This is a video I’ve wanted to make for a while. After looking at it intensely for at least three years now, I’ve got some very strong opinions on the history of the Arab World. I’ve been reluctant to lay them out however, because it’s impossible to talk about the Arab world in general without talking about Israel. It’s a topic that is guaranteed to alienate at least half my audience. As you can tell from today’s video, my views are capable of irritating all sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict. I have held off on addressing that conflict directly because of general chicken-heartedness, and a feeling that I haven’t read enough on the subject yet.
Well a week or so back Israel and the UAE took it out of my hands. The deal announced by Trump is tremendously significant, though not for the reasons that the parties or the deal-makers suspect. This really could be a turning point in Arab history more generally. Or maybe not. Anyway, I’m delighted to have been forced to get these ideas out there. Let me know what you think!
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.
The fall of Christian Constantinople to the Muslim Turks is one of the most significant events in Eurasian history. Some use the date it happened, 1453, as the break point between “Medieval” times and the “Early Modern” era. The threat of the Ottoman Empire was an important thing too. It motivated a lot of the state consolidation and military advancement that gave us modern Western Civilization. The threat of “the Turk” is long passed, but we don’t challenge the basic assumptions that that struggle has left us with. We don’t need the dream of a fallen Constantinople for propaganda purposes anymore. We should acknowledge what actually happened. That’s what this week’s video aims to do.
You all may have noticed that I consciously avoid the term “Byzantine Empire” here. The Byzantines did too. In fact the term wasn’t even invented until centuries after they had gone. They knew themselves as Romans, so that’s how I try to refer to them as well. This confusion has its origin in a bit of archaic racism. The Enlightenment thinkers that drew European History together didn’t like the Greeks much. For them Rome was based in Rome. It was the great civilization of Cicero and Augustus, it spoke Latin and it ended in 476.
The Western bits of the Empire did in fact fall in 476. But the Eastern Half had a full 1,000 years of history ahead of it. The Western European historians of the 1700s found this kind of thing distasteful. Altogether too Eastern. The Eastern Roman Emperors, with their constant murdering of each other, their pretensions to imperial divinity, and tasteless bling weren’t really their sort of Romans. So they invented a whole new name for them, the Byzantines, based on the original Greek name of Constantinople. I’m a big fan of Rome, and I have some of the same prejudices, but I don’t feel the need to distinguish the way the folks in the 1700s did. So I tend to use the term “Eastern Roman Empire” rather than “Byzantine Empire”.
“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.
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…