x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

US diplomat says region is ready to assert itself

Mr Freeman was in the capital for a conference on the dialogue between Islam and the West.

ABU DHABI // A former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia said yesterday that the Arab revolutions signalled "the end of colonialism", with rulers seeking legitimacy from their own people, not foreigners.

Charles Freeman Jr, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia between 1989 and 1992 and went on to be president of the Middle East Policy Council, said rulers had sought a "foreign protector and a measure of guidance from abroad". Now, they were "acting to achieve self-determination".

Mr Freeman was in the capital yesterday for a conference on the dialogue between Islam and the West.

"If you don't address the causes of unrest, you'll then have a superficial order that cannot last," he said.

Mr Freeman said the restoration of order in Bahrain and Oman must be followed by efforts at reform. The GCC, he said, should "insist that the government of Bahrain address some of the long-standing problems that caused the uprising".

He said it was consequences such as "the internationalisation of struggle" that worried him most about current security responses to discontent in the region. "I hope it's a temporary phase," he added.

Recent events, he said, have shifted the centre of regional influence from Riyadh to Cairo. A new Egypt "potentially gives Saudi Arabia a good partner" but it also means that for the first time in decades, "there is an alternative to Saudi Arabia".

Elsewhere in the Gulf, he said, there is a generation of young people who do not understand how Saudi Arabia's unique history has influenced its political development.

"It was never colonised; it never bent its knee to any foreigner", he said. "The West came to Saudi Arabia as hired help, not as masters."

As a result, Saudi Arabia "remains very much the odd man in the region". While Saudi leaders do not communicate openly with their population, the kingdom's youth are still "fully informed" about the Arab awakening, he said.

hhamid@thenational.ae