Since I started laying into Saudi Arabia with gusto about six months ago, folks have been bringing any number of stories to my attention. It seems like every month or so there is a new positive story about Saudi Arabia running in every major Western news outlet. It’s like clockwork. Actually it’s just like clockwork.
Some of these stories represent real advances. Some do not. But we’re not seeing them because of their intrinsic merit, we are seeing them because Saudi Arabia gives tens of millions of dollars to the best public relations people in the business. Last week saw one of the most coordinated and sophisticated pushes yet. This video mentions an interview with the Guardian, but there were customized approaches to a number of outlets. The New York Times gave their launch of a new economic zone above the fold treatment.
So I tend to be pretty skeptical when somebody comes to me with news of Saudi Arabia’s changes for the better. There was one element in the onslaught this week that surprised me however. MBS’s claim that Saudi Arabia is now a moderately Islamic country was legitimately shocking to me. Shocking enough that I made this video.
It’s almost like they’re the same word. In US circles it used to be rare to see a headline mentioning Yemen that didn’t also include Al Qaeda. In media circles I guess this is understandable. US audiences want to read about that which threatens us, and ISIS and Al Qaeda are past masters at getting themselves on our radar. Terrorists generally play the media like a fiddle. What’s less forgivable is the focus of the US government. Instead of taking steps to stabilize Yemen, a country whose collapse was endlessly foretold, we ran around bombing stuff, and further empowering Ali Abdullah Saleh, the kleptocrat who was riding Yemen to destruction. The result, of course, is what we have now, chaos, and a vastly empowered Al Qaeda. Good job team!
This video, the second to last in the Yemen series for now, starts the job of bringing in a different focus for our discussion of 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.
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.
This is it! I’ve been preparing this “Everybody’s Lying About Islam” essay and video series for a very long time. Saudi Arabia is a problem, and nobody talks about it. So let’s talk about it. The standard establishment “Islam is a Religion of Peace” line is true to a degree. But it is deployed to deflect attention from Saudi Arabia and its very real and malign effect on world-wide Islam. Because US politicians (Trump included) spend all their effort protecting Saudi Arabia, the country most responsible for 9-11, many Americans get the accurate sense that they’re being lied to. They question why radical Islam remains a problem after 15 years of supposedly fighting it. Unfortunately this leaves them open to the Islamophobic line peddled across the political spectrum from Donald Trump to Bill Maher. The essay does what no corporate media outlet is interested in doing. It documents the US-Saudi relationship from FDR on down, and illustrates the horrific effects the relationship has had. 9-11 is nowhere near the worst of it.
This video is the first in a looong series I have prepped on the topic. Of course if you want the full story, I suggest you buy the essay “Everybody’s Lying about Islam”, available now on the Amazon Kindle. As I say in the video, it will tell you more about “what’s really going on” than a year of watching Fox News, or a year of reading the New York Times.
The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Originally constructed in 784, over a demolished Visigothic church, the Mosque is one of the oldest in the world. Cordoba at the time was part of a Muslim Empire. Spanish Christians re-took Cordoba in 1236. Rather than demolish the place, the Spanish decided to convert it to Christian worship. In some people’s eyes, supposedly including those of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, it’s an unholy mess. To my eyes it’s beautiful.
Throughout history, most people spend most of the time getting on well with each other. In her book A Distant Mirror, historian Barbara Tuchman made an important point:
Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening — on a lucky day — without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena.
We know the history of religion and relations between Christianity and Islam as one of unmitigated disaster, cruelty, horror and intolerance. In fact, these moments are few and far between. Most people spend most of their time muddling along. Unfortunately, all it really takes is one bad moment to rob us of an invaluable monument like the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. Think of ISIS for example. In just two years, they have destroyed physical heritage going back millennia across a wide swathe of Mesopotamia. Jokers like that only emerge every couple centuries, but when they do, the potential for destruction is immense. We’re incredibly lucky that Cordoba’s monument has survived as long as it has. Spain has had it’s fair share of religious thugs. We’re lucky. The building has many lessons to teach. The video above lays out one or two.