagnation of Arab societies.
The use of terrorism for example was applied by Saudi officials in 2006. There was a big scandal involving the bribing of a prominent Saudi Prince by a UK arms manufacturer. You can look that up. That Prince told Tony Blair, the UK Prime Minister at the time, that if the British courts would continue the investigation of the multi-billion dollar scandal, the Saudis would not tell the Brits when terrorists would attack them. Blair succumbed to pressure and overrode the British legal system. This is very well documented. So Saudi Princes use despicable means to subvert other people, including their own Western defenders.
It is no secret that the West’s interest in Saudi Arabia, as in anywhere else in the Middle East, is predicated on economic interest including energy, lucrative contracts, arms sales and consumer markets. That’s just the way it is. It’s not a matter of stabilizing or destabilizing, although they have supported regimes that are against democratic values, which is a tragedy in itself. However, they would support anyone who can guarantee them continuous big profits. That’s the same for China and anyone else. It’s the nature of the beast; right or wrong is another story. Any government would do the same thing.
So I would think that the problem in the Middle East and the stagnation in Arab societies – especially in the fields of technology, science, women’s rights, minority rights and democracy – are all homegrown problems that Arabs have to admit and rectify. They created them and they have to solve them.
This is the whole point of the Arab Spring, which is going to be long and bloody, but this is what it will take to address these problems. All mass revolutions - whether the Chinese, the Spanish, the French or the Americans, any mass revolution - will take a long time to find solutions to what led to the revolts. This will include getting rid of ISIS which has nothing new to offer except for a violent means for people to revolt. So it will be a short affair, but the people themselves have to do it.
ET: And what comments do you have about the intervention of Russia and possibly even China? Will it help bring about some of the positive changes you talked about or will it create bigger problems in the future?
AA: Russia and China are major powers and they are also having problems in their countries. There is great discontent within Russian society. The Chinese economy is not doing very well because it is artificial and very dependent on other people’s consumption and natural resources. Both of them are dictatorships as exemplified by the way they treat their own people, especially in China. But they are also trying to get their piece of the pie in the Arab world.
So we hear that Russia is bombing ISIS and other factions who happen to be trained and supported by the West and that is not accidental. A few days before Putin started the bombardments he consulted with the Egyptians, the Iranians and the Saudis about the continued carnage in Syria. Arab and Muslim regimes are not willing or cannot defeat their own creations such as ISIS. They realized the US is not going to fight their wars and install another extremist Muslim government in Syria. Thus they are looking to the Russians to fight ISIS where Putin wants to undo the Russian’s (the Soviets') humiliation in Afghanistan and prove that the Russians are good fighters. However, Russia is taking big risks because the current environment in the Middle East is very different from Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The ones who are really paying the price for all this maneuvering and strategic interests are the Syrians. After the Holocaust in World War II, I think the destruction of Syria, the death and uprooting of its population will be remembered as the Holocaust of the 21st century. The whole world is watching a whole nation being destroyed – one of the oldest in the world in fact.
ET: Yes, in fact Europe is being overrun by Syrian migrants, along with millions of others who are just taking advantage of the situation. You are a strong proponent of human rights. How many Syrian refugees has Saudi Arabia taken in? Why do the Saudis propose building mosques in Germany instead of sending food and clothes?
AA: The Saudis and the other Gulf states are refusing to take in Syrian refugees. There are Syrian migrant workers who have been there long before the start of the war, but they are not refugees. They are pushing them to go to Europe.
According to the media, King Salman called the German Chancellor and offered to build 200 mosques for the new migrants. Now this tells you that they are not willing to accept them into their own societies because they are afraid of ISIS being part of these refugees and all the issues this would pose.
They don’t want to destabilize their societies but they are willing to pay Germany to build mosques – in other words, promoting Saudi ideology there: 200 new mosques literally means the Islamization of German society.
Perhaps not in those terms but this will definitely change the character of German society, German political processes and German democracy, as exemplified by the behavior and actions of some Muslims in many European countries – especially in the Netherlands, France and the UK. There are growing social frictions in European societies due to some Muslims demanding the introduction of Shariah and family laws, among other conflicting values.
Most of the Muslims leave their homelands to escape poverty, repression and humiliation at the hands of their own dictators. Unfortunately, when they move to Europe they try to implement the same values they are escaping from. And this is something I just can’t understand.
ET: It’s very hard to understand. You see the humanitarian point but also the concerning clash of civilizations from the European perspective. On a related note, so what do you think of Saudi Arabia now chairing the UN Human Rights Council?
AA: Somebody said that this is like putting the fox in charge of the chicken farm. You know, it is extremely contradictory, but then again the UN itself has many members which represent dictatorial regimes from all continents.
So it is not surprising that they accept one of them to become the chair of the Human Rights Council, but it should have never have happened, whether it’s Saudi Arabia or Russia or any other dictatorial regime. They shouldn’t be in charge of the agency that is supposed to defend human rights regardless of religion, nationality, gender and ethnicity.
So I find it very disturbing that these absolute regimes are elected for this type of role. First of all, these regimes themselves know that they violate human rights because none of them recognize or implement the UN declaration of human rights – even if they signed them. But this is the way the UN works, it’s a hopeless organization, it has no power and is paid for by the same dictators that form its membership.
