Turning Oil Into Water – The Nation

This article appeared in the February 28, 2011 edition of The Nation.

A little-known fact about Saudi Arabia: it was until recently the world’s sixth-largest exporter of wheat. From 1980 to 2005, the Saudis spent some $85 billion, nearly 20 percent of the total oil revenue accumulated during the period, on subsidies for wheat farmers. In a country with a quarter of the world’s known oil reserves but no natural rivers or lakes, the environmental cost of cultivating wheat was extraordinary. The Ministry of Agriculture and Water had by the 1980s built some 200 dams, seeking to trap and redirect precious, finite water from oases and ancient underground aquifers. One economist estimated that the irrigation cost for Saudi wheat farms from 1980 to 2000—more than 300 billion cubic meters of water—was “the equivalent of six years’ flow of the Nile River.” An American delegation to the kingdom likened “the growing of cereals at an exorbitant cost in the desert” to “planting bananas under glass in Alaska.”

Desert Kingdom
How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia.
By Toby Craig Jones.
Buy this book

Another little-known, but more fantastic, fact about Saudi Arabia: in the late ’70s the Saudi government entertained the idea of wrapping a 100 million-ton iceberg in plastic and towing it from Antarctica to the Red Sea, where it would melt and provide much-needed fresh water. One of the king’s nephews, Mohammad al-Faisal, spearheaded the project, and his consultants included French engineers and a polar explorer. He invested millions of his fortune in a start-up called Iceberg Transport International, “a company whose sole purpose was to haul icebergs to the water-poor,” as Toby Craig Jones writes in his provocative book Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia. The company didn’t last. Its high point came on the campus of Iowa State University, where in 1977 Faisal, “at considerable personal expense,” successfully displayed a 4,785-pound “mini-berg” shipped from Alaska for “a conference on iceberg utilization.” At the conference, the berg was crushed into bits used to ice delegates’ drinks. But no amount of capital or limelight could make towing icebergs feasible. “Once you get north of the equator,” an American engineer told Faisal in Iowa, “you’ll have nothing but a rope at the end of your tow.” As it turned out, higher-ranking royalty in government had already abandoned Faisal’s iceberg scheme and committed their oil wealth to building dozens of expensive desalination plants for watering the kingdom.

Saudi authoritarianism may be founded on the Al Saud family’s “grand bargain” with the Wahhabist clergy, Jones writes, but religion has not been the sole instrument of state power. It has often been complemented by the government’s management, manipulation and control of natural resources, most of all water. “Over the course of the twentieth century, capturing, controlling, engineering and even making freshwater have been just as important to Saudi political authority as controlling oil,” Jones writes, even though the ability to do the former is funded by the latter. “The process has virtually turned oil into water.”

On the Red Sea and Persian Gulf coasts, more than twenty desalination plants, at a cost of billions in oil revenue, make seawater fresh for the country’s 28 million people. Today four cities are being built from scratch in the desert, hopeful future job hubs for the kingdom’s younger generation. Their names may be banal, but at least they reveal intent: King Abdullah Economic City, Knowledge Economic City, Prince Abdulaziz bin Mousaed Economic City, Jazan Economic City. Rather than invest in the crumbling, historic center of the port city of Jeddah, or the slums in the sprawling capital, Riyadh, the government has elected—in keeping with urban planning trends across the region—to build anew, on the desert periphery, in drab suburban tracts and glass towers that are thought to signal progress. The first coeducational university in the kingdom, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, recently opened on the Red Sea coast north of Jeddah, with an endowment of roughly $10 billion. The scale of development suggests that the Saudi government has solved its water crisis. Otherwise, how else could high-rise cities reliant on air-conditioning and potable water sprout in the desert?

Read the rest at The Nation. It’s behind the subscriber wall, so why not subscribe?

In Our Orbit: Fair Warning

I have a book review in the current issue of The Nation, on Tom Engelhardt’s The American Way to War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s. It’s behind the subscriber wall, so here’s the first paragraph. Why not subscribe, or even get a digital subscription to The Nation, so you can read subscriber only content like this, and support the magazine that this week exposed the hypocrisy of Lou Dobbs. Also read fellow ex-intern Nick Kusnetz’s second report on ALEC, the legislative lobby leading the fight against healthcare reform.

