The fall of Tunisia’s constitutional order is profoundly depressing to me. But if we’re honest, it happened long before President Kais Saied brought the hammer down on Sunday July 25th. Tunisia’s government has been a non-stop crisis for two years, leading to one of the world’s worst Covid responses, and a murderous third wave that’s happening as we speak. This provides a grim opportunity, because I’m better positioned to talk about Tunisia than I ever have been. I spent a couple months this spring studying the country and the issues facing it fairly closely. The critique I put forward in today’s video is one that I was planning to launch anyway. Tunisia’s constitution was likely to fail from the start.
I may have gone a bit overboard with today’s video. It packs what I’ve learned from the three books on Tunisia I have read over the past month into one video, and it may be a bit overstuffed. Even given that, I can already see the angry comments talking about everything I’ve missed. Tunisia has an incredibly complex and lengthy history that led to the successful country it is today. I hope I’ve done it a bit of justice with this video!
Merry Christmas Everybody! I’m heading out of town in a couple hours, but I’m super psyched to be able to fill one of the year’s biggest gaps by putting out a Christmas eve video on Tunisia! I intend to do a better job of keeping on top of Tunisian and North African politics in the new year. In September and October they held a series of elections that I am very late in covering. Tunisia is probably the most important country in the Middle East/North Africa region. There’s a distinct chance that what they’re doing now will be remembered long after the decades of nastiness further East have been forgotten. One can hope anyway…
I have always found Algeria fascinating. It’s weirdly distinct from the rest of the Arab world. This has always been true, but it’s been especially so since the Arab Spring in 2011, an event that Algeria sat out, almost uniquely.
Most countries in the Arab world are either small or profoundly beat up. They have all lost their independence to one extent or each other, victims of Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolutionary efforts since the Arab Spring. Even Egypt, a country of 80 million that used to lead the Arab world, is reduced to taking hand outs from Saudi Arabia and the United States. Not Algeria.
Over the past two months, Algeria has been experiencing its own protest movement, and its strong man has been dethroned. People are expecting things to take a similar path to earlier Arab Spring debacles. That’s possible, but in this video I argue things may turn out differently. Because Algeria is stronger than you think it is.
I really like today’s video, but I think I stuck my foot in my mouth a bit at one point. I just sort of declared that Tunisia is not a “white country”. I already know I’ll be getting a ton of comments on that. There is no settled definition of “White”. Because of some historical weirdness, in the US Arabs have generally been described as white, long before Italians or Slavs were considered to be in that category. That hasn’t kept US foreign policy from being heavily focused on bombing Arabs for the past two decades.
I try to avoid using desperately inexact terminology like “white” and “Latino”. But what I was trying to get at with today’s video was the fact that certain countries are inside the charmed circle of countries that are seen as deserving of serious help and foreign aid, and some are not. Tunisia, whatever you may think of the country’s relation to “whiteness”, is not in that charmed circle. It should be.
Foreign Aid is a ridiculously complex topic. I really enjoyed diving into it in today’s video. I’m afraid I probably oversimplified things, but I’m excited to learn more about this topic for future videos. The first thing I noticed about foreign aid, is that contrary to the way we talk about it in US politics, very, very little money goes into this. The exception, from the US perspective, is aid that we give to countries who turn around and use most of the money to buy US weapons. Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, our three largest recipients, are all examples of this. Countries we have destroyed, like Iraq and Afghanistan also get a lot of money, for obvious reasons. As this video illustrates, foreign aid is mostly used for short term political uses, not to pursue larger humanitarian goals.
There certainly are really great things that foreign aid has done. Helping to stamp out AIDS and other diseases in Africa is one great thing we do. But a lot of that is private charity, and all of those efforts combined are chicken feed compared to the military related aid that the US shovels down the throats of multiple countries. The EU structural funds, one of the topics of today’s video, are an example of enlightened self interest. The rich European countries know that the best way to ensure a peaceful continent, and avoid having to have much military spending, is to fire hose money into the poorer countries in the continent. I wish the US did more of this. If the cost of a single aircraft carrier was spent on aid to Tunisia, we could really transform the region, and the world, for the better. It’s a shame we don’t do that.
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.