Yemen is having a pretty horrific time. But it’s not as straightforward as some of the Middle East’s other disasters. Yemen’s fall has been expected for quite some time. That’s the most striking thing about every account I’ve read of Yemen over the past few months. Everybody saw this coming. Which is a pretty horrible thing when you think about it. If everybody knew what was coming, why didn’t anybody do anything to stop it?
That’s one of the many questions that we start to answer with this second video in my quickly ballooning Yemen series. I hope you enjoy it. These videos are taking a ton of work, but they’re also very rewarding. My hope is that peeling back the layers of Yemen’s disaster will help us avoid similar disasters in the future. Let me know what you think!
We never hear about Yemen. Endless amounts of ink and pixels have been spent on the conflict in Syria. “Innocents are dying!” is the constant refrain. Well, innocents are dying in Yemen too, and we never hear about it. I’m not saying that information on Yemen is censored in our newspapers. It’s censored by the combatants, but that’s not tremendously different from what goes on in Syria, and is not what I’m getting at.
We do know that Yemen is a disaster, but our government and media doesn’t do anything more than issue the facts. There are no government ultimatums or red lines. There is no daily “above the fold” update. When the UN or some other NGO issues a new report full of outrages, it is dutifully published on page 27 or the online equivalent. No time is invested in Yemen either, in the halls of government or on the opinion pages. That’s an outrage.
Today’s video explains why that is and starts my small effort to raise awareness about Yemen.
“Turkey is Turning into Saudi Arabia” is a bit of a straw man, but it’s something I have actually heard. Looking into why this statement is incredibly silly is helpful though, and that’s exactly what today’s video does. One of the central problems of Saudi Arabia is that there was very little there before there was Oil. When Ibn Saud took Mecca and Medina in the 1920s he reportedly did it with an army of 5,000. As recently as 1960 there were still only 4 million Saudi Arabians. There are around 30 million today, and their entire lives, and parents lives, have been lived in the context of this medieval state. The Universities are all Wahhabi, because they’ve always been Wahhabi. There weren’t any universities (give or take one or two) 50 years ago.
Turkey only had around 19 million people in the 1920s. But there was already a range of universities, and a very complex and almost first world history of institutions and learning from the Ottoman Empire. The Turks have developed for the past 90 years in the context of secularism, and at least surface competition in a national- European context. That simply can’t be eradicated. The form of Islam that Erdogan and the AK party is pushing isn’t Saudi. It can’t be. That particular pathology is only possible with endless oil resources, and a pre-modern blank slate.
The secular elites are being culled from Turkey’s institutions. But Turkey can’t close itself off completely. The Secular elites that control most business in the country are probably showing up at the mosque more often, but they’re still there, and they still believe in what they, their parents and grandparents have always believed. The recent constitutional referendum actually showed some green shoots. Erdogan lost all the major urban centers of power, including Ankara and Istanbul. In the last election he won both those districts handily. Don’t get me wrong. Turkey is in for a rough decade or two. But the bones of that house are good. At the end of the day Erdogan needs international engagement and business. And a lot of the people who he needs for that will never fit into even his version of Islam. Also, the longer the AK party(Erdogan) is on top, the more western and cosmopolitan they become. I’ve partied a fair amount with high profile AK party members and their kids. Saudi Arabia isn’t going to happen in Turkey.
We certainly heard a lot about Trump and Saudi Arabia this weekend. Considering the content of this channel, it won’t surprise you to hear that I found it disappointing, and disturbing. But more than anything else it was distracting. This whole trip was a distraction from Trump’s woes back in Washington, DC. But Trump’s Saudi Arabia clown show was also a distraction from something we should have all been paying more attention to. It was good news for once!
It was all a tremendous distraction from Iran. After months of predictions that he would lose, Iran’s moderate president Hassan Rouhani triumphed in his re-election campaign. Iran chose openness, despite the repeated rejections and abuse hurled at them by the United States. This is a very big deal. The hardliners that have ruled Iran since the revolution continue to abuse power. It makes me believe that peace in the region might finally really (eventually) be possible.
