THOMAS Friedman is a big name in the realms of journalism and the study of globalisation in the world. He is known for his anti-Republican liberal views, often termed as pro-Israeli by Arabs and Muslims in general. I sometimes agree with his strong opinions, especially those about US administration’s lop-sided and counterproductive foreign policies that involve American and western armed forces in the meaningless invasions of one country after another in the Muslim World, especially since 1991.
I loved one of his comments on the American stupidity of spending millions of dollars in the so-called ‘training’ of Afghan soldiers to fight Afghan Taliban. So much so that I quoted him verbatim in my book on ‘global jihad’: ‘Americans’ training Afghans to fight is like someone training Brazilians to play soccer…. Who are training the Taliban? They even don’t have maps, and don’t know how to use one.” So far, so good!
However, after reading his latest column in the New York Times, ‘Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at Last: The crown prince has big plans for his society’ (November 23, 2017), I have mixed feelings about this op-ed piece. While on the one hand, it reads like a piece by a biased and ill-informed journalist, on the other, what he has mentioned is better than what he has perhaps deliberately hidden as he has inadvertently revealed a lot about the ongoing chaos in the kingdom.
Friedman tells us: ‘The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia. Yes, you read that right. Though I came here at the start of Saudi winter, I found the country going through its own Arab Spring, Saudi style.’ What is even more interesting and ambiguous when he tells his readers: ‘Unlike the other Arab Springs — all of which emerged bottom up and failed miserably, except in Tunisia — this one is led from the top down by the country’s 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and if it succeeds, it will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia but the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe. Only a fool would predict its success — but only a fool would not root for it.’ His clever use of ‘if’ and ‘but’ at the right places gives some semblance of objectivity and hence legitimacy to this pedestrian piece by a gifted scholar of Thomas Friedman’s stature.
What I find most problematic in his article is the grossly misleading title, ‘Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at Last’, followed by his ambiguous optimism about the success of this Crown Prince-led move for an ‘Arab Spring’ in the kingdom, only because unlike elsewhere in the Arab World, this one ‘is led from the top down.’ Historians across the world have so far only glorified the grass roots-based movements as true revolutions. Friedman’s frequent citing of Prince Mohammed, despite his sceptical comments on the Prince’s assumptions, are problematic.
Friedman, sort of, gives credence to the Prince’s assertion that his anti-corruption campaign was not a ‘power grab’, and asserts: ‘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 instil a lot of new confidence in the system.’ Then he registers his scepticism about the whole process initiated by the Prince: ‘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.’
He has ridiculously taken the Prince’s vow to ‘destroy extremism’, which is a euphemism for fighting pro-Iranian elements in and around Saudi Arabia. His naiveté is well reflected in the following assertion: ‘He’s (the Prince) not sugar-coating. That is reassuring to me that the change is real.’ This assertion alone is good enough to turn this piece into a vain effort to whitewash the dark kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Freedman seems to be awe-stricken by the Crown Prince’s balderdash about his intent of introducing liberal Islam as prevailed during the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) when ‘there were musical theatres… mixing between men and women… respect for Christians and Jews in Arabia’ and even the ‘first commercial judge in Medina was a woman!’
However, Friedman seems to have disliked the Crown Prince’s praise for president Trump as ‘the right person at the right time’, and writes: ‘I am sceptical’, and points out Iran indirectly controls four Arab capitals today —Damascus, Sana, Baghdad, and Beirut. Friedman seems to be too optimistic about the future of Saudi Arabia as now women are able to drive. He quotes one of them who thinks: since women can drive, ‘anything is possible’ in the Kingdom in the coming days.
Renowned Indian-American Middle East analyst and author Ehsan Ahrari, in a private communication to me’ wrote today (November 25): ‘I am not as pessimistic as others about the tone or the coverage of Thomas Friedman in this essay. He is examining Saudi Arabia from a pragmatic perspective. We know that Saudi Arabia has to abandon the Wahhabi Islam before it can modernise or successfully implement any major aspects of MBS’ [Mohammed bin Salman] “Vision 2030”. What we are not sure about is exactly what strategies does he have to adopt to implement that vision, and how sincere he really is in dealing with his political opponents.’
Despite my reservations about Friedman’s objectivity, I sort of ‘like’ his article under review, because despite his deliberate hiding of some embarrassing facts about Saudi Arabia, two things are clear from his article that: a wind of change is blowing in the autocratic and corrupt Wahhabi kingdom, where human rights, gender equality, and democracy are alien, un-Islamic concepts; and that the power-brokers in the kingdom are in a state of perpetual nervousness. The Crown Prince’s offensive postures (mainly against other contenders of the throne) simply reflect the state of prevalent uncertainties in Saudi Arabia, and the brewing discontent against the Saudi dynasty among its own people. His defensive gestures, his trying to sell himself as a benign, liberal, pro-moderate Islam, and a modern leader who even allows women to drive are simply signs of his weakness, not strength.
Can he go all the way to the different direction to liberal Islam by discarding Wahhabi extremism? I do not think so. He cannot afford to antagonise the well-entrenched Wahhabi clerics, who have strong ideological and matrimonial ties with members of the Saudi dynasty for more than 200 years now. In view of the growing strategic ambitions and influence of Iran across the region, as Ehsan Ahrari believes, there is room for scepticism about the success of the Prince’s ‘Vision 2030’, and even about his becoming the next king of Saudi Arabia.
In sum, Saudi Arabia (and the geopolitics in the region) will not remain the same in the coming years. Who wins at the end of the day, Iran or Saudi Arabia, the US or Russia-China is still uncertain. As long as America, and Israel are with the kingdom — which renowned Bangladeshi-Australian professor Habib Zafrullah calls the ‘New Axis of Evil’ — it would possibly survive, but growing Iranian influence across the region is very ominous for the Wahhabi kingdom. Unfortunately for the Saudi regime, not only the Shias but most of the Sunnis across the world also hate the kingdom. However, the way Thomas Friedman — no friend of the Muslims and Arabs — has whitewashed one of the worst autocracies in the world, it appears to be another vain attempt to refurbish the tarnished image of a great friend and ally of America and Israel, whose heydays virtually seem to be over.
Dr Taj Hashmi teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014).
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