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tv   Great Decisions in Foreign Policy  PBS  November 23, 2017 12:00am-12:31am PST

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- [narrator] saudi arabia is a nation in transition. with increasing signs that the status quo it has enjoyed for decades is beginning to fray. as aging rulers give way to a new generation, the political, social, and economic status quo is beginning to shift. with an ambitious young prince, will saudi arabia be able to weather the push for reform? once known for having a special relationship with the us, many question whether the alliance between an ultra-conservative islamic monarchy and the secular democratic republic is coming under new strains. saudi arabia, next on great decisions. (enthusiastic music) - [announcer] great decisions is produced by the foreign policy association
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in association with thomson reuters. funding for great decisions is provided by pricewaterhousecoopers, llp. (soft arabian music) - [narrator] saudi arabia and the us are at odds culturally and ideologically yet for decades, they have been said to enjoy a special relationship based on shared interests. - on 1945, when the late king abdulaziz, the founder of modern saudi arabia met with the late president franklin roosevelt on an american destroyer called the quincy, there was a very strong strategic relationship that developed between the two countries. - there's lots of areas that we have to work together. we had times, have different views and different priorities and we have different values, we understand that
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but we share a common commitment to a more peaceful region and i think we can work with saudi arabia in order to accomplish that. - the special relationship about the united states and saudis comes down to one three-letter word which is oil and the saudis continues to have the largest reserves of oil in the world and therefore, they can set prices. - [narrator] during world war ii, president franklin roosevelt realized how essential petroleum was to us security. he declared the defense of saudi arabia as vital to the defense of the united states. the us soon began selling arms to the saudis, a trend that continues today. - the purpose of the hearing is to assess the executive grant proposal for a 3.1 billion sale, dollar sale of 315 n182 tanks and other military equipment services to saudi arabia.
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the equipment is some of the most sophisticated in the united states military arsenal. - oil was transitioning to becoming the life blood of modern civilization. if electricity is literally the circuitry, without which, modern life is impossible. oil is the life blood. - it's both vital to our economy and it's vital to our military, and that became true once we switch to an oil-based military. - 15% of our oil imports still come from saudi arabia. and saudi arabia is the key country that sets the international hydrocarbon's price for all the world through it's petroleum production. it produces 10 1/2 million barrels a day. it has 259 billion barrels of oil. - [narrator] the alliance was further cemented during the cold war.
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in the 1960's, washington launched the twin pillars policy arming both saudi arabia and iran against the threat of communism. - a kingdom along with the united states and other friends in the area joined together to try to challenge this expansion of communist influence. - the pillars of americans grand strategy in the middle east were to have this powerful allies who could basically do our job for us and maintain security, keep the soviets out, help to prop up friendly regimes. when the irani revolution happened in 1979, it completely undermined american grant strategy in the region. - air gulf states got together and formed the gulf cooperation council. in large part, because of the concern about the iranian islamic revolution and the potential of exporting their revolution to their countries.
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(tranquil guitar music) - [narrator] the house of saud has ruled saudi arabia since before the birth of the modern nation in 1932. the royal family now has an estimated 15,000 members. - saudi arabia is basically named after the house of saud which basically you can call it a tribe or a clan. so now, they built a modern state based on very traditional concept of governance. - loyalty, of course, begins with the tribe because it is the expanded form of a family. - your job is to be part of this tribe, to work hard, because you carry the last name, that is so crucial in our arab culture. your last name means a lot. - we americans are as yet ill at ease with tribes. we see them as backward, we see them as illiberal, we see them as unprogressive. they are anything but what the stereotype is.
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they are in many ways the social glue that certainly holds saudi arabia together. - [narrator] saudi arabia is known for its adherence to wahhabism, a religious branch of sunni islam known for its fundamentalist interpretation of the quran. - in order for a tribe to rule, they need, especially in the gulf region, they need to bring god through the presentation, to give them some legitimate right, to give them some rights to rule. - the alliance between the saudi royal family and the wahhabis has really sustained their ability beyond the throne. and so, the fact is the saudis are in a very paradoxical position where they are promoting an ideology, wahhabism, which if taken to a very militant kind of extreme, you end up with al qaeda, and al qaeda's goal, principal goal is to overthrow the saudi royal family.
