Saudi Arabia’s Unpredictable Future
(Dr. Ali Alyami, January 8, 2020)
About the speaker
Dr. Ali Alyami is the founder and Executive Director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, based in Washington, D. C. He is a native of Saudi Arabia and has been an avid advocate for political reforms in Saudi Arabia.
The Center for Democracy & Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (CDHR) focuses on Saudi domestic and foreign policies and their impact on, and implications for, the Saudi people and the international community, especially U.S. economic and national security interests. Due to its centrality to Islam and possession of large quantities of fossil fuel energy sources, Saudi Arabia plays a major religious and economic role in the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide. CDHR was established in 2004 to promote institutionalized democratic and human rights reforms as the best way of achieving long term stability in Saudi Arabia.
Previously, Dr. 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. He holds a Ph.D. in Government from the Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, and a Master’s Degree from California State University in Los Angeles. His Ph.D. doctoral thesis was: “The Impact of Modernization on the Stability of the Saudi Monarchy.”
Dr. Alyami provided expert testimony regarding human rights in Saudi Arabia before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. He also organized and participated in many conferences and discussions about Saudi Arabia, its policies and their impact on the Saudi people, the Middle East, and the international community. Alyami has spoken at conferences in the United States, London, Egypt, Sudan, and Israel, and is a frequent media presence.
Robert R. Reilly:
Our speaker tonight is Dr. Ali Alyami and he is the founder of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, which means he will never work his way out of a job, but I will leave the talk to him. He is based in Washington, D.C. He is a native of Saudi Arabia. His educational foundation examines Saudi domestic and foreign policies and particularly how they impact the United States and its interests.
Previously, Dr. Alyami was a Senior Fellow at the Saudi Institute in Washington, D.C. He’s held other positions; a Representative for the Arab Organization for Human Rights (a Cairo-based group) and he holds a Ph.D. in Government from Claremont Graduate University. He studied at a time in which we discovered we were both there.
Dr. Alyami was very hard to pin down. Every time I thought I was closing in on a date, poof, he was gone to Brussels or somewhere else in Europe, the Middle East, California, and the reason is because he is in such high demand obviously due to his expertise and also the positions he holds on the issues that we address. Of course, among those audiences are various congressional committees that have called upon him. So please join me in welcoming Dr. Ali Alyami.
Dr. Ali Alyami:
Thank you Dr. Reilly. We were at the same school at the same time. It is a very small school, so I am sure we spoke to each other forty years ago. That tells you how young we are. First, I want to thank all of you for coming here. Thank you Robert for insisting and persisting that I should come and share with this distinguished group of people my expertise, the information I know.
First of all, I am a human rights activist. I do not promote policies. I am not against policies. I am only against totalitarianism, dictatorship, violators of human rights, oppression of women and religious minorities – those people are the ones, not individually or personally, but their policies.
First of all, I want to also say that when I took my oath of citizenship forty years ago, I put my hand here and I swore my allegiance to the flag of the United States. I did not swear allegiance to a party, to an individual, to a congressman or congresswoman, to a CEO of a big, multinational. Frankly speaking, I did not care about any of these people.
I only swore allegiance to the flag and to the country, and there is no more time when we need more Americans to say the country first, not the party, not the congressman and woman because frankly speaking I deal with them all the time and so has my friend here, Clare Lopez, who I have known for many years. We deal with them a lot and most of them are corrupt to the bones, not all of them, but most. So we know we are in the belly of the beast.
I am told that you are all experienced people, knowledgeable people, informed people, so I will keep my remarks very short. Then you will have a chance to ask questions because I might be repeating something that you all have regurgitated for many years. The title of this talk is the “Unpredictable Future of Saudi Arabia.” It has never been more unpredictable than it is now for many different reasons; domestic, external, lack of money, youth.
Saudi Arabia Today
Most of the country’s 26 million people are below 25 years of age, so they grew up with smartphones, computers, satellite televisions. So frankly speaking, the overwhelming majority of the Saudi people spend more time googling information from all of the world, including pornography, than they do in the mosque praying.
