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UAEphoria: Friedman does Dubai

In typically delusional fashion, prominent New York Times columnist casts repressive emirate as a revolutionary force and model for the Arab world.

Back in 2011, the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman—imperial warmonger, Orientalist, Israeli apologist, and possessor of a host of other unbecoming attributes—studiously compiled a list of “not-so-obvious forces” behind the Arab uprisings that began with the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi the previous year.

The forces consisted of Barack Obama, Google Earth, Israel, the Beijing Olympics, and then-Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. According to Friedman’s brain, each of these five entities had somehow contributed to a mass Arab realisation that life might be more edifying under less oppressive political arrangements.

In her priceless response to the selection, British-Egyptian journalist Sarah Carr suggested various additions to the list of forces, such as the website of the Home Shopping Network and Friedman’s own mustache. Commenting on the particularly ludicrous inclusion of Israel, Carr wrote: “[I]f Egyptians are in any way inspired by anything that happens in Israel, it is their ability to identify with Israeli oppression of the Palestinians.”

Meanwhile, Friedman’s hallucination of Google Earth into a revolt-inspiring force was based entirely on a 2006 Washington Post article about a Bahraini man named Mahmood who looked his country up on said internet program. And what did Mahmood find? That the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family had all sorts of palaces and vast swathes of empty land, while Bahrain’s poor Shiite majority was packed into tiny areas.

Interestingly, Friedman managed to overlook this bit of trivia in 2007 when he jubilantly went out for pizza with Sheik Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, whom he had previously praised as “Bahrain’s innovative Crown Prince.”

The duo’s excursion to a Bahraini bistro is recounted in Friedman’s alleged environmental tome Hot, Flat, and Crowded, in which he professes to have “known and liked for many years” the crown prince—whose progressive qualifications are enhanced by the fact that the daughter of a woman in a headscarf at the bistro table next to them is “dressed like an American teenager and had what looked like a tattoo on her left shoulder.”

After all, a repressive regime that has presided over a country for more than two centuries can’t possibly be that bad if it allows for the flourishing of the “proper” type of Arab as conceived by Friedman: a pizza-eating, maybe-tattoo-bearing one that looks, acts, and consumes like an American.

Dubai did it

Given Friedman’s love affair with obscene displays of wealth (starting, perhaps, with his own residence), it’s not surprising that he’s also a long-time admirer of another regional monarchy: Dubai.

His latest New York Times dispatch, titled “Did Dubai Do It?”, constitutes an ode to the emirate’s glory and, seemingly, an addendum to the 2011 list of “not-so-obvious forces.”

The “it” that Dubai is reported to have done is to cause the Arab “awakening” by being the “crown jewel” of the United Arab Emirates, one of the few bastions of “order and decency” in the area and “a place where young Arabs from across the region can come to realise their full potential in arts, business, media, education and technology start-ups — with world-class companies — and in their own culture, their own language, their own religious milieu, their own food preferences, music and clothing.”

Of course, not just any “young Arab” can come to Dubai given substantial economic as well as nation- and faith-based obstacles; nor is “culture” the first thing that comes to mind in the context of mega malls.

Beyond this, it is nothing short of amazing that Friedman’s description occurs in the same paragraph as his acknowledgement that “[t]he U.A.E. and Dubai are absolute monarchies that tolerate no opposition or real freedom of the press.” Apparently, it’s possible to freely “realise [one’s] full potential” while being, you know, deprived of basic rights.

Friedman naturally downplays the severity of the situation, preferring to continue his make-believe narrative: “As more young Arabs came to Dubai, or viewed it on TV from afar, more and more asked: ‘Why don’t we have that in my Arab country?’”

In a classic case of Friedmanian illogic, he goes as far as to laud as “politically subversive” the place he has just established as being completely intolerant of political opposition, based on the fact that “Dubai showed that Arabs could build a Singapore”—another delightfully oppressive locale.

