Let Saudis Join the WTO

The biggest prize in President Bush's drive to democratize Arab countries is Saudi Arabia, the nation that was home to most of the Sept. 11 hijackers. But despite democratic moves elsewhere in the Middle East, the oil kingdom has largely resisted Mr. Bush's initiative. It only held its first elections in 73 years - and local ones at that - in February.

But wait. Saudi Arabia, which needs better trade ties to create more non-oil-related jobs, wants to join the World Trade Organization. Should Bush hold up US approval of Saudi membership in the WTO until democracy takes root? Or would WTO membership help spur Saudi democracy?

Some members in Congress simply want to withhold WTO membership until the Saudis withdraw from an Arab League boycott of Israel, and make other moves to recognize the Jewish state. Those steps, however, should wait until the will of the Saudis can be expressed through a representative government. First comes democracy, and the best way to show the House of Saud the door is to open the economy to the outside influences that free trade brings - an evolution seen in many recent democracies.

Al Qaeda, too, wants the fall of the Saudi monarchy. But it wants it done through terrorism, installing an even more authoritarian state. In contrast, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid a visit to Saudi Arabia last week and pushed for more political reform by persuasion, even criticizing the recent arrests of three Saudi dissidents. She expects the US to grant WTO entry by December.

A Saudi democracy would be the best antidote to Al Qaeda's threat. The monarchy should begin to accept that.

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