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Barbara Leaf Responds to David Pollock's Views on Saudi Public’s Likely Response to Khashoggi’s Disappearance


Also available in العربية

October 25, 2018

Read the original article here.

The official Saudi polling effort (and it will always be understood by Saudi citizens as official, regardless of diversity of funding streams -- such a program has to be sanctioned to operate as such) to draw out public opinion on key domestic and foreign policy initiatives risks both the optic and the effect of Mao's infamous "Let 1,000 Flowers Bloom" campaign.

In other words, in a society that has been so closed off and managed in terms of acceptable forms and content of expression, Saudis questioned on deeply sensitive topics like Yemen, Qatar, and Iran are unlikely to offer viewpoints that can be seen as dissenting in any way from the official (hard) line conveyed by the leadership. In revealing a divergent opinion, the citizen risks being identified by the government as problematic/disloyal and meted out an appropriate punishment.

I've met few folks from the region that believe confidential polling really protects their identity. Whether interviewed on their doorstep, on the street, or (more alarmingly) over the telephone, citizens of the region and especially the Gulf are quite reluctant to evince "personal" opinion on “sensitive” or “political” topics. 

This was profoundly apparent in the UAE, a smaller state with a tiny native population; one could get only traces of unease in off-hand comments. Those comments were nonetheless daring in their way, as to dissent in any form from the official line, on Yemen and Qatar in particular, was treated as disloyal. The propensity for "happy talk" of a particularly sterile kind was rife, as was fulsome coverage of negative stories about any other government aside from several ‘friendlies’ (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, and to a certain degree Russia).

When the initiative for opening up is still so new, and the new red lines for public discourse are still being etched, I think it is virtually certain that long-time patterns of caution and conformity will be reinforced. Who knew, after all, that it was enough for long-time women's rights activists to celebrate the nearing start-date for women driving for those activists to be rounded up on the charge of "consorting with foreign powers?"

This is not to cast doubts on the utility of either the official exercise in polling or independent efforts; I simply think it is worth reminding the reader just how opaque Saudi public opinion remains.

And just to be contrarian: a further factor—in my view very significant and little-understood by Western publics and plenty of analysts—that would reinforce Saudi sentiment to continue to support the leadership's domestic and foreign efforts, even with the turmoil or trade-offs in personal freedoms, would be the effect of continuing reaction to the continuing outfall of 2011. 

Emiratis—including those I surmised were uneasy with some of the more adventurous aspects of MbZ' foreign policy—are fairly fervently united in their gratitude in that whatever their country's shortcomings, it is at least stable, safe, secure, and offers opportunities found nowhere else in the region, including next door in Saudi Arabia. I think the yearning for a return to stability, however brittle that pre-2011 stability now appears to us in retrospect, is profound around the region. This is precisely because of the conflicts that came in the wake of the 2011 protests, including the fall of long-standing autocrats and the voids that opened up in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Egypt (Sinai), in which terrorism flourished. 

That willingness to accept MbS's upheavals is, however, bound to be limited eventually. What is absolutely impossible for us on the outside to suss out is where, exactly, the location of that tipping point (or points) resides. The trade-off is presumably related to the delivery of increasing economic benefits. But if MbS's big schemes rely on the generation of non-oil revenue streams that are themselves heavily dependent on FDI (and here we hear the crashing sound of the past year's FDI plummet), notwithstanding the severe reaction of foreign governments and investors to two big moves last year (the Ritz and Hariri) -- then he is setting the Kingdom up for some very turbulent times ahead. International business interests’ recent response to the Saudi “Davos in the Desert” further complicates the likelihood of sustained international investment.

I do not see the opening up of the Kingdom and Saudi women’s progressive feelings of economic empowerment going easily hand-in-hand with episodic and crushing moves against individual Saudis—especially when the individuals (as is surely the case with the women's rights activists) cannot possibly be viewed as revolutionaries, renegades or reckless. Painting these activists as Qatari agents is unlikely to be persuasive for a domestic audience; rather, it will be correctly understood as a brute-force warning by the leadership.  

Jamal Khashoggi is another issue. Anyone from these societies who goes "outside" and writes critiques of the leadership is easily portrayed internally as a traitor. However, if the changing story around Khashoggi’s death—most recently that he was killed in a fight with Saudi officials—becomes persuasive enough in convincing Saudi nationals that Khashoggi was murdered by his own government, this realization would be enormously shocking and unsettling, and within other segments of the government as well. That is a Putin-style bit of thuggishness, not Saudi. However, persuasiveness of the evidence that high level officials were involved is the key, and Erdogan's Turkey is not in the best position to be persuasive for all the obvious reasons. 

But -- and this is my final caveat -- MbS has already demonstrated to his own fellow citizens that he is throwing out many of the most well-worn pieces of the traditional playbook for dealing with dissent/opposition/potential opposition. He could have put the squeeze on hundreds of "corrupt" businessmen and royals without the astonishing Ritz show; the spectacular wealth that members of the Al Saud continue to enjoy and flaunt provide the counter-narrative that this was all about corruption.

What’s more, MbS could have relied on a time-honored tradition of security officials (or even non-security service government officials) calling on the fathers or senior male relative of women activists, staying for tea and conversation without ever referring to the activist by name or activity. This would have sent a subtle but unmistakable message. Instead, he clapped up women, young and old, and held them in detention. They were held without charge at first, and now the allegations are treasonous in nature. 

By the same token, the delayed acknowledgement of Jamal's death after weeks of laconic and wholly unpersuasive Saudi comments to the contrary—especially set against the backdrop of these earlier moves—could well persuade Saudis that there was a high level official hand in Jamal's case. 

With President Trump now personally engaged – as is King Salman, both with Trump and Erdogan – Saudi public opinion will almost certainly churn with growing uneasiness. It will simply remain extraordinarily difficult for outsiders to chart this dynamic. 

The Saudis really are in uncharted territory now.

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