So religion for most Saudis is of no relevance at all even though they may go to prayer or listen to their fathers, unlike me when I was growing up in Saudi Arabia. There was absolutely nothing for me except praying, fasting, and obeying authority. Most of the Saudi population today does not do any of that stuff. They are afraid, of course, they have to praise the king and his son and everything else.
The Reality of Prince Mohammad bin Salman
They have to do that especially since Prince Mohammad came to power, the oppression, and suppression, and terrorism against the Saudi people have never been higher than they are right now. Even though our media – not all of it, but a lot of our media especially prior to the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, he was a hero to them. He was a modernizer and he was ‘going to recreate a new state’.
Well, he is not, frankly speaking. Prince Mohammad is the least educated person of King Salman’s sons. He has a bunch of them. He is the least educated, especially secularly. He went to a Saudi school and he studied Shariah law, which is one of the most backward systems in the world. Everybody knows that. Nobody knows more than Clare Lopez because she has studied it more than I have.
So the thing here is the country’s unpredictable future is the result of a breaking of the old Saudi tradition, the Saudi royal family tradition where things get arranged in the family; compromise, bargaining, and then the senior son of the King will probably become the King. They have to divide the pieces of cake, who is going to get what. So they agree to all of this before a king even needed to be king, long before that. So when the current king dies, then the second one is already known to everybody. Well, when King Salman took over in January 2015 when King Abdullah died, he eliminated that traditional process and he actually marginalized all of the princes. Some of them are very powerful. You have 2,000 active princes and maybe 10,000 children, grandchildren, and relatives like that. So the royal family is a tribe by itself.
So he eliminated the traditional transition and put all of the power in his son’s hands, his son’s, not like the old tradition. And now the Saudi people, with whom I am in touch all the time, discretely, indirectly, cheatingly, but I am in touch with them, a lot of people, intellectuals, media people, women, Saudi women. Now many of them are being tortured and raped in prison. You did not hear much about it in our media. Human rights is not in our current government agenda at all.
The Danger from Within
The biggest danger to the current system and the stability of the country is not actually from abroad. It is not from Iran, it is not from Israel. It is not from anybody. It is from within. You have a large group of princes who have been marginalized in prison and actually their property has been confiscated by this Prince Mohammad and his father. So now it becomes – the Saudis call it – the Kingdoms of Salman’s, Salman’s Kingdom, because all the power now is in Salman’s son’s hands. The security, the military, the economy, the heritage, everything is in their hands. Everybody else is gone.
The religious establishment have been curtailed because King Salman himself is an extremely reactionary Islamist. He is an Islamist himself actually. He said Wahhabism and the Shariah law are the only hope for humanity. So if you guys do not become Shariah followers and if you do not become Qur’an readers, you all go to hell as far as he is concerned. This is documented. One thing about me: I will not tell you anything that I cannot substantiate because that is all I have to offer, my credibility actually.
A Nation Under House Arrest
The royal family has been fragmented, marginalized, and they are mad as hell. Most of them actually are under house arrest. They cannot leave the country. One of the people you probably have heard about or know about is Prince Al Waleed, the multi-billionaire guy. He was among the people who were incarcerated in the Ritz Hotel in Riyadh. He has an empire all over the world actually. That has been taken away from him. It is managed now by somebody other than him. He cannot leave the country.
One of the biggest punishments – this is interesting, something for you to know – one of the biggest punishments the Saudi government uses it not to let you leave the country. That tells you the punishment is to live in the country. That is exactly what it is. That is the biggest punishment.
So imagine Prince Al Waleed who has about ten airplanes, including a 747, gold-plated plane. All you have to do is Google him and it will show you his airplanes, his mansions, and stuff like that. He cannot leave the country. For him that is a death sentence.
