Someone thought it was a good idea to send Thomas Friedman to Riyadh to interview Mohammed bin Salman, which means Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi is busy pounding out a satirical critique of Friedman’s piece at this very moment.
This being Friedman, the article (for the New York Times) is awful. For one thing, Friedman cannot write – hopefully you know that. Here’s an example from the MbS piece:
M.B.S. spoke in English, while his brother, Prince Khalid, the new Saudi ambassador to the U.S., and several senior ministers shared different lamb dishes and spiced the conversation.
That’s classic Thomas Friedman. You know what he’s driving at, but it doesn’t make any sense. He’s trying to use the lamb dishes as a metaphor for conversation “spicing” and it falls flatter than the world Friedman imagines he lives in.
But even if you can get past Friedman’s haplessness, the MbS interview is a fluff piece – plain and simple. He leaves little doubt about that, when he starts off with this:
I never thought I’d live long enough to write this sentence: The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia. Yes, you read that right.
Unlike the other Arab Springs – all of which emerged bottom up and failed miserably, except in Tunisia – this one is led from the top down by the country’s 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and, if it succeeds, it will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia but the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe. Only a fool would predict its success – but only a fool would not root for it.
Again, it’s hard to get past Friedman’s laughable pretensions to profundity, but those passages leave little doubt as to whether he’s going to make any effort whatsoever to honestly assess MbS’ power grab.
And he doesn’t. Friedman flew all the way to Riyadh and basically asked MbS this: “Is this really an anti-corruption drive?”
For his part, the Crown Prince told Friedman the idea that the purge is a thinly-veiled attempt to consolidate power is “ludicrous.” As far as I can tell Friedman didn’t push back very hard.
At one point, Friedman pulls a Wilbur Ross – who earlier this year marveled at how, when he accompanied Trump to the Kingdom, there “was not a single hint of a protester anywhere” – writing this:
One thing I know for sure: Not a single Saudi I spoke to here over three days expressed anything other than effusive support for this anticorruption drive. The Saudi silent majority is clearly fed up with the injustice of so many princes and billionaires ripping off their country. While foreigners, like me, were inquiring about the legal framework for this operation, the mood among Saudis I spoke with was: “Just turn them all upside down, shake the money out of their pockets and don’t stop shaking them until it’s all out!”
Forgive me Thomas, but what the fuck do you expect them to say? For one thing, they’re not going to criticize the Crown Prince and for another thing, you’re effectively asking them if they enjoy being ripped off by the people MbS is shaking down. So you’re giving them a double out: they can pledge their fealty to the Crown Prince and do so by admitting they don’t like corruption. And incidentally, some reports suggest that MbS is quite literally “turning them all upside down [and] shaking the money out of their pockets.”
But then it gets really absurd. When Friedman finally gets around to talking about the most important issue of them all – MbS and foreign policy – he tells readers this:
On foreign policy, M.B.S. would not discuss the strange goings on with Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon coming to Saudi Arabia and announcing his resignation, seemingly under Saudi pressure, and now returning to Beirut and rescinding that resignation.
Well fuck me, Friedman, that’s literally the most important thing and you can’t get him to talk about it?!
But he did manage to extract some over-the-top praise for Donald Trump and some equally bombastic criticism for Khamenei.
[MbS] praised President Trump as “the right person at the right time.”
And on Khamenei:
Iran’s “supreme leader is the new Hitler of the Middle East,” said M.B.S. “But we learned from Europe that appeasement doesn’t work. We don’t want the new Hitler in Iran to repeat what happened in Europe in the Middle East.”
Finally, MbS was kind enough to explain why he’s in such a goddamn hurry and although Friedman presents it as some kind of revelation, it’s the same reason the rest of us are in a hurry. Namely because everyone dies one day:
“Because,” said M.B.S., “I fear that the day I die I am going to die without accomplishing what I have in my mind. Life is too short and a lot of things can happen, and I am really keen to see it with my own eyes – and that is why I am in a hurry.”
So there you go. Thomas Friedman flew halfway around the world to learn that MbS is not engaged in a historic power grab, is serious about corruption, thinks Trump is great, thinks Khamenei is “Hitler”, and is in a hurry because he understands that he will eventually die.
It’s a good thing “the world is flat” or that would have been a long trip for nothing.