Today’s video tries to present the relationships that Saudi Arabia has with Turkey and Indonesia. I don’t really do much of this on this channel, unless we’re talking about one of the world’s great rivalries, like Saudi Arabia vs. Iran. That’s too bad. Almost all of the videos on this channel deal with the way the United States relates to some other country. That’s only natural, as I am a US citizen, and all of us are living in the shadow of the world’s most powerful country to some extent. But I think a lot of valuable detail gets left out if we just focus on the relationships between the US and other countries. And that detail is only getting more important.
Power is flattening. The old imperial model, and the early US world system lent itself to a “hub and spoke” approach. Colonized or just weaker countries tended to have one all important relationship, and then lesser ones with neighbors or other countries with which it had some kind of historical connection. Nowadays more and more places are getting rich, and therefore their relationships are getting a lot more complex. Business and cultural ties can strengthen for a wide range of reasons. Everything’s getting a lot more interesting. I hope to do what today’s video does more often, and cover more relationships between countries outside of the context of the United States.
As I said in today’s video, invading countries is a really stupid thing to do in the 21st century. It’s something I think about a lot, and it’s not focused on enough. It’s one of the best things about modern living. We tell ourselves that the United States doesn’t take territory like old empires because we’re such nice folks. This isn’t really backed up by the historical record. The US spent 50 years failing to subject the Philippines to imperial control as one example. If Iraq had worked out, the Bush administration famously wanted to build a broader empire in the middle east in quick succession. Nationalism quite rightly has a bad reputation, but this is one of its nicer aspects. Folks really care about who rules them today. Independence is something that is valued. Literate, nationalist masses, plus readily available explosives makes the old school kind of empire impossible. So even the most powerful countries find that conquest is too expensive.
It’s interesting to me that this principle isn’t more widely understood. It’s clear from almost every conflict the US has been involved in since World War II, yet we keep jumping into new countries and expecting different results. I suspect that the difficulty of conquest does not make it into most discussion of national security, because it would make it too clear how useless a lot of our military spending is. The Military Industrial Complex needs to pretend that conquest is still a thing that happens.
I’m proud of today’s video, but I wish I had delved into the topic of the Muslim Brotherhood a little more deeply before making it. I have of course looked into the issue in the past. This week I’m reading a lot about 1848, so I ended up interpreting my long settled views on the MB through that lens. Sadly I didn’t do a review of what the “Muslim Brotherhood” is supposed to be in the countries of the Arab world in 2018, until I got to the editing process. I was kind of blown away. The whole Muslim Brotherhood theory really makes no sense at all.
Saudi Arabia really doesn’t like the Muslim Brotherhood. Supposedly. In Saudi Arabia’s view of the world, it’s the Muslim Brotherhood that’s responsible for all the Sunni terrorism over the past couple decades. Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with it. It’s not Saudi Arabia, it’s this vast, international conspiracy that the Saudis are heroically fighting! Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood is supposedly one of the main reasons that Saudi Arabia is trying to isolate Qatar democratically. Yet in Saudi Arabia’s failed invasion of Yemen, one of Saudi Arabia’s great allies… is the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s amazing how completely that undermines the narrative, but just doesn’t get talked about much. There is no real connection to an over-arching group or philosophy.
That’s because there is no over-arching group or philosophy. The Muslim Brotherhood is very powerful in Egypt. Egypt’s military is now trying very hard to crush it, as it has been doing on and off for at least 70 years now. The Brotherhood’s presence elsewhere is an artifact from the dimly remembered past, when Egypt was the leader of the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood is as much a parody of what it once was, as Egypt itself is. The most significant problem for the Saudi/US theory of the all powerful Muslim Brotherhood is the movement’s complete absence from Syria. The Assads apparently did a pretty good job of slaughtering the local chapter decades ago. But if the MB was this powerful force for world-wide terror… wouldn’t it have some kind of “boots on the ground” in Syria’s almost decade long coming out party for all of radical Islam’s worst pathologies? Not a thing. The Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t really exist as an international force. Wish I had remembered to get that in today’s video. But I still think it’s pretty good.
So let’s talk about King Abdullah Economic City. In today’s video, I may give the impression that it doesn’t exist. It totally does! It was established in 2005, and much like NEOM, the mega city the Saudis are currently pushing, it was supposed to revolutionize everything!!! 13 years later only about 15% of the 100 billion dollar city has been built. The other three cities that were meant to be built at the same time are somewhere between 30% and 0% completed. Theirwikipediapages make for some depressing reading. Depressingly familiar reading.
The objective of SAGIA’s “10 x 10” program, which ran from 2005 to 2010, was to place Saudi Arabia among the world’s top ten competitive investment destinations by 2010.
Launched in 2006, the Economic Cities program was designed to drive toward greater competitiveness, job creation, and economic diversification.
In developing economic cities, over a thousand of the world’s free zones were surveyed. The sixty deemed most successful were studied to determine key success factors. The objectives of the Economic Cities were to promote regional development, achieve economic diversification, create jobs, and enhance competitiveness in Saudi Arabia. Four new cities were identified and thus developed: King Abdullah Economic City, Jazan Economic City, Prince Abdulaziz Bin Mousaed Economic City, and the Knowledge Economic City, Medina.