So you have this fragmentation of the ruling family and the religious establishment, and the overwhelming majority of the Saudi population, especially the youth, the 75% between the ages of 25 or below, despite the initiative, despite Prince Mohammad allowing women to drive or go to sport arenas or introducing movies – these things are not revolutionary. These things are not innovative steps. Everybody has been doing this for the last 400 years. Since movies came, people were going to movies. Since cars came, women have been driving cars.
So what he did is actually rubbish, but for a country like Saudi Arabia, it is a divergence from focusing on the root cause of the problem, which [is] now [treating] the Saudi people as a whole, not as groups. Everybody now identifies the royal family as the source of their problem thanks to social media.
Social media transformed Saudi Arabia. Prior to social media, even though it is illegal in some ways, the government tried to control it and they still try but they cannot because the young generation know how to bust the security systems. But for the first time the Saudi people are communicating with each other. They are starting to talk to each other; the Shia, Sunnis, men and women, dating, romanticizing, and all of these things.
Saudis’ Common Enemy is the Royal Family
And now they are identifying the common enemy, and the common enemy they see is the royal family because they are the ones controlling their money, they are controlling the army, they are controlling the security, including the religion. They are controlling everything, so everybody knows that is the source of their problems, not the Shias, not the Sunnis, not the women, not the minorities, not the Christians, not the Jews, not the Israelis, not the Palestinians, nobody. It is within. That is the biggest problem for the system.
That is the biggest factor that makes the future of the country unpredictable because there is no substitute or there is nothing that people can say ‘this is ours’. Saudis are the only people on the planet who are actually identified by the regime that rules them. I am Saudi. That means you are property of the Saudi ruling family. That is exactly what it translates to.
You should support my work because it is the right thing to do. I am doing what I do for America, not for me, for our values, for our democracy, for our human rights, not for me personally. This is all volunteer work I do and I sleep in basements and stuff like that. Do not get fooled by the suit and this thing. My daughter buys it for me when she feels ‘dad, you look so grumpy, so let me spiff you up’. I said okay. She does that. She is a lawyer working for abused women, [victims of] domestic violence.
I have a son here in Washington, DC. He volunteered to go to Iraq after 9/11. He went to Iraq, he came back, he worked for Homeland Security. Now he works for the Veteran’s Administration. He is pursuing a PhD in Psychology to help veterans with problems. That is what he is doing actually. My spouse is a physician who used to work for poor people in San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury, people who are affected by AIDS and that kind of thing. So our family does our share. That is what every American citizen should do.
The reason this country is the greatest or became the greatest in human history is because of its people, because of the American ingenuity, because of the American inventiveness, because of the American hard work. It is not because of Trump or Bush or Obama, all these creeps who come and tell you I am going to save you. Rubbish! It is the American people. It is you.
You know my heroes in America? I took the train because I did not have a car. When Bush was president I used to go to the White House before meetings. I like the guy. He is smart, but he is a good guy. So the people who I respect in this country or any country actually are the people I meet in the train at five or four o’clock in the morning. They are sleepy but they go to open shops, to open coffee shops, to get things ready for the rest of us when we go to get coffee. Those are the people who make this country great. The police [officers], the fire [fighters], these are the Americans who make America great. The scientists, everybody contributes.
America’s greatest success is because of its people. And the reason we are all successful – I came from a nomadic background to this country. No English, no money, no nothing, but we have opportunities and we are free to make mistakes and we are free to lose. We are free to give up and move on. That is what is so great about democracy. That is why I am obsessed with our values. That is why I promote the American way of life and American freedom, American values, and we should be focusing on that instead of fighting among ourselves.
‘I am Republican’, ‘I am Democrat’, ‘I am Independent’, ‘I am a Trumpite’, ‘I am Obamite’, this and that. This is not going to make this country any better. What would make this country better is to work together, and look at the flag, and that is what we should be supporting. The other believes in tribalism, tribalism with ties. This is not going to take us any place folks.
