Mohamed Hemish
Last updated: 4 December, 2013

“The only thing that Friedman seemed to get right in his op-ed was the title”

Thomas Friedman could not be further from reality when he described Gulf rulers as progressive enough to ask their populations to evaluate their leadership performance and keep them in check, writes Mohamed Hemish.

“The Other Arab Awakening” is a recent New York Times piece written by columnist Thomas Friedman about his 10-day visit to the Persian Gulf States. Friedman champions a controversial opinion about the Gulf States dictators being a force for change and evolution; an opinion that contradicts almost all international human rights organizations factual reports on these autocrats. The piece could not be further from reality.

The author’s main argument is that while the Arab Spring was the most dramatic change in the in the Middle East that captured the world media’s attention, there was another spring, or as the author puts it, “awakening,” taking place in the Gulf states, which went unnoticed.

Friedman claims that during his 10-days visit, apparently enough time to capture a full-fledged picture of the region, he noticed how the rulers and kings of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia were progressive enough to ask their populations to evaluate their leadership performance and keep them in check.

“So more and more leaders are inviting their people to judge them by how well they perform — how well they improve schools, create jobs and fix sewers — not just resist Israel or Iran or impose Islam,” he wrote.

The famous columnist does not seem to be aware of the extent of the crackdown on any dissent by the states’ ruthless authoritarian governments. He does not seem to be aware of the countless reports issued by human rights groups over the years condemning the systematic violations of human rights, freedom of speech, unlawful arrests and disappearances and the attempts to control social media and the Internet.

Here are a few examples:

To start off, back in July, a Norwegian woman received a 16-month sentence on charges of having out-of-marriage sex and drinking alcohol after reporting to the police that she had been raped in a hotel in Dubai. The ruler of Dubai pardoned the woman following a severe international, NOT local, social media crisis as well as significant diplomatic efforts by the Norwegian government.

The only people who were discussing the issue on social media from inside the UAE were the ones who thought that the Dubai court was right to convict the woman. They argued that she made it all up because she simply “did not like the sex.”

“Observers of the Gulf Arab states have expressed, to put it nicely, their disappointment with Mr. Friedman’s opinion piece”

Considering Firedman’s groundless comment on Gulf rulers welcoming online criticism, I wonder if he was aware of the fact that the UAE president announced a decree in November 2012 regarding cyber crimes that according to Human Rights Watch, “effectively closes off the country’s only remaining forum for free speech.” The decree basically outlaws the use of Internet or social media for criticizing government officials, asking for political reform or organizing any unlicensed events or gatherings.

This cyber crimes law has already been used numerous times. In July, an Indian man was arrested in UAE after posting a video to YouTube of a UAE citizen, who was a high-level government official, beating up an Indian bus driver in daylight in the middle of a busy street. The son of the UAE citizen filed a complaint against the person who filmed the video on the basis of defamation. The Indian filmmaker was arrested and refused bail by the court and faced a year in prison or fine of AED 10,000.

Friedman mentions this case in his piece, however, shockingly, hints that it should be seen as a positive development because the official was “embarrassed.” “In the United Arab Emirates, a government official was recently embarrassed when he was captured on a cellphone video, after a traffic accident, beating the other driver, an Asian worker, with the rope from his headdress.” The author thus concluded, “People are losing their fear — not to revolt, but to demand clean accountable governance.”

With Friedman’s logic, an official’s embarrassment should be seen in a positive light, it means that things are moving in the right direction in the UAE. When did “embarrassment” become a gage for social and political reform?

As a New York Times op-ed columnist, he should tell the whole story but fails to mention what happened to the Indian man who took the video. Instead, he conveniently reaches the misguided conclusion that “people have no fear” in those countries.

In another case of the random application of the 2012 cyber crimes law, just last week news emerged that a United States citizen had been under arrest in Dubai since April for making a video and posting it on YouTube. The video, which opens with the explanatory text “The following events are fictional and no offence was intended to the people of Satwa or UAE,” is a parody video that pokes fun at youth lifestyle in Dubai, which apparently poses a national security threat for the UAE.

Friedman argues that the Gulf region’s rulers are open to the public’s judgment, while the UAE government fails to tolerate a video that funnily mildly argues that youth in Dubai are in need of some kind of social reform and better hobbies.

Turning to Saudi Arabia, Friedman wrote, “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who in Gulf Arab terms is a real progressive, remains widely popular.” It seems that the author chose to turn a blind eye to the fact that King Abdulla’s 80-year-old regime is the one that bans women driving. The author seems to miss the fact that in Saudi Arabia women are minors as a matter of law and as a matter of custom until their death. A woman needs permission from her “guardian” to do almost anything.

How about the fact that just recently a blogger was sentenced to 7 years in prison and 700 lashes for charges of “insulting Islam.” The man, however, was blogging on his website about religious reform and dialogue. The man had been in jail since June 2012 before he was convicted a year later.

The Saudi government also announced on December 2 that it would start monitoring YouTube along with other websites in order to “contain” content and reduce “violations.” The chairman of the Saudi Audiovisual General Authority, Riyad Najem, said that individuals who wish to engage in those websites would have to obtain permissions that include the regulations and terms for using them in the Kingdom.

Observers of the Gulf Arab states have expressed, to put it nicely, their disappointment with Mr. Friedman’s opinion piece. Dr. Christopher Davidson, the author of bestselling book After the Sheikhs said on Twitter: “A ‘cute’, pointless Friedman op-ed: nice guy autocrats with iPads, no mention of crackdowns & spiraling spending.” Nicholas McGeehan, Gulf researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW) also tweeted: “Thomas Friedman gives the #UAE and #Saudi two thumbs up. Witless, credulous and ill-informed.”

The only thing that Friedman seemed to get right in his op-ed was the title. It is only fair to say that the kings and rulers in the Persian Gulf States are “awakening” to the fact that their grip on power is threatened by social media and the Internet. Actually, the Arab Spring, the awakening that Friedman does not seem to be a big fan of, has alerted those Gulf tyrants that to protect their thrones, they need to crackdown on any dissent even if it was a parody video that could not be further from political or social activism.

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