When you read some of this 15 year old public relations copy, you realize just how familiar it all is. It’s the same thing as Vision 2030, but it’s Vision 2010. It’s all very sad. Back in King Abdullah’s time it was possible to imagine that Saudi Arabia could pull it off. Their oil was still one of the most valuable commodities in the world. An Aramco IPO back then would have yielded hundreds of billions of dollars. Instead the economic cities plans just sort of fizzled out during the extraordinary expenditures the government made to bribe the populace out of an Arab Spring. After Abdullah died in 2015, the focus shifted to new projects.
A sensible ruler ca. 2015 would have recommitted to all the plans Abdullah had made, and brought them to fruition. It would have made a lot of sense. But that wasn’t ambitious enough for King Salman, and Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman. They are diverting scarcer and scarcer funds to all of their new cities, and losing investments in foreign companies. They’ve gotten a lot of uncritical support in the Western Press, but that’s because they are paying for it. So yes, the King Abdullah Economic city exists, as a shell of what it could be. The bottom third is the only section of this BBC article on King Abdullah Economic City that is worth reading. After repeating the standard public relations texts, it lays out what a disappointment the project has been. NEOM might get there too. But it won’t ever become what was promised. Today’s video lays out why.
Let me preface this by saying again that I’m not any kind of Israel expert, but I figured I should talk a bit more about the claim at the end of today’s video, that Israel has helped reduce its neighbors to smoking ruins. The question of Israel’s role in the run-up to the Iraq war is controversial, but the consensus seems to be that they were very much for Bush’s invasion, and did what they could to promote it. The current Israeli government’s almost gleeful support for the destruction of Syria is less controversial. Israel is officially neutral, but in 2017 they conceded that they had carried out around 100 airstrikes against Syrian and Hezbollah targets over the course of the war, and they have acted as a stumbling block to the peace process.
I think this is all a terrible mistake. This policy of aiding in the destruction of Iraq and Syria might have made sense during the Cold War. It would have been vicious then, but it would at least have had some justification. During that era, when they were faced with the opposition of a vastly better armed Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as the opposition of the Soviet Union, taking these sorts of actions would have been rational. Israel’s current leadership still acts as if they face this sort of existential threat. They don’t. And the world knows it. The desperately promoted threat from Iran is virtually nonexistent. The policies against Iraq and Syria that Israel supported did give Iran more power on the ground in these countries, but Israel remains free to bomb them at will in Syria. Most of Iran’s weapons systems date back to the Shah. Iran has made some limited progress with missile technology, but the use of that technology would quickly result in a complete roll-back of Iranian power in the region, and no doubt the destruction of multiple Iranian and Syrian cities by the Israeli and US air forces.
The Soviet Union is gone. Egypt and Jordan are now Israeli allies, and amazingly Saudi Arabia, if still officially hostile, is now largely seen as an Israeli ally as well. The international Palestinian terrorist threat of yore has been almost completely neutralized. It has been co-opted by the Palestinian Authority, and it has been fairly comprehensively rooted out of its old homes in Lebanon and Jordan. With the fences and walls around Gaza and the West Bank, the threat of a third Intifadah is largely meaningless. Palestinians would die in their thousands, in return for a few miles of burned Israeli farms. Netanyahu and company seem to think they are now secure enough to treat the Palestinians any way they want. This is a terrible mistake.
Despite all Israel’s protestations, the world, outside of Washington, DC, can now clearly see that it is more secure than it has ever been. All 21st century wars are media wars, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is even more so than others. Netanyahu’s behavior makes it look, even to Israel’s most natural allies, like Israel is THE destabilizing element in the region. Much of Israel’s support in the world, and in the US in particular, is based on the perception that the country is a plucky underdog. Killing Palestinians by the thousand, with the support of former enemies like Egypt, while increasing security cooperation with Saudi Arabia, does not fit that image. As today’s video says, Israel’s current leadership serves the interest of US defense contractors, not the interests of Israel.
So why am I the only guy talking about this? In today’s video I connect a bunch of dots to point out that Saudi Arabia’s investment program isn’t going to help them out of their current mess. In fact that investment program is more than a bit nuts. Funds that are desperately needed to reinvent the country are being sent to some of silicon valley’s riskiest money pits. It’s possible that these investments will make some money eventually, but it isn’t what I’d call likely.
The truth is that all of this information is out there. Today’s video wouldn’t be possible without some great financial journalism done by folks at Bloomberg and the Financial Times. The FT’s “Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund Scrambles For Resources” in particular was very useful. But this stuff is often behind paywalls, and only read by nerds like myself. This information is all out there, and it’s being acted on by serious investors. That’s why that magical city, NEOM, isn’t going anywhere, and its German CEO has already been shuffled off to another job. That’s why the Saudi-Blackstone infrastructure fund announced at the Saudi-Trump orb fest last year can’t find any other investors. The broader situation really is dire, far beyond the headline grabbing problems with Tesla and Uber.