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- the problem is that saudi arabia has to deal with them as a political constituency inside the kingdom and managing them isn't as easy, it's easy for the americans, those sitting in washington, to say, "oh, that's a bad idea, shut it down", but there are domestic political implications to that. (piano music) - [narrator] while the al saud family remains in control, the kingdom faces a push for reform as one of the world's few remaining absolute monarchies. - most of the governments that have a lot of oil become dictatorships, they become unresponsive to their people because they no longer need to depend on their people for tax revenue. they can get the revenue they need just by pumping oil. - they had provided welfare and benefits to the people in exchange for no taxation in a pretty compliant population. oil has allowed them to do that and political participation has been relatively limited. it has improved but has been limited.
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- we never hear about the real cautions of the arab, they're going to improve human rights, social justice, and to adopt to new political system, to have a political parties, to allow the sufis to have try freedom inside saudi arabia to allow one to have more freedom, to allow the youth to have access to internet without blocking them and so on. - do the people want reform? want things to change? absolutely. they want it to change generically from within and they see the al saud family as the right structure. so essentially, they have the government they want. the notion of social and resident saudi, well, not impossible because nothing's impossible, it's, in my view, highly unlikely. - [narrator] king salman's youngest son, prince mohammad bin salman has led the initiative to reform with an ambitious national transformation plan called vision 2030.
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- prince mohammad bin salman is driving saudi vision 2030 and he's using the low oil prices as a good excuse to introduce reforms, to have government operates and reforms he want to introduce into the economy as well. - it's an opportune moment really to affect change because you can really only start a process of change usually, in history has shown us that when you face a crisis, otherwise, people are complacent. - we know that about the economic vision out of it which includes three main things. number one, how you increase revenue without depending on oil? two, is basically you're talking about cutting expenses. so now, a lot of things that subsidies that the saudi government used to give which is extremely important to keep the loyalty of the population and then you have the idea of investments outside oil and basically, the main focus of that is taken about 5% of a aramco to an ipo
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which would be 2.5 trillion dollars which is the largest ipo in history of the world. - [narrator] but there is no shortage of challenges to the plan. - i think this is actually a battle for the possibility of reform in saudi arabia. the problem that mohammad bin salman faces and which also had reformers face is that they're going up against almost insurmountable odds because the entire financial and economic structure of the country works against it. and so, you can't simply wish a private sector into existence overnight. - increasing the private sector is critical. the difficulty there is that 2/3 of the public sector is saudi nationals and only a fraction of saudi nationals occupy the private sector. those kinds of shifts that you would need to see are so enormous, it's difficult to imagine the fact it happened in a 15-year time frame.
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- i don't think we can expect to see these very, very deep, conservative social traditions change overnight. they're gonna take a generation or two. - i don't see him as and agent of change. i don't see monarchy in general as a good model to enact the change because basically they are non-participatory, they don't represent as stakeholders, all the people, and they don't have venues with people to suppress their concerns and change laws and norms. a constitutional monarchy maybe but he's not taking any steps on that direction. (soft music) - [narrator] many have asked why so many of the hijackers involved in the september 11th attacks were saudi nationals fueling concerns about saudi arabia and other gulf states sponsoring sunni extremism. - it's no secret that 15 of the 18 hijackers
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were saudi citizens but in a decade an a half since the attack, the saudi government has become a very close partner of the us government on counter-terrorism issues in a range of contexts. - the important thing is to ensure that governments aren't supporting this kind of activity, the financial institutions in place aren't facilitating this. in the case of saudi arabia, the charities which was another area that of concern for people but once you've gone through all those institutional areas, you're left with the private sector and it's very, very difficult to police that effectively. - the clerical establishment plays an important role in saudi arabia. it has been a very important part of the foundation of governance. and so, the government has to deal with it delicately and the government would be unwise turning on its clerical establishment in year or 24 hours because everybody has discovered that there's a problem there, there is a problem there, i think, but it's going to take time to address. - we need to focus on which imams or sheikhs
