It’s easy to get pessimistic about the US-Saudi relationship. I’ve just spent 15 videos illustrating its many evils, and the incredible costs it has imposed on the world. The amount of money involved is staggering, and generations of US government officials are complicit in this tragedy. But I really do believe it’s about to end. That’s why I started this series with a video entitled “Saudi Arabia Is Finished“. This problem won’t end because of virtue, or justice. It won’t even end because somebody in power makes a decision. It will end because of economics and an inexorable shift in the political calculus.
This week I illustrate this process by talking about another “eternal” lobby. For decades Big Tobacco ruled Washington, DC. Long after everyone knew that cigarettes were lethal, it was business as usual for the large corporations that made them. They owned the congressmen, and they had the money, so things barely changed. They funded think tanks and studies that denied the truth, or tried to hide it. Sure their incredible privilege was slowly chipped away. TV advertising was banned. In the 1980’s it became more difficult to smoke in public buildings. These small losses were easy to ignore, because the relationships were strong, and the US government knew where its bread was buttered. Sort of like a nuclear deal with Iran actually. And then in the 1990s it all changed.
The dragon was slain. Big Tobacco still exists. But in the 1990s they had to admit the lethality and addictiveness of their product. They had to shutter their fake science institutes. They were forced to pay some of the cost of the public health disaster they had created, and they were forced to fund a massive public relations campaign designed to destroy their market. It’s been fairly effective. Only 15% of US citizens are still smoking, down five percent from just a decade ago. Sure, much of their marketing budget and nefariousness moved overseas, but that’s slipping away now too. This video lays out how Saudi Arabia is experiencing it’s own Tobacco moment as we speak. It may not be obvious, but it is happening. Not because of truth or justice, but because the political calculus is shifting.
“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.
Our discussion was wide-ranging and topical, moving from Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, to ISIS, Manchester and the current unrest in Bahrain. Davidson’s deep knowledge of the area, and insightful analysis shed new light on issues in Iran, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and a few countries I’m probably forgetting to mention. The success of Shadow Wars indicates that their is an appetite for commentary that moves out of the typical range of Military Industrial Complex approved discussion. I’d highly suggest you listen to this discussion and then head straight out and buy yourself a copy of his book…
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.
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…
9/11 conspiracy theorists are focusing on the wrong thing. The true scandal isn’t what happened in the run-up to 9/11. It’s what Washington, DC did after 9/11 that is truly horrifying.
US Middle East Policy is a sad, sad joke. One of the central points in my understanding of the world is this: Institutions will act in what they perceive their interests to be, not the interests of the people they are supposed to serve. When institutions are crafted with this knowledge in mind, they can serve useful purposes. But once you point them in a direction, they are hard to turn around. The fundamental ridiculousness of post-9/11 foreign policy, laid out in this video, is a great example.
On 9/11 we were attacked by Saudi Arabia. But the US foreign policy establishment had decided long ago that the Saudis were are allies. So we went out and beat up on Saudi Arabia’s enemies. This never made any sense. Worse, it hasn’t worked. The US government’s policy was always going to be a failure on the measure of finding and punishing the perpetrators of the worst attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor. That was never the goal. But post-9/11 hasn’t even succeeded in the goal it chose: Protecting and expanding Saudi and US power.
So maybe we should choose some new goals?
If you want an idea of what that might look like, and a fuller recounting of the disaster that post- 9/11 US policy has been, I suggest you check out my new essay: Everybody’s Lying About Islam.
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.