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Exclusive Interview With Author David Rundell

Vision or Mirage? Understanding the Enigmatic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia - and its Future - David Rundell, Former Chief of Mission at the American Embassy in Riyadh.

His Book Vision or Mirage: Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads

David Rundell offers a truly unique perspective on Saudi Arabia from the 15 years he spent in the Kingdom. He is widely considered to be the US’ leading expert on Saudi Arabia, making his book, Vision or Mirage: Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads, a highly anticipated title. With Vision or Mirage, Rundell offers a handbook for his colleagues, simultaneously providing western readers a chance to better understand the Kingdom and its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In our interview with David Rundell, we discussed his background, his time in Saudi Arabia, and unpacked where the Kingdom is at today, and how US-Saudi relations may evolve (or stagnate) under a new US President.

How would you describe your book, Vision or Mirage?

Despite the significant social and economic reforms enacted by King Salman, Saudi Arabia remains an enigma to most Americans. The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, crackdown on dissent, subjugation of powerful members of the ruling family and the war in Yemen have all strained its relationship with the West.

Vision or Mirage is an attempt to explain how Saudi Arabia operates, where it is going and why this trajectory matters to the United States.

Can you tell us about your background, education, etc.?

After studying Arabic at Oxford, I spent thirty years as an American diplomat working in Washington, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. After retiring from the Foreign Service, I spent three years with the management consulting firm Monitor Deloitte before joining Arabia Analytica as a partner. I now live in Dubai and travel regularly to Saudi Arabia.

Can you briefly describe your time in Saudi Arabia and what led you there?

While at university, I realized that the center of gravity in the Arab World was shifting from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. I decided to focus my carrier on the emerging power. Over the next thirty years, I spent fifteen years in Saudi Arabia and another four years in Washington working on Saudi issues. I watched the Kingdom evolve from a country without paved roads connecting major cities into a member of the G20 group of the world’s largest economies. I participated in Operation Desert Storm, Saudi accession to the World Trade Organization and the defeat of Al Qaida’s terror campaign in Saudi Arabia.

What makes your perspective on and experience in Saudi Arabia so unique?

While in Saudi Arabia, I worked in all three major cities, Riyadh, Jeddah and Dhahran. My assignments there included Chief of Mission, Charge d’Affaires, Deputy Chief of Mission, Political Counselor, Economic Counselor and Commercial Counselor. This is an unequaled record on single-country-concentration for an American diplomat, not only in Saudi Arabia, but in any country. There are cabinet ministers in Saudi Arabia today whom I have known for over 20 years. Thus, the book provides a unique and granular analysis of the kingdom from an insider who observed the country from numerous perspectives over a long period of time.

Who did you write Vision or Mirage for?

On the one hand, I wrote Vision or Mirage for my successors at the American Embassy in Riyadh so they will no longer need to spend twenty years trying figure out how the last strategically important, absolute monarchy operates. At the same time, I wrote the book for the educated American public interested in the social and political transformation of an impoverished, tribal, society into a prosperous, unified nation.

In recent years, Mohammed bin Salman has become the face of that nation. Do you see his rise as negative or positive for the country?

The rise of Mohammed bin Salman is both hopeful and worrying. He is the champion of very important social and economic reforms. However, he tolerates no dissent from those who opposed his policies. Over the next decade, Saudi Arabia will evolve into either a more accountable monarchy or a police state like so many other Arab nations. We [the US] have an interest in that outcome and an opportunity to influence it.

In your opinion, what is the most significant or hopeful reform Saudi Arabia has implemented in recent years?

The social reforms in Saudi Arabia, especially those relating to gender equality, are quite astonishing to those who knew the country before King Salman came to power in 2015. The economic reforms he has introduced are long overdue and essential to the country’s future prosperity. However, King Salman’s most significant reforms relate to his longstanding opposition to corruption, something he regards as an obstacle to economic development. A crackdown on corruption at all levels is at the core of his reforms and it is changing the way business and society function in Saudi Arabia.

In your opinion what is the most worrying change in Saudi Arabia?

King Salman has introduced rapid change with little consultation. He empowered his son, Mohammed bin Salman because he saw in him a bulldozer with the needed ambition, drive, and ruthlessness to implement those changes. Mohammed bin Salman has concentrated power into his own hands. However, he rules over a young population looking for greater transparency and accountability in its government. At the same time the reform process has alienated some traditional stakeholders in the regime. Both of these trends are potentially destabilizing.

Do you believe the recent Presidential election in the US will impact the nation's relationship with Saudi Arabia? If so, how?

Over the past seventy-five years, the Saudi-US partnership has survived many difficult moments, including the 1973 oil embargo, a Saudi purchase of Chinese ballistic missiles and the attacks of 9/11. That is because both nations share a fundamental interest in regional peace and stability.

Today, the United States benefits from Saudi cooperation in stabilizing energy markets, countering terrorism and promoting an end to the Arab Israeli dispute. I expect the next president will push Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen, repair its relations with Qatar and improve its human rights record, but I would be surprised if President Biden abandons the Saudi-US partnership.

To learn more about David Rundell or to purchase his book, Vision or Mirage, click here.

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