Tom Friedman Fawns over the Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia

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Thomas Friedman’s recent New York Times op-ed, “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at Last”, has attracted a large amount of attention, making the “trending” list on many social media and on-line news platforms. As has been his wont since he has become a sought after media celebrity, Mr. Friedman flies into Tel Aviv, Beijing, Delhi or in this case Riyadh, stays in a five star hotel, meets with a few senior government officials, tosses them some softball questions, records their answers and flies home. The result is a piece of journalistic fluff that provides little or no context and addresses almost none of the difficult questions that beg to be asked. Normally I would ignore such an inconsequential piece, but Mr. Friedman’s high profile requires a response

Let’s start at the beginning. The idea that the power grab and radical reform policy of Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MBS) can be compared to the bottom up calls for reform in autocratic regimes that characterized the Arab Spring is patently absurd. During these Arab Spring uprisings, Saudi Arabia, a poster child for an autocratic regime, supported brutal crackdowns in Bahrain, in Egypt, in Yemen and within its own borders. In order to prevent the Arab Spring from coming to Saudi Arabia the Saudi government was forced to ramp up its social welfare programs which, combined with the collapse of oil prices, has blown a huge hole in the Saudi budget, creating massive deficits.

In his discussion of foreign policy, Freidman essentially followed the Israeli/Saudi party line. MBS, as is his penchant, blames all of the problems in Saudi Arabia and the greater Middle East on Iran. His claim that the 1979 revolution, which resulted in the founding of the Islamic Republic, was the source of the rise of radical, intolerant Islam in Saudi Arabia completely ignores history. The unholy alliance between the al- Saud clan and the al- Wahhab clan which led to the creation of the modern state of Saudi Arabia dates from 1744. The pact specified that the Salafist religious leaders of the Wahhab movement could control religious affairs within the kingdom and in return they would support the political ambitions of the al-Saud clan. This pact endures until today. The biggest threat to MBS’s plan to “restore Islam to its [moderate] origins” is not Iran, but the radical jihadists of the Wahhabis.

The fixation of MBS on curtailing the spread of Iranian influence has led to a series of rash foreign policy adventures which have Saudi Arabia involved in two unwinnable proxy wars in Yemen and Syria. These conflicts have not only resulted in humanitarian and financial disasters, but have drawn the U.S. into the quagmire. Not satisfied with creating this instability, MBS, with the support of Israel, seems to be pushing for war with Iran, accusing Iran of an “act of war” when a missile was fired from Yemen toward Riyadh. Such a confrontation cannot help but draw the U.S. into a regional conflict.

Friedman writes very little about the ambitious Vision 2030 economic plan designed to convert the petroleum reliant Saudi economy into a modern technology and tourism based economy by 2030. The plan includes such elements as turning Saudi Aramco into a public company and using the proceeds to finance a massive sovereign investment fund, implementing a green card system in order to encourage immigration, developing infrastructure in order to increase pilgrimages and tourism from 8 million per year to 80 million per year, creating a military arms industry plus numerous other projects. The fact that allowing women to drive was a big deal shows how steep a hill there is to climb. As Bill Gates noted when asked if it were realistic for Saudi Arabia to become a Top 10 technology economy, “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.” It is unlikely that a conservative, inward looking population used to living on the government dole or on no-show jobs can absorb this kind of radical change.

And so, one might ask why write this article? Who benefits from portraying Saudi Arabia as a modernizing, moderate Muslim country intent on protecting the region from the radical, terrorism supporting Ayatollahs in Iran? Beyond Saudi Arabia itself, Israel comes to mind. This fits right into the Israel/NY Times narrative that Iran is the source of all the instability in the Middle East. The Trump administration seems to have bought the story. Now we need to work on the American people.

This article was previously published by American Herald Tribune

 

What Can the Islamic Golden Age Teach Us about Migration and Diversity?