But nobody paid any attention. Trump and Tillerson issued their customary condemnations of Iran this weekend, calling them out for supporting terror, even while being hosted by Saudi Arabia, Iran’s sworn enemy, and the main inspiration behind almost every terror attack of the past 17 years. Tragic stuff. It’s already causing problems for Rouhani back in Iran. This video lays out the details….
Oh, Sharia. The amount of time I’ve spent dealing with comments on this topic over the past couple weeks is something I shudder to contemplate. We’re supposedly about inspiring democracy and development in the US, but we insist that it only proceed along certain lines. We completely forget that we traveled a long road to get to our current state of gender relations, religious tolerance, and legal rights and obligations. If a developing country doesn’t instantly conform to our 21st century post-industrial set of mores, we reserve the right to panic and insist on changes.
We also ignore the fact that our government has been eagerlyparticipating in the spread of the worst ideas and approaches in Modern Islam. By all means, provide outlets for actual dissidents from these countries, who want to develop a better approach. But we need to look more seriously at our own approach to the Muslim world before we start angrily insisting on our vision of how Islam should be practiced. I find the whole conversation very irritating, which may come across a little too strongly in this video.
The popularity of the Shia Sunni “Eternal Hatreds” myth is mostly about Iraq. It’s a bit sad really. The power of this meme comes from the desperate wish of the American thinking classes to find anything else to blame for Iraq. And Syria as well. If these two groups are destined to fight each other forever, then hey, it’s not really our fault. Bloody, endless warfare is just the natural state of the Middle East! Pay no attention to the fact that we isolated and brutalized Iraq for a decade, before destroying its government completely. Pay no attention to the funding and support we’ve been fire-hosing towards Sunni militants in Syria. This was all going to happen anyway!
I find the whole concept of religious war to be a bit over-sold. The standard go-to comparison from European history for the modern middle east is the 30 years war in 17th century Europe. In that war the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor went after some Protestant princes and 30 years later 25-30% of the German people had been killed. The Catholic-Protestant divide certainly had a lot to do with this conflict, but is that what it was really about? Not really. Catholic France spent a lot of time helping Protestant princes because they didn’t like the Holy Roman Emperor. The Holy Roman Empire had gotten along for most of a century with both Protestant and Catholic princes and regions. The war was started by, and perpetuated by political actors who saw more opportunities for land and power. Sure, some of the actors were primarily motivated by religion, but not many. And even the most vocally religious actors, like Gustavus Adolphus, the Protestant king of Sweden, and Ferdinand II, the Holy Roman Emperor, were pursuing very non-spiritual aims. Ferdinand’s attempt to impose Catholicism Empire wide was as much about administrative consistency and control as it was about doctrine.
This is all to say that war is a complicated state, and it’s never just about one thing. Wars can attain a life of their own. The roving mercenary bands of the 30 years war weren’t interested in conclusive battles, because that would mean an end to contracts and pillage. I fear that we may be reaching that stage in the Middle East at the moment. Throwing up our hands, and insisting on a simple religious explanation will not help us avoid that unhappy result.
We hear a lot about the problems of Islam. But the picture is always incomplete. One side of the conversation insists that Islam is evil and backward, and there is nothing to be done. The other side says nice things, and quietly mutters something about development, while running off to cash Saudi checks and bomb another Muslim country. There is something wrong with Islam. But it’s not in the Koran or the Hadith. As with many things, it’s a simple question of politics and development. This video lays out the real story.
