Dr. Alyami is a native of Saudi Arabia and a citizen of the US for the past four decades. From an early age he has been advocating for political, economic and social reform in his native homeland. He is the founder and Executive Director of the Center for Democracy & Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, a Washington D.C. based non-profit tax exempt organization.
Previously, he 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. Dr. Alyami has spoken at conferences throughout the US, Egypt, Sudan, Israel, France, Belgium, Spain and the UK, has offered expert testimony before Congress and has advised senior officials at the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the Department of State.
E Tavares: Dr. Alyami, thank you for your being with us today. We have spoken on several occasions in the recent past and your views on what is currently unfolding in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (“KSA”) have proven to be extremely accurate. Its new leadership has announced a range of social liberalization measures, including letting women drive at long last and even creating a whole new area in Saudi Arabia outside of strict Islamic law to attract tourists. Given your efforts to liberalize your motherland, are you pleased with these developments?
Ali Alyami (AA): Despite the fact that the embryonic social initiatives you listed are decades (and in some cases centuries) overdue, their psychological and practical impact on Saudi society cannot be underestimated. However, it’s important for your readers, business CEOs and politicians to keep in mind that the recent administrative rearrangements in Saudi Arabia were not designed to alter the absolute monarchical system or to abandon the Saudi’s zealot brand of Islam, Wahhabism (as has been misleadingly reported), but rather to ensure the royal family’s continued iron-fisted rule, a cherished life-long commitment held by King Salman. Thus, he chose his most trusted novice son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (“MbS”) to implement his wish.
By arresting and detaining a handful of corrupt royals and prominent commoners, MbS gave many Saudis a flicker of hope for better things to follow. For the first time in their history, some Saudis felt that the state’s draconian policies and practices are being applied to a selected number of the ruling elites who have been spared the severe social injustices, political repression and economic hardships inflicted on the subjugated population. If MbS continues to apply the state’s rules to all segments of society, including all members of the parasitical royal family, he will go down in history books as a liberator.
While many Saudis and others have welcomed MbS’s initiatives, they expressed a great deal of cynicism about his real motives for arresting a handful of powerful and influential princes, businessmen and officials. Many people feel that MbS and his father are more concerned about securing MbS’ future than they are about eradicating corruption, especially where it’s most rampant, within the ruling family. Additionally, many Saudis and others feel that allowing women to drive and introducing entertainment are designed to divert public’s attention from their current severe economic privations, increased repression and lack of citizenry enfranchisement.
ET: Those detentions, reversed under duress and after payments were made in many cases, sounded almost like a purge. Is this an accurate description?
AA: It is a purge. Elevating 32-year-old MbS from obscurity to the status of a de facto absolute ruler alienated a large number of powerful princes, many of whom are older, more experienced, educated, influential, popular and pragmatic than MbS. They pose potential political threats to MbS, thus King Salman wanted to discredit them and make sure they are out of the way, especially when he no longer can protect his son.
ET: Crown Prince Mohammed is visiting the US this month (March 2018) and on the agenda is convincing American investors and technological developers to buy into his economic reform program for the KSA, Vision 2030. What are your thoughts on this?
AA: MbS’s ambitious economic reform plan, Vision 2030, would require about $4 trillion investment in eight sectors: mining and metals, petrochemicals, manufacturing, retail and wholesale trade, tourism and hospitality, healthcare, finance, and construction. He and his hordes of expensive consultants underestimated Saudi Arabia’s lack of credibility, tarnished image and heightened reservations among potential investors in the US and in Europe, regarding the country’s instability and its unpredictable future under his management. They miscalculated investors’ lack of trust in the Saudi government, its rampant corruption, lack of accountability and transparency, as well as severe social taboos, religious extremism and lack of a well-trained workforce and work ethics. These are some of the reasons that contribute to a noticeable lack of global investors’ interest to take risk in investing in MbS’ economic reform since it was announced in December 2015. MbS is touring Europe and the US in March in the hope of convincing investors to finance his economic project upon which his future hangs.
It’s interesting that President Trump fired Secretary of State Tillerson on the eve of MbS’s visit. Saudis and Emirates never liked Tillerson because he stood up to them, especially when they tried to invade and take over Qatar. In fact, they are not only celebrating his dismissal, but bragging about their role in having him fired.
ET: But if the Saudis fail to attract any investment, surely this can’t be a financial problem for them? Even with low oil prices the Crown Prince was able to pay $450 million, a record in the art world, for a da Vinci painting of Christ.