Were Friedman to pay closer attention to the internal monologue of his hypothetical Arabs, however, he might find that the “that” in the question “Why don’t we have that in my Arab country?” can plausibly apply to the torture of dissidents, persecution of select religious groups, institutionalised abuse of migrant workers, and excessive surveillance.

Chances are, then, that many Arab auto-interrogations would conclude with a reflection along these lines: “Wait a minute. We do already have all of that. Now we just need an indoor ski resort to make everything seem fine and dandy.”

Progressive torture

Incidentally, on the very same day that Friedman’s Times column saw the light, Amnesty International published a report titled “‘There is no freedom here’: Silencing dissent in the United Arab Emirates,” which documents “how the UAE authorities have thrown out the rule-book of international law to stigmatise and imprison peaceful critics using provisions that equate advocacy of reform with threats to national security.”

The accompanying news report notes that UAE activists are “routinely persecuted and subjected to enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment” and that mere Twitter posts can merit jail time. Mr. Friedman might be particularly interested in the specification that the Emirati authorities are going to “extreme lengths to stamp out any sign of dissent, criticism or calls for reform in the wake of the mass popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa”—which would once again seem to confirm that Dubai was not in any way the catalyst for said events.

That Friedman is permitted to disguise de facto advertisements for repressive governments as independent analysis on the pages of the US newspaper of record naturally raises important questions about media industry ethics. But why are Friedman & Co such dedicated foot soldiers for the Emiratis in the first place?

For starters, the UAE is a major purchaser of US weapons and a key ally in current bellicose endeavours.

The unabashed materialism that characterises the country furthermore reinforces neoliberal globalisation—a system that functions on behalf of the US, as Friedman never ceases to remind us.

But there’s another critical advantage to UAEphoria: it distracts from the Palestinian cause. According to Friedman, “[p]rogressive Arab states… want to build their legitimacy not on how they confront Israel but on how well they prepare their people for the future.”

And if the future is one in which Israeli crimes of ethnic cleansing and land theft are essentially struck from the historical record, Dubai is doing a superb job.

Although the UAE and Israel do not officially maintain diplomatic relations, a 2013 Financial Times article notes that Dubai is “one of the main routes for Gulf-Israeli trade,” with Israeli diamond traders reportedly “travel[ing] in and out of Dubai on their Israeli passports with the agreement of the authorities.”

The article also draws attention to a 2009 WikiLeaks cable specifying that the UAE and Israel “have some direct dialogue on regional and security issues.”

It’s no accident that Friedman is forever haranguing the Palestinians for their alleged failure to “turn [the Gaza Strip] into Dubai rather than Tehran”—without explaining how it is that one is supposed to go about building Dubai while under regular aerial bombardment and punitive blockade.

Revolution and reality

In his latest column, Friedman attempts to legitimise his militance on behalf of the UAE by quoting a Palestinian businessman he recently met in Dubai, who contends that “Dubai is the capital of the Arab Spring — the real revolution started here.”

According to this character, it “did not start because they wanted freedom and democracy. It started in the mind of the average [Arab] who the saw the evidence in Dubai that we could do things that are hard, and we could do them world class... and with a lot of tolerance.”

Friedman also manages to finagle a cameo by Salam Fayyad—former Palestinian prime minister, neoliberal Israeli puppet, and co-hero of the 2011 list of revolutionary forces—who tells him that, thanks to Dubai, “[p]eople know what it means to be a citizen everywhere now.” Besides not making a whole lot of sense, this statement presumably would not be corroborated by abused migrant workers in the UAE or by Palestinians born there but denied Emirati citizenship.

In Friedman’s version of paradise, oppression is revolution. But were a “real revolution” to ever take place, both Friedman and Dubai would be at the top of the casualty list.

- Belen Fernandez is the author of  The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo:Thomas Friedman, Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, speaks to an audience during the International New York Times Global Forum Singapore in 2013 (AFP)