By John Kanelis
Saudi Arabia conjures up certain images to many of us who live far from the desert kingdom.
I think of vast expanses of sandy terrain. I think of men in robes, women covered from head to toe. I see images of palaces where the uber-rich reside and who are driven around in extra-lengthy limousines. Oil derricks and pump jacks also are part of that image, given Saudi Arabia's vast reserves of fossil fuel.
Some of us think of a nation seeking to change, but fighting against it at the same time.
Frontline, the award-winning PBS documentary series, seeks to look into the changes taking place in Saudi Arabia with its latest special "Saudi Arabia Uncovered." The documentary talks to men and women who are working diligently to bring actual reform to a nation that resists at virtually every turn.
Who, precisely, is resisting efforts to seek change in Saudi Arabia? The Atlantic magazine published a lengthy article that seeks to explain what's called "The Obama Doctrine" in the Middle East.
It notes the difficulty that President Obama has encountered as he has sought change of his own in the region.
For example: "One of the most destructive forces in the Middle East, Obama believes, is tribalism—a force no president can neutralize. Tribalism, made manifest in the reversion to sect, creed, clan, and village by the desperate citizens of failing states, is the source of much of the Muslim Middle East’s problems, and it is another source of his fatalism. Obama has deep respect for the destructive resilience of tribalism—part of his memoir, Dreams From My Father, concerns the way in which tribalism in post-colonial Kenya helped ruin his father’s life—which goes some distance in explaining why he is so fastidious about avoiding entanglements in tribal conflicts."
The entire article is attached to this link:
Indeed, tribalism splinters the vast Saudi nation, which is ostensibly a Sunni Muslim nation.
Its kingdom is steeped in tradition carried on through many centuries of strict Islamic doctrine.
Women cannot vote; they cannot even drive automobiles — although one can see Saudi women settling in behind the wheels of motor vehicles from time to time. Women have died in what are referred to in Islamic cultures as "honor killings"; if they "dishonor" their families by behaving in ways that do not conform to conservative Islamic theology, they are killed.
The Frontline special looks at many of the efforts under way in Saudi Arabia to bring change to the kingdom.
Perhaps you've heard in the recent past about public executions of criminals. They're beheaded in the public square. Imagine something like that occurring in an industrialized nation, or even in Israel, which is Saudi Arabia's neighbor to the northwest.
The change has been slow to come.
It's coming, though, to a nation that perhaps has reached the most critical crossroads of its existence.
The nation doesn't tolerate dissent. Nor does it accept criticism from the international community. There have been times when U.S. presidents have spoken critically of Saudi treatment of its own citizens, only to be slapped down by Saudi rulers for interfering in their internal matters.
The reform movement there is seeking to develop a more tolerant society, one that allows dissent — if not yet welcoming it.
And then we have this war against international terror.
The Saudis proclaim their alliance with the United States and other nations that have engaged terrorist organizations such as the Islamic States, al-Qaeda and al-Shabbab.
But here's the rub. Many of the leaders of the terror organizations with which we are at war have come from, yes, Saudi Arabia. Remember that fellow Osama bin Laden? He was a Saudi native.
That tribalism referenced in The Atlantic essay speaks to the resistance in many quarters to fully embrace outsiders' world view.
Still, some Saudis are seeking to create a new nation in the desert. It likely will take them a good while to see that change reach full fruition.
My bet is that a lot of western leaders — starting with the president of the United States — hoping the changes arrive sooner rather than too much later.
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Frontline airs its "Saudi Arabia Uncovered" on Tuesday night, beginning at 9 on Panhandle PBS.