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.

Live Interview With Stu Taylor

I recently talked with Stu Taylor to discuss my book, Fault Lines: The Layman’s Guide to Understanding America’s Role in the Ever-Changing Middle East, and recent events in the Middle Eastern region and how it is handled by the US.

 

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.

Israel and Palestine: Is There a Way Forward?

Originally published for American Herald Tribune

One thing I learned during my military and business careers was that the first step in solving any problem is to recognize the reality. Wishful thinking is not conducive to solving a problem and has, unfortunately, been the basis for U.S. policies related to the situation in Israel and Palestine for far too long. If any progress is to be made toward solving this intractable problem, a large dose of reality is essential.

So, what is the reality?

  1. Approximately 600,000 Israeli Jews live in the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
  2. Over one million Palestinian Arabs (Muslim and Christian) live within the borders of Israel defined by the so-called “1967 borders” or “green line.”
  3. With the influx of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, immigrants with little experience with democracy, the Israeli electorate has become more right wing and this phenomenon is reflected in the Israeli government and its policies. The present Israeli government has shown little or no interest in creating a viable Palestinian state.
  4. The religious parties who believe that God gave them the land of Israel from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea are crucial to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition and thus have power beyond their small numbers.
  5. The Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) is illegitimate (elections have not been held for 10 years.) and corrupt. It has no credibility with the Palestinian people. However, Israel depends on the PA to maintain security control in the West Bank.
  6. Hamas and Fatah cannot agree on a unity government and a common negotiating position.
  7. Jews and Palestinians each have a national narrative and identity and want their own state. Neither group wants to see a bi-national state as the solution.
US Middle East Policy Israel Palestine

Credit: Brian Holsclaw/ flickr

Despite the policy statements by the U.S. and its western allies calling for a two-state solution, it is evident that a so-called two-state solution is no longer a viable option and hasn’t been for almost two decades. One might be tempted, given the seemingly intractable nature of the situation, to give up and walk away from the problem. Unfortunately, this also is not a viable option. The current stalemate is a major contributing factor to the instability in the Middle East and, therefore, the U.S. has a national interest, beyond the humanitarian concerns, in a peaceful resolution. The status quo is not tenable. Many policy makers have declared the “two-state solution” to be on life support. This is true. The problem is that the patient is brain dead. We need to pull the plug, hold a funeral, go through the mourning process and get on with life. So what does that look like?

Several years ago, when I attended a conference in Jerusalem that included Israelis, Palestinians, as well as internationals, one Israeli panelist commented, “The trouble with you Americans is that you think that every problem has a solution.” If thinking that “every problem has a solution” is a crime, then I plead guilty. The attitude that we are capable of solving our problems is one of the things that makes America great. Despite the obstacles, we can help solve this problem as well. Recognizing that the “two-state solution” is no longer possible, a number of thoughtful analysts on both sides have proposed creative ways to address the issues. Examples are here and here. While I agree with the position that we cannot want a solution more than the parties themselves, we can take steps to make a just and peaceful solution more likely.

By unconditionally funding and supporting both sides of the conflict, the U.S. facilitates risky and unhelpful behavior. Making financial and political support conditional would go a long way toward forcing the parties to face reality and take positive steps toward a solution. Given the political realities in the U.S., making aid to Israel conditional is probably impossible, however, withdrawing aid to the Palestinian Authority would have much the same effect. The PA would collapse and all responsibility for governance and security on the West Bank would fall to the Israeli government, with significant financial consequences. In the short run, an increase in violence is likely, but maybe that’s what it will take to focus everybody’s mind on finding a solution. The alternative is a continuation of violence and death for both Israelis and Palestinians.

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.