Useful idiots

Summary: Tom Friedman’s interview with MBS was a missed opportunity to make MBS answer some hard questions about corruption and the Yemen war. As austerity measures continue and the royal family seek to extract revenge, the purge will backfire like MBS’s other policies.

Saudi Arabia is one of the least penetrable countries in the world. Freedom of speech and association are severely curtailed and foreign journalists who dare criticise the regime find themselves promptly expelled or otherwise lose access that effectively ends their career. Conversely journalists who show an aptitude for disseminating Saudi propaganda unchallenged thrive in the Kingdom and are always invited back. Pulitzer prize winning journalist Tom Friedman’s interview with Mohammed bin Salman is his third since MBS rose to prominence. Since it was published on November 23 it has attracted a wave of criticism.

“Mr. Friedman’s description of the situation in Saudi Arabia is so divorced from reality as to call into question his competence as a journalist or opinion writer” wrote a group of incensed Middle East scholars in an open letter to the NYT after the interview was published. Challenged at a Brookings event on 3 Dec Friedman robustly defended himself. “I’ve got news for you” he said. “The entire Arab world is dysfunctional right now, completely dysfunctional, and it has the potential to be a giant Yemen, a giant human disaster area, and so when I see someone having the balls to take on the religious component on that, to take on the economic component, to take on the political component, with all of his flaws, and with all due respect to his cousins not one of them would have the balls to do that, I want to invest just a little, I just want to stick my head up and say God I hope you succeed and when you do that then holy hell comes down on you. Well f*** that is my view.”

Leaving aside the orientalist tropes (the “ornate adobe-walled palace”) and the prose (MBS “wore me out with a fire hose of new ideas”) Friedman’s principal failing in his interview was allowing MBS to make his case unchallenged, even though much of what he says is highly questionable. The purge Friedman accepts at face value as a genuine “anti-corruption drive” without considering the possibility that the main motive may in fact have been not combating corruption, but rather the removal of Prince Mutib bin Abdullah, who as former head of the National Guard posed an existential threat to MBS’s regime and continues to wield influence. Evidence of this was on show last week when he became the first prince to be released from the Ritz.

Saudi princes and merchants relax in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton

Nor does Friedman stop to consider the plethora of corruption allegations against MBS himself and his close relatives, even though last year the NYT, which Friedman writes for, published a story about MBS buying a $550 mn yacht on a whim. According to one dissident Saudi prince – who was later kidnapped, taken back to Saudi Arabia and disappeared – MBS’s main priority as told to the rest of the royal family is to become the world’s first trillionaire and the richest man in the world. The letter written in 2015 by an anonymous Saudi prince accuses the “thief, corrupt, destroyer of the nation Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman” and his brothers, of corruptly embezzling hundreds of billions of riyals:

“When warning from the danger of extravagance and waste, ever since King Salman came to the throne, we mean by that the waste of $160 billion (600 billion riyals), as well as the withdrawal of not less than a further $100 billion (375 billion riyals) into the pockets of Mohammad bin Salman and his brothers, Turki, Khaled, Nayif, Bandar, and Rakan. Many may know of the thefts that took place through arms deals and the expansion of the Two Holy Mosques etc, however, they may not know of the heading of special affairs and the special royal account. The Special Affairs heading includes SR 50 million riyals daily to the King (or whoever controls the seal of the King), to be used for anything he wants. The special royal account, on the other hand, is a current account at the National Commercial Bank at the value of SR 9 billion riyals. The Monetary Agency is obliged to cover any amount withdrawn from the special royal account immediately. Additionally, 2 million barrels per day are sent to an account that belongs to Mohammad bin Salman, in the name of the King. This extravagance calls down the wrath of God.”

MBS’s account of how the purge came about, which Friedman accepts, is also questionable.

“In early 2015, one of [MBS’s] first orders to his team was to collect all the information about corruption — at the top” he writes. “This team worked for two years until they collected the most accurate information, and then they came up with about 200 names… When all the data was ready, the public prosecutor, Saud al-Mojib, took action.”

The historical record indicates otherwise. The moguls were arrested on Saturday 4 Nov, although many royal family members had been detained or banned from travelling in the days and months beforehand. The formation of a new anti-corruption committee was announced on the evening of 4 Nov, headed by MBS. Then on Monday 6 Nov the Saudi Attorney General spoke for the first time about “a great deal of evidence”.

If there really was a team collecting information for two years beforehand and a proper legal framework as MBS claims it would have made more sense if the Attorney General, a recent MBS appointment, had been involved as a first, not last, step and you would have expected that the existence of two years worth of evidence would have been announced at the very beginning. Even more suspicious, not a shred of alleged “evidence” has been made public so far, and all signs are that in fact the detainees are being accorded no rights at all. Lurid media reports claim some of the detainees are being hung upside down and tortured by mercenaries. Nor did MBS explain – and Friedman omitted to ask him – why a new anti-corruption committee was required in the first place, since one already existed having been set up during the days of King Abdullah, headed by Muhammad Bin Abdullah Al-Sharif.

