Perspective of a Shura Council Member: The Arab Spring – Al-Kurdi

Published: April 25, 2011

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Editor’s Note:

Among the first exclusive interviews SUSRIS brought you after its 2003 launch was our series of conversations with Eng. Usamah Al-Kurdi, distinguished businessman and member of the Shura Council, the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia. We have engaged in regular conversations since, on the full range of topics of interest to SUSRIS readers, especially the scope and pace of reform in the Kingdom and the state of the Saudi-US relations. The progressively minded Shura Council member has always been frank, insightful and concerned about the health of Saudi-US relations, as he was when we spoke with him in September 2004 about the post 9/11 state of the relationship:

“The relations between Saudi Arabia and United States over the many decades have served the interests of the United States and the interests of Saudi Arabia as well as the interests of the Middle East in general. The two countries cooperated in critical areas — on political issues, energy market stability and many other areas — that needed to be addressed in the Middle East and the world. There is no doubt that the relationship is going through some phase of redefinition and needs to be evaluated even further, especially in light of the events in the past few years after the 11th of September. What this phase needs I think is an understanding from both sides as to the importance of this relationship again in regards to the interests of the world and the interests of the Middle East in particular. But also, we need to keep in mind that the two countries do not have an alternative but to have an excellent relationship. Whatever voices on the two sides that try and say otherwise — we need to recognize that these people do not address the interests of both countries and are not acting on the facts.”

He was equally frank in talking to SUSRIS about the scope and pace of economic, social and political reform in the Kingdom which, he notes, started in its current form in the middle 1990s:

“Reform has become a policy of Saudi Arabia — no less than 10 years ago. Many people are surprised to hear me say that. About 10 or 11 years ago, the first political reform steps took place in Saudi Arabia when four decisions where taken by the government. One was the creation of the Shura Council or the Consultative Council. The second is the issuance of Saudi Arabia’s Basic Law of Governance. The third was the law that created the regional councils. There are 13 different regions of Saudi Arabia, and now, as a result of that law, each region has a council. The fourth law was the law that stipulated a term for ministers of four years. So, since 1993 when these laws were issued and the Shura Council was created, reforms have continued to take place. I try to keep a diary of all the reform steps that were taken in Saudi Arabia. The King’s annual address to the Shura Council, the one that was delivered about two years ago, left no doubt of the fact that this is becoming the policy of the government and that it would continue reform. Now, in response to questions relating to international pressure to reform, I say that people need to understand Saudi Arabia a little bit more before trying to impose reform from outside. This is not only for Saudi Arabia, but I think it applies to all countries, particularly Middle Eastern countries. In my opinion, these initiatives to impose reform on other countries that are coming from the United States and other countries might do more harm than good. What we need at this time is to learn from the experience of others. What we need at this time is to take our time with reform because you can’t go too fast with reform. We have seen bad experiences around the world. We don’t need more pressure. There is already dialogue and discussions in the country. Again, we’ve been doing that for 10 or 11 years. Do we need the experience of others? Yes, we do. We’re soliciting that when we need to. Reforms have started to happen in Saudi Arabia, are happening, and there is a commitment to continue doing so.”

[You can find more of Shura Council member Al-Kurdi’s perspectives on these issues over the years since our first conversations in the pages of SUSRIS. [Links below.]]

Al-Kurdi serves on the Shura Council’s Economic and Energy Affairs Committee and as Chairman of the Saudi-American Friendship Committee, which was the reason he recently visited Washington. Between meetings with Congressional leaders and other officials he talked with SUSRIS about current developments in the Kingdom and the region, in the commercial realm and in the health of the Saudi-US relationship. Our conversation is presented in three parts. The first, provided here, is his perspective on the so-called “Arab Spring” relative to the situation in Saudi Arabia. Tomorrow, in part two, is our discussion about the challenges in United States’ and Saudi Arabia’s bilateral relations. That will be followed, in part three, by Al-Kurdi’s perspective on business developments and the economic health of the Kingdom.

[If you received this exclusive SUSRIS interview from a friend please make sure you’re on the email subscriber list by visiting www.SUSRIS.com and signing up for the free service.]

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Perspective of a Shura Council Member: A Conversation with Usamah Al-Kurdi
Part One – The “Arab Spring” and Saudi Arabia

[SUSRIS] The world has been watching demonstrations and unrest in Arab countries across the Middle East and North Africa over the last 90 days. How would you describe what is being called the “Arab Spring”?

