Politics & Policy

Davos in the Desert, Part III

Editor’s Note: Jay Nordlinger attended the World Economic Forum on the Middle East last week. It took place by the Dead Sea in Jordan. Below is the third installment of his journal. For the first two, go here and here.


It can be a wondrous thing to hear Arab elites talk behind closed doors. They can be bracingly, sometimes thrillingly, candid. They recognize the problems of Arab society; they are eager to confront and surmount them.

At a lunch, I hear things like, “We Arabs are at the bottom of everything — at the bottom of every index: literacy, capitalism, the rights of women. Everything. In our countries, we have cults of personality, dictatorships, dynasties . . . Where is democracy? Where is rotation in office?

“In the past, extremist Islam was unusual; now it is usual. In the Soviet Union, South Africa, South Korea, there was restructuring. But not in our region. We have no Gorbachev, we have no de Klerk, we have no Kim Dae-jung. The vast majority of our people are chromosomally reasonable and moderate. And the human spirit must be unleashed here.”

#ad#How touching it is, too, to hear a Syrian woman plead for human rights. Many of her countrymen — many of her best ones — are in cells.

I wish the whole world could hear what I have heard at this lunch.

But you also hear the old voices — the Old Guard, as I call them. And, as always, they are depressing. They cannot speak without fingering Israel and the United States. In their eyes, everything bad stems from Israel and the United States. And no progress can be made until Israel ceases to occupy the West Bank. (They’re now out of Gaza, of course. Fat lot of good that did.)

Arab countries can’t drop crippling socialism until Israel leaves the West Bank. Nepotism must continue until Israel leaves the West Bank. Women cannot drive until Israel leaves — and “honor killings” must go on. Corruption must prevail in Arab countries as long as Israel occupies the West Bank.

Etc., etc. This attitude is not only insane — it is harmful to the point of destructiveness.

As a rule, I encounter two types of Arab elite: those who recognize Arab problems, and are willing to tackle them; and those who fixate on Israel and America. Members of the former group are so refreshing, you want to hug them; members of the latter group are not just lamentable, but despicable. They are the excuse-makers. And they hold the entire region back.

The excuse-makers, sad to say, occupy positions of power. The other people — the problem-recognizers, and reformers — are on the sidelines. Or quashed by the excuse-makers. (I am speaking in generalities here, of course. It is largely unavoidable. But I ask your pardon all the same.)

‐There are major Arab excuse-makers here by the Dead Sea — and the leading one, I would say, is Amr Moussa, the longtime secretary-general of the Arab League. He is the epitome, the purest representative, of the Old Guard. But you know who most of the excuse-makers are? Americans and Europeans. Middle Easterners themselves are far more likely to be candid and clear-eyed.

They’re the ones who have to live with these problems. They’re the ones who have to live with a lack of progress. Americans and Europeans can sit in their free societies, fat and happy, and say, “Damn those Israelis, and damn us meddling, injurious Westerners.”

‐Here is one of the most interesting things I will hear all conference long. An Arab intellectual says, “In our region, we have those who are hardliners for reform and those who are against reform; and we have hardliners against peace and those who are willing at least to consider peace. Unfortunately, the hardliners for reform are also the hardliners against peace.” In other words, these are Islamists — as I understand it — who want to shake up entrenched regimes and make government more accountable to the people. They also, of course, want to make war.

The intellectual says, “Those who are both hardline for reform and hardline for peace are in a tiny, tiny minority.”

There is much to think about in those few lines.

‐In these journals past — from the Middle East and from Davos — I have remarked on the anti-Americanism of the Americans. It is always strutting about. An Arab says that his country must liberate itself from illiteracy and ignorance, in order to make progress politically. An American woman says, chortling to her companion, “We need to do that in America.”

Keep laughin’, lady.

‐In my Davos in the Desert journal last year, I wrote the following, after a speech by President Bush: 

In the next hours, I hear many reviews of Bush’s performance, and they are not good, to put it mildly. And I will tell you about a conversation I overhear — an American woman is talking to some Middle Easterners in a lounge. I am typing this column.

A man asks the woman, hesitantly, “What did you think of Bush’s speech?” “Oh, I hate Bush,” she says. That is a jarring sentence to hear: “I hate Bush.”

And she goes on. Some of her choice sentences: “Democracy is overrated.” “All of us Americans in the audience, we were like, ‘Do we applaud or what?’” “His approval rating is 18 percent. No one cares about him anymore; everybody hates him.”

She allows that the First Lady, Laura Bush, “seems nice.” But then she drops this: “The rumor is he hits her, you know. Sometimes I see her on television, and I’m thinking, ‘Poor woman.’” Then our American seems to have a prick of conscience: “But I don’t know — maybe they have a great relationship.”

Here is a theme I have sounded many, many times, and will again: The American abroad can be tough to digest. For decades, people have denounced the “ugly American” — the ugly American abroad. They mean conservative ignoramuses or loudmouths or bigots in Hawaiian shirts and shorts. But my idea of the “ugly American” is something else.

(For the relevant installment of that journal, go here.)

#page#‐Here in Jordan, I ask what I have asked in Jordan journals past: Why can’t we have green-apple juice? I mean, at home? What a lovely idea — and perfectly natural. I’m not for ditching traditional apple juice; but wouldn’t it be nice to have a choice of green, too? I mean, since we’re all “going green”?

