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.

Six Things You Should Know about Iran and the Nuclear Deal

In July, after almost two years on nearly continuous negotiations, the EU3+3 and Iran reached an agreement as to how best to deal with Iran’s nuclear program and international concerns that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon. Since that agreement, politicians and pundits, particularly in Israel and the U.S., have bisected and trisected the terms in an effort to make a case either for or against the agreement. In the debate over the merits, facts have been a scarce commodity. As the U.S. Congress approaches the September 17 deadline to either approve or disapprove the agreement, it would be useful to examine the realities surrounding Iran and its nuclear program.

  1. Iran is not ruled by a bunch of mad mullahs – Following the 1979 revolution that overthrew Shah Reza Pahlavi’s oppressive regime, Iran established an Islamic republic in which Islamic principles play an important role. The constitution vests ultimate power in the Supreme Leader who is indirectly elected for life through the Assembly of Experts. In practice the Supreme Leader tends to remain above the “hurley burley” of day-to-day politics. Although he is the ultimate decision maker in national security affairs, he rarely overturns decisions of the Supreme National Security Council. In many ways the Iranian governmental structure is similar to that of the United States with separation of powers and checks and balances, thus making it difficult to understand the decision-making process.
  2. In general minorities are not persecuted or oppressed – Shia Islam of the “Twelver” variety (The three branches of Shia Islam are Twelver, Zaidi or “Fiver” and Ismaili or “Sevener”.) makes up the overwhelming faith of Iranians. Christians, Jews, Sunni Muslims and Zoroastrians are recognized and are guaranteed representation in Parliament. Adherents to the Baha’i faith, which was actually founded in Iran, are considered heretics and are persecuted. While there remain limits on jobs that can be held, most adherents to the recognized faiths, particularly Jews, are comfortably ensconced in the middle class.
  3. The Islamic Republic is probably the most secular Muslim country in the Middle East – Iran’s large, young, western-oriented population tends to push the envelope of governmental restrictions on personal behavior. Despite being officially banned, alcoholic beverages are readily available. Friends have said to me “under the Shah we used to pray at home and go out to drink; now we drink at home and go out to pray.” Current President Hassan Rouhani has taken steps to reduce interference in the daily lives if citizen, instructing the morality police to “lighten up.”
  4. Women play an important role in the highly educated, young workforce – One of important reforms of the revolution was to extend education to the rural areas and, by separating the sexes, to encourage fathers to allow their daughters to attend school. While it’s true that a glass ceiling remains, women now make up 60 percent of the college students and 60 percent of the workforce.
  5. Iranian policy does not call for the destruction of Israel – Since the 1990s Iranian policy, with respect to the Israel/Palestine situation, declares that Iran would abide by the will of the Palestinian people and their leaders as reflected in an open referendum. The statement, often repeated by Israeli and Western media, that Iran wants to “wipe Israel off the face of the earth” is a politically motivated, mistranslation of a comment by Ayatollah Khomeini that Israel’s policies would result in the disappearance of the Jewish State from the pages of history. Given that Israel’s policies over the past two decades have resulted in a situation where non-Jews will soon outnumber Jews, Khomeini may have been prescient.
  6. If Iran lives up to its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), what the U.S. Congress does is irrelevant – The JCPOA, signed by the EU3+3 and Iran in Vienna on July 14, 2015, envisions a peaceful Iranian nuclear program, stringent restrictions on any path to a nuclear weapon and removal of nuclear-related sanctions. On July 20 the UN Security Council unanimously endorsed the JCPOA. With the lone exception of Israel, every other nation has expressed support for the JCPOA. As Hooman Majd pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed, “The deal isn’t about the United States anymore. If Iran abides by it (even as America rejects it) the rest of the world will too, and the United States will have killed not the deal but its own credibility, the tremendous goodwill it has in Iran, and even its own economic interests. And Iran, the Iranians know, will abide by the treaty, make do in a world without America, and will re-elect, in 2017, the president who brought them the promise of a better life.” This train has left the station.

Six things you need to know in order to understand ISIS

(This article was previously posted on Foreign Policy Journal)

The Obama administration continues to struggle in its efforts to craft an appropriate response to the threat posed by the advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.  (ISIS). While Obama has declared that his goal is to “degrade and destroy ISIS,” he has not gone much further in defining what that means in terms of formulating a strategy. The pontificating by neo-conservative and liberal interventionist pundits and politicians is not helpful and, in fact, is counterproductive. Any effort to create a coherent strategy that has much chance of being successful will require a realistic assessment of ISIS, its strengths, weaknesses and goals as well as a threat assessment as it relates to U.S national interest. There are six things to keep in mind in this process:

