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


America’s Dilemma

This week New York Times correspondent, Peter Baker describes the interlocking and often conflicting nature of many of the challenges facing the Obama administration, characteristics that Obama struggles to deal with. Baker reports: “Rarely has a president been confronted with so many seemingly disparate foreign policy crises all at once — in Ukraine, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — but making the current upheaval more complicated for Mr. Obama is the seemingly interlocking nature of them all. Developments in one area, like Ukraine, shape his views and choices in a crisis in another area, like the Middle East. The crosscurrents can be dizzying. Even as Mr. Obama presses Russia to stop fomenting a virtual civil war in Ukraine, he is trying to collaborate with Moscow in a diplomatic campaign to force Iran to scale back its nuclear program. Even as he pressures Iran over its nuclear program, he finds himself on the same side as Tehran in combating a rising Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Even as he sends Special Forces to help squelch those insurgents, he is trying to help their putative allies against the government in Syria next door. And then there is the mushrooming conflict in Gaza, where Mr. Obama seems to be losing patience. While backing Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas rockets, he sent Secretary of State John Kerry to work with Egypt to force a cease-fire. This is the same Egypt to which Mr. Obama cut financial aid for a time because its leaders came to power after the military overthrew the previous government.” (The whole article is here)

I have written about this before. (See  here.) As I point out in my upcoming book, Fault Lines, this is not a new phenomenon in U.S. Middle East policy. U.S. policy goals have frequently been in conflict with each other and, at times, have been mutually exclusive. I note that, “Since the founding of the state of Israel as a “homeland for the Jews, America’s uncritical support for Israel has been a major obstacle to U.S. efforts to improve relations with oil-producing Arab states….The United States also exhibited conflicting goals throughout the Cold War. America’s desire to prevent the Soviet Union from exerting influence led the U.S. to back unsavory regimes, such as that of the Shah of Iran.”

In the book, I also have a few suggestions as to how to deal with this issue. I write, “In my view, the solution to this ongoing problem of conflicting interests lies in one of the most difficult issues facing politicians and public figures: making choices. As a global power, the United States has national interests around the world that require U.S. involvement at various levels. Not all of the interests of the U.S. are equal. The category that leaders should focus on is “vital national interest.” My definition of a “vital national interest” is an issue that, if left unattended and unresolved, presents an existential threat to this country’s security, economic wellbeing and way of life. Vital national interests are such that the country is willing to spend its wealth, put its citizens in harm’s way and make a national commitment to dealing with issues. Failure to make these distinctions and commit the necessary political capital, in order to mobilize the nation behind a major effort to defend our vital national interests, is a recipe for failure.”

What do you think?


An open letter to Nick Kristof

Here is a comment that I posted on NY Times columnist Nick Kristof’s comment page regarding his op-ed piece in today’s NY Times. (To read the piece, click here) As of now I am one of 233 comments most overwhelmingly positive. His normal number seems to be about 5. Something may be happening.
Dear Nick:
It pains me to say this in a country that claims freedom of the press as one of its core values, but thank you for your courage in writing this important piece. People like you and Jimmy Carter may force the debate in the U.S. that, as you say, rages in Israel. You will probably feel the rage of the usual suspects, but I guess that goes with the territory. This weekend we had a conference in our town on Darfur with Brian Steidle sponsored by our Jewish community at which your role in bringing this tragedy to the front was praised by all attending. I hope that my Jewish friends will feel as positive about you today as they did yesterday. With a new unity government in the Palestinian territories I hope that the PA will claim the only piece of vacant land in Israel/Palestine – the moral high ground. Acceptance by the PA of the Arab League proposal for a two state solution would put enormous pressure on the US/Israel to engage on the serious issues. Your leadership may be important in making something happen. We would then see if a two state solution is really possible. It is not clear to me how 300,000 Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank can be made to disappear.