Though he does not pose MBS any tough questions, Friedman does claim to have asked other Saudis their opinion of MBS’s ‘reform’ programme. “Not a single Saudi I spoke to here over three days expressed anything other than effusive support for this anticorruption drive” wrote Friedman unironically, like an “useful idiot” as communists used to describe non-communists that they had seduced and manipulated in the Cold War days.

This “anti-corruption drive” however, according to Friedman, is only the “second-most unusual and important initiative launched by M.B.S. The first is to bring Saudi Islam back to its more open and modern orientation — whence it diverted in 1979…. M.B.S. is on a mission to bring Saudi Islam back to the center.”

Once again this comment raises serious questions about Friedman’s judgment and integrity. As the group of angry Middle East experts wrote in their open letter to the NYT, it “betrays either a complete ignorance of the history, religious and political dynamics, and present geostrategic ambitions of bin Salman’s agenda; or, worse, complicity in a completely false narrative of what is really happening on the ground.”

For MBS to divorce himself from “Saudi Islam” and stay in power could be compared to Prince William becoming a Muslim and then expecting to become king and head of the Church of England. In other words, it would make a mockery of history, religion and culture and would be simply too big a step. The Saudi royal family and “Saudi Islam” are too interlinked for MBS to be able to jettison the clerics and survive: he would saw off the branch he is sitting on. Saudi Islam and the sword are what keeps him in power since he has, after all, no democratic legitimacy and according to an old tradition there are no monarchies in the Quran.

The purge has made MBS’s legitimacy situation much worse. For years Saudi state propaganda, the media and educational system, has endorsed an image of the royal family as a sacred unified entity, overseen by a benevolent king. Seeing princes on TV being treated like crooks has completely unravelled this narrative. Ordinary Saudis are certainly satisfied to see such notorious figures being treated like criminals, but at the same time they believe MBS is just enriching himself personally and in a few months time, when they see no end to their privations, they will want to know what has happened to the assets seized in the Ritz.

What Friedman failed to make clear is that the Saudi regime has no ideology beyond staying in power, and MBS will say or do anything he thinks will further that end. He knows he needs US backing, which in practice means getting Israel’s backing, which is why he has embarked on an unprecedented programme of normalisation with Israel in recent months. MBS understands that the US public also needs grooming, which was the reason for the Friedman interview in the first place, and promises of “moderate Islam” are intended as music to the ears of the US public. This is not the only line in Friedman’s piece which comes with a whiff of western PR consultants. MBS’s spurious claim that Iran’s “supreme leader is the new Hitler of the Middle East” also looks like a calculated attempts to evoke the maximum emotional response from a Western audience, when arguably MBS is more like Hitler with his ruthless consolidation of power and Night of the Long Knives.

Yemen is Friedman’s most significant omission, especially given the catastrophic humanitarian situation there and the fact MBS is more responsible for the war than anyone else. Friedman instead reports MBS’s absurd claim that “the pro-Saudi legitimate government there” is “now in control of 85 percent of the country”. The “government” MBS refers to may qualify as pro-Saudi (although Hadi was reportedly detained against his will), but can hardly be called legitimate (Hadi having been elected in a presidential election in 2012 with only one candidate), nor in control of 85% of his country (in reality the Hadi government is in Riyadh).

The truth is Yemen is just one of a string of policy failures by the impetuous MBS. In Lebanon President Saad Hariri has officially withdrawn his resignation and Iran has strengthened its position. In the Qatar dispute, Qatar is now closer to Turkey and Iran than ever before, the opposite result from that which MBS intended. The Aramco float MBS claimed would raise $2 trillion but this has been widely rejected by economists and the IPO – which underpins Vision 2030 and so the future security and prosperity of the whole kingdom – now looks deeply uncertain. Far from MBS building the kingdom’s “strength and economy” as Friedman asserts, he continues to haemorrhage around $70bn in foreign currency reserves each year and will be bankrupt in a few years unless something unexpected happens.

Now the purge is set to be the latest policy to backfire. Rather than secure the kingdom, it has undermined investor confidence and will garner only a fraction of the $100 bn MBS has claimed. He will not be able to use the bank details he has extracted from the detainees to get his hands on their all-important foreign assets because, unlike Friedman, a European court will need to see some evidence and there is no way MBS is going to present any because if he does it will inevitably lead back to him and his close relatives. It would also open up a whole new legal can of worms: in the Ritz are senior princes, admirals and generals who between them oversaw every major Saudi-Western defence contract for the last 40 years. It would be a magnificent failure even by MBS’s standards if a Saudi anti-corruption investigation was to lead to a halt on all arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

But the biggest problem MBS now faces, entirely of his own making, is that by coercing the royal family in this way, rather than by trying to win them over, he has humiliated them in public and so broken two cardinal rules of the royal family: never disrespect your elders and never fight in public. According to Saudi culture the kinsmen of those arrested are now honour-bound to take revenge and since the royal family is all intermarried everyone has been affected. Just as King Faisal was killed by his cousin because he ordered his cousin’s brother to be executed, so an explosive reaction from within the family is to be expected now at any time.

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