It should have never happened but it did.
ET: Oil has been the predominant source of wealth in Saudi Arabia. You are intimately familiar with the industry there. Is the country anywhere near to exhausting its massive resources?
AA: Oil in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else is not an infinite commodity. It will run out at some point. When I worked for Saudi Aramco many years ago, we had to inject water into the wells to push the oil out because the pressure was already declining back then.
Many people have tried to do scientific surveys of the oil fields to see how much oil is left underground because the world needs to understand what to prepare for. The Saudis have refused to do that. This is even documented in a book by Matt Simmons, an oil and gas banker who is now deceased. He knew this situation very well and he even tried to hire a company on his own to do scientific surveys, to no avail.
What we do know is that Saudi Arabia is investing a lot of money in alternative sources of energy, like nuclear and solar energies. That could be indicative of the fact that their oil is running out but nobody can say for sure. It may run out much sooner than people think or have been told.
ET: The Saudis are very significant global investors across all major asset classes. They spend a lot of money abroad. Could this have an impact on Western companies and economies? Are they aware of the risks you outlined?
AA: I hope they recognize them and I am sure they monitor the situation in Saudi Arabia and other oil wealthy producing countries in that region. I think Western businesses are going to be very careful in investing in the Saudi economy given the discussion we just had and also reports on the declining amounts of oil reserves and the recent correction in oil prices.
And there’s the instability. Western economies will be hurt pretty badly if there is an attack on the oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and even Iran, or just a closure of the Strait of Hormuz, even if for a brief time.
Then we have terrorism. Al-Qaeda has decided not to attack the oil fields in Saudi Arabia and for good reason. They will lose support from the very same aspiring martyrs they hope to recruit, whose income and that of their families come from oil revenues.
But for Western businesses – and I hope this conversation reaches them – they should think about investing in the young generations, in women’s rights and start thinking about the future because their businesses depend upon stability in those countries. And those countries are very unstable because people resent their current systems which have repressed and held them back for decades and centuries.
So Western interests depend on a new generation of people in the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States where the majority of the population is under 30 years of age. The aspiring young generations are not crazy about the repressive Shariah law. They spend most of their time on their smartphones and doing or wanting to do what young people all over the world are doing.
It’s in the best interest of Western democracies and businesses to invest and support this new generation of freedom and social justice aspiring youth all over the Arab world, especially in the Gulf States.
ET: What is the current status of women in Saudi Arabia? Have there been any improvements in the right direction?
AA: Facts are facts and they speak louder than you and I speak. Women in Saudi Arabia are the most marginalized people in the world. They cannot drive a car – that’s a government policy; they cannot work; they cannot go to school; they cannot travel abroad; they can’t even deliver their babies in a hospital without a male guardian approval (called the “male guardian system”).
There were cosmetic steps made by King Abdullah. When he was alive, he decreed that women could run for office and vote in municipal elections in 2015, which itself is cosmetic, nonetheless a small step in the right direction, at least psychologically. The late King also appointed 30 woman to a powerless consultative council which was another step that will increase women determination to obtain their usurped rights.
However Saudi women and men do not expect any reform under King Salman’s watch, given his religious and political orientation and ultraconservatism. If anything, the cosmetic changes King Abdullah initiated could disappear under King Salman as exemplified by his decision to fire the only woman, Norah bint Abdallah Al Faiz, who has an official ministerial position in the ministry of education. I hope I am wrong but what has happened thus far suggests Saudi women will continue to be repressed by their government and male dominated society.
The good news is that Saudi women are becoming increasingly vocal about demanding their legitimate but denied rights. They are educated, well-informed and losing fear from authorities and males relatives. Many have become leaders despite all of the regime’s discriminatory policies. So Saudi women are gradually imposing their own demands on society and I think that some men are realizing that they will not be silent forever. Some men are supporting the women’s right to drive, for instance.
But this is far from easy. They need support from all over the world. We hope that our group and many others can help them along in this process. As we speak they are leading the task of preventing their country to move in the wrong direction by promoting religious tolerance, women’s rights, minority rights and also acceptance of other people, like millions of migrant people – from India in particular, who are also marginalized in their society.
ET: Finally, where can people learn more about your work and how can we support the very important causes promoted by your organization?
AA: They can go to http://www.cdhr.info/, the website of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, of which I am the Executive Director. They can send checks to CDHR to our office address in Washington D.C.
Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR
1050 17 St. NW Suite 1000
Washington, DC 20036
Or people can donate by going to our website and clinking donate and contribute via PayPal.
CDHR does great work. It promotes values that are worth promoting in Saudi Arabia and everywhere else – human rights, democratization, women’s rights, better education, acceptance of other peoples regardless of their beliefs and way of life. These are good universal values that have proven their merits as we see in democratic and tolerant societies.
What we do at CDHR is in everyone’s interests. Due to its centrality to Islam and its 1.5 billion adherents, Saudi Arabia plays major economic and religious roles in Muslims and non-Muslims lives and livelihood.
Reforming Saudi institutions is vital to reforming the entire Muslim world.
ET: That’s a very important goal, which is not as appreciated as it should be. Dr. Alyami, thank you very much for your time and for sharing your thoughts with us. All the best to you.
AA: Thank you.