Saturday, November 25, 2017

Thomas Friedman Reporting from Saudi Arabia

If you want to know what the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has to say about the reforms he is imposing on his country, you have to read the insufferable cloying prose of one Thomas Friedman. Obviously, the New York Times works well as an intermediary for the young Crown Prince. So we will break with our longstanding policy—the only Friedman we read is George—and make an exception. But just for today.

Naturally, Friedman is amazed and confused to see that the Arab Spring is coming to Saudi Arabia. In truth, the Arab Spring is not coming to Saudi Arabia. As Friedman remarks the original Arab Spring, mismanaged by the inept Obama administration and its incompetent Secretary of State—Hillary Clinton—was a bottom-up movement. Saudi reforms are top-down. It’s not the same thing. Yet, whereas the Arab Spring failed, the Saudi reform movement might just succeed. Friedman says correctly that we should all want it to succeed.

It’s not merely that liberal democracy is not coming to Saudi Arabia. As is happening with many other authoritarian reform movements, social and economic liberalization is often accompanied by an intolerance of dissent. Jaroslav Trofimov wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

In asserting himself over Saudi Arabia, 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is imposing a trade-off that appeals to many fellow young Saudis.

The prince, in essence, is broadening social liberties in exchange for closing off the limited political freedoms that existed in the Saudi kingdom.

That is an approach that has worked for other Gulf monarchies, most notably the United Arab Emirates. There, no hint of political dissent is tolerated but social and religious rules are relatively relaxed. Women enjoy many rights denied to them in Saudi Arabia. An abundance of entertainment and shopping options keeps potential troublemakers busy.

As nations around the world look at the workings of liberal democracy in America and in Western Europe they say that they do not want it to enter their cultures.

Speaking to Friedman, MBS explained that his anti-corruption drive was not a power grab:

Our country has suffered a lot from corruption from the 1980s until today. The calculation of our experts is that roughly 10 percent of all government spending was siphoned off by corruption each year, from the top levels to the bottom. Over the years the government launched more than one ‘war on corruption’ and they all failed. Why? Because they all started from the bottom up….

My father saw that there is no way we can stay in the G-20 and grow with this level of corruption. In early 2015, one of his first orders to his team was to collect all the information about corruption — at the top. This team worked for two years until they collected the most accurate information, and then they came up with about 200 names.

What are the stakes? Friedman explains:

The stakes are high for M.B.S. in this anticorruption drive. If the public feels that he is truly purging corruption that was sapping the system and doing so in a way that is transparent and makes clear to future Saudi and foreign investors that the rule of law will prevail, it will really instill a lot of new confidence in the system. But if the process ends up feeling arbitrary, bullying and opaque, aimed more at aggregating power for power’s sake and unchecked by any rule of law, it will end up instilling fear that will unnerve Saudi and foreign investors in ways the country can’t afford.

And Friedman makes a point that has previously been reported. Namely, the kingdom’s subjects, to a man and a woman, support the Crown Prince:

But one thing I know for sure: Not a single Saudi I spoke to here over three days expressed anything other than effusive support for this anticorruption drive. The Saudi silent majority is clearly fed up with the injustice of so many princes and billionaires ripping off their country. While foreigners, like me, were inquiring about the legal framework for this operation, the mood among Saudis I spoke with was: “Just turn them all upside down, shake the money out of their pockets and don’t stop shaking them until it’s all out!”

Perhaps more importantly, MBS is reforming Islam, making it more moderate and more tolerant. He is bringing it into the modern world:

This anticorruption drive is only the second-most unusual and important initiative launched by M.B.S. The first is to bring Saudi Islam back to its more open and modern orientation — whence it diverted in 1979. That is, back to what M.B.S. described to a recent global investment conference here as a “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples.”

And also:

He has not only curbed the authority of the once feared Saudi religious police to berate a woman for not covering every inch of her skin, he has also let women drive. And unlike any Saudi leader before him, he has taken the hard-liners on ideologically. As one U.S.-educated 28-year-old Saudi woman told me: M.B.S. “uses a different language. He says, ‘We are going to destroy extremism.’ He’s not sugar-coating. That is reassuring to me that the change is real.”

Indeed, M.B.S. instructed me: “Do not write that we are ‘reinterpreting’ Islam — we are ‘restoring’ Islam to its origins — and our biggest tools are the Prophet’s practices and [daily life in] Saudi Arabia before 1979.” At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, he argued, there were musical theaters, there was mixing between men and women, there was respect for Christians and Jews in Arabia. “The first commercial judge in Medina was a woman!” So if the Prophet embraced all of this, M.B.S. asked, “Do you mean the Prophet was not a Muslim?”

To the evident chagrin of Obama flunky Friedman MBS admires and credits President Donald Trump. To repeat a point already made repeatedly, the Riyadh anti-terrorism confab extended a hand of friendship to Trump. When pictures of Trump and the King were festooned throughout Riyadh the message of friendship was unmistakable.

