With today’s video I try something new. Most of my video scripts come to me more fully formed, in a rush of inspiration. With this “Avoiding the British Empire” series, I’m trying something more ambitious. The first 9 episodes of the video series are meant to work with each other, building the case, and helping viewers arrive at a picture of the world that grows with each installment. The series is meant to be greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not sure this has been entirely successful. I tend to focus on making discrete points and individually successful videos. My writing process is like that as well. This series is the first I can think of, where multiple videos started out as “Oh, I need to do this in this video”, rather than as a loose collection of thematically related issues. Many of the videos in the series predated the over-arching series structure. Today’s video did not. What do you think?
The New Trailer is Up! I had been thinking about this for about a year and it’s great to finally have it out there. Probably the most over-thought out and hashed over three minutes in this channel’s history. It’s always difficult for me to figure out what this channel is about. With this trailer I think I’ve gotten it down to something I’m happy with, is well produced, and might appeal to a broader group of people. I’m pretty pleased. Let me know what you think.
This is my third attempt at a channel trailer, and I think it’s useful to compare it to the other two. The first is probably the funniest, and definitely the best produced of the trailers, but it’s neither representative of what this channel is, nor does it have much of a point other than the fact that pie is funny. With the second trailer, in the direct aftermath of the Trump election, I’m clearly failing to come up with an ideological response to what had just happened. It’s also really shittily produced. It’s embarrassing that that has been the face of my channel for the unsubscribed for almost three years now. With this new trailer I think I’m much better situated to retain subscribers and grow the channel.
This video has turned out to be quite prescient. Closing in on two months ago, when it became clear that the UAE was withdrawing some troops from Yemen, I proposed three possible scenarios for what it would mean. All three are still worth considering, but it’s looking like the one I flagged as most likely is the one that’s happening. It’s a sort of Vietnam 1973 scenario. The Saudis have lost, but they won’t acknowledge it yet, and there is plenty of murder and destruction to come before it becomes obvious to everyone with a 1975 style “helicopters on rooftops” moment.
I didn’t anticipate how quickly things would fall apart, however, with Saudi and UAE proxies engaging in open warfare in the only major Yemeni city that their “coalition” has managed to take. I think the Vietnam parallel stands though. Since World War II we have been lucky enough to see very little inter-state war. Much of the suffering in the world has come in the context of civil wars. This Saudi invasion of its neighbor is only one of a handful of such examples since the 1940s. Vietnam is one of those examples, and the parallels will just get more and more obvious. As sad as this is, it is a bit heartening to see that the US failure in Vietnam wasn’t some unique failure of will, it’s just really fricking hard to invade a country in the modern context. The Saudis are doing even worse than we did, much more quickly.
The US invasion of Iraq also fits into the Vietnam structure pretty well, as I documented five years ago…
The question asked by this video may seem ridiculous, or even horrifying. The United States has waged a relentless war on Muslim countries for two, based on the terrorist activities of a few individuals and ideologies that were just as much inspired by the US intelligence community as they were by any religion. From Iraq, to Yemen to Somalia and Libya it’s a pretty horrifying legacy.
But it could be so much worse. In this video I argue that the Devil world-wide Islam knows is vastly preferable to the devil it does not know. Both China and India have demonstrated in recent years that their approach to their own Muslim minorities is awful. As their power grows this treatment will extend to Muslims worldwide. In the months since I made this video, this has only gotten more apparent, with India’s new repression of the Muslims of Kashmir, to Modi’s (very related to Kashmir) growing closeness with the most repressive elements of the Israeli government.
I don’t like covering breaking news topics. I’m happy to produce a video on a deep seated issue that gets sparked by something in the news, but I don’t like making predictions or doing video takes about an on-going story (that’s what twitter’s for!). Mid-stream analysis, the bread and butter of the cable news networks, is largely bullshit. Unfortunately, for today’s video, Khalifa Haftar of Libya ambushed me. On March 26th, I promised to do a video on Libya, a topic I had already been researching for a week or two. On April 4th, Khalifa Haftar invaded Western Libya, throwing everything up in the air.
Half of this video was drafted before April 4th. As the news has rolled in, my estimate of Haftar, already pretty negative, continued to plummet. I have tried to make this video consistent and informative in its presentation, but I’m not sure I pulled it off. A video’s title is very much a part of the experience. Usually it just advertises and reflects the content, but I think with today’s video, more buffeted by events than I like, the title may present the conclusion. I shot this video last Thursday, and have continued to research and follow developments as they have come. Haftar is not the savior he is sometimes presented to be. I hope today’s video gets that across.
This video would not have been possible without the International Crisis Group’s Libya coverage. On country after country I have found their work invaluable. They tend to be my starter source for one-shot videos like this where I won’t be reading multiple books.
After today’s video had been shot, the Wall Street Journal confirmed that Haftar has Saudi Arabia’s full support in his destruction of Libya’s chances for a settlement.
I used this headline on Haftar and the Muslim Brotherhood in the video. Keep in mind that the National is a United Arab Emirates publication, so this article may be more useful for what the UAE wants you to think about Libya, than what is actually going on.
I also used this headline from Reuters, and the article provides a nice discussion of Egypt’s shady bombing campaigns in Libya. Reuters is a US publication, so of course it’s going to downplay the fact that Washington, DC is, at root, the responsible party in this nightmare.
It’s not really the focus of today’s video, which I wanted to keep light, but it really is fucking outrageous what the Defense Department is trying to pull off with its new National Defense Strategy. The Pentagon continues to use terrorism as a blank check for assassinations, kidnappings, and hyper-militarization in dozens of countries all over the world. The Pentagon has used it to scare the US public for decades now. They want to keep doing all of these things. But now that terrorism is fading, they want to perform a magic trick, keep all their money and toys, and continue with business as usual.
And they’re getting away with it. Washington, DC is super absorbed with talking about how much it hates Donald Trump, but is acting with surprising unity. Trump has started a trade war with China. The Department of Justice is pursuing cases against Chinese businesses with unprecedented and shocking vigor. The recently vacating “adults in the room” at the Defense Department were obsessed with China too. Every media group lightly poo poos Trump’s treatment of China… and then jumps on the bandwagon to talk about how scary and sinister China is. It’s outrageous really. Sigh.
Well at least we’re attempting to hold them accountable. Spill your glass for the War on Terror. It was a terribly wasteful and pointless way to spend a couple trillion dollars and a couple million lives.
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.
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.
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…
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.