Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Sun, Nov 26th, 2017

BS on MBS by TLF

Recently the New York Times correspondent Thomas L. Friedman (hence TLF) published a commentary entitled “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at Last.” The first sentence began: “I never thought I’d live long enough to write this sentence: The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia.” As an individual, may Friedman live a long life; as an op-ed journalist, please spare us. Apart from being an undisguised love-song for a brutal and calculating potentate, Friedman’s piece turns the idea of the “Arab Spring” into an “Arab Nightmare.”

As TLF notes, the events in Saudi Arabia are definitely not bottom-up, nor the uprising of a popular grass-roots movement; nor are they against the totalitarian regimes that was the key ingredient of revolt in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. Let us not forget that the Saudis helped Bahrain put down the popular uprising against the autocratic regime in Bahrain. The article is all praise with no indication of the negative impact of MBS on the region. Thus, in TLF’s eyes it was alright to arrest without warrant a slew of Saudi royals and put them in a “makeshift gilded jail” at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, since the whole point was for them to “surrender their ill-gotten gains.” It would be hard to find a Saudi prince who could not be accused of ill-gotten gains, starting with MBS himself. In October, 2016, while in France MBS bought a luxury yacht (worth $550 million) from a Russian oligarch for $400 million. At the time MBS had frozen government contracts and dropped Saudi Arabia’s capital spending by 71%. But MBS assured TLF that it was “ludicrous” to suggest this round-up was a power grab.  Perhaps it was just a friendly, Mafia-style shake-down between billionaires to come up with a spare $100 billion.

As typical of TLF, the commentary is as much about him as much as the person he is interviewing. “It’s been a long, long time, though, since any Arab leader wore me out with a fire hose of new ideas about transforming his country,” notes TLF. Instead of reflecting on why Saudi Arabia does indeed need reform, but certainly not from the autocratic top that only benefits the autocratic top, TLF brags about his familiarity with Arab leaders. And TLF believes in MBS, sort of like Trump believes Putin, since as TLF concludes: “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.” Imagine that, not one person talking to the journalist on this visit to the royals said anything nasty. So this must mean that the “Saudi silent majority is clearly fed up with the injustice of so many princes and billionaires ripping off their country,” but not of course the Crown Prince with his expensive yachts and multiple palaces worldwide.

Beyond corruption, TLF finds praise for Saudi views of Islam, noting that MBS want to “bring Saudi Islam back to its more open and modern orientation — whence it diverted in 1979.” That year is important because a group of “puritanical extremists” took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca and exposed the Saudi royals as corrupt and controlled by Western interests, the Shah (a fellow royal) was deposed in Iran and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. My mind goes back to 1979 and I try as I can to see what was more open and modern in Saudi policy. The history of Wahhabism, which TLF avoids, is one of bloodshed, coercion and brutality from the start. Saudi Islam has never been open or tolerant; all TLF had to do was visit the Shi’a in the eastern provinces or the poverty areas in the Asir region near Yemen. But TLF was convinced when one of the ministers pulled out his cell phone and showed a picture from the 1950s of “women without heads covered, wearing skirts and walking with men in public, as well as concerts and cinemas.” These, of course, were the good old days, when Americans were pumping oil so the Saudis could live a lavish lifestyle.

Admitting that “Saudi Arabia would have a very long way to go before it approached anything like Western standards for free speech and women’s rights,” TLF had his mind blown away by the fact that Toby Keith held a men-only concert in Riyadh in September. The fact that it was men-only and that Toby Keith was a warm-up for Trump does not seem to occur to TLF. But then another singer sang for women-only, so all is fair. And there was also the Saudi woman who is so proud that next June she will be able to drive. Imagine that, driving a car but not being allowed to leave the country without your guardian’s consent.

One would think that a journalist with an opportunity to interview a ruler who had just forced the Prime Minister of Lebanon to resign, who has carried out a brutal and devastating war against Yemen and a silly blockade of Qatar, might want to probe him on these issues. But it seems MBS did not want to discuss Lebanon and TLF was content to let MBS note that the war in Yemen was “tilting in the direction of the pro-Saudi legitimate government there.” Unfortunately, there is no legitimate government “there” in Yemen.  Hadi is nowhere to be seen because nobody wants such a corrupt individual to return. Bragging that 85% of Yemen’s area is in the hands of his allies misses the point that about the same percentage of the population is actually in the Huthi areas of the north.

Yes, TLF, Yemen remains a “humanitarian nightmare,” but you do not inform your readers that this nightmare was caused by MBS, whose coalition has committed war crimes (such as use of cluster bombs; bombing hospitals, schools, mosques and heritage sites; targeting an entire province of Sa‘da as a military target; killing thousands of civilians; blockading humanitarian aid to the point that cholera will soon infect a million Yemenis and half of Yemen’s children are stunted). Regarding the missile fired at Riyadh, it was not the first launched and it is, after all, a war in which thousand upon thousands of bombs have been dropped on Yemeni civilians. How dare they respond in kind? And when MBS declares that Iran’s leader is a “new Hitler,” TLF might have jogged his memory as to the millions killed by Hitler and the absurd self-legitimizing of MBS blaming Iran for everything.

At the start of his article, TLF waxes eloquent about the “reforms” of MBS: “Only a fool would predict its success — but only a fool would not root for it.” I agree that it would take a fool to think MBS can achieve his goals, given that the autocratic rule and Wahhabi Islam are not going away anytime soon. But TLF is a fool for rooting for “it” without looking at the butchery and callousness of MBS and his regime. There is no freedom in Saudi Arabia; it is intolerant of other religious perspectives and persecutes the Shi’a in their own kingdom. Ignoring the Saudi role in spreading the extremist Wahhabi doctrines (which helped foster both al-Qaeda and ISIS) over the years, the illegal and disastrous war against Yemen’s people, the proxy bating of Iran, the continued use of beheading, the lack of democratic principles: this is the mark of the journalist as a fool fooling no one.

About the Author

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Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, a Senior Postdoctoral Scholar at the Institute for Social Anthropology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.