SONY DSCOver the epoch of recorded history, a number of periods have been labeled as “golden ages”, a label that identifies them as the best of their kind. The term “golden age” implies in some sense a period of growth and progress within a society. Scholars generally date the “Islamic Golden Age” from 750 CE beginning with the overthrow of the Damascus based Umayyad dynasty and the rise of the Abbasid caliphate.[i] The end is often seen as 1258 CE when the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan conquered and sacked Baghdad, the Abbasid capital. During this period, knowledge of and advances in math, science, arts and culture flourished throughout the vast Abbasid Empire and in the Umayyad shadow caliphate in Andalusia – in modern day Spain.

Why did this “golden age” occur when and where it did? The answer to this question lies in a combination of factors that came together in a particular time and place. The term Islamic Golden Age is misleading in that it implies that there was something inherent in the religion of Islam that resulted in this specific period of growth and progress. In reality, this growth and progress had more to do with other societal factors that came together in a vast empire ruled by Sunni Muslim Caliphs.  A critical impetus was the rise to power of a series of forward looking, progressive caliphs, beginning with Harun al-Rashid in 786 CE, who invested heavily in research and scholarship, created enormous libraries containing works of scholarship from around the world and filled Baghdad with the world’s greatest intellects. At that time the military was strong and the empire was secure.  Therefore, rather than spending more money on defense, the caliphs were able to devote more resources to scholarship and research. Another factor was the vast size of the empire, which stretched from Persia in the east, through the Middle East, and into North Africa. This vast empire contributed to economic prosperity which provided resources to the caliph. This empire also broke down tribal and national barriers, resulting in diversity of culture, philosophy, religion and knowledge. The breakdown of barriers also meant that people and knowledge could flow much more seamlessly across the empire. The caliphate was open to people of all cultures and religions, particularly people who brought intellectual prowess.

Both internal and external factors also played a role in ending the Islamic Golden Age, even while the invasion of the Middle East by the Mongol armies was the defining event in the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate. As the Abbasid Empire began to get “long in the tooth,” various provinces and regions broke away, dissipating the advantages of a large contiguous land mass with no national or tribal borders, which facilitated travel and the transfer of knowledge. These breakaway entities engaged in almost continuous warfare; the resulting instability had a devastating effect on their economies. By the 12th century, Islamic orthodoxy began to negatively impact free-thinking philosophy; i.e. faith superseded reason which diminished rationalism and scientific inquiry.

In all states and empires, governments change. In a number of cases, narrow minded, conservative and intolerant leaders succeeded the more open minded progressive caliphs who had ushered in the Islamic Golden Age. These new leaders did not value the multicultural, multiracial, inter-religious environment of the caliphate and persecuted non-Muslims and intellectuals forcing them to flee. The hubris of these self-centered, corrupt new leaders led to political and financial mismanagement and resulted in accelerated decline.

 

Lessons for the United States

 

This tale of the rise and fall of a great empire offers pertinent lessons for the United States. These lessons deserve enumeration and examination if the United States is to continue to be seen as the “shining city on a hill”.

First, leadership matters. The tone and direction of a state or empire is set by the leadership. Their language, statements and actions empower and enable the best and the worst qualities and instincts of the population. The political system needs to produce the best and most qualified people to lead. If it fails to then this raises unsettling questions about the underlying political system.

Second, priorities matter. Where and how societies invest their resources indicates a lot about where their priorities lie. When societies choose to invest an inordinate amount of resources in unnecessary and prolonged wars at the expense of investments that make the lives of their citizens better, these societies are setting themselves up for decline.

Third, permitting the movement of people across borders matters. The day of large multi-cultural, multi-ethnic empires may have passed. Empires have been replaced by nation states based on a combination of ethnicity, religion, language and race. This system has resulted in the creation of national borders which impede the flow of migration. While globalization has, for the most part, facilitated the seamless movement of goods, services, knowledge and financial resources across national borders, human movement is restricted. We need a system that allows for the orderly migration of people to places where their skills and knowledge can be most productively utilized.

