Comparative history is not an exact science. It can be a fraught business. I’m sure there are a number of ways in which today’s video could be portrayed as condescending or even a bit racist. “What do you mean Ethiopia is 100 years behind Europe!!!”. But comparative history is too useful a tool, to not use. Unfortunately, it’s often used poorly. With this video, and a follow up I’m still drafting, I hope to debunk some of the dumber comparisons that are made. I also want to show that while Ethiopia’s civil war is horrible, it’s not really much of a detour from normal development.
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!
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.
So what’s more important, the short-term pain of vulnerable populations in New York City or the long-term health of the city? Actually it’s a trick question. It’s not an either/or sort of question. New York City’s vulnerable populations are just as reliant on the success of the city as the rich and famous are. More so actually. NYC has been the prime example of the “Blue Model of Government” for quite some time. Public Sector Unions own the city (and the state). The largest public housing blocks in the country are a dominant feature of the architectural landscape. There’s a lot of mismanagement and waste in the education and social services sectors, but there’s also a lot of impressive work being done, that couldn’t be done elsewhere. New York’s mix of wealth and poverty is unique.
All of this, the good and the bad, is reliant on New York retaining its position as the country’s dominant economic hub. If the golden goose flies south, the place will fall apart. Sure, the rent would get cheaper, but a lot of the social services would just evaporate. I wasn’t actually joking when I compared NYC to Detroit, the US city that has lost over half of its population over the past fifty years. For those who think the comparison is ridiculous, I suggest you take a walk through the Bronx, a part of New York City that still hasn’t recovered from New York’s last economic collapse. Today’s video may seem callous in privileging the interests of business over poor New Yorkers, but I don’t think that’s what I was doing at all. The interests are the same.
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.
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…