The embarrassing percentage of Americans who believe Barack Obama is a Muslim Manchurian candidate sent to impose Sharia—or is it socialism?—from sea to shining sea should take a look at the Pentagon’s books. Earlier this year Obama, formerly the partial antiwar candidate, sent Congress the largest defense budget since World War II: $708 billion for the fiscal year 2011, a sum that surpassed the 2010 defense budget of $626 billion, which grew this spring by $33 billion—the initial outlay for an additional 30,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. Nearly $160 billion of the 2011 budget (up from $128 billion in 2010) covers “Overseas Contingency Operations,” the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These bloated numbers, plus the less-reported budgets and contingencies that reveal themselves in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, are not just “part of Pentagon blank-check-ism in Washington,” in Tom Engelhardt’s terms. They are also proof that “war is now the American way,” as he writes, “even if peace is what most Americans experience while their proxies fight in distant lands.” At the outset of his damning new book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket; $16.95), Engelhardt, a Nation Institute fellow, writes, “And peace itself? Simply put, there’s no money in it.”

Continue reading at The Nation.

The Nation – Roadblocks to Damascus

July 2, 2010 – The weekend before Memorial Day, Senator John Kerry visited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus—his third such trip as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and second in as many months. He was there, by all accounts, to defuse tensions and clarify Syria’s response to Israel’s unconfirmed accusations, echoed by the United States, that Syria had delivered Scud missiles to its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

With past visits by special envoy George Mitchell, Under Secretary of State William Burns and a stream of other officials, the presidential palace has been busily receiving guests at its perch above Damascus—and that’s only the Americans. The French and German foreign ministers were in town the same weekend. Assad has become one of the region’s busiest hosts in the past year, as he maneuvers Syria out of the diplomatic cold by talking to everyone: friends (Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey), enemies (America) and cool neighbors (Saudi Arabia) alike.

High-profile American statesmen may go to Damascus, but not—at least not yet—an ambassador. In early May Senate Republicans blocked a motion to confirm career foreign service officer Robert Ford as the first American envoy in Damascus in five years, since Margaret Scobey was recalled to protest presumed Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. A week later, twelve Republican senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threatening to prevent Ford’s nomination from going to a full vote in the Senate. Their letter warned that “if engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long-range missiles to a terrorist group, then it is not only a concession but also a reward for such behavior.”

Read the rest of the piece at The Nation.

In Our Orbit: What Was Lost

Frederick Deknatel | May 12, 2010 This article appeared in the May 31, 2010 edition of The Nation.

One day in the fall of 1970, as he was studying Arabic in a mountain village overlooking Beirut, Kai Bird heard on the BBC that a plane hijacked by a group of young Arab men, “secular Marxists and Palestinian nationalists,” had landed at Beirut’s international airport. From his perch in the mountains the 19-year-old Bird had a view of the plane on the tarmac; he did not know that his girlfriend was one of its passengers. She was a hostage of the Dawson’s Field hijackings, which violently thrust the Palestinians’ struggle for statehood into international view and ended with three empty airliners exploding at a former RAF airstrip in the Jordanian desert.

Bird’s girlfriend survived the ordeal, and her story is a window onto Bird’s uncommon, personal and privileged perspective on the Middle East. In Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956–1978 (Scribner; $30), Bird, a Nation contributing editor, sifts through his memories as the son of an American diplomat stationed in Jerusalem, Beirut and Cairo and sets them against the region’s history over three busy decades. The book’s title refers to the barbed-wired checkpoint that demarcated the 1949 armistice line between Israeli and Jordanian sections of Jerusalem, and through which Bird and his father drove daily en route to the Anglican Mission School in West Jerusalem from their home in Sheikh Jarrah. Minus his father, Bird and his younger sister and mother evacuated Jerusalem for Beirut in 1956 when Israel, France and Britain invaded Egypt in an attempt to topple Gamal Abdel Nasser and seize the Suez Canal—a conflict that did not end until the following year, when David Ben-Gurion, under threat of economic sanctions from President Eisenhower, ordered Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai. A decade later, again without his father, Bird’s family fled Cairo for Athens before the outbreak of the Six-Day War. In the early 1960s the Birds lived in a dusty consular compound in Dhahran, in eastern Saudi Arabia, when the kingdom was comparatively open and not nearly as rich. Most expat families in the adjacent oil compound survived the desert with bathtub gin; Bird’s father smuggled in Scotch. During a second stint there in the 1970s, his parents counted among their friends Salem bin Laden, an urbane brother of Osama who “frequently dropped by our house in Riyadh and brought along his guitar so that he and Mother could play Joan Baez and Bob Dylan tunes.”

