Saudi Arabia is on a path toward a more inclusive society with a diverse economy, and while challenges lie ahead, there are even positive signs of peace with Israel.
Those were a few of the observations Moses Libitzky of Piedmont made after traveling to the Arabian kingdom, Oman and the United Arab Emirates last month as part of a delegation that was given extraordinary access into the halls of power.
Libitzky and his wife, Susan, were among six people from the Bay Area who joined 50 fellows and supporters of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on the December journey. In addition to visiting historic and cultural places of interest, the group met with high-level government officials and members of civil society.
An 80-minute audience in Riyadh with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman capped the eight-day visit.
The delegation traveled at a particularly tense moment. As they toured the Saudi capital of Riyadh, President Donald Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a decision some predicted would incite Arab violence. While protests were seen in some cities, life in Riyadh carried on as usual and Libitzky said the country’s leadership seemed unfazed.
“The crown prince didn’t mention Jerusalem even once during his talk,” Libitzky said. “When someone asked the question, he just said he was disappointed. It was a much more muted response than anyone expected.”
Arab leaders the group met “were looking forward to making progress on Israeli-Palestinian talks, and looking forward to the day when the Israeli flag is flying in all the Arab capitals,” he added.
Instead of Jerusalem, or even Israel, however, the Saudis seemed much more interested in talking about their own future. According to Libitzky, they have sought ways to diversify and modernize the economy away from oil, provide opportunities for entrepreneurs and give greater rights to women, including the right to drive. These changes and more are laid out in the Saudi Vision 2030 project, spearheaded by the crown prince, the heir-apparent to the throne currently held by King Salman, 82.
The crown prince struck delegation member Jeanette Garretty of Redwood City as “genuine, knowledgeable, personally and absolutely focused on what he us trying to achieve. He spoke to us without notes, and in response to some very challenging questions, for almost an hour and a half. I did not expect to be so blown away by his persona.”
While Vision 2030 sets the course for a more diverse economy, the next generation of Saudis is also seeking a society free of extremism and terrorism, Libitzky said. “They want to bring back a more inclusive and modern form of Islam. They want to go back to what they see as Islam of the 1950s and ’60s.”
The delegation saw this firsthand at the Mohammed bin Naif Center for Counseling and Care — a program for people who previously had engaged in terror activities. “They believe it’s better to rehab people rather than lock them up,” Libitzky said.
When the group met students and members of civil society, the discussion was less about religious extremism and more about American movies, which the social-media generation now watches on platforms such as Netflix. All the buzz in the Saudi capital was a new decree to permit the opening of movie theaters, which have been banned for more than 35 years. One Saudi spoke about the mixed-gender audience at a Yanni concert he attended.
“There is change taking place in that part of the world,” added S.F. native Roselyne Swig, also part of the delegation. “I will emphasize that change is desired and happening, slowly for sure, however it is happening socially and culturally.”
Libitzky said there were plenty of signs of Westernization, including multiple sightings of McDonald’s golden arches. He even talked to one entrepreneur who wants to open a barbecue joint (with beef ribs, of course, as Islam forbids pork).
As for dress codes, while Libitzky did see women wearing abayas (full-length black cloaks) and hijabs (headscarves), with a niqab (face covering) spotted here and there, he said the society didn’t at all feel “oppressive.”
According to Susan Libitzky, each woman in the delegation, after being asked for their measurements in advance of the trip, was presented with a custom-made, black abaya upon arrival. Styles were slightly different depending on each woman’s preference.
“As visitors to Saudi Arabia, we wanted to feel comfortable and make our hosts feel comfortable,” said Susan Libitzky, who called the abayas “beautiful” and said wearing one was “a wonderful experience” because “it gave us a feeling of authenticity and an understanding of how Saudi women feel every day.”
Members of the delegation also felt an authenticity about what they learned on the trip regarding Saudi Arabia’s national goals and ambitions, Moses Libitzky said. But he noted that the country’s foreign policy still has unanswered questions — particularly in how it will deal with Iran. The conflict between the two regional powers has been increasing in recent weeks as the Saudis blame Iran for fanning the flames of religious extremism and for providing the missiles to Houthi Shia rebels in Yemen that were fired into Saudi Arabia in July and November.
“They don’t want the Iranians on their doorstep and they are going to have to deal with it one way or another,” he added. The Saudis blame Iran for exacerbating the divisions between Sunni-Shia Muslims for their own political benefit. “The Saudis want to end that divide,” he said, still summing up what he heard from officials and other Saudis. “They don’t believe there is much difference between the sects.”
In addition to visiting Saudi Arabia, the delegation spent two days in Abu Dhabi. There they toured the impressive Louvre Abu Dhabi, the art museum that opened in November at a cost of $525 million, and heard from the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
On the question of Jerusalem, the 56-year-old prince told the Washington delegation that Trump’s announcement “could throw a lifebuoy to terrorist and armed groups, which have begun to lose ground in the region,” the Israeli daily Haaretz reported, quoting the UAE state news agency WAM.
The de facto leader of the UAE also indicated more than a little disdain for the Palestinian leadership, Libitzky said, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. According to him, Sheikh Mohammed said the PA agenda diverged from the more moderate agenda that he and the Saudis have promoted to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
During a trip to Muscat, the capital of Oman, the delegation attended a dinner hosted by Salem Ben Nasser Al-Ismaily, chairman and CEO of an agency that promotes investment and exports.
“It was as phenomenal trip and the access that we had was unique. I don’t think it could be duplicated,” Libitzky said. “They obviously wanted to hear from us. They want to speak to us, and we were treated very, very well.
“I am grateful I was able to go on this. There was certainly a tone that they want to move in a more positive direction. And their goals are more in line with ours.”