Beware of Saudis Promising Reform

Muhammad bin Salman is just the latest member of the royal family to use modernization claims to put a gloss on autocracy.
January 22, 2019
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(Photo illustration by Hannah Yoest / photo credit: GettyImages)

Saudi Arabia, faced with the difficulties of shifting power from one generation of princes to another, while trying to curry favor with a new American administration as the kingdom’s sworn regional enemy intervened militarily in a civil war raging in neighboring Yemen, undertook an ambitious modernization program launched by a reputed reformer.

The year was 1965.

While President Donald Trump’s infatuation with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is unique in the U.S.-Saudi relationship for its grotesqueness following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the House of Saud’s penchant for marketing so-called “reforms” in exchange for U.S. security assistance has a long history. Especially education reforms. It’s one the president and Jared Kushner are either totally uninterested in or too compromised to learn from.

Upon the death of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz in 1953, his eldest-surviving son Saud ascended to the throne. Saud’s brother Faisal, the former foreign minister, was appointed crown prince as well as his brother’s prime minister. The kingdom was now awash in oil money and Saud ruled like his father did: By doling out favors to his tribal allies. Massive government-sponsored construction projects were launched to solidify his rule. To his detriment, Saud neglected to enact any fiscal policy at all.

The Middle East of 1953 was already shaping up to be part of the Cold War chessboard and America was looking for allies. Saudi Arabia’s place as a major energy supplier was a given, but more was needed in light of the rise of Pan Arabism under Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. The U.S. chose to elevate its relationship with the Saudis within the Eisenhower Doctrine by using the religiously conservative kingdom as a regional counterweight to Nasser. Saud wholeheartedly embraced this role. His government’s unregulated spending and lack of fiscal policy, however, concerned the State Department enough to place conditions on military aid. Saudi Arabia had to modernize its inefficient government bureaucracy.

Into the mix came the Ford Foundation. Dedicated to its mission of improving humanity through democratic principles, the Ford Foundation was interested in modernization projects within the U.S.’s Third World allies. The reforms Saudi Arabia needed were their specialty. A representative from Ford’s regional headquarters in Beirut first approached Saud in 1954 and the king was enthusiastic.

But he also refused to reign in his spending so Ford’s work had to wait. Faisal, who was Western-educated and had experience running a comparatively modern administration left over by the Ottomans when he was governor of Hejaz, on the Red Sea coast, advocated for a more modern government. A power struggle between the brothers ensued. In 1965, Faisal deposed Saud with the support of the family and was made king.

The Ford Foundation’s project began once Faisal consolidated his rule. The State Department approved of the Ford Foundation’s efforts, but cautioned them to lower their expectations. Ambassador Chris Wadsworth told Ford’s representatives that “the Saudis were happy to be in a position to blame their inadequate performance on others.”

The main thrust of the Ford Foundation’s program was to supply Saudi Arabia with the wherewithal to produce a homegrown corps of civil servants. Reconfiguring each ministry’s bureaucracy alone wouldn’t be easy. According to one study of Saudi Arabia’s government ministries at the time, Ford’s staff found the average employee was averaging only two productive hours a day and not more than 50 percent of the kingdom’s ministries were carrying out their core functions. Staffing them was a taller order still. Historically the Saudis relied on outsiders to carry out their government’s administrative functions. Hence, Ambassador Wadsworth’s warning, which went unheeded.

Transforming Saudi Arabia’s education system, and by extension, Saudi society through nurturing what Ford’s project head Conrad Stuckey called a “facilitative mindset” over the prevailing “control mentality” was the real goal. This was in line with State Department aspirations for Saudi Arabia at the time. Ford devised a program that would focus on streamlining each ministry’s bureaucracy, teacher training, expanding vocational education, and revamping existing curriculum.

King Faisal presented himself to the world as a reformer. Education was a particularly important topic to him. His third wife, Iffat al Thunayan, was an advocate of education and was known as an influential informal advisor. The Ford Foundation assumed it had the ultimate ally in the king.

They were wrong.

Faisal needed military aid as Nasser committed more Egyptian troops in Yemen. The monarchies in Syria and Iraq had been overthrown by Arab nationalists.The new Johnson administration was also reassessing it’s Middle East strategy as the danger Nasser seemed to pose to the region increased. Furthermore, as a result of his power struggle with Saud, Saudi Arabia was now ruled by consensus within the family. According to historian Sarah Yizraeli, Faisal approached reforms by responding to immediate concerns at the expense of long term planning to manage internal and external pressures.

Solidifying and institutionalizing the House of Saud’s rule was the order of the day. The Ford Foundation’s reform program was the perfect window dressing to mollify the Johnson administration. The quantity of teachers and schools increased nationwide, but the quality of their education did not, as the Wahhabis remained in control of all other aspects of Saudi’s education system. Faisal left curriculum development, textbook production, and overall education policy in their hands. In one confidential report, Ford’s staff could only vent frustration as Faisal not only picked and chose what reforms to enact, but also tried to stick Ford with the bill after agreeing to pay for everything.

The Ford Foundation’s program plan for Saudi Arabia was pared back multiple times until it was kicked out of the country in 1971.

Saudi Vision 2030’s launch in March 2016 was an exciting moment. Bin Salman initiated reform from within Saudi Arabia and the prospect excited influential people around the world. It shouldn’t have. MbS will strive to use his “reforms” to solidify his bloody crackdown’s gains. Following Faisal’s template, he’ll try to give Saudis more than they had before, but this time institutionalizing his own position as the sole autocrat.

Bet that Trump and Kushner have given absolutely no thought to what this means for the long term U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Kyle Gaffney

Kyle Gaffney received his masters degree in History from William Paterson University. He has previously appeared in Task & Purpose, RealClearDefense, and The Strategy Bridge. Follow at @citizenGaffney on Twitter.