AA: As mentioned above, investors are leery of rampant corruption at the top. MbS has acquired a chateau in France for $300 million, a yacht for $500 million and the painting you mentioned for $450 million since he started his economic reform plan. This is happening while the disenfranchised population is being burdened with new taxes, elimination of subsidized social programs, and price increases in water, electricity and other public services. In addition, an estimated 40 to 50% of the Saudi youth, especially women, are unemployed. This is a ticking bomb.
ET: Let’s focus on regional tensions. What do you make of the very visible spat with Qatar? Was that really about support for terrorism?
AA: Due to historical tribal wounds, the rulers of Saudi Arabia and of the scattered desert villages of which the current United Arab Emirate, UAE, consists have had designs on Qatar long before its independence from Great Britain in 1971. They had hoped to make Qatar a region of the UAE after its independence. However, after 1971, the Emir of Qatar under the British mandate was overthrown by his son who initiated progressive social, political, economic and educational projects and established independent regional and global relations with some countries and groups, some of whom, like Iran and the powerful pan-Arab political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudis consider formidable competitors for Sunni Muslim leadership.
This spat is hardly about support for terrorism as stated by Senator Corker, the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said that “The amount of support for terrorism by Saudi Arabia dwarfs what Qatar is doing.”
ET: There is a brutal war going on in Yemen and it’s the civilian population of that country who is paying the heaviest price. What are the Saudi’s objectives there? And why has the media been so silent on those atrocities?
AA: The carnage in Yemen has been described by the UN and other human rights groups as genocide, among other painful labels. The Saudis have long considered Yemen their backyard and have indirectly controlled it by bribing Yemeni tribal chiefs, politicians and businessmen to do their bidding. That has worked for many decades until the Arab people’s mass uprising in 2011 which brought down former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Saudis mediated a transition after Saleh’s misfortune and helped install a pro Saudi President, Abed Rabu Hadi, who was not accepted by many Yemenis, especially the Zadiz (the Houthi) minority. In September 2014, the Houthis moved north and captured the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. Hadi escaped to Saudi Arabia, where he is residing now.
One of the Saudis’ main objectives in Yemen is to control the strategic Aden region for economic and political reasons. Aden controls the Strait of Bab Al-Mandeb, through which most of the Persian Gulf oil is shipped to international markets, especially to Europe and Asia. There is also oil in Southern Yemen. Controlling the shipping oil routes and Yemeni oil would give the Saudis strategic influence, regionally and globally. This is the reason the Saudis and the UAE are establishing Aden as the new capital of Yemen. This is also the region from which the exiled Yemeni president Hadi came.
The reason the media hardly mentions the carnage in Yemen is because it’s not a profitable business and there is no politically active Yemeni community in the US, despite the fact that there are a large number of Yemenis, most of whom work on farms, and in services and small businesses, like grocery and liquor stores.
ET: Iran’s influence is growing steadily across the Middle East, taking advantage of many foreign policy blunders in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other countries across the region. In response, the Saudis seem to be aligning closer to Iran’s #1 foe, the Israelis, which would be very contentious in the Arab world. Is this a sign of desperation or “realpolitik”?
AA: A sign of both. The Saudis are no match for the 80 million technologically more advanced Persians. The Saudis reached out to the Israelis because they realized that Western societies are becoming increasingly critical of their governments’ and businesses’ support for the Saudi regime, which many people and media in the West, especially in Europe, consider a major violator of basic human rights, an oppressor of women and religious minorities, intolerant of non-Muslims and incubators of Muslim extremism which inspires terror groups like Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, Jama’a Islamiyah, Boko Haram and Abu Sayyaf, among others.
Furthermore, the powerful Iranian theocracy has repeatedly said it will wipe the Israelis from the surface of the earth. The Saudis see an opportunity to work with the Israelis to destroy Iran’s military capabilities. However, the Israelis do not seem to be in a hurry to make the anti-Jewish Saudis the dominant power in Middle East, especially when the Saudi regime has not even recognized Israel as a legitimate sovereign state.
ET: The previous US administration seemed extremely keen to get a nuclear deal done with Iran, sending money in pallets to the Mullahs there and even supposedly turning a blind eye to Iran-linked terrorists who were smuggling drugs into the US. The official line was to stop Iran from getting the bomb – while at the same time very little to nothing was done as Iran’s North Korean allies were close to getting it. Why do you believe the Obama administration was so vested in doing a deal with Iran? How did the Saudis perceive all this?
AA: It’s difficult to sort out President Obama’s motives, but people close to some high-ranking officials in his administration believe Obama felt the US policy toward the Middle East has been dominated by the Saudis for a long time, especially regarding US relations with Iran. According to these sources, Obama and John Kerry felt they did not have to cater to the Saudis’ wishes before dealing with governments group in Arab and Muslim regions. Thus, Obama decided to take direct charge of the US policy toward the region and do what he felt was in the best interests of the US.