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is supporting al qaeda inside saudi arabia. so then, the next caution is which tribes and why are they supporting the jihadis? - that has been clapped down on quite severely so that you really have to making effort to try and send money to any charity now in saudi arabia or the gulf without government oversight. - the september 11th commission in america has conclusively and very, very rightly declared that there has been no saudi support for al qaeda. if anybody has any proof of a single saudi, if they have any bank account number, if they have any telephone number, help us in getting to these people who presumably are giving support to these groups. either put up or shut up. the account just simply say saudis or suspicious individuals
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from the arabian countries are giving support. help us to put an end to it. (dramatic piano music) - [narrator] the government of saudi arabia is itself the target of al qaeda and other terrorist groups. the gulf states have collaborated closely with the us and others in the fight against terror. - saudi arabia has been fighting the war against terror in their home ground since 2003 when al qaeda launched their attacks. what that has done is drawn us closer and closer together with them on the counter-terrorism front and the intelligence front. - the biggest support, i think, for the saudi security services there has been the saudi citizen who rejects all these terrorist activities and works closely with the security services
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by reporting suspicious activity or suspicious individuals and so on. (soft piano music) - [narrator] saudi arabia, a sunni nation, considers itself a leader of the arab world but its position in the middle east is threatened by a century's old rivalry with iran, a predominantly shia muslim nation. - it's not so much saudi arabia versus iran, it's a persian-arab conflict which goes back thousands of years. so, that's built-in to the dna of the region, if you will. - since the 2003 iraq war which was a key turning point in this sectarian feud because essentially what it did is it overturned. the sunni-led regime of saddam hussein
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which was viewed as an important sunni check on irani and shia influence in the region. there is the sectarian dimension but a lot of the rivalry is really driven by geopolitical ambitions and rivalries between the saudi and the iranians. - the primary saudi fear was that the united states would essentially seek a broader political accommodation with iran as saudi expands and they saw a whole series of things happening in the region as playing in iran's favor and against their own and the epicenter of this, of course, is syria. they viewed the uprising in syria and the civil war which followed as fundamentally a war with iran over the future of syria. - [narrator] in syria, iran is supporting the government of bashar al-assad by sending malicious to counter-rebel groups including daesh who seek to unseat him.
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- iran under khomeini set the course for what is happening today. when we see iranian troops in syria, iranian malicious in iraq and other iranian-supported shia, malicious in lebanon and bahrain and even in saudi arabia, they have what is called the hezbollah and the hijaz. - from their perspective, syria, was always considered a trojan horse for the iranians. if they lost iraq to the iranians, we need to take syria back and i think, that probably what made syria a win or lose situation for them. - what they do want is to see the emergence of at sunni led government which would be friendly to saudi arabia and hostile to iran and what you've had since 2012 is essentially this spiraling, escalating regional proxy war
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which is basically so intense because it's so thoroughly penetrated be regional politics. - [narrator] saudis are the dominant power in the gulf cooperation council. the military alliance has carried out an intense spamming campaign in yemen where the houthis, a shia rebel group backed by iran, overthrew the sunni government. - that look like to them that now, the iranians were actually trying to establish a beach hut on the peninsula itself and it also appeared to saudis that iran had started with lebanon, and then syria and then iraq and now, it was expanding and they had to draw a line in the sand. i also think that they probably exaggerated iran's ruling in yemen, largely because the saudis wanted to make a show of force.
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- we're really seeing unprecedented assertiveness from the saudis and other gulf states in their willingness to use military force and military intervention to check iranian influence. - [narrator] the us-gulf relationship recently grew more complicated when the us signed the nuclear deal with iran. the agreement aims to stop iran from building nuclear weapons in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. - it's no secret that a lot of our regional allies and partners are not happy about the iran nuclear deal. so, in their view, this deal really enhanced iranian influence and there are also concerns that it will lead to a normalization of iran in the region and in the broader global community. (chanting in foreign language) - they didn't want to see the united states and the containment of iran and they didn't want the united states to stop seeing iran as its primary strategic threat in the region.