This is a slow motion catastrophe. But it hasn’t made much of an impact on the broader consciousness yet. That’s because the Saudi PR machine is still working in high gear. Bloomberg, FT, and occasionally the New York Times will follow up on all these projects and their failings, in articles that are only read by a few tens of thousands of people. But when a new project is announced it’s in ALL the outlets, with videos, puff pieces, and endless social media placements. The more disturbing facts are all out there, and I’m proud that I got to bring them to you with today’s video.
Full disclosure: I own some Tesla stock and I’m actually pretty bullish on the company’s long-term chances. If Elon Musk can get his head on straight that is. That doesn’t mean it’s a good investment for Saudi Arabia…
So how do we bring about change in 2018? It may seem like I’m doing advertising for MSNBC with today’s video, but I assure you I’m not. It’s about trying to take a chunk of media that serves a purpose and put it in front of more people. This may seem petty and small, but I really don’t think it is. In fact, I think it’s this kind of “media hacking” that can actually bring about change in the modern day.
It’s common for people to be hopeless about the way things are going. “Whatever, we’re all screwed!” is often the prevailing attitude. We’re all at the mercy of insane government institutions and the media that gave us our reality TV president. One of the central messages of this channel is that that approach is nuts. In fact, we’re in a better place than we have ever been. In the United States at least, we’ve got a 230 year old system that provides all the tools we need to change things for the better. The weird social media / news / politics ecosystem that is evolving now is tremendously disconcerting, but it also provides new opportunities. We wouldn’t have ended up with Trump without the internet. But would we have ended up with the speedy adoption of marijuana legalization, gay marriage, or the (painfully slow) fall of mass incarceration without the internet? It’s not all disaster.
If we do solve the problem of the US forever war, it’s going to be by using these new social media tools in combination with the older tools of the US political system. I have no idea what that’s going to look like. But I think the experiment that is today’s video is worth trying. Last March, when the senate was debating a resolution that could have ended the war on Yemen, I urged people to call their congresspeople. This is just another approach to the same goal.
In recent months I’ve realized that there’s a gaping hole in my “Yemen’s Disaster” series. The series does a good job laying out the many different divisions within Yemen, and between the sponsors of differing sides in Yemen’s civil war. But it leaves out the very important role of divisions within the “Saudi Coalition” that has been destroying the country. The United Arab Emirates, supposedly allied with Saudi Arabia, has been pursuing a very different strategy, which is laid out in this video.
I don’t necessarily have too much trouble with hypocrisy. Any adult realizes that we’re all hypocrites to some degree. But we should know what we’re doing. And the level of hypocrisy illustrated in today’s video is pretty extraordinary. Yemen and Ukraine are two of the world’s hot spots. Essentially the same thing is happening in both countries. A more powerful neighbor is trying to invade and change them. If we care about international law, we should be more willing to make these comparisons more often.
Also, watching today’s video, I realized that I’m being deeply hypocritical in the video. I was so excited to make this comparison that I left my own country out of the analysis. The United States invades countries more frequently than anybody else does. The vid should definitely have mentioned that. But I think the point still stands. One day the US might be able to be constrained by international law as well. If we’re going to get there, we have to be willing to try to look at all conflicts with a little more objectivity. Which is hard for hypocrites like us…
One of the most important aspects of development in Saudi Arabia, and in the Gulf more broadly, is the fact that it often doesn’t happen. The Gulf countries are mostly run by monarchs, and they all have pharaonic ambitions. They want to build monuments, cities, and other great works that illustrate their magnificence. If it’s something as simple as a museum or giving a foreign university a local campus it happens. But the great ambitions that mix local development, innovation, or anything else that requires real buy-in from the people of the country, either never happen, or happen in such a small way as to make the initial announcements look ridiculous.
When NEOM, the 500 billion USD sustainable city was announced, I couldn’t help but think of the UAE’s Masdar city. It was announced with similar fanfare back in 2006. It was going to be green, it was going to be amazing, there were going to be tons of people there! Parts of Masdar did end up being built, but most of the plan was scrapped, and the Guardian now describes it as in danger of becoming a ghost town. Masdar isn’t the only hi-tech wonderland city that never was. Saudi Arabia has one too. Anybody remember King Abdullah Technology City? It was the last king’s NEOM. It was still moving along, or at least reported to be so back in 2015.
And that’s the important bit here. All of this constant churn of projects seems to be done more for a foreign press audience than to create real change in Saudi Arabia. I don’t doubt the sincerity of any of the Saudi Royal reformers, I just doubt their ability. The world press gives them a free pass on all of this. Almost none of the articles reporting on NEOM mentioned King Abdullah city or Masdar. Actually, now that Abdullah is dead, his city seems to have disappeared from the news completely. It’s clear that it’s now longer a public relations priority, and I’d guess that the 100 billion that is supposed to build that city is now quickly moving on to MBS’s NEOM. This is not a good way to run anything. But the Saudis get a pass from the world press. Today’s video, on the ridiculousness of the Saudi Aramco IPO is an attempt to push back on that a bit.