The emperors will never realize they’re naked

so long as their tutors have a vested interest in them remaining so.


Perhaps this isn’t an entirely fair association given how Prince Alwaleed happens unlike so many of his kith and kin at the top of Saudi society to be cosmopolitan, reform-minded and professionally accomplished in the real world, but for me this picture from an article on his even-by-gazillionaire-standards extravagant purchase of a jumbo jet  (CNN: "Airbus: Prince buys flying palace", found via Muse’s comment to my recent post on the Gulf) nonetheless conjures far more than just Khaleeji excess, but the ultimately more sinister dynamic of the Khaleej’s excessive reliance on outsiders unlikely to be willing (or even cognitively able) to advise them to do anything other than to buy more fancy stuff and services, regardless of whether these huge outlays actually contribute anything of concrete value to the citizens for whose benefit they are supposedly intended.

This is all the more the case when your advisors–though "tutors" seems more appropriate here–hail from parts of the world that specialize in high-end services and goods, I suspect. The likelihood of the swarms of Western advisors and consultants counseling their Gulf customers to keep it simple, focus on the basics, and do what worked for other developing countries that couldn’t afford their services seems unlikely.

Doing research on an article on Saudi Arabia a while back, I was surprised to discover some of the ways that for all its manifest faults and contrary to all the hype from pundits, the Kingdom has for the most part played an exceedingly loyal, at times vassal-like, role vis-a-vis American geopolitical interests. Since the switch from British to American patronage in the 1950s, it has dutifully provided diplomatic support and funding to a variety of American geopolitical goals, especially its sundry anti-Communist campaigns in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. (It even pitched in in funding America’s anti-Sandinistra proxies in Nicaragua, the Contras.)  According to the memoirs of Aramco officials it secretly allowed oil to be supplied to the 6th Fleet in contravention of an Arab embargo during the 1967 war. It worked hand in glove with the US to fund Saddam’s war against Iran, and then bankrolled and diplomatically brokered America’s greatest victory against the Evil Empire, the Afghan Jihad.

Just to head off the predictable hecklers, one of the most prominent counter-examples, the oil embargo of the 1970s , was a brief departure from business as usual politically necessitated by the Nixon administration’s active and high profile support of Israel in the 1973 war. A war was on and we were on the side of the Saudis’ enemies–who’d forced a war with its weaker neighbors only half a decade earlier (as David Hirst’s seminal The Gun and the Olive Branch proved 3 decades ago, 1967 was a war of choice by Israel, not pre-emptive self-defence; Israel’s been if anything more bellicose than its neighbors, who were painfully aware of Israel’s military superiority since the 1960s if not 1950s)–so it’s really not very surprising that they should’ve responded. The notion that this was an irrational attack on Western civilization is disproven by fact that  not all of Europe was targeted. The UK and the France, which had not granted the US use of their airfields for sending Israel arms, were not included in the boycott.

As far as the rest goes, the 9/11 attacks were not government-sanctioned and extremely damaging to Saudi interests to boot. The "jihadi" movement to which the Kingdom contributed so much, happens also to be as much America’s responsibility as Saudi’s, and is now largely out of anybody’s control, anyway. Finally, the meager, face-saving contributions to Palestinian groups whom the Saudi people (like much of the world) saw as freedom fighters are barely a drop in the bucket besides decades of buttressing American geopolitical supremacy (and, indirectly, Israeli regional dominance).

Then there’s the rarely acknowledged economic Saudi contribution to the US economy, about which the Prince Nasir character in "Syriana" complains bitterly in a memorable scene (gist: I want to modernize, but we keep getting pressured into propping up American industries in politically sensitive states with unnecessary purchases). Along the way, it contributed a heck of lot of money and jobs to the USA economy, in some cases helping propping up American industry (e.g., its purchases helped some American aviation companies stay afloat during lean times in the 1980s).

But arguably the most important–and invariably overlooked–contribution made to the US economy by Saudi has been its unflinching support of the American dollar. It is largely thanks to Saudi influence within OPEC that the world buys oil with dollars (the origin of the term "petro dollar"), and the dollar therefore dominates currency reserves. The economic intricacies of this are far beyond me, but I’ve seen it argued by a credible (and, interestingly, European) economist that this fact alone contributes more to American influence than even its mighty military. Whatever the concrete contribution may be, it’s clearly significant, and it’s largely thanks to Saudi loyalty.

