I've mentioned this before – Saudi Arabia is not going to be the next country in the Middle East to normalize relations with Israel. Saudi Arabia is in line, but certainly not at the front of the line.
There are many reasons. One reason is that the United States has been pressuring the Saudi Kingdom to normalize their power in the region.
Saudi power is based on their wealth and on the ways in which they spread influence. They are contributors and sponsors. Even more significant is that they are the guardians of the Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina.
The Saudis have sway.
As open to the West as they appear to be, there is a significant group of leaders in Saudi Arabia – especially Wahabi religious leadership, that is extremely conservative. They would have great difficulty normalizing with the Jewish State, especially when it came to public celebrations of the normalization with Israel.
The Saudi Kingdom functions by maintaining balance between Wahabi religious leadership and the royal family.
The Wahabis are a fiercely, fervently, religious subgroup of Sunni Islam. They are the progenitors of al Qaeda and Osama Bin Ladin. It is they who are responsible for religious life and education in Saudi Arabia. Normalization would wreck that balance.
The elephant on the room is Saudi human rights record and their attitude toward women. It is a radical departure from acceptable and approved Western thought and behavior. And it is, out of necessity, overlooked and skimmed over in dealings with the Saudi Kingdom. It is part of the big package and, in these areas, the Saudis are not about to change. Not for anyone or anything.
The abuses inherent in Saudi human rights and women's right issues are not a series of exceptions. They are the norm, predicated on fundamental differences between approach and Western thinking. This is essential to understand. The Saudis are not similar to some banana republic dictator. They have a longstanding set of traditions that are not simply thrown out because of the advantages of a trade deal.
We should – as we do – disagree with their point-of-view. We also must recognize that they will not easily be re-educated. Those Saudis who do engage with the West are cognizant in this cultural chasm and choose, consciously choose, to check their Saudi beliefs, ideas – and hopefully their behaviors – while visiting, learning and living in the West. But they do not wish to alter their Saudi attitudes at home. They have little interest in change. Little motivation to update their thinking. Just take the example of women driving in Saudi Arabia.
In 2018 the Crown Prince Salman liberalized the driving law and permitted women to drive. It's been two years and women are slowly beginning to take driving classes and get drivers licenses. The Prince might have changed the law in the land, but husbands remain the law at home. In October, women were permitted to play golf and in November there will be a women's golf tournament competing for a $500,000 prize. Baby steps. But women can still not marry without the permission of their family.
It is an entirely different world.
The perfect example of how this inside outside, upside down relationship the West has with the Saudi Kingdom and the Saudi Kingdom has with itself is the G20 Summit.
The Fifteenth G20 Summit will be held in Riyad, Saudi Arabia later this month. The G20 is composed of countries with the largest economies in the world. Saudi Arabia assumed its presidency last year, it is a rotating presidency. The business side of the G20 is the B20 and the theme of this B20 Summit is "Women in Business."
Thirty-three percent of the delegates are to be women. This is the highest percentage ever. But it is hard to take this part of the conference seriously when, in the host country, women's right activists are sitting in prison and being prosecuted for contacting international media or international human rights organizations about their cause.
Under Crown Prince Salman, Saudi Arabia has begun a process of liberalization. His plan is titled "Vision 2030." While its real purpose is to become less dependent on oil, part of the plan is to liberalize Saudi Arabia, especially regarding the role of women. Allowing women to drive was one part of the plan. But the Wali system or "male guardian," a part of Whabbism, is still in place.
According to Wahabi dictate, every woman in Saudi Arabia must have a Wali. In Arabic, Wali means protector or helper. The religious system even provides mobile apps for men to use in order to more efficiently "protect" or "help" women.
While there are still those who are pushing for Saudi Arabia to normalize with Israel, who think that they would be perfect partners, that is simply incorrect at this stage. It is not clear how fast – if at all, Saudi Arabia wants to move along the path of liberalization and then normalization. In fact, what is clear is that at this stage liberalization and normalization with Israel is not in their interest.
And for all those reasons it is not in the interest of the United States to push it or rush it through. Not now.
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