I’m very pleased with this one. It gets back to my old obsession with European history, and the lessons that Europe’s development has for everybody else’s. A real historian will tell you that this is dangerous and reductive. But hey! This is a YouTube channel! There is one claim made towards the end of the video that I feel like I should back up and maybe qualify a bit. France and England ended up as the dominant powers in Europe for a while, and in the world as well. They were also the only two European powers that had the wherewithal to make real world-wide empire viable. Spain and Portugal certainly did some Empire-ing, but they squandered their first mover advantage with some Medieval ideas about finance, and their empires were vestigial more than anything else. The Iberian countries only held onto the bits of their empire that nobody else wanted. The Dutch Republic got the finance right, but their small size and vulnerability kept them from competing as a first rate power after their individual golden age. In the video I kinda, sorta claim that the relative religious tolerance of France and The UK made them dominant. Obviously there’s a lot more to it. But I really do think that their relative openness made a real difference. Also, thanks to the Louis kings, France has a reputation for religious intolerance. But Henry IV’s Edict of Nantes, decreeing toleration, lasted for most of the crucial 18th century, and Louis XIV’s revocation stood for barely a century, ending with the Revolution. French history is awesome, which is why I have a playlist dedicated to it.
I expect I’ll be playing with the theme of toleration more as this series continues. Saudi influence is already fading. Even if the Saudi state somehow survives, the rising fortunes of other Islamic countries means that its influence is slipping away day by day. But the attractions of extremism and religious rigor will remain. It’s always a seductive idea, both in the religious context and outside of it. “If only we stuck to our principles in a more rigorous and violent way, everything would be fine!”. As every civilization fails, there’s somebody tied to the mast screaming that.
The more I read history, the less convinced I am that that’s the right way to approach things. I’m still a conservative, mostly because I believe that the principles and institutions of the United States are uniquely worth preserving. But it’s fascinating how fanaticism kills everything, from the Byzantines, to the Nazis. When a civilization goes in whole hog for imagined traditional principles, it’s almost always on the way out. So even leaving aside the violence and tragedy of extremism, it’s becoming clear to me that it doesn’t even work. I’m not sure if that makes any sense. I’ll try to make this clearer in future videos. Until then, enjoy this one!
Saudi Arabia is a US colony. It owes its existence to the British Empire, and it owes its continued existence to the United States. This is not widely known. Folks just assume that Saudi Arabia was always there, they got lucky with oil, and now we’re stuck with them. That’s not how it went at all. It’s probably worth documenting this claim in a longer blog post than normal. It’s a bit too complex to wrap into this video.
The Saud family, and its nasty relationship with religious extremism does go back a ways. I document this relationship at length in the essay, which I recommend you buy. They managed to put together a pretty impressive, if briefly lived state in the late 1700s and early 1800s. They held Mecca and Medina briefly, from 1802 to 1818. They were booted out of there by an Ottoman Egyptian Army. The Saud family then managed to put together another chunk of land based around Riyadh, but by the 1890s they were refugees, forced to seek shelter in Kuwait. If you’d picked a family ca. 1910 to end up the most powerful (and possibly richest) of the last royal families standing it certainly wouldn’t have been the Sauds.
Which is where the British empire stepped in. In 1915 the British were fighting World War I against the Ottoman Empire, among others. They were looking to support any Arab leader they could against the Ottomans, who had controlled the Middle East since the 1500s. Have you seen Lawrence of Arabia? That’s about the British support given to the Hashemite family, that had ruled Mecca for hundreds of years. The Arab Revolt that made Lawrence a celebrity was led by Faisal of the Hashemites. This was all lovely, stuck it to the Ottomans, and turned Faisal into a somewhat internationally respected figure.
This presented the British with a problem when the war ended in 1918. They had Faisal, a well respected, charismatic leader, with established connections to the Arab urban centers, and some modernizing instincts. Faisal had a pan-Arab mindset, and envisioned a unified, powerful and developing Arab state, stretching from his family’s territory in Mecca and Medina as far as Damascus and Baghdad, and maybe beyond. This was more or less what he had been promised during the War, and he went to the Paris Peace conference to press his case.
But the British didn’t want that. They wanted the territory for themselves. They got it, establishing “Mandates” in Palestine and Iraq. The Brits got Baghdad and Jerusalem, and the French got Damascus, establishing what became the ill-fated state of Syria. Arabia, or rather all the unimportant and desert bits of Arabia were left to the Hashemites. But not just the Hashemites. The British continued to support the Sauds, with cash subsidies, and a ton of surplus munitions from the war. It depends who you read, but many sources maintain that the British subsidies were the only thing keeping the dirt poor and enthusiastically anti-modern Saudi army going.
