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The Saudi Arabia-Middle East Studies Love Affair Is Over
President Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, March 2017.
By A.J. Caschetta
There's a new political order taking shape in the Middle East, and it's shaking up the academic order that has dominated Middle East studies for over three decades. With Iran, Qatar, Turkey, and what's left of Assad's Syria on one side, and Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt, and Israel on the other, academics are finding new enemies and new allies. Saudi Arabia, once an important ally and benefactor of Middle East specialists, suddenly finds itself subjected to the contempt usually reserved for Israel.
Under the old order, the field of Middle East studies benefitted enormously from what Israeli diplomat Dore Gold calls Saudi Arabia's "massive campaign to bring Wahhabi Islam to the world." In 1976, Saudi Arabia made its first donation to an American university: one million dollars to the University of Southern California. Since then, Saudi kings, princes, and oil tycoons have gone in search of cooperative institutions and scholars to lend the imprimatur of a respected university to their "activist philanthropy."
Universities were given millions of dollars, while individuals benefitted from the trickle-down effect with ample funding for conferences, academic publishing houses, and jobs. This greatly amplified professors' bias against Israel while pandering to Saudi sensibilities, helping to normalize reactionary Islam.
Now, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), Saudi Arabia has undertaken an impressive series of reforms, and yet he has become academia's newest target. But it's not only the Saudis under attack; the left is turning on its own.
For instance, last November when famed liberal columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times that "The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is Saudi Arabia," he found himself smeared a week later in an open letter to the Times by seven "Senior Middle East Scholars." The scholars labeled Friedman the prince's dupe and denounced his article as propaganda, suggesting in dictatorial fashion that he be "investigated and perhaps even suspended for writing it."
In rhetoric that recalls the left's treatment of Israeli leaders, MbS was described as "the mastermind of an illegal war that has devastated the lives of millions, and today borders on genocide." The real Arab Spring, they insisted, "was an attempt by young people . . . to democratize their political systems," and Friedman's misapplication of the phrase shows that he "is divorced from reality."
Granted, any Saudi reform package deserves a healthy dose of skepticism, and the Vision 2030 program is no exception, but MbS has already made progress unimaginable a few years ago.
One would think these efforts would be encouraged, but instead MbS was scolded: "while a Saudi woman might soon be able to drive, bin Salman has shown no willingness to clamp down on Saudi funding of many of the most extreme religious forces in the Muslim world."
It's gratifying to witness academics who are willing to acknowledge "extreme forces in the Muslim world," much less "clamp down" on its funding, but where have they been? The repressive nature of previous Saudi royals has never been a secret, so why the frantic outburst over a prince who might actually diminish repression?
One component of the field's new hostility is its support for Saudi Arabia's nemesis, Iran. Many influential academics are convinced there are moderate forces within the Iranian regime that should be respected, and they continue to support the JCPOA, Obama's ineffective nuclear deal.
Another factor is the chill in Saudi-Qatari relations. Many Middle East studies specialists, including three of the "senior scholars" who want Friedman fired, write for Al-Jazeera, an organ of the state-owned Qatar Media Corporation that welcomes an anti-Saudi outlook. Perhaps the luster of an Al-Jazeera article on one's radical chic resume will be diminished with the recent bipartisan congressional call for an investigation into the network.
As important as Iran and Qatar may be in the new order though, it is Saudi Arabia's alliance with Israel that drives academics' hostility.
One of the seven signatories of the Friedman hit piece is noted anti-Israel ideologue Mark LeVine, professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of California, Irvine. Lately, when he's not posting unhinged Facebook tirades, LeVine is attacking Saudi Arabia with the same vitriol he directs at Israel.
Mimicking the popular academic trope of demeaning Israel's progressive approach to gay rights as "pink washing," LeVine (in Al-Jazeera, of course) derided Israel as "one of the region's pioneers in 'artwashing' its own abuses through the legitimation provided by the numerous artists who still regularly perform in the country." Likewise, he faulted Saudi Arabia for engaging in an "art charade" that includes establishing a new art institute, buying Western art (like Leonardo DaVinci's Salvator Mundi), and pushing reforms that have "permitted concerts and reopened cinemas."
Saudi Arabia is increasingly described as a military aggressor against Yemen. LeVine and company lecture Friedman about "the unmitigated disaster that is the Saudi war in Yemen," but make no mention of Iran's proxy militias, the Houthi rebels, launching missiles from Yemen into Saudi Arabia. This follows the template of portraying Israel as the aggressor against Gaza while omitting the missiles Hamas launches into Israel from Gaza.
Will Middle East studies scholars continue to attack journalists who report positively on MbS's reforms? If so, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius had better watch his back, as he recently pronounced that a door "seems to be opening in the kingdom — toward a more modern, more entrepreneurial, less-hidebound and more youth-oriented society."
As the new political order in the Middle East takes shape much remains uncertain, and only the daring and foolish make predictions. But here's an easy one: for the Middle East studies industry, the top priority will remain opposition to Israel and its allies, including Saudi Arabia.
A.J. Caschetta is a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, where he is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow.