Earlier this week, journalist Sam Husseini questioned the Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Sa’ud over the legitimacy of the Saudi regime at a news conference held at the National Press Club. Later on the same day, the National Press Club suspended Husseini’s membership for two weeks due to his conduct at the conference.
The video of the exchange between Husseini and Prince Turki, which has been floating around the Internet, gives a few different interesting insights relating to the Saudi regime and the idea of free journalism.
Prince Turki’s answer in defense of the authoritarian regime provoke even more questions about how Saudi Arabia view democracy. He starts off by saying that “I don’t need to justify my country’s legitimacy. We’re participants in all of the international organizations and we contribute to the welfare of people through aid program not just directly from Saudi Arabia but through all the international agencies that are working throughout the world to provide help and support for people”. This comment seems to insinuate that participation in international organizations and providing aid automatically qualifies any regime to be legitimate. By that logic, regimes do not require the consensus and support of their own people to remain in power as long as the government is able to provide international aid. Legitimacy can be bought.
Prince Turki’s next comment about the fact that women did not get the right to vote in America until about 1910 is even more troubling. The underlying assumption seems to be that the Arabs are not ready for democracy yet. Such an argument asumes that development is a linear trajectory that countries must follow in order to move from a state of underdevelopment and backwardness to socially and politically developed nations. Therefore, Saudi Arabia will always be playing catch up with the Western countries in in terms of social and political development, and will be a democracy much like the United States in almost a 100 years.
In September 2011, King Abdullah announced that Saudi women will be allowed to vote for the next municipal elections in 2015, however the women still do not have the right to drive and depend on a male guardian for all decisions relating to travel, work, health care, education, and business affairs. Therefore, it is unclear exactly how empowering this right to vote will be for the Saudi women.
The most important issue that comes out of this incident is Husseini’s suspension over posing a very confrontational question to an important political figure. It is hard to determine whether The National Press Club reprimanded Husseini for his aggressive tone or because he challenged the Saudi Prince. While I believe that Husseini was right in questioning the Saudi prince, those are not the only questions that need to be asked. Another important facet of this issue is the American government’s support of the Saudi autocracy. One of the reasons why authoritarian regimes have survived in the Middle East (although many of them are now being challenged by their people) is that they are often supported by the United States, and the Saudi relationship with the United States is an area that could use some critical analysis.