Conversation with Author David Rundell
David Rundell, who spent 15 years as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia, is the author of the new book Vision or Mirage: Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads, which I reviewed in preparation for this interview. You can read the review here.
Our conversation, conducted via email and edited only for content, is below.
In the aftermath of the secret meeting between MbS and Netanyahu, what will the future of Arab-Israeli relations look like?
Saudi Arabia is a status-quo power that likes regional stability. They dislike anything that rocks the boat, be it Nasser and his Arab Socialism, Bin Laden and his jihad, the Arab Spring, or the Arab-Israeli dispute. They would like for the problem to be solved and have tried to do so several times.
Now they have even more reasons to seek a solution. The opportunity cost of not having relations with Israel has gone up. Today the Saudis could benefit significantly from bilateral trade, investment, technology exchange, security cooperation and tourism much more than they could have 20 years ago. At the same time, the psychological benefits of not have relations with Israel have declined. Arab Nationalism means little to the majority of the Saudi population who are under thirty.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia now feels more threatened by Iran and Turkey than by Israel. The enemy of my enemy is my friend in the Middle East. Riyadh also needs to rebuild fences with Washington. One way for MbS to get an invitation to the White House is to recognize Israel. So, the ball is in Israel’s court. The Saudis, including King Salman, are ready and willing to make peace with Israel, but they will need to get something in return, just as the UAE did. This will probably involve both the rights of the Palestinians and supervision of Islam’s third most holy site [Jerusalem]. I believe Israel is interested in peace and so I would say there is a 75% chance that Saudi Arabia recognizes Israel within the next two years.
What will the medium-term future hold for Saudi-Iranian relations? Will there be any role for Saudi Arabia’s persecuted Shia minority?
The future of Saudi-Iranian relations will depend on the Biden administration’s ability to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program, as well as its use of proxy fighters and Shia militias in Arab states. With the best goodwill in the world, this will be very difficult to achieve. Moreover, within Iran, the hardline Revolutionary Guard will continue to consolidate political and economic power. I would anticipate renewed negations, but no sudden breakthrough. Saudi Arabia seeks to avoid a confrontation with Iran, but over the next two years I would anticipate that relations will remain strained.
I do not expect the Saudi Shia to play a significant role in reducing tensions.
How would you summarize the impact of the ongoing Saudi embargo of Qatar, which is widely considered to have been a failure?
Qatar has not agreed to the Saudi conditions for ending the embargo and instead has increased ties with Iran and Turkey. So, the embargo has not worked. But neither has it cost Saudi Arabia much.
The United States would like this quarrel between two allies [to be] ended and I expect the Biden administration will encourage them to do so. Having made their point, the Saudis would probably welcome a face-saving way to end the embargo and reunite the GGC.
How are the Saudis adjusting to rising tides of China and India and the decline of the U.S.?
Saudi Arabia relies on the United State for security, not trade. The United States remains by far the most powerful military force in the region with major bases in Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain, as well as smaller deployments in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as a substantial naval force in the Gulf. Only if these forces were substantially reduced would the Saudis reconsider their security relations with the United States.
On the other hand, commercial ties to the EU and China have exceeded those with the United States for some time.
What do you think will be the legacy of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which has been full of Saudi war crimes, according to watchdogs like Human Rights Watch?
Difficult to say because the war has not ended.
Do you think MbS’ easing of many social restrictions is more likely to lead to unrest from citizens wanting ever more freedom, a la the Gorbachev-era USSR, or is it more likely to sate them, a la present-day China?
The USSR collapsed due to economic weakness. China’s Communist Party maintains power in part due to its economic achievements. Should it occur in Saudi Arabia, political unrest will result from economic weakness, not a demand for more freedom. Vision 2030 will need to produce prosperity, as well as entertainment.
However, it is difficult to see how the Saudi economy can grow rapidly without more social and political reforms. So yes, there is an indirect connection between political liberalization and political stability.
A sweeping welfare state and dominant state-owned enterprises have defined Saudi Arabia. Would you classify the Saudi economy as socialist?
Saudi Arabia has a mixed economy with a large private sector, large state-owned enterprises and significant welfare benefits. Today, it is moving to privatize state-owned enterprises and reduce welfare benefits. The intent of Vision 2030 is clearly to expand the private sector, not the public sector. So, to the extent Saudi Arabia is a socialist economy, it is trying to trying to become less so.
Is Saudi Arabia too slow in addressing the rapid rise of green energy, which poses an existential threat to its oil-dependent economy?
Saudi Arabia is trying to become a leader in solar and wind power and they are making progress in both areas. The Saudis have a clear competitive advantage in solar power. The same solar panel in Saudi Arabia will produce three time as much energy as it will in cloudy Germany. The Saudis have begun to use solar power for desalinization plants. NEOM will be largely powered by renewable energy. The King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) has internationally recognized research programs into renewable energy and ARAMCO has begun to invest in the sector.
That said, Saudi Arabia remains the world lowest cost producer of crude oil. The last barrels of commercial oil produced on this planet will come from Saudi Arabia, long after the Texas frackers and North Sea oilmen have either dripped dry or become uneconomic.
Has the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi had a lasting impact on press freedom in Saudi Arabia and/or the wider Middle East?
The press in Saudi Arabia was controlled and remains controlled by the State, both directly and indirectly. I cannot speak about the wider Middle East.
How has the reception been for your new book?
The book has been extremely well received in the West.
The New York Times has written: “I wish that every United States diplomat, military officer and journalist would read this book before deploying to Saudi Arabia.”
The Wall Street Journal has called Vision or Mirage “a book of staggering breadth and depth.”
London’s Financial Times has called the book “exceptional” and “analytically rigorous,” adding that it is “unlikely to be bettered.”
Within Saudi Arabia, the book is available and has been well received as having presented a balanced view. It has received the same reception in Israel.
As a result, demand has outstripped supply and the book is now going into its third printing.