While the Iranian theocrats have not promised to wipe the Saudis off the surface of the earth as they have said about Israel, the Saudis consider the Iranian regime a dangerous and fierce regional competitor. Thus, they reached out to the Israelis after giving up on the US “to cut the head of the snake” in the hope the Israelis would destroy Iran’s economic and military infrastructures. This may still happen if the Iranian Mullahs continue to develop their nuclear program, which they have said they would use to destroy Israel.
ET: Given your lifelong efforts to bring democracy and freedom to the KSA, are you frustrated that so many Western countries – that should ideologically be in your camp – give the Saudis so many free passes on human rights issues, including the US under President Trump?
AA: I am more mystified than frustrated as to why Western democracies continue to unconditionally support and protect a regime and a system that promote destruction of democracy and its empowering values, such as freedom of expression, freedom of choice, equality for women, respect for human rights and the rule of law. As has been abundantly documented, lucrative economic gains are the primary motives for the US and other Western governments’, businesses’ and educational institutions’ support for the Saudi and other anti-democratic wealthy Arab dynasties, as recently exemplified by President Trump’s decision to make Saudi Arabia his first choice to visit four months after he was elected President. Continuing to support the absolute Saudi monarchy at a time when an aspiring generation of Arab women and men are paying the ultimate price to be free from political and religious oppression, poverty and lack of economic opportunities is not only immoral, but could potentially result in turning the West into police states, especially if Wahhabi-doctrine- inspired Muslim terror groups and their financiers continue to massacre Western and others’ innocent citizens.
Saudi Arabia is considered the epicenter of extremism and terrorism by Muslims and non-Muslims, including increasing number of Saudis, especially women. On that note, looking at Western societies more broadly it would be very positive if Women’s Marches could be organized during MbS’s visit to the US demanding that their Saudi counterparts enjoy similar rights, which should be universal in the 21st century. But unfortunately this does not seem to be a priority for the feminist movement.
The consequences of sacrificing the values of Western Civilization, the greatest and most successful in human history, for profits can damage the institutions that made America, specifically, the envy of the world populations.
ET: Some commentators have compared the current situation in the KSA to Syria pre civil war, in that there is an authoritarian regime trying to rigidly impose power on a largely young, disgruntled and at times disenfranchised population. The risk of a sudden discontinuity event occurring is quite high as a result. Do you agree with this analysis?
AA: To circumvent the potential occurrence of the scenario you correctly stated, the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, was established fourteen years ago to promote peaceful democratic reforms to enfranchise the Saudi people to participate in the decision-making processes and inspire them to shoulder some of the state’s daunting economic, social and political responsibilities. As you alluded, the ingredients for violent upheaval in Saudi Arabia are not an illusion, farfetched or reformers’ conspiracy to overthrow the Saud monarchy. About 70% of the Saudi population is under the age of 30. Unlike their traditional forefathers, they are the social media and smartphone generation. Most of them are unemployed, thus, they spend most of their time on modern technology devices rather than reciting the Quran, going to mosques or reading nomadic poetry. They compare themselves with their female and male counterparts regionally and globally and are discovering that they are among the most disenfranchised and oppressed people in the world. They are becoming increasingly resentful of their culture, lifestyle, idleness and more so, of the Saudi ruling family and its anti-basic human rights and -social justice religious establishment. The idle Saudi youth, male and female, are a ticking bomb.
ET: So is the KSA on the brink? What could unfold from here?
AA: Domestically, Saudi Arabia is facing precarious domestic economic and political predicaments. This is mostly due to a lack of modern management, utter lack of public participation in the decision-making processes, marginalization of women, lack of investment in human development and in modern education, and to the systematic siphoning of the state’s vast oil revenues (rampant corruption) by an incredibly backward-thinking constellation of princes who consider the country their private property by birthright. This practice was and still is the foundation upon which the state was established nine decades ago. Now the chickens are coming home to roost.
To save the state from collapsing, prudent and effective measures have to be taken to rectify the damage the country has endured since its inception. Instead of establishing collective, balanced, experienced, lucid and well-informed and trained leadership to veer the country away from its current domestic instability and external threats, a 32-year-old novice prince was designated de facto ruler, primarily because he is the king’s favorite and most trusted son, to insure the perpetual rule of the Saudi ruling family. The question is: can the inexperienced saber-brandishing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman handle the daunting responsibilities bestowed on him by his father, not by the more balanced traditional succession process? While predicting the fate of the state and the prince’s success or failure remains unclear, however, thus far MbS seems to be focusing on becoming an absolute ruthless dictator, the only form of governance the population has endured for decades.
