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25 Nov, 2017 21:09

NY Times hails ‘Arab Spring’ in Saudi Arabia, world goes ‘Huh?’

NY Times hails ‘Arab Spring’ in Saudi Arabia, world goes ‘Huh?’

A gushing profile of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in which New York Times star columnist Thomas Friedman praises him as the architect of the country’s “Arab Spring,” intent on moderating Islam and fighting corruption, has attracted quite a backlash.

During Friedman’s visit to Riyadh, Mohammed bin Salman – or “M.B.S.” as the journalist invariably calls him – and “several senior ministers” treated him to “different lamb dishes” in the House of Saud’s “ornate adobe-walled family palace” and “wore him out with a fire hose of new ideas about transforming his country” during a conversation that lasted into the early hours of the morning. Importantly for Friedman, “M.B.S.” spoke in English.

While Friedman inserts several caveats into the article, its tone is relentlessly positive, and at one point he says “only a fool would not root” for the Crown Prince’s plans to succeed.

“[T]hey have a young leader who is driving religious and economic reform, who talks the language of high tech, and whose biggest sin may be that he wants to go too fast. Most ministers are now in their 40s — and not 60s. And with the suffocating hand of a puritanical Islam being lifted, it’s giving them a chance to think afresh about their country and their identity as Saudis,” writes Friedman, who reminds the audience of his own early journalistic career as a Middle East correspondent.

Friedman evidently probed “M.B.S.” on several hot-button issues, such as the Saudi-engineered political crisis in Lebanon, the humanitarian cost of the war in Yemen, and Iran. Each time, the Saudi royal, who is thought to have assumed control of the country from his father, King Salman, is allowed to state his views unchallenged. For all his spirit of openness, Mohammed bin Salman refuses to talk about the resignation of Saad Hariri, bats away questions about Yemen by saying that the war against the Houthis is nearly won, and refers to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as “the new Hitler of the Middle East” without any qualification of that statement from Friedman.
After being roundly criticized in the comments, the 2,700-word profile then immediately went viral, provoking a reaction from high-profile journalists and many of the leading experts on the region.

Anti-terrorism expert Max Abrahms gave a capsule summary of the encounter.

Indeed, according to AFP's diplomatic correspondent Dave Clark, Riyadh was also pleased with the encounter.

The Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald in fact thought that the Saudis couldn't even pay the NYT for such positive coverage.

But according to Shane Bower, of Mother Jones, sometimes paid-for tours that end with lamb dinners in gilded palaces work better than any paid advertising. 

Adam H. Johnson, who writes for the LA Times, also noted the quality of Friedman's research.

Journalist Michael Tracey thought the integrity and balance of the New York Times piece should be compared with the alleged ceaseless bias exhibited by RT.

But then again, PRI's Richard Hall noted that the "newspaper of record" knows what it's doing.

While some shared jokes, others, such as AFP's Sarah Hussein and freelancer David Klion, were genuinely offended.

The Daily Beast's Paul Gottinger noted that there had already been an Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia, whose details go strangely unmentioned by the New York Times.

Murtaza Mohammad Hussein of the Intercept thought that the feature was informative and useful, albeit not necessarily in the way Friedman was intending.

But perhaps the most damning response – and the most embarrassing for Friedman – was from Abdullah al-Arian, assistant professor of history at Georgetown University. He simply pulled out a dozen eerily similar rhapsodies from the New York Times over the past century, each time vowing that the new Saudi ruler – however backward he turned out to be in hindsight –would be a reformer who would bring democracy and fairness to the Gulf State. And just like Friedman today, there was always an excitable journalist, convinced that he had received precious insight straight from the horse's mouth, and ready to regurgitate it into the world.