‘I got news for you,” an irascible Thomas Friedman says in a recording from the Saban Forum (an annual United States-Israeli dialogue) in Washington, DC, in December. “The entire Arab world is dysfunctional right now, completely dysfunctional. And I think it has the potential to be a giant Yemen, a giant human disaster area.”
Friedman, a New York Times columnist and three-time Pulitzer prize- winner, is animated in the recording. He is irritated, using his hands to emphasise his words more forcefully. He leans forward, out of his chair, and, though he is clearly annoyed, he is also self-assured. Here, Friedman is specifically addressing criticism over his fawning interview with the Saudi Arabian crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS.
“And so when I see someone having the balls to take on the religious component of that [dysfunction], to take on the economic component, to take on the political component of that, with all of his flaws, and, with all due respect to his cousins, not one of them would have had the balls to do that.”
Friedman’s pique is rising. He is annoyed that someone has questioned whether his approbation of MBS has in any way taken into account the violence the Saudi armed forces have unleashed in Yemen, intervening in a civil war that is no business of Saudi Arabia in the first place — causing the deaths of thousands of civilians.
Friedman says: “I want to invest just a little, I want to stick my head up and say, ‘God, I hope you succeed’: And when you do that, then holy hell comes down on you. Okay, well, fuck, that is my view.”
But this is not about MBS, the people of Saudi Arabia or political stability. It is about Friedman and his singular need to invest in the idea of a better Saudi Arabia.
And it is exactly this tendency to centre himself in analyses about complex geopolitical issues for which Friedman is often lampooned. His many columns that are based on a conversation with a taxi driver in parts of the world that are not the US expose him as something of a modern-day explorer in the mould of Livingstone or Stanley. His narration of Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the world, is centred by his own experience.
For all the criticism of Friedman, and his moustache, he is revered. His words are scripture for policymakers, business leaders and analysts sitting in the world’s capitals.
So, last year, when Friedman travelled to Riyadh and then informed the world that “the most significant reform process under way anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia”, that was a kind of licence for MBS.
It was a signal of consent for a prince who has ascended the ranks of his father’s palace by ousting his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef. And Friedman claimed that he hadn’t encountered a single Saudi who disputed the crown prince’s agenda.
“Not a single Saudi I spoke to here over three days expressed anything other than effusive support for this anticorruption drive,” he wrote.
It could well be argued that, when a regime locks up anyone who falls foul of the king’s son, you’re not likely to find people effusively listing their reservations. But Friedman was not alone in his fawning.
When MBS travelled through Europe and the US earlier this year, dining with business leaders such as Rupert Murdoch and entertainers such as The Rock (and that was just one night) in the hopes of securing support for his ambitious plans to open the kingdom for business, he was lionised. He was on the cover of magazines and front pages, which all hailed him as the great hope for reform and economic growth in Saudi Arabia.
In all, there appeared to be a groundswell of opinion that held MBS as a man strong enough to take on the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia and win. And, hey, women would finally be able to drive too.
Of course, women in Saudi Arabia are elated to be able to drive. But the idea that the edict against women driving was lifted as an act of reform, whether political, economic or religious, is disingenuous. Just like the idea that the ban was based on some kind of religious principle in the first place. It was always a pact with the Wahabi religious establishment to keep the Al Saud family in power.
The political stability of Saudi Arabia in recent history has rested on the management of the various factions of the royal family, the religious elite, terrorism, the country’s oil wealth, the economy and its effect on a young, restless, largely unemployed population and its neighbours.
Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi loyalist. He understood the delicate balance at play to achieve political stability in the kingdom. He had close ties to the royal family and, as a journalist, he was embraced in the royal court. This week, Friedman published another column, back-pedalling slightly in his previous admiration of MBS, and confessing that one of the Saudis he had spoken to was Khashoggi.
It was Khashoggi, however, who fell foul of MBS for what Khashoggi thought were overly ambitious plans that would not work. It was a sentiment that would exile him and then kill him.
In his last column for The Washington Post he said: “The Arab world needs a modern version of the old transnational media so citizens can be informed about global events. More important, we need to provide a platform for Arab voices. We suffer from poverty, mismanagement and poor education. Through the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda, ordinary people in the Arab world would be able to address the structural problems their societies face.”
Khashoggi stood for the idea that the voice of the people should be heard. He stood for the idea that dissent should be aired. And he had disagreed with previous Saudi regimes several times. He was fired twice for pushing for reform in Saudi Arabia. “It wasn’t that easy but people were not being put in jails. There was a breathing space,” he said.
That breathing space has been suffocated.
It is now believed that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s assassination.
And all the people who cheered on MBS as a reformer while he has wreaked havoc must accept some responsibility for this. Not just for the alleged murder of Khashoggi but for the arbitrary detention of women’s rights activists, religious clerics and others the crown prince has deemed to be a threat. They have lent a veneer of legitimacy to a regime that is a threat to its people.
Friedman must accept some responsibility. And Murdoch. And US President Donald Trump. And the businesses that were all too ready to hop on to a plane for “Davos in the Desert”. And the South African government, which is considering giving MBS the keys to an arms factory.
Because Khashoggi has disappeared and probably was murdered. Just as thousands of Yemeni children are murdered by Saudi Arabia with nary a consequence. The rest of the world has never taken a principled stance against Saudi Arabia. Political expediency has always won. Until that changes, people like Khashoggi will just be collateral damage for the supposedly poor aim of Saudi weapons.