(Maybe we do have this kind of juice at home. Maybe I haven’t gotten out much. But I don’t know . . .)

#ad#‐I attend a session on capitalism — something of which the Middle East is sorely, sorely in need. I will relate some interesting things that get aired:

“We need contract enforcement here. This region is a terrible place in which to start a business. The rule of law must be paramount. If you don’t have contract enforcement, you have nothing.”

“The concept of free enterprise is not accepted as legitimate. We must let people know that this is a worthy human aspiration.”

“The government is always trying to interfere with what we’re doing. The government should stay out, and let us get on with things.”

“Eighty percent of the population in Kuwait works for the government. Eighty percent!”

“The best way to succeed is to fail and fail and fail; learn and learn and learn — and then eventually succeed. We must not be afraid to fail, as a prelude to — even a precondition for — success.”

“We could not have a Google here” — which is to say, start one.

“The governments are afraid of talent. If they can’t co-opt it, they drive it off, or crush it.”

‐One of the Saudi princes is here. (Well, probably 40 are.) (Reminds me of something an old Austrian friend of mine once said. Someone asked her, “How many Habsburgs are there here?” She said, “As many as there are gas stations in America.”)

Anyway, this prince says a couple of interesting things about his king. He says that, for the first time, he attended a woman’s graduation — college graduation, I believe he means. This was the first time that any king, not just the incumbent, attended a woman’s graduation.

Moreover: “We’re trying to teach him Twitter.”

‐Adil Abd al-Mahdi is the vice president of Iraq. And he is huddling with a few of us journos. Mahdi is stubbly, paunchy, unassuming. He looks like an auto mechanic. And his English is heavily accented. He is a far cry from, say, Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister, who is the picture of urbanity.

Why do I mention this? To insult Mahdi? No: to say that, appearances aside, he is no one’s dummy. He is an intellectual and now he is a statesman.

In the course of his remarks, he says that too much pessimism in Iraq is no good, as is too much optimism. What’s desirable is realism.

The decline in oil prices has made the Iraqi situation much more difficult. “It forces us to be wiser.” There is no longer any “easy money.”

Iraq had a system before, he says, that was “worse than socialism!” Namely Baathism. I love that phrase “worse than socialism,” and the exclamatory way in which Mahdi said it. Warms the cockles of my Hayekian heart. (Of course, Baathism is a kind of socialism.)

In years past, says Mahdi, there was a flow of terrorists into Iraq from Syria. That has slowed. And most “suiciders,” as he says, were “outsiders”: “They came from all over the world, including Europe.” Now, most of them come from Iraq.

“Is that good or bad?” I ask. Mahdi says, “Both good and bad.” There are fewer suiciders now, which is of course good. But it’s painful to see Iraqis recruiting Iraqi children into terror.

I say, “Are you nervous about a U.S. departure?” He says, “Certainly I’m nervous. I’d be lying if I said no. We are facing a big challenge.” But, in the end, Iraq will be successful, Mahdi says. Already, Iraqis themselves are in full control of some cities.

He adds something quite sobering, however: “Maybe the terrorists have been withholding some big operations, because the Americans are there. We will see.” I suppose we will.

I also ask, “Are Arab elites rooting for your success, or rooting against your success?” Mahdi answers slowly and carefully. “In the beginning,” he says, “it was not good” — Arab elites were against the Iraqi democrats, the Iraqi nation-builders. “But now they are supporting us” — for example, there are more ambassadors in Baghdad.

Later he says, “We are not out of the crisis” — the general Iraqi crisis. “But we are leaving it” — leaving the crisis.

A reporter says to him, “When the U.S. leaves, there will be a vacuum. Will Iran fill it?” Mahdi answers, matter-of-factly, “Iran can interfere in many ways.”

At the end of our discussion, I tell him, “I have asked this question 50, 100 times since 2003, and I am tired of asking it. I am sure you are tired of hearing it, or answering it. What do you think happened to Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction? Did he cease to have them at some point?”

Mahdi: “I don’t know. He had them. They are still there somewhere. Obviously he had them. He used them. He killed thousands of people with them.”

They are still there somewhere, Mahdi has said. Interesting.

‐The foreign minister of Sri Lanka is here: Rohitha Bogollagama. He is here at an amazing hour: After 30 years, the Sri Lankan government, and Sri Lankan society, is on the verge of finishing off one of the most brutal, inhuman groups on earth — those Tamil Tigers. This is an achievement of monumental proportions. I think of Margaret Thatcher’s one-word answer, when she was asked whether she had anything to say following Britain’s victory in the Falklands: “Rejoice.”

Some of the journalists here seem to think that the Sri Lankan government has handled the “rebels” — who are more like society-devouring monsters — too roughly. The foreign minister parries their questions easily, and with far greater knowledge.

I ask him a broad question, having nothing to do with the Tigers: “How do you view India’s rise in the world? When they rise, do you rise?” Bogollagama says yes, absolutely. Trade with India, in particular, is key to Sri Lanka’s growth. 

I think I’ll start tomorrow’s installment with John Kerry. Can you handle that? Good — not sure I can. See you.




Most Popular