Some problems of social and political changes

Apparently, the US government has decided to bring the changes it views as necessary in the whole Middle East, just after 9/11. This is not a task that frightens the opposition elites in the Arab and Muslim countries, as the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq show, although some of these same elites would be cautious not too much slip into the US sphere of influence, and thus lose credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of their own popular basis. It is not a secret that the US relied on these elites for the purpose of undertaking the social and political mutations needed, at least in Afghanistan and in Iraq, as a beginning. The Palestinian case is the third corner in this triangular strategy, already adopted by the US government, and which had been previously expressed by some American analysts, as we can see from Wiser Peace, – a document issued by the CSIS. [1]

However, in the case of Saudi Arabia precisely, there is probably a problem, and not a little one.

1).Despite the frightening discovery that Saudi Arabia is not that quiet, peaceful country, where everybody is kindly disposed towards the Americans and the Westerners, since 9/11 and because of it, the Saudi Royal family is still considered a precious ally and friend of the USA. Indeed, some of us can evoke the case of the Pahlavi and other “friends and allies”of the USA who, when confronted to the ire of their own people, were just unable to get any assistance from the USA. That’s why the Saudi Royal family has also an obvious interest in introducing the necessary reform and allowing more public and individual freedom to the citizens.

2).The Saudi opposition is not all honey and milk: some of its components are ultra-radical hardliner Islamists even more puritanical, more conservative than any wahhabist sheikh of the traditional establishment could pretend. This opposition is active inside the kingdom (in the underderground) and outside it. Indeed, it is asking also for change, but what kind of change? Would it be the kind that will please the West? Therefore, if the West is well disposed toward social and political changes in the arabo-islamic world, it is unlikely that a slip toward the far-right ultra-conservative Islamism is welcome. How to handle that opposition? That’s the problem.

When we say that the opposition elite may be considered as a key element in any change intended in the arabo-islamic world, and could be trusted as such, this is implying –” hypothetically- the liberal opposition indeed, not the islamist, although it is not up to the Americans to impose their choice: the Iraqi case showed it clearly. If the Americans have had to choose really who will rule Iraq, would they have chosen the Da’wa party or the SCIRI? [2] This is unlikely.

Thus, ostensibly, a strategic project that does not take in consideration these elements of change, would not be able to cope with the elements of permanency either. In fact, it seems that the US policy in the Middle East is confronted to paradoxical options: on the one hand, as a report of Rand Corporation confirms,[3] after the devastating September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the suppression of terrorism rose to the fore of U.S. concerns in the Middle East. Al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups draw heavily on the Arab and Muslim world for recruits and funding. In addition, much of their violence and propaganda is directed at destabilizing Middle Eastern regimes that are friendly to the United States. Thus, the United States must confront risks on a governmental level, helping its regional partners secure themselves against terrorist-generated instability, and at a popular level to ensure that nationals in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, or other states in the region do not join terrorist groups or provide them with financial or other assistance. In other terms, in order to fight international terrorism, the US government is forced to support and strengthen some of the regimes the American media and civil society describe as authoritarian if not dictatorial. On the other hand, the US government knows that in supporting some Arab or Muslim authoritarian regimes, the opposition –” included the moderate and the liberal movements –” would be swept away, as none of its parties has so far acquired enough strength to stand to the local government.

Here, it is clear there is a problem. So, what is exactly the US strategy? How would it cope with the local demands? These questions are important insofar as we believe that a democratic country cannot impose on another a non-democratic regime without losing its own soul in that deal. Such a bargain is like that of Mephistopheles in Faust. If the USA or any Western democracy has to make a choice regarding a possible involvement in a local political conflict in a foreign land, should that involvement be helpful to the side of democracy or to that of perdurable autocracy? To begin with, let’s not have any illusions about modern societies, whatsoever the region or the culture concerned. As social scientists know, all social relations are necessarily conflictual, and thus are the political as well. If for any reason a foreign power has to be involved with local politics, making the wrong choice will doom the future relations with the concerned country. That’s why not only one has always to read the social, cultural, economic, and political map of the concerned country, but he has also to read it in both “languages” (His and Theirs), meaning a double level of interpretation.


[1]. See for an analyze of this document our book “L’après-Saddam en Irak”, l’Harmattan, Paris, 2005. There are also other documents drawing on the same topics, like Forging a Durable Post War Settlement in Iraq –” Heritage Foundation -, and the Washington Institute’s Winning Peace in The Middle East, which we also analyze in the first chapter of this book (in French).

[2]. Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

[3]. The Future Security Environment in the Middle East, Rand Corp. 2004.