Usamah Al-Kurdi

[Eng. Usamah Al-Kurdi] I see what has been called “the Arab Spring” as the people of these countries finally saying that they have had enough. They decided that they were not going to be subjects anymore but would want to be citizens again. When I said “again” I am referring to the fact that many of these regimes came into power by force – military coups or similar means. I think people finally said they’ve had enough, that these rulers had very little legitimacy among those ruled, so the people decided it was time to revolt. It’s interesting that when you go through the list of names that all of them are regimes that came to power through force. I see things dramatically changing and hopefully for the better in all of these countries, because once you bring in democracy and improve the legitimacy of the regimes the impact should be positive for the people of these countries.

[SUSRIS] What has been the reaction among most Saudis to these remarkable waves of protest and unrest that are being seen in the Arab world from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf?

[Al-Kurdi] I think the Saudis look at this as a positive prospect; they think that change is good. Saudi Arabians travel quite a bit to these countries, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, maybe not as much to Libya, but they travel and see and compare these countries to what is happening in Saudi Arabia. I personally feel unhappy about what is happening in some of these places, but I think the Saudis, in general, feel positive about these changes and how it will bring a better life to the people of these countries.

[SUSRIS] We recently spoke with Professor Greg Gause about his “Foreign Policy” article “Rageless in Riyadh” in which he talked about the response of the Saudi Government to petitions and calls for a “Day of Rage.” What is your assessment of the effects of the “Arab Spring” on the Kingdom?

[Al-Kurdi] I was not a supporter of the concept of the uniqueness of Saudi Arabia, a term that is used quite a bit in my country by scholars and educators – that Saudi Arabia is a country unique in itself and that everything that happens elsewhere does not necessarily happen in Saudi Arabia and events should be looked at from that perspective.

I used to be an opponent to this idea. I didn’t think Saudi Arabia was unique in any way. We are a nation with people and a country with geographic features and an economy that works like others, so I didn’t ever feel that this was a legitimate way of thinking about Saudi Arabia, but then after the non-events of the 11th of March [“Day of Rage”] I started reconsidering my opinion about that. It turns out that Saudi Arabia is unique, despite all these calls to come out and demonstrate in the street nobody came!

It may be due to the uniqueness of Saudi Arabia. But it may, more importantly, have something to do with the reforms that have been taking place in Saudi Arabia over the past 10-15 years. I think that people have realized that they have no demands that would make them act in such a way. I’m not saying we’re a perfect country. There is absolutely no reason for me to say that. There are areas of development that we need to be addressing, but for sure there are not enough demands for the people to go to the street to demonstrate. So the result was that nobody showed up.

I really have started to think that maybe Saudi Arabia is unique in that respect. The stability of Saudi Arabia has been confirmed. Solidarity between the people and the government has been confirmed. I am sure, as actually took place before and after the 11th of March, that reform will continue as usual in all aspects of life.

I spoke to you a few months back about the reforming of Saudi Arabia and I mentioned how much this has affected the economy of Saudi Arabia, the social life in Saudi Arabia, the politics in Saudi Arabia, and also women in Saudi Arabia. Over the last 50 years all aspects of life have been changing in Saudi Arabia.

[SUSRIS] Observers have commented that Saudi Arabia is not as vulnerable to the turmoil of the “Arab Spring” as other countries because, in part, King Abdullah is viewed by Saudi Arabians as a leader who has embraced reform. As you and I have discussed in the past, social, economic, and political reforms in the Kingdom are not something new and novel, but have been ongoing in a formal way, albeit at various levels of progress, as you have noted since 1993. Can you comment on the effects reform and modernization have in insulating the Kingdom from some of these challenges? Do average Saudis see a relationship between forward movements in reform and being able to withstand the contagion of unrest?

[Al-Kurdi] Well, let me start by saying that many people around the world, particularly in the West, equate the notion of modernization with Westernization. Of course these are two different things. When we work to reform our country, trying to modernize it, it does not necessarily mean we are going along the path of Westernization. Some countries, on the other hand, have adopted the Western model for their way of life and created chaos, in a sense, by introducing something that was foreign to their people. That’s why I see the uniqueness of Saudi Arabia from the perspective that the plan to reform or modernize does not necessarily mean Westernization of the country. People sometimes ask me about the speed of reform and should it be going faster. I keep saying every country is unique in its own way. In some countries you can push reform faster than Saudi Arabia and some countries have to go slower than Saudi Arabia but more importantly it has to go at a speed the country will accept.