Bird’s memoir is about understanding but rejecting borders as they were being redrawn and reinforced in the postwar Middle East, which he had the liberty to do as an American expatriate growing up “out of place.” Bird uses the phrase deliberately: it’s a nod to Edward Said’s description of statelessness, though Bird never likens his own wanderings to those of a refugee. The politics of Bird’s parents were a product of the bygone era of empathic Arabists in the Foreign Service; their son shared their support of the Palestinians. As a university student in Beirut he saw the Palestinian resistance grow armed and stout in a city that was the region’s cultural capital on the eve of civil war. The wholeness of Bird’s Middle Eastern story is really a longing for the Jerusalem of his childhood, before Israel’s victory over Nasser and the Arabs in 1967, when Mandelbaum Gate was demolished and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began. “The Israelis proclaimed the city unified,” he writes. “It was not—and it is not.”

Bird was an earnest antiwar college student in the United States in the early 1970s when he met Susan Goldmark (whom he would later marry), and learned another lesson about dislocation. Goldmark is the daughter of Austrian Jews who fled the Holocaust, and stories of her parents’ escape to the Balkans and Italy and eventually to New York City came to serve as a foil for Bird’s view of Palestinian dispossession and Israeli aggression. Bird doesn’t equate their suffering but rather contemplates the collective failure of Israelis and Palestinians to reconcile their histories of loss and victimhood. Among his parents’ friends in Jerusalem was an Armenian family with long ties to the city. They fled in 1948 and returned two years later, but their property had been expropriated. “The Kalbians identified themselves as Christian, Arabic-speaking Armenians whose home was Palestine,” Bird writes. The nascent Jewish state “regarded them as non-Jews and therefore Arabs.” Eventually they immigrated to America. Bird links their displacement with the plight of Susan’s parents. In 1959 she and her mother returned to Graz to knock on the door of their old house, stolen during the war by a neighbor, “to see what she had lost.”

Bird admits that he has long avoided writing about the Middle East because “I did not wish to spend my entire life forlornly trying to rectify the injustices of the Nakba and the Shoah.” With its conviction and range, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate avoids that futility. Bird’s honest book recalls a remark of the historian Albert Hourani about the Six-Day War: “Victory is a much less profound experience than defeat.”

Link at The Nation (but behind the subscriber firewall).

The Nation – Terrorist TV?

In this week’s issue of The Nation, I have a short piece on an absurd and misplaced bit of legislation that will hopefully soon die in the Senate, despite its overwhelming passage in the House. The full link is here, but it is behind a subscriber firewall — more reason to subscribe?

TERRORIST TV? In December the House passed a bill to sanction and label as terrorists Arab satellite providers that air “anti-American incitement to violence in the Middle East.” Though the bill targets the channels of Hamas, Hezbollah and other designated terrorist organizations, its broad language has been criticized as an attack on media expression in the Arab world.

Barely reported in the American press, the proposed legislation has simmered in Arabic newspapers and talk shows. In late January Arab information ministers met in Cairo, where they summarily denounced the bill, although the Arab League has been mulling over its own plans for increased satellite censorship.

HR 2278 defines anti-American incitement to violence as “the act of persuading, encouraging, instigating, advocating, pressuring, or threatening so as to cause another to commit a violent act against any person, agent, instrumentality, or official of, is affiliated with, or is serving as a representative of the United States.” The bill directs the president to submit an annual report to Congress with “a country-by-country list and description of media outlets that engage in anti-American incitement to violence” as well as a list of the satellite providers that carry such broadcasts.

But it is the provision to tag as terrorists “satellite providers that knowingly and willingly contract with entities designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists” that rattles observers. “Take something like Khaled Meshal, who’s the political leader of Hamas,” Marc Lynch, an Arab media specialist at George Washington University, told WNYC. “No self-respecting Arab TV station can afford to not interview him. So if they’re going to define any contact with Khaled Meshal as incitement to anti-American violence, then pretty much every TV station would have something to fear.”

