Why the United States should push Saudi Arabia toward democracy


Saudi Arabia's King with American politicians (White House photo by David Bohrer)

This story was originally covered by PRI's The Takeaway. For more, listen to the audio above.

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The democracy protests that have broken out across the Middle East have not toppled the ruling family in Saudi Arabia, but it has many of them scared. "Essential you've got a gerontocracy that doesn't function very well at the moment," Martin Indyk, former US Ambassador to Israel and Director of Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution told PRI's The Takeaway, "and when it looks out at its borders, it sees the flames of revolt licking at every one of them."

"In Yemen, you've got a revolt," Indyk points out, "the country is imploding, probably to the benefit of al Qaeda." Protests have broken out in neighboring Bahrain, Jordan and Iraq. And the King's ally, Honsi Mubarak, has already fallen from power. On top of that, King Abdullah is "in his mid 80s, he's not well," according to Indyk, and "his crown prince could well die before he does."

The King's answer to the problems is "not the kind of political reform and trumpeting of universal rights that our president believes in," Indyk told The Takeaway. "On the contrary, he believes in not giving any measure to the protesters and basically suppressing them." The result is a "quiet crisis" between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

"There's a lot of reason to look the other way" during this crackdown, according to Indyk. Saudi Arabia is "the world's largest oil producer, and it's the only oil producer that has the capacity to increase its production significantly so as to tamp down the pressure on the price of oil."

A crisis in Saudi Arabia could send the price of oil through the roof. Indyk says, "That could put pain to the United States economic recovery and even the prospects for the President's reelection."

The United States may not have the option to look the other way, however. "There's a real question about whether that can work anymore," according to Indyk. "We've got to try to develop a new compact with the king and his brothers." The United States needs to push Saudi Arabia toward a constitutional monarchy, according to Indyk, to prevent Saudi Arabia from succumbing to the same fate that Egypt did, and for the sake of both countries.


"The Takeaway" is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what's ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.