Buying People, Invading Countries
So Saudi Arabia is unpredictable because of its role in family disintegration [and] lack of income because the government expenses have increased and the income has hit bottom because the oil price was cut in half. That is a big problem because when they used to have money, they used to buy a lot of people.
Now instead of buying people, this Prince Mohammad and his father are invading people. They are invading Yemen, they are blockading Qatar, they are occupying Bahrain, they are raising the tension within the region itself in the Gulf among Arab states, small ones. They are fiefdoms ruled by tribal chiefs. [They are raising tension] with Iran. Saudis are doing us more harm than good, more harm than good when it comes to our national interest.
The Nature of Saudi-American Relations
Saudi ideology, you all know that Trump himself said they are the biggest funders of terrorism, and their ideology is the biggest threat to our democracy. This is when he was running in the presidential election. Now Saudi Arabia is the first country that he visited in May of 2017. His son-in-law, Kushner, is in bed with Prince Mohammad, he and his wife, Ivanka Trump.
The point I am trying to draw is in terms of the unpredictability of Saudi Arabia. We put so much stake, so much value into the relationship with Saudi Arabia when in fact, the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has never been people-to-people, it has never been government-to-government, it has been between multinationals and the ruling family. I let you have access to oil, you protect me. And how do you protect me? You tell your government to protect me because you also control your government because you pay a lot of money to get them elected, whether they are congressmen or congresswomen or president or anything.
Most of these people get money from the Gulf states, from Saudi Arabia, from Qatar, from Kuwait, from all of them. They get money. You know one of the things we could do… All of your representatives come and they have these town hall meetings with you and they tell you what you want to hear.
If you really want to know what they do, where their money comes from, you go to the Congressional Quarterly. Every congressman and congresswoman’s name is there and where their money comes from. You have representatives in the House of Representatives, in the Senate, and everywhere else. You go ahead and find out where the money comes from. The man or woman who represents you, most of their money may come from different states and foreign governments, not your state.
There is a woman in Florida, somebody investigated her, and that was a smart thing to do. They found out actually 60% of her income comes from outside of the country and 20% comes from outside of the state, and only 20% comes from her income from the constituents. So who is she going to be loyal to? To the people who pay 20% of her expenses or the other 80%? It does not take a genius.
But you could find out and when these congressional representatives come, say look, your money comes from here, so how are you going to be loyal to us? You are loyal to the people who pay your way around. I did this to a liberal congressman from California, George Miller. I do not know if you have heard of George Miller. So he came to a town in California, so I had my list of where the money comes from, so I confronted him with it. His aide followed me to the parking lot and said, “Raise that question again, I will kill you,” literally, that is his language. So there is a risk, of course, in everything, right? But life without risk is not worth living, and I am talking about for values.
If we do not have democracy, we are nothing, we are going to be another rogue state like many states. So I still have faith in the American people. Maybe I am the only one who does, actually. I still have faith in the American people, but the American people have to know the truth. They are not getting it from our government, they are not getting it from our press, they are getting it from people like myself and other people who are actually sacrificing a lot to promote American values.
The Saudi government has no money to bribe its people anymore. They have no money to bribe anybody like they used to anymore, that is a problem. The youth have high expectations that are not being met. Most Saudi youth are unemployed.
Now they are busy going to movies and chasing women and doing these kinds of things, but that is going to get old very quickly. They want something else and there is nothing to substitute for what they expect to happen, which is their rights.
They need to have families. The biggest complaint I hear in Saudi chatrooms is I cannot buy a house, I do not have a home, I do not have a job, these are the problems. These are some of the problems.
Saudi Foreign Policy
The other thing that is destabilizing the country is its current foreign policy, its regional foreign policy. Saudi Arabia is more isolated today than at any time in the history of the country, especially after the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. They are isolated within their immediate region. The integration of the GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council is disintegrated because of Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s blockading of Qatar, invasion of Yemen, and trying to marginalize Oman and Kuwait.