Bernard Lewis, the noted British-American historian of the Middle East, once wrote that “[before the rise of Islam] virtually all civilizations…were limited to one region, one culture and usually one race. The Islamic culture of the Middle East was the first that was truly international, intercultural, interracial, in a sense, even intercontinental, and its contribution—both direct and indirect—to the modern world is immense.” The enlightened leadership of the Islamic Golden Age – with its openness to diversity, migration and scholarship – brought unparalleled achievements. The challenge for the United States is to learn from the strengths of this enormous empire and avoid the pitfalls that led to its downfall. America was built on the principles of an enlightened set of ideas. Once we lose sight of these principles, we become just another large country with a big military.

Trump Decertifying the Iran Deal Weakens U.S. Influence, Enhances Iran’s Position on the Global Stage

Trump Iran

The decision by President Trump to not recertify Iran’s compliance with the requirements of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), despite a report by the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA) declaring that Iran is in compliance, brings the U.S. back into the 35 year war with Iran that has dragged on since the founding of the Islamic Republic. This is nothing new. Western powers have struggled for centuries with how to deal with a strong, independent Iranian/Persian nation strategically situated between the Middle East and Asia. The dilemma has tormented the Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, British, French and Americans. This has been true whether the government of Iran was a Persian Emperor, a Safavid Caliphate, the Pahlavi Dynasty, a liberal democracy or an Islamic Republic. The western powers, at various times, have tried military conquest, containment, cooption, sanctions, political interference and cyber-attacks. No strategy has been successful in persuading Iran to abandon its independent policies and resistance to foreign domination.

In recent times, President Obama, in an attempt to bring Iran to heel, tried sanctions, cyber-warfare, assassinations, and political interference. In the end he decided to deal with the nuclear proliferation issue first and to kick the can on the other issues down the road. President Trump seems to be determined to tackle all of the issues at once. While it is unclear what to make of many of his pronouncements and what his ultimate strategy is, President Trump appears to be punting the decision on sanctions to Congress. This move has brought domestic politics into play. Congress and the U.S. main stream media, heavily influenced by expat Iranian opposition groups and the Israel Lobby have long pushed for sanctions and direct action based not only on the nuclear issue, but also on Iran’s ballistic missile testing, support for Hezbollah and Hamas, conflict with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, refusal to allow inspection of non-nuclear military installations, interference in Iraq and Syria, support for various Shia groups and resistance to U.S. influence in the Middle East. Most of these issues are non-negotiable for Iran. Re-imposition of sanctions will require 60 votes in the Senate, which will be a difficult barrier for Republicans to overcome if all Democrats opposed such a step. However, it is possible, or maybe even likely, that hardline anti-Iran, pro-Israel Democrats, such as Ben Cardin, Bob Menendez, Chuck Schumer and others may support Trump on this issue.

While what the U.S. Congress decides is important, it is not the whole story. Because the JCPOA is a multilateral agreement including Russia, China and the EU, how these players react will be critical. It appears from recent statements that Europe, Russia and China will continue to support the JCPOA and as long as they do so, Iran will probably do the same. The EU, Russia and China are beginning to see the U.S. as a rogue state and may not be supportive of U.S. policy choices. Europe will, however, need to find a way to protect their business entities from U.S. secondary sanctions in order for companies be able to continue to do business with Iran and for Iranians to experience the economic benefits that they expected from the removal of sanctions. Iran, for its part, is turning eastward and enhancing its relationship with Turkey, Russia, China and India.

Whatever happens on the political and economic front, threats and coercion are unlikely to change Iran’s policies and behavior. As former Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, noted, “I see no good options vis-a-vis Iran in Iraq or Syria. They’re not going to be easily persuaded, and I don’t think we have the wherewithal to push them out.”

The outcome of this standoff will have major implications for future nuclear non-proliferation efforts and for stability in the greater Middle East. Adherence to global agreements is fundamental to international diplomacy. Trump, having already abandoned or threatened to abandon the Paris Climate Accord, TPP, NAFTA and UNESCO, has already raised questions about the reliability of the U.S. as an international partner. Leaving the JCPOA would be another step in weakening U.S. influence. On the other hand, Iran’s position on the global stage will be enhanced as they will be seen as the “adult in the room”.

Photo by BBC.com

This article was previously published by American Herald Tribune

Can the Iran Nuclear Deal Survive the US elections?

On July 14, 2016 the EU3+3 and Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which imposed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in return for removal of nuclear-related economic sanctions against Iran. While enthusiastically received by many around the globe, the agreement was less well received by conservative hardliners, particularly in Iran and the United States. Congressional Republicans in a letter crafted by Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) warned Iran’s Supreme Leader that the U.S. was an unreliable negotiating partner stating “What…(the) constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.” This played right into Ayatollah Khamenei’s view that the U.S. cannot be trusted, will always be hostile, and would never stop its efforts to overthrow the Iranian government.

The JCPOA is very specific concerning what is allowed and not allowed with respect to Iran’s nuclear program and the accompanying sanctions regimes. Under the agreement Iran is obligated to limit its enrichment capacity, reduce its stockpiles of enriched uranium and heavy water, redesign the Arak heavy water reactor and much more. In return, economic sanctions are to be lifted. The agreement states, “This JCPOA will produce the comprehensive lifting of all UN Security Council sanctions as well as multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme, including steps on access in areas of trade, technology, finance and energy.” Further, it states, “The E3/EU+3 will refrain from imposing discriminatory regulatory and procedural requirements in lieu of the sanctions and restrictive measures covered by this JCPOA.” While the UN has certified that Iran has meticulously lived up to its obligations, the U.S. has dragged its feet on removing sanctions, particularly the secondary sanctions that restrict Iran’s access to the international financial system.

Contrary to his approach to the opening of Cuba, in which he moved aggressively through executive action to change the political dynamic and get U.S. businesses involved, President Obama has been much more politically cautious with respect to changing the relationship with Iran. Specifically, his failure to begin to unwind the labyrinth of secondary financial sanctions has made international financial institutions leery of participating in or financing business transactions with Iran. The fact that many international transactions are denominated in USD and require so-called U-turn transactions in the U.S. to convert USD into local currency further hinders Iran’s access to its foreign funds and has reduced the economic benefits that Iran expected from the JCPOA. This has played into the hands of Iran’s hardline conservatives.

The situation is unlikely to change for the better after the U.S. presidential election. Of the remaining candidates, all except Bernie Sanders are much more hardline with respect to Iran. Hillary Clinton has said, “Iran is still violating UN Security Council resolutions with its ballistic missile program, which should be met with new sanctions designations and firm resolve.” Unsurprisingly, Ted Cruz has stated, “On my first day in office, I will rip to shreds this catastrophic deal.” While he makes many contradictory statements and one must take everything that Donald Trump says with a grain of salt, he has expressed that he understands that the JCPOA is a signed agreement, but “I’m really good at looking at a contract and finding things within a contract that, even if they’re bad, I would police that contract so tough that they don’t have a chance.” (Sic) Only Bernie Sanders has expressed complete support for JCPOA and has said, “I think what we’ve got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran.”

All this said, we need to remember that this is an international agreement and the EU, Russia and China are moving aggressively to live up to their obligations under the JCPOA and consummate business deals with Iran. Iran has signed a $25 billion aircraft purchase deal with Airbus, and Peugeot has signed a $430 million deal to produce automobiles in Iran. If the U.S. stands in the way of effective implementation of the JCPOA or takes steps that ensure its demise, its influence on the global stage will be further weakened. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has made his position clear, saying on his website, “Any comments suggesting the sanctions structure will remain in place or (new) sanctions will be imposed, at any level and under any pretext, would be (considered by Iran) a violation of the deal.”

 

 

 

Live Interview With KDPI – What News Are You Missing?

I recently sat down with Norm Leopold on Case in Point to discuss Middle Eastern media coverage in the US and the latest events from the region.

Listen to it right here by pressing play below, or right click on this link and select “Save Link As” to download the MP3.

 

Questions? Followups? Comments? Leave them below. Let’s get another conversation going.