Why do some in the West insist on pushing Saudi Arabia away?

Joseph Haboush
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A country renowned for its vast oil resources, but once associated with radical Islam and Osama bin Laden, is currently undergoing one of the most significant periods of reform in recent history.

Several of these reforms are closely aligned with Western values and interests, including the empowerment of women, advancements in education, and a commitment to open-mindedness. Yet, for reasons that are modestly attributed to jealousy or even racism, many in the West, including the United States, continue to exhibit reluctance towards Saudi Arabia.


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Criticism directed at Riyadh is incomparable to that aimed at other countries. The level of attention Saudi Arabia receives from mainstream media outlets stands in stark contrast to the focus on countries like Russia and China, one of which is engaged in an illegal war in Ukraine, resulting in the loss of thousands of civilian lives. The latter, Beijing, is pursuing a communist ideology and subjecting those who think differently to concentration camps. Both are US adversaries, and neither is openly willing to be part of the US-led world order.

Saudi Arabia is providing its youth with access to some of the finest universities in the Middle East. One Saudi university was recently ranked as the top institution for innovation in the region.

With over six million students across various grades in 27,000 schools and more than 40 public and private universities, what Saudi youth learn will have a direct impact on the region and the world, for better or worse.

Notably, an estimated 67 percent of Saudi Arabia’s 40 million people are under the age of 35.

A gamer plays during an esports and gaming festival, 'Gamers8' at Boulevard Riyadh, July 9, 2023. (Reuters)
A gamer plays during an esports and gaming festival, 'Gamers8' at Boulevard Riyadh, July 9, 2023. (Reuters)

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has just declared Saudi Arabia the fastest-growing economy among the G20 nations in 2022. Non-oil GDP increased by 4.8 percent, with the wholesale, retail trade, construction, and transport sectors driving this non-oil growth.

Saudi Arabia’s unemployment rate is at an all-time low; youth unemployment was halved to 16.8 percent last year. The IMF has acknowledged that female participation in the labor force has exceeded the 30 percent target set by Saudi officials under the Vision 2030 reform agenda by 6 percent.

Furthermore, the country’s banking sector remains in robust health.

The IMF has recognized the ongoing efforts to modernize Saudi Arabia’s regulatory and supervisory frameworks and has welcomed progress in governance strengthening.

While there is much work to be done, the central point is that Saudi Arabia is undertaking one of the most dramatic sets of reforms in modern history. Many in the West may not fully appreciate what Saudi Arabia was like before the Vision 2030 initiative and the ambitious agenda of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Have there been mistakes along the way? Undoubtedly, and the Saudi government has acknowledged them. More mistakes will likely occur; that’s the nature of development, learning, and growth.

Nonetheless, there is no denying that the events in Saudi Arabia, or the lack thereof, will directly impact the rest of the region. History has shown that developments in the Middle East rarely stay confined to the region.

Countries in the region struggling economically and politically are doing little to empower or educate their populations, leading to extremism, violence, or drug-related issues.

Little attention is paid to the significant changes occurring in the Saudi school system. Gone are the days when books by figures like Sayyid Qutb, a prominent member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, were recommended. Additionally, the authority of the religious police has been significantly curtailed, reducing their presence in public spaces and on school campuses.

Moreover, there is limited awareness of what life was like under the religious police, not just for Saudis but also for foreigners and non-Muslims. A relative recalls being called out as a “Nasseri,” an Arabic word for Christian. That’s no longer the case.

Finally, minimal information is available about the aspirations of Saudi youth and the desires of the Saudi population. A Saudi friend and former colleague recently asked: “Have those individuals and world leaders who criticize Saudi leadership ever asked us what we want? I can tell you that we want someone like [MBS], and we are happy with him.”

Another Saudi friend from my college days, who has since returned to his native country, remarked, “If this [Vision 2030] fails, we’re not sure this country will ever change. This is our only hope, and the younger generation is counting on its success, which is why people like me are moving back.”

Insufficient attention has been given to the significance of military ties with Saudi Arabia, particularly in the realm of counterterrorism. Saudi Arabia was the world’s second-largest arms importer from 2018–2022, with the US supplying 78 percent of those weapons during that period, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Economically, a senior US diplomat recently lauded the $47 billion in two-way trade between the two countries. This supports thousands of jobs in both countries, the diplomat said. It was earlier this year that Saudi Arabia picked Boeing in what the White House called “landmark deals” worth $37 billion for 121 Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft equipped with General Electric engines. It was one of the US planemaker’s two largest transactions ever, and could support over one million American jobs in 44 states.

Likewise, little discussion has occurred in the West regarding the Green Initiative, which Saudi Arabia is using to plant 10 billion trees, restore 40 million hectares of land, and achieve net-zero emissions by 2060.

The Green Initiative aims to plant 50 billion trees in the Middle East and restore 200 million hectares of land, another example of how events within Saudi Arabia have repercussions beyond its borders.

As for negative media attention focused on Saudi Arabia, mainstream media outlets provide minimal coverage of the following issues: other countries seeking to purchase Western newspapers; ongoing violence perpetrated by Israel against Palestinian civilians and their forced displacement, including killing US citizens (often only reported on when convenient); and the use of tax evasion havens.

LeBron James and young Saudi players at a basketball clinic during a visit to Saudi Arabia, Sept. 7, 2023. (Reuters)
LeBron James and young Saudi players at a basketball clinic during a visit to Saudi Arabia, Sept. 7, 2023. (Reuters)

The list goes on, but when it concerns Saudi Arabia, it is often labeled as “sportswashing,” “whitewashing,” and even “chefwashing.” Nearly every sports or entertainment star faces criticism each time they visit Saudi Arabia or enter into agreements with Saudi clubs or businesses.

Once-prominent journalists have gone to great lengths to insult Saudis, even going so far as to describe them as “goat herders in flowing robes.” To disagree or not like Saudi Arabia is one thing, but displaying disrespect towards an entire population based on one’s opinion of a leader or potential ulterior motives is unacceptable and, by any measure, immature.

Saudi Arabia is not funding proxies in the region or operating mercenaries in foreign conflicts, nor is it conducting espionage activities near the White House or US military bases. There’s a new force in the Middle East, and it’s time for longstanding critics to recognize that this force is seeking a reliable ally. That ally is American, and this partnership should not be discouraged or undermined.

The Saudis have made it no secret that the US remains its partner of choice. We shouldn’t force or push them away.

Read more: White House official says ‘basic framework’ in place for Saudi-Israel deal

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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