By Thomas L. Friedman
Sept. 4, 2018
I greatly enjoyed the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” because, beyond the many laugh lines, it reminded me of an important point: Rich Asia has gotten really rich — not because it doesn’t have political, tribal, ethnic and religious differences like other regions, but because in more places on more days it learned to set those differences aside and focus on building the real foundations of sustainable wealth: education, trade, infrastructure, human capital and, in the most successful places, the rule of law. Most of Asia became prosperous not by discovering natural resources but by tapping its human resources — men and women — and giving them the tools to realize their potential.
It got me thinking that if someone were to do a similar movie about the Middle East it could be called “Crazy Poor Middle Easterners.” Because, with a few exceptions, this region has never been a bigger mess, had more people fighting over who owns which olive tree, had more cities turned to rubble by rival sects and missed its potential so vastly.
The region of the world that should be naturally rich has made itself poor by repeatedly letting the past bury the future and the region that is naturally poor has made itself rich by letting the future bury the past.
Now President Trump says he wants to get out of the Middle East. But America’s real choices there are not stay or go, but be smart or dumb. And Trump has been dumb. He’s subcontracted order-making there to our allies Israel and Saudi Arabia and his pal Vladimir Putin. So now Trump is getting a lesson, as we speak, in what happens when America writes blank checks to allies and pals — who share some of our interests but also have extreme impulses of their own — and abdicates real diplomatic leadership.
Let’s go to the videotape. Iran has far overstretched itself, extending its malign military and religious influence into Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, where it has reportedly partnered with the Alawite/Shiite regime of Bashar al-Assad to engage in the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from regions of Syria to be replaced by Shiites. It’s an ugly, ugly business.
Israel’s prime minister has smartly built a relationship with Putin over the last three years — with tens of meetings and phone calls — to ensure that Israel’s Air Force can operate against Iran in Syria and that Russia keeps the Iranians away from the Israeli border. But even with that, and even though the Israelis have so penetrated Iranian units that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards land supply planes full of missiles in Damascus at 6 p.m. and Israel blows them up by 8 p.m. — the Iranians keep trying to turn Syria into a forward missile base against Israel.
And on Tuesday, Russia’s Air Force bombed Idlib Province — the last major gathering centre for Islamist anti-regime rebels in Syria and the hundreds of thousands of Sunni refugees who have fled the regime’s poison gas and other attacks.
Trump tweeted: “President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province. The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!”
Trump seems to have drawn a red line with his tweet, but Russia and Iran are telling the U.S. and Israel: Without troops on the ground, you don’t have a vote. We’re going for broke. What is Trump going to do if Iran, Assad and Russia ignore him?
And what is Trump’s team doing in Israel? First it moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem — giving the right-wing Israeli government of Bibi Netanyahu a long-coveted prize — and asked for nothing in return.
Trump could have told Bibi that he would move the embassy but only in return for Israel halting all settlement-building beyond the West Bank blocks in the densely populated Arab areas that would likely be put under Palestinian control in any peace deal. That might have actually advanced the peace process. Instead, the U.S. gave up one of its most valuable diplomatic assets free. How foolish was that?
Now Trump’s team is punishing the Palestinians for not negotiating with Netanyahu — who has not put any deal on the table — by cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority — aid that went to projects like water and sewage treatment — and contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, a major employer in the West Bank and Gaza and the primary source of secular — i.e. non-Islamist — education for Palestinians.
Trump thinks he can just keep bludgeoning the Palestinians and never ask Israel to do anything hard and prevent things from getting any worse. Well, yes, they can get worse. The Palestinian Authority can collapse — and as feckless and corrupt as it may be, if it goes, it will be hard to rebuild; Israel would have to provide all the governance in the West Bank at a huge cost.
And then there’s Saudi Arabia. I have little doubt that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was the only one in his family who would have initiated the vital social, religious and economic reforms that he’s dared to do all at once — and that he is also the only one in that family who’d have undertaken the bullying foreign policy initiatives, domestic power plays and excessive personal buying sprees he’s dared to do all at once. These are two halves of the same M.B.S. package, and, as I’ve argued, our job is to help curb his bad impulses and nurture his good ones. But Trump — who still doesn’t even have an ambassador in Saudi Arabia — is AWOL.
To repeat: Democracy is not on the agenda in Saudi Arabia, but social, economic and religious reform is. M.B.S.’s government for the first time just appointed women to several key municipality leadership jobs. Considering the hugely damaging role that Saudi Arabia played in the Arab Muslim world, when, post-1979, it began to aggressively spread its puritanical form of Islam — which helped to seed 9/11 — the idea that the kingdom has a leader today who might begin to shift Sunni Islam onto a more open and moderate path, one that would isolate radical Islamists and strengthen moderates everywhere, is a huge U.S. interest to nurture.
Lately, though, M.B.S. has undertaken a series of ill-considered steps that are hurting him, Saudi Arabia and us. M.B.S. has a few very extreme advisers who keep telling him to follow the “China model” — China asserted itself in the South China Sea, the world complained, China responded to get lost, and eventually the world backed down. So when Canada mildly criticized a Saudi Arabian human rights abuse, M.B.S. went nuclear on Canada and virtually broke off relations. It was an absurd overreaction. Saudi Arabia is not China. It needs friends. It needs to be more Dubai than Shanghai — more soft power, less bullying.
Interestingly, last August, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai — one of the wisest men in the region — put out a series of tweets that caught many eyes in Saudi. One said the Arab world had “a management crisis, not a crisis of resources. Look at China and Japan … where they are now, even without natural resources. There are countries that possess oil, gas, water and human capital but lack development and even cannot provide basic services, such as roads and electricity, to their people.”
Whatever good publicity M.B.S. got for letting women drive was undermined by his arresting Saudi women driving activists on charges of being related to some anti-Saudi groups in London. Seriously, is Saudi Arabia really threatened by women driving activists? And the Saudi-U.A.E. war in Yemen has been so badly botched by incompetents in the Saudi Air Force that they are now being accused of possible war crimes.
The future stability of the whole Arab Gulf depends on the reform process in Saudi succeeding; it’s that important. But it can’t succeed without significant investments by foreigners and Saudis to create a more vibrant and diverse private sector that can offer decent jobs to all the young Saudis, men and women, coming out of universities at home and abroad. M.B.S. remains popular with many of them, but if they can’t find jobs, the religious extremists in Saudi Arabia will find many recruits among them.
With so many things that M.B.S. has done in recent months, on the advice of old guard security types around him, he has put politics and security issues ahead of the need to attract investors and talent and ministers ready to take chances and tell him the truth. Each action may have been individually justifiable, but taken together they suggest that he’s lost the plot; he’s creating more uncertainty than respect.
And it shows. Bloomberg reported on Aug. 17: According to research by Standard Chartered, in the first quarter of 2018 Saudi Arabia “saw $14.4 billion in outward portfolio investment into foreign equities, the largest surge since 2008.” Bad sign.
Trump And His Team Don’t Understand:
The U.S. can’t just subcontract order-making in the Middle East to Israel, Russia and Saudi Arabia and write them blank checks. Their leaders actually need us to draw redlines for them, too, so they can tell their own hotheads and extremists, “Hey, I am with you — but the Americans won’t let me do that.”
Being the reality principle, balancer and honest broker has been a U.S. role since the 1970s. If we abdicate it, we’ll just end up creating more crazy poor Middle Easterners.
Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist. He joined the paper in 1981, and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award.