King Abdullah has been a key player in reforming Saudi Arabia since 1993, especially in the time since he took office in 2005. He is extremely popular in the country and people are always anxious and happy to hear him speak. The jubilation with his return from his medical trip was unparalleled. I have not seen anything like this in Saudi Arabia in a very long time.

[SUSRIS] Recent reports suggest there will be a new round of municipal council elections as there were in 2005. The news seemed to coincide with the demands for petitions and so forth. Is there a relationship between the “Arab Spring” and the elections announcement?

Voters deposited ballots at a polling station for 2005 municipal council candidates.

 

[Al-Kurdi] Actually the reason for the date of the elections is obvious for me and many people living in Saudi Arabia. When we had our first municipal elections.. ..by the way, these municipal elections should be looked at not only on in absolute terms, but should be looked at as part of the political reforms in Saudi Arabia. Elections started in the chambers of commerce and then moved to civil societies, like the engineering society, the journalist association, the doctors association and others. I should note that women took offices in these associations. So first were the chambers, then the civil societies, then the municipal councils. Half of the members of these councils were elected. What happened was that at the end of the 40th term of these councils, that was six years ago, the demands that the law be changed were quite high because the idea was to further develop the election process for the municipal councils.

So power was given to the Minister of Municipal and Rural Affairs to extend the term of the municipal councils for two years while the law was being revised. April is the end of the two-year extension that was given to these councils. In my opinion there is no link between the events in the Middle East and the date of the municipal council elections. It is simply the way it was designed.

[SUSRIS] Can you comment on the lack of participation of women in the elections?

[Al-Kurdi] Unfortunately the change or revision that was being made to the election law did not reflect that. Actually, the law does not say that women cannot vote. The view is that the logistics of having women vote in these elections could not be done without further extending the term of the existing municipal councils. I am not happy that women are not going to be voting or running this election but I’m quite positive that this will not be the case for too long in Saudi Arabia.

[SUSRIS] At a symposium addressing reform in the Kingdom a few years ago you asked and answered your own question about whether everything you would like to have seen accomplished was done. You said, “I don’t think so. We still have a lot of things to do. We anticipate having to reform many aspects of our country.” You went on to talk about how fast or how slow to reform the Kingdom. With the benefit of hindsight can you comment on whether the speedometer in Saudi Arabia was too fast, too slow, or about right?

[Al-Kurdi] Let me tell you that the moment the country stops reforming it will be in trouble. So reform is not a phase that starts and ends, it is a concept that should continue with each country – new thinking, new plans, introducing new concepts, and new ideas, looking back at the different sectors of life continuously. So reform is not something that you do one time and then it’s finished. It’s something you need to be doing all the time. Are we going too slowly in Saudi Arabia? I’d like to see it go a little bit faster. How fast do I want reform to happen is Saudi Arabia? I don’t know, because it’s not something that you can measure and say this speed is fine, that speed is not fine. But let me remind you, that reform in the Soviet Union was fast.

Map Courtesy CCA - Hégésippe

 

[SUSRIS] Saudi Arabia has become directly involved in the revolt in Bahrain with security forces going across the causeway. What are the reasons for Saudi Arabia acting in the case of Bahrain?

[Al-Kurdi] It’s as simple as interference by Iran. It’s as simple as that. And if you and your readers would think a little bit about this point and recognize the close proximity of Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, then you know that this is not a matter of choice or a matter of politics. Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Bahrain, in light of the Iranian interference, makes perfect sense.

The government of Bahrain started a reform plan no less than ten years ago, to get all its people involved in what’s happening in the political life. The personalities were involved in the judicial and in the legislative process. They were involved in the executive branch of government. They were beginning to be part of the business community through a reform plan to get the opposition involved in what was happening in the country, as a foresighted plan of the king and his crown prince. That had dramatically improved the situation in Bahrain.

Unfortunately some people in the opposition were not happy with this progress. They were being prompted by forces from Iran, and perhaps Lebanon, as well so much so that a different opposition group was created and that group wanted a faster pace of reform that would have brought chaos to the country. In the middle of these reform activities by the government, Iran was interfering in what was happening in Bahrain.

