Here we go again. Commentators trying to make sense of Saudi Arabia’s royal succession have fallen back on a tired trope identifying “Western educated” with “potential reformist.”
For instance, Saudi Arabia’s new Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, now second in line to the throne, has gained this status in the media thanks to his taking classes (but not completing a degree) at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.
The Guardian quotes an unnamed diplomat who said Mohammed would be “a modernizer and a relative liberal and would be the first Saudi monarch with a Western education.” Reuters says, “Unlike [his father] the late Nayef, who was widely regarded as an instinctively conservative man who took policy cues from the country’s powerful clergy, Mohammed was educated in the United States, receiving a degree in political science in 1981.” (Reuters erred on the degree claim, according to Lewis and Clark’s records.) Voice of America reports, “He was educated in the United States,” and quotes an expert’s analysis that “this is someone who has the education and background to move the country forward.” An Al Jazeera profile piece notes how he was “educated in the U.S., earning a degree in political science in 1981, [and] many have considered him an emerging liberal voice within the younger generation of the royal family.” The New York Times said, “Because of his Western education, Mr. Bin Nayef is believed to favor reform on matters like education and opportunities for women.”
Instead of putting such faith in the fine course offerings at Lewis and Clark, these reports could have examined Mohammed’s record. He demonstrated little enlightenment in his years as Saudi’s minister of interior, cracking down hard on dissidents as his government administers beheadings and torture.
The “Western educated” tag is the standard prefix the media use to describe Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa of Bahrain. The U.S. Congressional Research Service, whose reports inform Washington’s policymakers on who’s who in Gulf politics, routinely refers to his Western education. But why? Is it to imply that he’s more moderate than his peers who haven’t benefited from a Western education? More democratic? That he’s more likely to deliver reform than his dictator father — who, by the way, was also Western educated?
The Bahraini crown prince hasn’t managed to lead the tiny island kingdom away from repression since pro-democracy protests first gripped the country in early 2011. In fact, he is part of a Cabinet presiding over an ongoing forceful crackdown against peaceful dissent. The trial of Ali Salman, leader of the country’s major opposition group, opened on Jan. 28, and Bahrain’s most prominent human rights defender, Nabeel Rajab, was sentenced to six months in jail on Jan. 20 for a tweet criticizing the security services.
Having a Western education has never shown a strong correlation with pushing a human rights or reformist agenda. Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah El Sisi was educated in the West, as was Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad. Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel, by contrast, managed to steer their countries out of repression and into democracy without the pixie dust of graduating from Western universities. Western-educated Theoneste Bagosora is in jail after being convicted for his role in leading the Rwandan genocide. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was educated in the West. So was Pol Pot. It’s a useless indicator of someone’s human rights credentials, unless you’re an analyst who is searching for something to say about a leader whose record one doesn’t know very well.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against Western education. I even had one myself. The struggles and socialization of college life can open eyes. But I also wonder about the rarified atmosphere of the Gulf princes’ experience at American or British colleges. I attended universities in the U.S. and U.K. about the same time the crown prince of Bahrain and the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia did, but I wonder if they had the same experiences I did. Did they spend many nights in smelly dorms packed with other kids arguing the merits of democracy? Did they work several jobs while studying, scrounging food or smuggling toilet rolls out of local cafes? And even if they did, would that make them any more likely to end brutal repression of human rights activists ordered by their fathers?
If Western media see the future of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as best handled by those with a Western education, they could ask orthopedic surgeon Ali Alekri, who trained at the Irish Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, how he sees the country’s future. That is, if he’s permitted to speak to reporters. He is serving a five-year prison sentence after being tortured to confess to crimes he didn’t commit. Or perhaps they could consult with Saudi economist Mohammad al-Qahtani (Ph.D., Indiana University), if they can get access to him. He’s serving 10 years for speaking out against torture and other human rights abuses.
When it comes to authoritarian regimes, true analysts should start by being honest about who they are dealing with and stop looking for indicators of reform where they don’t exist.