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- [narrator] king salman came to power at the age of 79 after the death of his brother but he too must soon make way for a younger generation of leaders. the world is watching as this next generation of monarchs takes the reigns throughout the gulf. - saudi arabia is going through a generational shift from the first generation. remember, all the kings of saudi arabia, so far, has been sons of king abdulaziz, they have been brothers. - the uae and qatar also, and saudi arabia, the younger generation is being groomed to take over, they're very well educated, they're more connected to the younger generation. - they're in tune with the pressure, societal and economic pressures that their countries are facing and they understand that need to diversify and include women in the work force and really move to post-oil economies, they get this.
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- abdullah al-ajlan from the great nation of saudi arabia, country that's been very close and very helpful to us, and whom we value as an ally and a friend. - [narrator] while the us and saudi arabia have a close historic relationship, policy makers have concerns about their human rights record. (speaks foreign language) - the entire bargain that was made between washington and the arab regimes has always been that the arab regimes would fight terrorism, they would contain iran, they would protect israel, they would basically ensure the american led regional order and in exchange, the united states would guarantee their survival and would protect them from external threats and would turn a blind eye towards their autocratic practices. - the united states doesn't ignore all human rights abuses by all rich nations.
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it just ignores the human rights abuses by all rich nations that are its allies. - the state vision for women to be always dependent, to be always nurtured and provided for by a man, to access anything through a man, that is the most difficult challenge because this political identity really reduces the power of women. - there the no elections at the national level. there are no competitive political parties, there's no independent civil society, there's no independent press. - saudi arabia is the quintessential case study for a country that has an abysmal human rights record and no one likes to talk about it because they are the big oil producer but that's changing. saudi arabia had a free right for a long time but it's coming to an end, and i think, that is created real tension in the relationship and i think, it is the cause of some disorientation in riyadh because it's happening very quickly.
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(soft music) - [narrator] both saudi arabia and the us realized that their special relationship is in transition. analysts say both powers agree on the key points of promoting regional stability and containing iran but washington has openly criticized riyadh for focusing too much on beating regional rivals and too little on combating extremists. - on virtually every major issue in the region, the us and riyadh have been on different sides so the united states wanted to see the spread of democracy in the arab spring and saudi arabia was the leader of the regional coalition to prevent any kind of democratic change and you saw that most clearly in 2013 when saudi arabia sponsored and then supported the coup in egypt. on the iranian nuclear deal, the united states viewed this as a top priority, wanted to bring it about, the saudis were against it. on syria, the united states, for the most part,
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wanted to deescalate and saudi arabia wanted to escalate and they wanted to turn it into a war. the point is that militarily and strategically, the us and saudi arabia are as close as they've ever been but politically, they've been on the opposite side of almost every major issue in the last five years. - we are hopeful though as time moves forward that we'll see changes in saudi arabia and other gulf states where they will protect the human rights of all their citizens, that they'll be more focused on global security than just regional security and that we can form even a stronger partnership moving forward. - the fundamental basis of the relationship, i've always believed, is rock solid. military intelligence, counter-terrorism, cooperation is strong and getting stronger everyday. i refer to it as a marriage. every marriage has it's ups and downs but if the foundations are strong, the relationship remains strong and that's the case today.
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- [narrator] despite disagreements, washington appears eager to work with saudi arabia and its next generation of leaders. to policy makers, a strong relationship with the kingdom remains vital to maintaining broader stability across the middle east. - [announcer] great decisions is america's largest discussion program on global affairs. discussion groups meet and community centers, libraries, places of worship and homes across the country to discuss global issues with their community. participants read the eight-topic briefing book, meet to discuss each topic and complete a ballot which shares their views with congress. to start or join a discussion group in your community, visit or call 1-800-477-5836. great decisions is produced by the foreign policy association in association with thomson reuters.
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funding for great decisions is provided by by pricewaterhousecoopers, llp. - [narrator] next time on great decisions. after decades of relative stability, the us energy revolution is beginning to shift the geopolitical dynamic, where once it was dependent on the middle east for much of its energy, the us is now producing more of its own, allowing it to potentially forge a new foreign policy, the geopolitics of oil, next time on great decisions. (soft music)
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