Reporters Without Borders condemned the resolution as “discriminatory” and lacking “clarity.” The bill “contradicts American support for media freedom and could not be implemented in the Middle East today as crafted without causing great damage,” the organization said in a statement.

The bill passed by a wide margin of 395-3 in the House. The “nays” were two Texans, Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson and Republican Ron Paul, and Democrat Mike Honda of California. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is reviewing the measure.   FREDERICK DEKNATEL

Back to Damascus?

With the long overdue news that the US is sending an ambassador back to Syria, I wrote a short piece for this week’s issue of The Nation. It’s behind a subscriber firewall online, so eschewing the idea for paid online content, I’m pasting the story below. Although you should probably just go out and buy the magazine if you can. Mostly to read Lawrence Lessig’s cover story.

BACK TO DAMASCUS? Washington has nominated Robert Ford, a career Foreign Service officer, as its ambassador to Syria, a post that has been vacant since the United States withdrew its envoy in 2005 to protest alleged Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. (Syria denied any involvement.)

Ford, currently deputy ambassador to Iraq, was ambassador to Algeria from 2006 to 2008. He ran a Coalition Provisional Authority office in Najaf in 2003, and from 2004 to 2006 he was a political officer at the US Embassy in Baghdad, where he helped draft Iraq’s new Constitution, establish the transitional government and oversee elections in 2005.

The appointment of a career officer who speaks Arabic represents a shift for Obama, who has often chosen well-heeled friends and contributors for ambassadorial posts. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of November twenty-four nominees were high-profile campaign “bundlers” who corralled more than $10 million for Obama. About half of all ninety-nine nominees either donated to Obama, other Democratic candidates or the Democratic Party.

Sending Ford to Damascus is part of the administration’s effort to back up Obama’s fleeting Cairo oratory. The London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat quoted an unnamed American official saying, “Washington wants to help in launching direct peace negotiations between Syria and Israel in the next few months.” But Joshua Landis, a regional expert who runs the popular Syria Comment blog, is not so sure. “The Syrians I have spoken to are skeptical that [negotiations] can lead to anything but frustration,” he said. “Netanyahu is not giving any ground to the Palestinians and there’s no reason to expect him to give ground to the Syrians.”

Reopening the ambassador’s residence is a step, not a solution. After all, last year Obama renewed harsh economic sanctions on Syria that were imposed by George W. Bush. And Syria holds the dubious distinction of being Washington’s oldest designated state sponsor of terrorism–since 1979.   FREDERICK DEKNATEL

From The Nation.

American-made death squads

Another side of the American remaking of Iraq, from the Nation:

As Hassan tells it, it was a quiet night on June 10, 2008, in Sadr City, Baghdad’s poor Shiite district of more than 2 million people, when the helicopter appeared over his house and the front door exploded, nearly burning his sleeping youngest son. Before Hassan knew it, he was on the ground, hands bound and a bag over his head, with eight men pointing rifles at him, locked and loaded.

At first he couldn’t tell whether the men were Iraqis or Americans. He says he identified himself as a police sergeant, offering his ID before they took his pistol and knocked him to the ground. The men didn’t move like any Iraqi forces he’d ever seen. They looked and spoke like his countrymen, but they were wearing American-style uniforms and carrying American weapons with night-vision scopes. They accused him of being a commander in the local militia, the Mahdi Army, before they dragged him off, telling his wife he was “finished.” But before they left, they identified themselves. “We are the Special Forces. The dirty brigade,” Hassan recalls them saying.

The Iraq Special Operations Forces (ISOF) is probably the largest special forces outfit ever built by the United States, and it is free of many of the controls that most governments employ to rein in such lethal forces. The project started in the deserts of Jordan just after the Americans took Baghdad in April 2003. There, the US Army’s Special Forces, or Green Berets, trained mostly 18-year-old Iraqis with no prior military experience. The resulting brigade was a Green Beret’s dream come true: a deadly, elite, covert unit, fully fitted with American equipment, that would operate for years under US command and be unaccountable to Iraqi ministries and the normal political process.