Monday, December 11, 2017

By Petra Marquardt-Bigman

A few weeks ago, the NYT published a widely criticized article by Thomas L. Friedman, who excitedly reported that the “most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia.”

I think it would be really wonderful if things turned out as glowingly rosy as Friedman presented them. But as countless critics have pointed out, that’s not very likely.

One of the most widely noted critiques came from Abdullah Al-Arian, who is not only an assistant professor of History at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, but also a regular Al Jazeera contributor – which is to say that he’s not exactly unbiased. 

Take for example a column from last June, where Al-Arian complained bitterly: “For its perceived role in promoting the Muslim Brotherhood, hosting members of Hamas' political bureau, and taking a softer line on Iran, Qatar became a central target of the Saudi-Emirati-Israeli joint lobbying efforts.”

Another truly sickening example is a column Al-Arian penned just a few days after the murderous terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo’s staff in January 2015, where he blames the West for “Islamophobia” and a long list of other evils that all but explain Islamist terrorism.

And unsurprisingly, when it comes to Israel, it can’t be biased enough for Al-Arian: veteran Israel-haters and Hamas fans like Ali Abunimah and Max Blumenthal deliver the kind of news the Georgetown professor and Al Jazeera columnist wants everyone to read.

So while there’s no reason to trust Al-Arian, his response to Friedman’s NYT column is still worthwhile noting because he provided screenshots to support his claim that for almost 70 years, the NYT has been “describing #Saudi royals in the language of #reform.” Or, to put it differently: for about seven decades, the NYT has been getting the Saudis wrong.

The thread is long and a bit difficult to read because it also includes some responses to Al-Arian. He starts out quoting an article from 1953 that “describes King Saud as ‘more progressive and international-minded than his autocratic father.’” An article in 1960 asserted that “King Saud has increasingly assumed the role of liberal champion of constitutional reform.” In December 1963, the NYT reported on “Crown Prince Faisal’s ‘burst of social reform and economic development.’” A year later, the NYT described Faisal as “a man who has gained nearly absolute power without really wanting it.” Another article from the same year is entitled “Saudi Arabia: Major Changes Due;” Faisal was “described as ‘ascetic, with only one wife, who lives on grilled meat and boiled vegetables and makes a fetish of moderation.’” An obituary from 1975 presented Faisal as having “Led Saudis Into 20th Century,“ and a subsequent article described Faisal’s successor, King Khalid, as a “moderating force.”

After all this reform and moderation, NYT readers learned in 1982 that the new Saudi King Fahd “has been depicted as the leading figure in a progressive, modernizing faction within the tradition-minded monarchy.” A decade later, NYT readers were told that “King Fahd is following previous generations of Saudi rulers who had also moved toward modernization since King Abdelaziz united a vast territory populated by feuding tribal leaders into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia 60 years ago.”

In 2000, the NYT described Crown Prince Abdullah as “an advocate of domestic reform;” five years later, the NYT  wrote: “For Abdullah, who has fashioned himself as a reformer in a land where conforming to tradition is a virtue, the challenge now is to make good on longstanding promises for change.” In 2007, there was a piece entitled “Saudi King Tries to Grow Modern Ideas in Desert;” two years later, a NYT editorial saw “A Promise of Reform in Saudi Arabia.” Maureen Dowd opined in 2010 that “by the Saudi’s premodern standards, the 85 year-old King Abdullah, with a harem of wives, is a social revolutionary.”

In November 2013 – i.e. exactly four years before his recent column on Saudi reforms – Thomas Friedman asserted that Saudi King Abdullah was “in Gulf Arab terms … a real progressive;” Abdullah’s 2015 obituary describes him as “a cautious reformer amid great changes in the Middle East,” and by April 2016 the NYT editorial board saw “A Promising New Path for Saudi Arabia.”

At the end of his thread, Al-Arian denounced Friedman’s recent column as “a hagiographic ode to royal reform that represents seven decades of strategic policy objectives barely concealed beneath recycled cultural tropes.”

That’s of course rich coming from a regular contributor to a media company funded by the government of Qatar, but perhaps Al-Arian has never heard the proverbial warning that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

Yet, while his quotes are obviously cherry-picked from articles that, in their entirety, may give a more nuanced picture, it is still unsettling to see that the NYT has felt for some seven decades that reform, moderation and modernization were somehow in the hot Saudi air.

It is interesting to note in this context that Friedman acknowledges in his column that “this virus of an antipluralistic, misogynistic Islam … came out of Saudi Arabia in 1979,” prompted by “the three big events of that year: the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Saudi puritanical extremists — who denounced the Saudi ruling family as corrupt, impious sellouts to Western values; the Iranian Islamic revolution; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.” The result was according to Friedman “a worldwide competition” between the Saudis and Iran’s ayatollahs “over who could export more fundamentalist Islam.”

You’ll note that none of these events has anything to do with Israel, which has been blamed so often for Muslim extremism and fanaticism.

We have lots of ideas, but we need more resources to be even more effective. Please donate today to help get the message out and to help defend Israel.

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