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'Thomas Friedman: The imperial messenger'

The following is an excerpt from my book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released today by Verso. The excerpt, originally published at Al Jazeera, begins with late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said’s criticism of the Orientalist tendencies Friedman exhibits in his 1989 bestseller From Beirut to Jerusalem. All quotes appearing in this excerpt are properly cited in the work itself.

Edward Said has challenged Friedman’s superimposition of desert scenery onto the contemporary Middle East in his explanation of the Hama massacre of 1982, which Friedman attributes in part to the notion that Syrian President Hafez al-Assad viewed the Sunnis of Hama as “members of an alien tribe – strangers in the desert – who were trying to take his turkey”, something we are told happens in Bedouin legends. Said comments:

So astonishing a jump, from modern, predominantly urban Syria to the prehistoric desert, is of course the purest Orientalism, and is of a piece with the moronic and hopelessly false dictum offered later in the book that the Arab political tradition has produced only two types: the merchant and the messiah.”

It should be noted, however, that Said’s original conception of Orientalism as Eurocentric prejudice must be amended slightly in Friedman’s case to incorporate his generalisations about Europeans themselves, collectively denounced as “Eurowimps” when they do not exhibit sufficient enthusiasm for US military endeavours against Arabo-Islamic peoples. Friedman alternately cajoles particularly intransigent language groups with persuasive slogans like “Ich bin ein New Yorker”, advocates removing France from the UN Security Council because, “as they say in kindergarten, [it] does not play well with others”, and warns Spain that a withdrawal from Iraq in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings of 2004 is a potential modern-day equivalent of the European appeasement of Adolf Hitler.

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Thomas Friedman: Imperial Messenger of the Arab Spring

(Photo: AFP-Mark Ralston)

The following is an article I wrote for the Beirut-based Al Akhbar English.

It took Thomas Friedman — New York Times foreign affairs columnist and three-time Pulitzer Prize recipient for reporting and commentary on the Middle East — approximately 46 days after the outbreak of the Arab Spring in Tunisia to weigh in on the matter.

Noted champion of the notion that Iraqis should be made to “Suck. On. This” by the US military in order to “try to build one decent, progressive, democratizing society in the heart of the Arab East”, Friedman eventually turns up in a Tel Aviv hotel to discuss ramifications of the Egyptian uprising with a retired Israeli general. He then proceeds to Egypt itself, an experience that subsequently merits significant reflection:

When I was in Cairo during the Egyptian uprising, I wanted to change hotels one day to be closer to the action and called the Marriott to see if it had any openings. The young-sounding Egyptian woman who spoke with me from the reservations department offered me a room and then asked: ‘Do you have a corporate rate?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I work for The New York Times.’ There was a silence on the phone for a few moments, and then she said: ‘Can I ask you something?’ Sure. ‘Are we going to be O.K.? I’m worried.’

I made a mental note of that conversation because she sounded like a modern person, the kind of young woman who would have been in Tahrir Square. We’re just now beginning to see what may have been gnawing at her — in Egypt and elsewhere.

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Friedman in search of a horse

Thomas Friedman’s latest analysis of the uprisings in the Arab/Muslim world has received the response it deserves from Sarah Carr.

In Friedman’s defense, however, it is presumably difficult for a foreign affairs columnist to devote his full attention to the goings-on in his alleged region of expertise when he is simultaneously penning his latest scheme for the glorious resurgence of the United States of America.

As Friedman explained to Fox’s Don Imus not so long ago, the “gut thesis” of his upcoming book is as follows:

It’s not a man on horseback we need, Don, it’s a different horse right now, and a different horse that demands a different kind of politics that drives the country in a different direction.”

As a result of the horse project, the foreign affairs columnist was prevented from weighing in on Arab/Muslim uprisings for a full 46 days, though he did manage an article about how the U.S. government should take attitude lessons from Singapore’s millionaire bureaucrats.

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