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


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.


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Will the Iran Nuclear Deal Change the Geopolitics of the Middle East?

First published by Foreign Policy Journal

As the September 17 deadline for Congress to act on the Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA) approaches, the media has been flooded with editorials, op-ed pieces and blogs making the case for or against the agreement. Those in favor of the agreement have made the case that, while an imperfect agreement, the deal was the best that could be achieved and, through intrusive inspections, will ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will remain peaceful and will not achieve a nuclear weapon. Those opposed have made arguments such as “It’s Iran, we can’t deal with them, we just like sanctions”, “Iran shouldn’t have any nuclear capability”, “Iran is Israel’s enemy”, and “the agreement only lasts 15 years”. Both sides of the debate seem to agree that this agreement will drastically change the geopolitics of the Middle East. But is this really true?

The underlying assumption of those critical of a change in the geopolitical alignment is that the current alignment has been successful in maintaining peace and stability and promoting economic growth, a dubious proposition at best. Those in favor of a geopolitical realignment see a new world in which Iran becomes an important player in bringing stability and order out of the current chaos. While this new world would certainly be an improvement over the current situation, there are a number of reasons to be skeptical of the chances for realignment.

First, and probably most important, is that one of the founding principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran was resistance to U.S. domination of the region. The U.S. and Iran are fundamentally at odds over the geopolitics of the Middle East. While the administration of President Hassan Rouhani is more open to engagement with the west, any thought that Iran will give up its independent foreign policy and follow the American lead is unrealistic. Iran and the U.S. may cooperate on issues where their interests align (Afghanistan, ISIS, drug trafficking, etc.), but Iran will continue to lead the so-called “axis of resistance”, and that will not sit well with U.S. policymakers.

Iran Nuclear Negotiations Lausanne Switzerland

Second, the much discussed idea that Israel will react to the nuclear deal by allying itself with Saudi Arabia and Hamas in opposition to Iran is also unrealistic. Despite all the rumors of high level meetings, it is hard to see how Saudi Arabia, whose radically conservative, Wahhabi version of Islam, provides the ideological underpinning for the Islamic State (ISIS), can ever align itself with Israel. With respect to Hamas, the ceasefire agreement between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza is getting long in the tooth. Israel has not implemented much of what it agreed to, and thus the same conditions of poverty, deprivation, and lack of hope that led to the last two wars still exist in Gaza. The next war may not be far away.

Third, despite the best efforts of Russia, Iran, and the U.S., the situation in Syria will remain a festering sore and a source of instability and chaos. It is hard to see a solution. With major regional players such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, seeing the region through a sectarian lens, committed to the overthrow of the government of Syrian President Assad and, at best, ambivalent about ISIS, a coalition of western and regional powers to stabilize Syria is very unlikely. As long as ISIS remains in place, a solution to Iraq’s collapse as a contiguous and sovereign state is impossible and the Kurdish problem will remain unresolved.

Fourth, the window of opportunity to realign the Middle East will soon close. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming U.S. elections, and given the influence of the Israel lobby on U.S. Middle East policy, the next administration is likely to be less open to growing Iranian influence in the region. Israel will certainly not elect a more accommodating government. Whatever rapprochement is achieved by the Obama administration in its last year in office will be short lived. Iran, seeing its hopes of greater integration with the west dashed and strengthened by the removal of sanctions, will be forced to look east to Russia and China for allies.

In 2006, the Secretary of State, following the U.S. invasion and destruction of Iraq and Israel’s destruction of Gaza, famously declared the destruction of Lebanon by Israel as the “birth pangs of the new Middle East” and confirmed the U.S. policy of “creative chaos” in which the old order is destroyed and in its place a new order arises which will serve the goals of U.S. policy. The U.S., having created the “new Middle East,” will have to live with the consequences for some time.

Six things you need to know about the war in Yemen

As the conflict in Yemen has transitioned from an insurgency against the central government in Sanaa by the northern tribes led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, into a civil war, a number of outside players have joined the fight. This has made the situation much more complicated. Americans have a habit of seeing all conflict and instability in binomial terms. There is a presumption that the sides in any conflict can be divided into “good guys” and “bad guys” and that the U.S. should intervene on behalf of the good side. Usually, though, the situation is much more complicated and nuanced and many times there are no “good guys.” This is particularly true in Yemen. Consider these:

  1. The war is not a sectarian conflict. The Houthis have, for years, harbored legitimate grievances involving the distribution of resources and power within Yemen. The grievances have been shared by other northern tribes. This accounts for the broad-based support for the insurgency and for its rapid success. The Houthis have a broad base of popular support throughout Yemen and will be very difficult to defeat with outside intervention. Houthi ability to protect communities against the advance of al-Qaeda, achieve a level of political participation and root out corruption has only enhanced their popularity.
  2. The Houthis are not a client of Iran. Houthi relationship with Iran has been overstated by Saudi Arabia, which has tried to frame the conflict as a Sunni-Shia conflict and as an existential threat to Sunni monarchies. Houthis are Zaidis (Fiver) Shias, whereas Iranians are Twelver Shias. To frame the difference in Christian terms, Twelvers are Church of England and Fivers are Pentecostal. They are both Protestant, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at their beliefs and practices. As with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis are a Yemeni movement supported financially, politically and sometimes militarily by Iran. Iran supports the Houthi movement because an independent, inclusive government in Yemen would remove another Arab state that might ally its adversaries. This support, however, does not necessarily translate into control over Houthi activities.
  3. This is not a binomial conflict. The Houthis have a very bad relationship with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE, and to some extent the U.S, have intervened on behalf of the internationally recognized government of Abed Hadi, AQAP and the Islamic State. The southern tribes quietly have been waiting on the sidelines, ready to take advantage of any chance to assert their independence. The motivations of these outside forces are not ones that the U.S. should be associating itself with. There are no “good guys.”
  4. The Houthis don’t want to govern Yemen; they just don’t want anyone else to govern either. They are interested in a high degree of autonomy and local issues prevail over national issues.
  5. The war is remaking the regional geopolitical system. As Saudi Arabia has attempted to assemble a coalition to confront the Houthi movement and its allies, one key player is missing. Pakistan, a long-time military ally of Saudi Arabia has elected to remain neutral. As relations between Iran and the U.S. appear to be improving, much to the dismay of Jerusalem and Riyadh, Pakistan, with a long border with Iran, may be reconsidering its geopolitical alignment. An emboldened Iran, with the ability to peel away Sunni countries from the Saudi Arabia led alliance system, does not bode well for Riyadh’s geopolitical goals.
  6. Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen is very risky. The bombing campaign alone is unlikely to achieve the Saudi-stated objective of creating a “stable and safe” Yemen. Eventually, a major ground incursion will be required. The Houthis, intimately familiar with the mountainous terrain, able to use the terrain effectively to confront an invading conventional army and to provide refuge against air attacks, will be very difficult to defeat. The inevitable collateral civilian casualties resulting from the air campaign will increase the local popularity of the Houthi, who can portray themselves as defending Yemen against an invading foreign army. Yemenis will remember the 1962 Egyptian air campaign in Yemen. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are playing with fire. Yemen, like Afghanistan, has shown itself to be the graveyard of empires


The situation in Yemen is a complicated conflict largely driven by longstanding local grievances and animosities. Saudi Arabia has intervened in order to prevent an independent government that they are unable to control from taking power right next door. Why the U.S. would want to get involved in this mess, with no national interest at stake, is unclear. We would be better off telling the Saudis that if they get themselves in trouble, they are on their own.

The Ukraine Crisis: What We Can Learn from Syria

As the Obama administration debates whether or not to arm the Ukrainian government military forces, the President’s opponents, neo-conservatives, and liberal interventionists alike, have framed the conflict as a weak, indecisive American President versus a neo-Hitler, megalomaniac Russian President. The yearlong Ukraine crisis is now reaching a tipping point, tilting between a domestic insurgency, which has some hope of being resolved through negotiations, and a full-fledged civil war, which is likely to last years, if not decades.

Time is running out for the players to make some intelligent decisions. At this critical stage, perhaps, the four yearlong Syrian conflicts can offer some instructive lessons as to how to move forward.

In 2011, the Syrian conflict began as did the Ukrainian crisis in 2014: with a series of mostly non-violent demonstrations by citizens protesting against government policies and actions. The Syrian demonstrations were met with violent government crackdowns, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators and, gradually, the non-violent protesters began to defend themselves with arms, and the demonstrations morphed into an armed rebellion.

The U.S. and its Western allies quickly responded by calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, stating “Assad must go” and making this an a priori condition for negotiations that effectively torpedoed the negotiations. Iran, needing to maintain Lebanese Hezbollah as a deterrent force against Israel, and needing Assad’s government as a conduit for arms and funds to Hezbollah, began to intervene on behalf of the Assad regime. In response Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey began financial and arms support for the rebels. Rather than engaging with all of the external players to bring pressure for a negotiated compromise, the U.S., seeing an opportunity to weaken Iran and Hezbollah, began support for the rebels.

Kobani, SyriaOnce external players began to intervene to prop up the weaker side, it became difficult to end the civil wars. No one was thinking about the suffering of ordinary Syrians.

As a result of the choices made early on, the conflict has escalated into a civil war with many internal and external actors. With it, the war brought over two hundred thousand deaths, massive destruction of infrastructure, economic collapse, millions of refugees, and untold human suffering.

If, in 2011, internal and external decision makers had had a crystal ball and could have seen Syria in 2015, it is likely that they would have made different choices. As former Middle East correspondent Charles Glass presciently wrote in a 2013 Guardian article, The last thing Syrians need is more arms going to either side, “This month marks the second anniversary of Syria’s civil war. If the politicians of east and west go on as they are, it will not be the last.”

This month, as the Ukrainian conflict has escalated despite efforts to forge a cease-fire, eight former senior U.S. officials released a report calling on the U.S. to provide military assistance to the Ukrainian government forces. In interviews since the report’s release, the authors have framed the conflict as “good versus evil” and have variously claimed that the goals of the escalation are to maintain U.S. and NATO credibility, to create enough Russian casualties that Russia will back down (ignoring the fact that the escalation will create Ukrainian military and civilian casualties), to create a (bloody) stalemate, and to encourage the overthrow of the Russian government.

Since, to this point, Russian responses to events in Ukraine have been largely defensive, Russia will likely respond by increasing military support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine. Russia, seeing the status of Ukraine as a vital national interest, is unlikely to change its policies regardless of U.S., NATO, and E.U. financial and military pressure. The E.U. countries, particularly Germany and France, seem reluctant to participate in the spiraling conflict.

As this article goes to press, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande are in Moscow consulting about a diplomatic solution. To paraphrase Charles Glass, “This month marks the eighteenth-month anniversary of the Ukraine conflict. If the politicians of east and west go on as they are, it will not be the last.”