If you were the British who would you rather support as a neighbor? A charismatic descendant of the prophet, experienced in international diplomacy? Or a bunch of desert whackos? The desert whackos looked a lot less threatening. The British continued to support both families, but it’s unlikely that they were all that disturbed when the Sauds came screaming out of the desert and took Mecca and Medina in 1925. This conquest was accompanied by strikingly ISIS like destruction of ‘idolatrous’ Muslim heritage sites and massacres of non-combatants. The British didn’t lift a finger to help the Hashemites reclaim their historic lands. They felt a bit bad though, so they made Faisal King of Iraq. In May 1953 his descendants were massacred, and the monarchy was ended in one of Iraq’s many brutal changes of government. King Abdullah II of Jordan is the last ruling member of the Hashemite dynasty, descended from one of Faisal’s brothers. The Sauds got Mecca and Medina, the de facto leadership of Sunni Islam, and extraordinary oil wealth. The Hashemites got that really cool set from the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The British catch a lot of flack for their mishandling of the Israel-Palestine issue, but if you ask me, their creation of Saudi Arabia is a lot more unforgivable.
My roommates went to Coachella this weekend. When they got back I made them talk about Saudi Arabia. They were pretty beat, but it’s still a more useful conversation than you would ever get on Fox News or CNN. The talk is a bit rambling, but it’s super useful. It gave us a chance to enlarge on some of the issues brought up by the videos. It also brings in some of the issues covered by the “Everybody’s Lying About Islam” essay that may not get covered in the videos.
The most important issue that the talk covers is my personal attitude towards Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabians. It’s important to emphasize that as angry as I am about the US-Saudi relationship, I bear no ill will towards Saudi Arabians. The whole country, even its leadership is caught in a trap. It’s not a trap that’s entirely of their own making. Find out more by reading the essay…
People are good at ignoring the obvious. Saudi Arabia is finished. The 2014 crash in the price of oil has left the ruling family in an impossible position. Since 2014 the country has been burning through around $100 Billion of dollar reserves a year. At that pace, the current regime has got about 4 years left before they can’t meet their obligations. The almost 100 billion in debt (up by a factor of 4 since 2014) that the country is now carrying will accelerate this issue. This problem has been noted of course, but most financial publications have been quick to swallow the Saudi line on the issue.
The problem has been identified, and Saudi Arabia is supposedly taking bold steps to address it. What few are talking about is how inadequate these steps are. This video covers the farcical “Vision 2030″ idea that is supposedly going to turn Saudi Arabia into a new Dubai.
What I didn’t get into, because the video was already too long, was the illusion of a Saudi Aramco IPO. Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, is supposedly a multi-trillion dollar company. Selling off the proposed 5-10% of the company would give the Saudi royal family a few more years of runway. It’s not going to work. It may very well go forward, but they are not going to get the money they want. Also, the investment is something that everybody will be excited to look into, but dramatically fewer will want to actually buy.
Aramco is a state-run black box at the moment. Getting money from outside investors would require a high degree of disclosure and re-organization that they are unlikely to be interested in doing. The country is also faced with a couple of Catch-22s. First, driving up the valuation of the company requires driving up the cost of oil. To do this Saudi Arabia has to restrict its supply, which means it would lose market share, and have less funds to deal with its many issues. Second, if they don’t get Aramco up to Western corporate standards, they’ll have to rely on local investors. Those investors have plenty of money, but as the country gets shakier, they will become less interested in investing in Aramco. A great indication of the shakiness of Saudi Arabia would be the country’s needing to rely on local investors to fund the Aramco IPO.
These issues leave me convinced that by 2030 Saudi Arabia will be a completely different country. Unfortunately US policy seems to be that the Saudi money spinner will go on forever. The new administration has been doubling down on the brutal Saudi adventure in Yemen, and seems to want to escalate with Iran. This is crazy.