Four decades after the publication of Edward Said’s seminal work “Orientalism,” the Western media landscape is replete with reductive depictions of the Middle East. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has consistently delivered one of the most influential examples of this. In his articles and other writings, the American journalist has reinforced cultural stereotypes, promoted neoconservative policies, supported American interests and devalued the lives of the region’s people.
For several decades now, Friedman has been a reliable defender of imperialism and colonialism the the Middle East and North Africa. He enthusiastically promoted the Bush administration’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and has regularly defended Israeli settler-colonialism over the human rights of Palestinians. This racist dehumanization is the epitome of Orientalism.
His latest article “Crazy Poor Middle Easterners,” published in The New York Times on September 4, concisely summarizes Friedman’s oeuvre, and the willful ignorance and outright bias upon which it is based. The article is loaded with factual inaccuracies, both geographic and economic, and appears to be based on Friedman’s opinions, rather than empirical evidence. According to the writer, the Middle East “made itself poor by repeatedly letting the past bury the future.” Rather than engaging with the (neo-)colonial realities that have ripped the region apart, Friedman blames the supposed tribal and sectarian nature of Middle Easterners for their fate: “With a few exceptions, this region has never been a bigger mess, had more people fighting over who owns which olive tree, had more cities turned to rubble by rival sects and missed its potential so vastly.”
He goes on to argue that the region’s future depends upon “reforms” undertaken in Saudi Arabia, presenting various political and economic strategies the country should follow. As was obvious in his love letter to Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman (M.B.S) in November 2017, Friedman is deeply committed to promoting fantasies of reform in the Kingdom. Arguing that “only a fool would not root for it,” Friedman’s naivety was lambasted by various experts, including Professor Hamid Dabashi who called Friedman an “ignorant fool” and “almost-illiterate” in an article for Al Jazeera.
Today, Friedman is concerned that M.B.S.’s “good publicity” has been undermined by the arrest of female activists, as well as Saudi’s unrelenting war in Yemen. But the solution to these problems is not to free human rights activists or stop bombarding civilians. Instead, Friedman encourages Saudi to welcome foreign investment, selling it as vital for the region as a whole.
Friedman’s view that American capitalism can “save” the Middle East, together with his complete disregard of human and civil rights, underscores his real interest – to keep American in charge and the people of the Middle East battered, broken, and unable to take control of their political and social futures.