The GCC is no more anything like it used to be, which actually started in 1980 to deter the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, which is a stupid thing. The whole gulf states are no match for Iran, 80 million Iranians who believe in martyrdom. You have a bunch of nomadic people who have very little history. Iran has a history, the Persian civilization.
Two Towers of Evil
Look, for me I have a name for the Saudi Wahhabi and the Mullahs in Tehran. I call them the two towers of evil. As long as those two regimes survive in the region, you will have no peace in the region, you will have no stability in the region, and you will have more terrorism and extremism, so both to me are the same. They are dangerous systems. They are no good for their people. They are no good for us.
But they still have money to be made in contracts, whether it is arms sales, whether it is construction, whether it is security, all of these things pay a lot of money for this. Regardless, the state itself today is isolated from the region. Its international image is tarnished. When everybody sees Saudi Arabia, they see Crown Prince Mohammad with a saw on the map, globally. Middle Eastern people see the same thing.
The Future of Saudi-American Relations
The question we have to ask is why should we continue, especially since we have become energy independent. We are an exporter of oil and we have the upper-hand economically-speaking. I am talking about the United States. Why should we continue to support a system, any system, like Russia or Saudi Arabia or wherever, support a system that is actually bent on destroying our democracy? And now they are united.
Trump is empowering Putin, the Chinese, emboldening the Saudis, emboldening North Korea, emboldening everybody who actually want to destroy America. We have trouble, folks, at home, so we cannot just keep pointing fingers outside unless we correct the inside.
Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia
My goal, my work, I started our center sixteen years ago, because after 9/11 there was so much demand on me from people all over the world to know more about Saudi Arabia, about Islam, about Sharia law. So I started the Center. It has been run by mostly volunteers, like 99% volunteers, and because of the work we do, the way I talk as you hear tonight and what I write in my analysis – you should read my website, I have cards, you can look at our website.
We are always underfunded. We can barely pay for a small office and government licenses because we have government licenses, but I did not care about that. I care about the message. As long as I can get the message out, that is what I care about and I am trying my very best. I was not joking when I said any of you folks who are capable of supporting the work we do, I think it is worth it for you, worth it for our country, and the work we do is actually foremost for the United States of America, for our democratic values, not for a party, not for a president, for our democratic values without which, not only us but the whole world will keep moving toward totalitarianism.
I would recommend an article that was published in The Wall Street Journal, which is not exactly liberal or a human rights activist group, and I do not like the writer of the article either, but it is called The Cost of American Retreat. The writer is Robert Kagan, whom I have never liked and we have never got along, but frankly speaking, that is an article worth reading. He did an amazing job in writing that article, and it is true. We have a lot of work cut out for us, we have a lot to do, and we can do it. Have faith in the American people. There is nothing the American people cannot do if they know the truth.
Robert R. Reilly?
What has happened to Prince Bandar?
Ali H. Alyami:
What has happened to Prince Bandar, that is a good question. He is under house arrest, actually. He cannot leave the country. His daughter is the Ambassador now. His daughter is the Saudi Ambassador to Washington, DC, but he is under house arrest. And he was one of the people who was very mad, so that is a problem. He is not the only one; there are many powerful princes like him that are under house arrest. He is very sick, you know he is an alcoholic. His health is bad, he is under house arrest, but his daughter represents the government.
What is it going to take for meaningful reforms to take hold in Saudi Arabia?
Ali H. Alyami:
That is actually a good question and this is what we have been promoting, sharing power, sharing power with the people. The Saudi government – all of them for the last 300 years – have relied and depended and formed powers to protect them. They have never tried to give the Saudi people incentives to participate in policy decision-making, to protect their country.
Any people are not going to be protective or loyal unless you have a stake in something. If you work for a company that abuses you, you are not going to be loyal to that company, you will be looking for a job everywhere else. So share power with people. You can still be the King, but be a nice King, if such a thing exists. Share power. First of all, there is a Consultative Council, a national consultative council. The King appoints people from the frontier regions. It is appointed and they call it the Consultative Council. It has no power at all.