Opposing democracy at home and abroad: will Saudis stand up to ISIS?


Saudi Arabia is the wealthiest country in the region. It has by far the largest air force, equipped with hundreds of U.S. and British advanced fighter aircraft. With its oil reserves and stature as the birthplace of Islam, the kingdom is an inevitable target for the rolling brigades of ISIS, notes Karen Elliott House, author of On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines-and Future.

So why aren’t well-trained Saudi pilots flying bombing runs over Mosul or against ISIS command and control centers in Syria? The problem is a failure of will even in pursuit of their own interests, she writes for the Wall Street Journal:

Some wealthy Saudis have provided financial support to ISIS. Some of these funders may be seeking to buy insurance against an ISIS victory, but others apparently share a desire for a Wahhabi resurgence in a kingdom that they see as corrupt and unjust—a kingdom in which royal rulers put their own profligacy ahead of the needs of Allah’s flock. A Wahhabi resurgence that originates from outside the kingdom but is supported inside the kingdom is a serious threat—and another reason to confront the terrorist army. Internal Saudi support for the “caliphate” will only increase if ISIS grows.

Since the onset of the Arab Spring, the authorities in Saudi Arabia have pursued an increasingly repressive course, seeking to maintain the status quo in an environment where expectations are markedly changing. In this context, Saudi Arabia faces a series of daunting challenges, including high youth unemployment, an education system ill-suited to meet the needs of a modern economy, an inability to diversify from a hydrocarbon-reliant economic system, and the growth of political extremism. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is taking a more active role in the Middle East in an effort to tamp down nascent reform movements and in response to challenges from Iran, its principal rival in the region.

Join a discussion with three leading experts who will discuss the key issues relating to Saudi Arabia’s opposition to democracy within and beyond its borders.

Sponsored by the International Forum for Democratic Studies


Bernard Haykel, Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University

Karen Elliott House, Author, On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines-and Future

Jean-François Seznec, Visiting Associate Professor, Georgetown University

moderated by

Christopher Walker, Executive Director, International Forum for Democratic Studies

Monday, September 22. 12:00 p.m. to 2 p.m. National Endowment for Democrac, 1025 F. Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C.

RSVP (acceptances only) with name and affiliation by Thursday, September 18.

Twitter:Follow@ThinkDemocracyand use #NEDEvents to join the conversation.

About the Speakers

Bernard Haykelis professor of Near Eastern Studies and the director of the Transregional Institute for the Study of the Middle East and North Africa at Princeton University. He was formerly associate professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern history at New York University. Haykel’s primary research interests center on Islamic political movements and legal thought. Currently, he studies the history and politics of the Arabian Peninsula and Islamism. He has published extensively on the Salafi movement in both its pre-modern and modern manifestations. Haykel is currently editing a volume with Thomas Hegghammer and Stéphane Lacroix entitledSaudi Arabia in Transition: Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change, to be published by Cambridge University Press in November 2014. He is also the author ofRevival and Reform in Islam: The Legacy of Muhammad al-Shawkani, (Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Karen Elliott-Houseretired in 2006 as Publisher ofThe Wall Street Journal, Senior Vice President of Dow Jones & Company, and a member of the company’s executive committee. She is a broadly experienced business executive with particular expertise and experience in international affairs stemming from a distinguished 32-year career as a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and editor. Her most recent book isOn Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines-and Future (Random House, 2013.

Jean-François Seznecis a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. His research centers on the influence of political and social variables on the financial and oil markets in the Arab-Persian Gulf. He is focusing on the industrialization of the Gulf and in particular the growth of the petrochemical industry. He is also a senior advisor to PFC Energy in Washington, DC. He has published and lectured extensively on petrochemicals and energy-based industries in the Gulf and their importance in world trade. He is interviewed regularly by national TV, radio, and newspapers, as well as by foreign media.