Iran had already shown willingness to interfere in countries like Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Yemen and Sudan as well as the occupation of three islands of the UAE in the Gulf. There has been Iranian interference and threats to Qatar, and interference in areas like Africa. I’m sure you and your readers know that Morocco severed its relations with Iran. Senegal did the same. Gambia did the same. And Nigeria is about to do the same after discovering containers full of armaments in their ports. It is not at all strange that Iran is interfering in the affairs of Bahrain because that’s what they do. They do it all the time. Saudi Arabia had to take a stand and say that we can’t allow Iranian interference in Bahrain.

The Bahraini leadership also had the same opinion and realized that the opposition was not willing to come in and talk so there must be something happening with the opposition. They decided that was it, that they had done what they could do to open up discussions with the opposition. So they called for assistance from the GCC forces.

The way the Bahrain opposition reacted proved that Iranian interference was behind it. They have continued to react in an unrealistic way, not only towards Bahrain but towards Saudi Arabia. Not only is Iran involved but also Hezbollah from Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, then, has no choice. It’s a matter of security and strategy. Bahrain is extremely important to Saudi Arabia.

[SUSRIS] Can we expand the discussion of the region to other neighbors of Saudi Arabia where there are troubles, challenges to the leadership? Other than Bahrain you mentioned Yemen. The “Arab Spring” phenomenon has struck acutely in Syria and Yemen, both of those countries are very important to Saudi Arabia’s interests. Can you comment on what’s happening in those two countries?

Source: World Factbook

 

[Al-Kurdi] Well I think Yemen is an important issue not only for Saudi Arabia. Bahrain may be a local issue that Saudi Arabia needs to pursue and address aggressively. With Yemen let me remind you of Al-Qaeda plot to send airborne parcel bombs to Europe and the United States from Yemen. So the impact Yemen has is dramatic, not just for Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda’s presence there is a threat for the rest of the world. Everybody needs to be involved in Yemen. It’s not just the fact that they have extremely long borders with Saudi Arabia, but the rest of the world needs to realize that what happens in Yemen is of interest to them.

[SUSRIS] Everyone would agree the Al Qaeda threat in Yemen is real.

[Al Kurdi] So everyone needs to be involved in Yemen whether the political situation there escalates to what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, or some sort of reconciliation is reached. What everyone needs to be concerned about is how we can keep Al-Qaeda under check in Yemen. Everything else, in my opinion, is secondary. As far as Jordan and Syria are concerned, we’ll simply have to wait and see.

[SUSRIS] What should people understand about the dynamic changes and challenges that are confronting the Arab world and Saudi Arabia?

[Al-Kurdi] I would have to say that the challenge of continuing with reform, in my opinion, is the most important issue. Despite the non-events we talked about, Saudi Arabia has shown that reform is an ongoing process. I see that continuing, it’s something the Saudi Arabia must continue. It’s easy to say that but when you start thinking about the history of reform you see how it is affecting every part of life. The latest direction from the king addressed issues like housing and jobs. When you look at the history of reform in Saudi Arabia you see how extensive the reform has been. Since 1993 the reforms have covered political, social, economic, judicial, education, women’s empowerment, so many parts of Saudi Arabia’s way of life.

I see the need to continue, maybe focusing on economic reform because this is where you can immediately impact people’s lives. That is not to say that political or social reforms are not important, but I think to continue on the path of economic development is essential. There are so many things that can be classified as reforms that need to continue to be addressed. But the good thing is that everyone in Saudi Arabia agrees that this reform needs to continue. We have institutions to support the reform. We have a society that is able and willing to encourage reforms, as we have seen in the past. So all signs say the challenge can be met.

Tomorrow in part two we discuss the challenges in the Saudi-US relationship with Eng. Al-Kurdi.

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About Eng. Usamah Al-Kurdi

Mr. Al-Kurdi is a member of the Consultative Council (Majlis Ash-Shura) of Saudi Arabia where he serves on the Economic and Energy Affairs Committee and as Chairman of the Saudi-American Friendship Committee. From 1990-2001, Mr. Al-Kurdi served as Secretary General of the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce, as well as Vice President of Saudi Consulting House, a forerunner of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA). He has also served on the Boards of Saudi Arabia’s National Industrialization Committee and the Royal Commission on Jubail & Yanbu (industrial cities).

For more information [Link Here]

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