So as distasteful as I find the Kingdom on multiple levels, I find the claim that’s consistently worked against "American interests" absurd. The government of KSA has been about as loyal–at times downright toadyish–as is possible to a frankly often imperialistic power whose foreign policies and interventions in their region have inevitably alienated and in some cases radicalized people in the region. All things considered, we’ve gotten more than our money’s worth.

But back to the Beltway Bandits, or in this case Brussels bandits. (Hey, if "Eurotrash" can cover the Middle East, "Beltway Bandits" ought to embrace consultants from all Western capitols.)

Needless to say, I’m no expert on international development, but it
seems to me that those countries that have managed to escape to
a meaningful extent from postcolonial/neoliberal second-class
citizenship did so not through Marshall McLuhan-esque PR campaigns ("UAE–we
don’t have a diversified economy, but we have the glitzy trappings of
one. Just look at our Louvre!" or "Qatar–we don’t produce our own world class Olympic
athletes, but can bask in the reflected glory of those we bribe into running under our flag.
"), but rather through economic productivity of some sort.

To some extent, this is an inevitable pitfall of business, I think. Consultants always have an inevitable (and, within reason, legitimate) interest in advising their clients to follow a course of action that leaves room for their continued employment, but I think there are additional dimensions to this dynamic.

I suspect that for a lot of Northern (as in First World, not Yankee, though the "carpet-bagging" metaphor has much relevance in my view) onlookers–especially those traveling the globe peddling expensive Western products and services–progress for developing countries is simply aping the lifestyles and values of the dominant economies of the North, preferably in a way that keeps many Western consulting and high-end goods companies well fed.

It’s often the mirror opposite of what it purports to be, in effect amounting to wealth redistribution from developing economies to fat cats in well established ones.  So long as the external trappings of Western economic and cultural life are mimicked, everyone can pretend progress is being made and the MSM will  sing endless hosannas for  Gulf leaders’  great vision in spending so much of their countries wealth in trying to keep up with the Jones to the North. What economic interest do most Northern business observers have in demanding, "What’s the objective contribution of this latest wasteful but prestigious project to your nation’s development?" as they’re probably too busy lining up at the feeding trough themselves to give that angle any thought.

And once their host goes broke, they’ll just move on to greener pastures. The parties most likely to experience long-term growth are, as usual, the Western businesses. Long after the Gulf returns to fishing and animal husbandry,  they’ll be watching interest compound back home on the proceeds of decades of overpriced services and over-engineered solutions designed for completely different circumstances.

This is, incidentally, why I’m so impressed by Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child campaign.  When you look at the details, you see that, for once, this is a ICT4D (Information & Communication Technology for Development) project that really puts practical benefits for developing countries first. It’s not another pretext to sell the same old products designed for a completely different economy to people who can’t afford bells & whistles or overpriced licenses. (This is why companies like Intel and Microsoft have tried in various ways to discredit it–it really offers a new paradigm that is geared towards developing countries needs, as opposed to Silicon Valley’s product release schedules.)

Ironically, this inspiring initiative’s savior might end up being none other than everyone’s favorite Middle Eastern bete noire, Muammar Qaddafi, who I hear ordered a million of them for Libyan schools. He may be off his rocker, but his eccentricity and ego occasionally result in something positive. (Another example: He bankrolled the stunning and little known epic "The Lion of the Desert", which boasts an all-star cast and is perhaps the best antidote to Islamophobia that popular cinema has produced–I think it should be required viewing, along with "Reel Bad Arabs", for undergrads studying Islam–which also explains why Mustafa Akkad couldn’t get a dime out of the Arab-baiting powers that be in Hollywood for it and had to turn to such an usual source. The surrealness of Qaddafi’s involvement in this gorgeous film is only exceeded by what Akkad, who also made the stirring Islamic film about the life of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) "The Message", is  primarily known for in Hollywood.)

Okay, back to reading–more like laboriously looking up word after word in–Abu Talib al-Makki‘s dense "Ilm al-Qulub". (Someone please shoot me. He’s too freakin’ hard for a novice like me. Maybe Information Technology consulting wasn’t such a stressful line of work after all…)

Update (23 Nov 07): Fixed some typos.

Update (25 Nov 07): Added a few paragraphs on the things that are cited as examples of Saudi treachery to American interests.

Update (2 Dec 07): Fixed more typos. Welcome Diggers.