  1. ISIS did not arise in a vacuum. The milieu in which it arose was a powerful mold that has shaped its world view. The conservative Salafist, takfiri brand of Islam, with its intolerant, rigid interpretation of Islamic law, which has been exported around the world by the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia, has laid the ideological groundwork for the global support for ISIS. The U.S. invasion of Iraq and the subsequent bungled occupation, and nation building effort as well as the chaos of the Syrian Civil War were the triggers that set off the emergence of ISIS as a powerful faction. The majoritarian rule of the Shia government in Iraq, which alienated Iraqi Sunnis, contributed to the increased popularity of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and its growing military strength.
  2. ISIS is a terrorist group and more. The term terrorist has been so misused that it has lost any meaning. For me, any group that kills civilians, intentionally or with reckless disregard for consequences in pursuit of political objectives, is a terrorist group. By this definition ISIS is a terrorist group. It is, however, also a criminal gang, a political party and a proto-state. It extorts citizens, steals property, kills its opponents, spreads its ideology, manages and delivers services, such as water and electricity, and dispenses justice. Any strategy that focuses only on the terrorist component and ignores the others is unlikely to be successful.
  3. ISIS’ global appeal results from deeply imbedded conditions in many countries around the world. Its popularity and ability to recruit followers depends on disaffected Muslim youth searching for adventure and Western Islamo-phobic actions and rhetoric that play into its message that Muslims are under attack in non-Muslim countries and that the only road to safety is to create an Islamic caliphate. Changing these conditions will be a difficult, long-term project.
  4. ISIS is susceptible to declining support. Its conservative, violent ideology of “One leader, One authority, One mosque: submit to it, or be killed” is deeply unpopular in the areas where it rules. It remains in power through fear. While the violence and deprivation resulting from years of war have drawn many to become more religious, Iraqi and Syrian Muslims have long been secular. Sooner or later they will say enough is enough and turn on their oppressors.
  5. ISIS is not a Syrian rebel group. ISIS’ aspirations are transnational. The other Sunni rebel groups are a bigger threat to the goal of creating a Sunni Islamic Caliphate than is the Assad regime in Damascus. The Assad regime is perfectly happy to have ISIS fighting the rebel groups whose objective is to overthrow the Syrian government. Having ISIS weaken the rebel groups, but remain in control of its current large, but sparsely populated, region, would not be a bad outcome for Assad. The question for the Western powers and their regional allies is whether or not this is an acceptable outcome for them.
  6. ISIS is a political movement, not a religious movement. While ISIS uses religious language to attract followers and justify its actions, its ultimate goals are political. Its terrorist actions, while they kill people, are political theater designed to achieve a political outcome. A counter-terrorism strategy alone will not defeat ISIS. A reaction against the larger Muslim community will be counterproductive.

The degrade part of “degrade and destroy” is the easy part. The current tactics of air strikes will probably accomplish this. The destroy part will be much more complicated and long term. I have seen no sign that the Obama administration has a strategy to achieve this.

The Syrian Civil War Gets Even More Complicated

100_0531Nourished by the crystal clear headwaters of the Jordan River, an island of green within a surrounding sea of brown parched land, the Golan plateau, a seemingly pastoral place with landscape falling away toward the Sea of Galilee to the south and toward Damascus 50 miles to the east, has been a locus of conflict since Israel occupied it during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

I can imagine an Israeli general looking out over the Syrian countryside, seeing plumes of smoke rising from bombed buildings and hearing the crackle of gunfire drawing closer to the armistice line – perhaps encouraged by his political masters in Jerusalem seeking an edge in the upcoming election – making a decision that has the potential to turn the Syrian Civil War, already a destabilizing factor in the Levant, into a regional conflict.

The Syrian conflict, throughout its four-year duration, has evolved into a multi-sided war of attrition between the Bashir al-Assad government in Damascus, the so-called Free Syrian Army (a loose confederacy of more secular groups), Jabhat al-Nusra (the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria), the self-proclaimed “caliphate” of the Islamic State, and numerous militia groups with shifting allegiances willing to sell their services to the highest bidder. Adding to this complicated environment, the U.S. and its European allies, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, Iran and Hezbollah have intervened on behalf of the various players. This has prolonged the fighting, continuing the agony of those caught in the middle, killing over a hundred thousand and creating millions of refugees. Now Israel has decided to enter the fray.

On January 18, an Israeli gunship attacked a Syrian convoy killing six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general advising the Syrian Army.

100_0534Since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, which killed over a thousand people on both sides, Israel has periodically attacked Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon and has conducted covert assassinations in Iran. In these past incidents, Hezbollah, facing an unstable political situation in Lebanon, engaged in a serious conflict in Syria against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, has been reluctant to engage Israel directly and has elected to absorb the blows and bide their time until an opportunity to strike back in an asymmetric manner presents itself. Likewise, Iran, involved in the difficult nuclear negotiations, has been reluctant to respond. This time, however, is different.

The first indication that this time is different was that both Iran and Hezbollah changed their usual practice by immediately announcing the names of the victims and conducting public funerals. Leaders of Iran and Hezbollah did not play down the attack, but instead announced that “Jewish blood will run in the streets.” They seem to have decided that enough is enough.

On January 28, Hezbollah attacked an Israeli army patrol in the Israeli-occupied Shabaa Farms area bordering Lebanon and Syria, killing two Israeli soldiers and seriously injuring several more. For its part, Israel seems unsure as to how to respond. On one hand they seem to be trying to lower tensions by claiming that the death of the Iranian general was a mistake and by asking Russia to mediate in an effort to diffuse the crisis. On the other hand, some leaders, such as Avigdor Lieberman, have called for all-out war.

An Israeli intervention in the Syrian Civil War will completely change the dynamic. It would risk drawing Lebanon, a fragile state in the best of times, into the war. Iran, having claimed that “unlike the U.S., we stand by our allies” and believing that Israel supports Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda) would have a hard time staying on the sidelines. Nothing unites the Arab world like a conflict with Israel and the strong public reaction that such a conflict elicits. The disparate opposition groups would face strong pressure to unite against the “great enemy.” U.S. and European support for Israel only plays into the Islamic State narrative of a “clash of civilizations.” If Israel decides to escalate the conflict, the region will be left in a far worse position.