Despite being an absolute dictator, MbS might succeed in moving the country forward if he embarks on genuine inclusive political, economic, social, religious, educational and administrative reforms. So far, there is no sign of any political inclusion that is needed to give people hopes and incentives to support him and his ambitious economic reform plan, Vision 2030. Enfranchising the young Saudi population, most of which is the same age or younger than MbS, will increase his chances not only to succeed, but to save himself from a large number of marginalized princes, their business partners and the mildly muzzled zealot clerics who have had a free hand to terrorize the population since the formation of the Saudi/Wahhabi alliance almost three centuries ago.
Externally, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed piloted a dangerous and costly foreign policy, which none of their predecessors has done. They formed and led a military coalition that invaded Yemen two years ago, ostensibly to ensure that the Iranians do not expand their influence to the Saudi borders. Regardless of the Saudis’ motives, Yemeni infrastructure is being pulverized, millions of Yemenis have been displaced, starved and killed without anything to show for the devastation of the Saudis’ neighbors, 26 million poverty-stricken Yemenis. As has been documented, the only beneficiaries of the devastating war are Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Iran. Al-Qaeda has conquered large areas of prime and strategic lands in Southern Yemen, the Bin Laden family’s motherland. It’s also reported that thousands of Yemeni women, men and children are volunteering to join Al-Qaeda.
MbS, in collaboration with his mentor the vice president of the UAE, hired the same coalition they mobilized to invade Yemen to blockade Qatar, a GCC member state, staunch US ally and possessor of the largest gas reservoirs in the world. The Saudis are still occupying Bahrain and threatening to fight Iran directly instead of through proxies. This is a suicidal path to contemplate.
Based on what King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed have done and continue to do since they inherited the crown in 2015, it is safe to assume that the worst for MbS and the country is shaping up.
ET: Switching gears closer to home, it was recently reported that a court ruled New York City will have to pay three Muslim women a total of $180,000 as compensation for being forced to remove their head cloth for a police mugshot. One of them had been detained because of a physical assault charge, a possible crime, and yet this was the outcome. Are you concerned that the repressive principles you have fought against for so long in your home country are now being enforced by courts in the US? Where will this lead?
AA: I am totally opposed to man-made and -imposed women’s covering in this country or anywhere in the world. I am puzzled by Muslim women who escape to this country and other Western societies to seek emancipation from their oppression and marginalization in their homelands, imposed especially by the men and cultures that coerced them to be camouflaged in stifling black garments, to cling to the same signs of oppression here. This country’s tolerant population consists of different ethnic, religious and cultural groups. If we give every group special treatment, the system will break, and the results could be catastrophic. Of all Americans, Muslims, especially women, should be leading the way in the fight against the reasons that drove them out of their homelands, the Shariah law and its well-known misogynistic content. Even the extremist Saudis are saying that women’s coverings are not Islamic.
One should ask, if that’s the case, then why are women in Saudi Arabia still forced to hide themselves behind layers of suffocating black cloth in a 120-degree environment? Obviously, God has nothing to do with it, but man does.
ET: How can people who are concerned with these issues and want to see the adoption of human rights – especially women’s rights – in the KSA and beyond help your organization?
AA: The Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, is an American 501 (C) 3 tax exempt educational organization focusing on Saudi Arabia, a longtime ally of the US. I am originally from Saudi Arabia, but am now a citizen of the US, the greatest nation on earth. I have civil and moral obligations to highlight the plight of the oppressed people of my motherland and to defend our liberties from the enemies of democracy and freedom of choices. As has been abundantly documented by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Saudi Arabia is described as the Fountain of Extremism and Terrorism and is the largest exporter and funder of extremism throughout the world.
Concerned Americans of all political, ethnic, religious, race, gender and cultural background have a huge stake in protecting our liberties from internal and external enemies, as enshrined in our second-to-none Constitution and Bill of Rights. This is what CDHR was established to promote. People can help by making tax-deductible donations, by inviting us to speak the truth to power, by organizing in their communities and working with people who know and have the vision to put the interests of this land of freedom before personal gain, fame and safety.
People can also send donations via PayPal, the details of which are available on our website www.cdhr.info.
Freedom is fragile and not free.
ET: Thank you for being with us today. Great as always to get your views on all this. All the best
AA: Thank you for your efforts to alert your readers and society in general to the Islamists’ ideological threats to our liberties and way of life.
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The Kingdom On The Brink – An Interview With Dr. Ali Alyami