Friedman writes:

His general view seemed to be that with the backing of the Trump administration — he praised President Trump as “the right person at the right time” — the Saudis and their Arab allies were slowly building a coalition to stand up to Iran. I am skeptical. The dysfunction and rivalries within the Sunni Arab world generally have prevented forming a unified front up to now, which is why Iran indirectly controls four Arab capitals today — Damascus, Sana, Baghdad and Beirut. That Iranian over-reach is one reason M.B.S. was scathing about Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Next, MBS uttered the words that flashed around the world:

Iran’s “supreme leader is the new Hitler of the Middle East,” said M.B.S. “But we learned from Europe that appeasement doesn’t work. We don’t want the new Hitler in Iran to repeat what happened in Europe in the Middle East.” 

Considering that America’s left thinking intelligentsia considers Donald Trump to be Hitler—when it does not consider him to be worse than Hitler—the news that Ayatollah Khamenei is the real Hitler must have shocked Friedman’s delicate sensibility.

Because, after all, if Khamenei is Hitler and if even a thirty-two year old knows that appeasement doesn’t work, you do not need to activate too many little gray cells to recognize who played the role of Neville Chamberlain, trying to appease the Iranian Hitler. Yes, indeed, the greatest appeaser was none other than Barack Hussein Obama. Who knew?

Friedman closes with some words from young Saudis. We note that a primary impetus behind the reforms is the shame that attends them for being associated with the public reputation of Islam, reputation that has been damaged by terrorism. For those who believe that shame is bad, we note here, that while nations reform for many reasons, one primary reason is that they want to enhance their reputations to other people.

This reform push is giving the youth here a new pride in their country, almost a new identity, which many of them clearly relish. Being a Saudi student in post-9/11 America, young Saudis confess, is to always feel you are being looked at as a potential terrorist or someone who comes from a country locked in the Stone Age.

Now they have a young leader who is driving religious and economic reform, who talks the language of high tech, and whose biggest sin may be that he wants to go too fast. Most ministers are now in their 40s — and not 60s. And with the suffocating hand of a puritanical Islam being lifted, it’s giving them a chance to think afresh about their country and their identity as Saudis.


James said...

Friedman has fallen in love with an old old concept the "enlightened Despot". Whether or not these reforms will work or what the future holds for Saudi Arabia I do not know, nor do I think I have the competency to know, but "enlightened Despot" is what it is regardless.

Anonymous said...

What can I bring up?

Mohammad Bin Salman:

How progressive I am.

Thomas Friedman:

Exporting Wahhabi ideology?

Mohammad Bin Salman:


Thomas Friedman:

Carpet-bombing Yemen?

Mohammad Bin Salman:


Thomas Friedman:

Funding terror oh never mind.

So let's start the interview.

Mohammad Bin Salman:

I’m a reformer.

Thomas Friedman:

You’re the best.

Mohammad Bin Salman:

I fight Nazis in the form of Iran.

Thomas Friedman:

You’re a modern day Winston Churchill.

Mohammad Bin Salman:

I like that.

Thomas Friedman:

Sure, thanks for the interview.

Ares Olympus said...

There's a hopefulness in this story, and I'm sort of putting MBS closer to Gorbachev's attempts at reform in the USSR, while actually leading to the dissolution of the union, and since Gorby lasted 6 years, we might give M.B.S.'s glasnost and perestroika until 2023 before some sort of civil war. Expanding civil liberties will certainly help make a leader loved, but people will always ask for more, like democracy, and in general new problems will arise that will encourage reversals, and then a leader is less loved.

Demonizing the Iranian leader as the middle eastern Hitler is a serious charge, and I'm not in a position to judge. Hassan Rouhani was democratically elected, and his party is called "Moderation and Development Party". However MBS interpret Iranian politics, we probably are best seeing them as a country of many facets, and accepting the good and the bad, with the bad clearly being State Sponsored terrorism. But Hitler didn't do State Sponsored terrorism. He took a broken country and said "Make Germany Great Again" and made armies and incrementally grabbed neighboring territory, which is where the appeasement problems arose.

On the top-down attempt to clear corruption, I imagine the flaw of that sort of power grab is that in a corrupt society EVERYONE'S hands are dirty, so its like a cop trying to enforce the speed limit by picking and choosing who to pull over. Ideally he picks the largest abusers, those speeding the most, but if they feel unfairly targeted, and if they are most powerful, and they are greatly punished, this risks creating political enemies who might have agreed the corruption must be reduced without the sticks.

I like MBS's attempt "we are ‘restoring’ Islam to its origins", although the origin of Islam was about war and empire building Caliphates, which suggests the future Hitler may not be in Iran but in Sunni Saudi to obliterate their enemies of Shia Iran/Iraq. OTOH, once the Caliphates were established, Islamic countries attracted the best and the brightest scholars in the region to advance science and technology. So James' "enlightened Despot" is indeed the old model, and looks very attractive to people who don't like messy politics of competition.

trigger warning said...

Based on the comments above, one might be tempted to spend several trillion more borrowed dollars and yet more American blood to bring democracy to the yearning Saudis who will surely greet our triumphant troops in the street waving little American flags.

But the more amusing response is Friedman's seeming bafflement that predictions of The Narrative are misfiring. Perhaps he needs reassurance and a hug from Susan Rice. :-D

Sam L. said...

Perhaps Tommy "Chinese" Friedman will become Tommy "Saudi" Friedman too.