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Notes from America: The man with big ideas - Daily News Egypt

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Notes from America: The man with big ideas

By Ahmed Tharwat Thomas Friedman, New York Times foreign affairs columnist, winner of three Pulitzer prizes, writer of several bestselling books, is a man known for his big ideas. Friedman never ceases to amaze us with a new ‘big idea’ every now and then, from the bizarre to the ridiculous. For example, Friedman created the …


Ahmed Tharwat
Ahmed Tharwat

By Ahmed Tharwat

Thomas Friedman, New York Times foreign affairs columnist, winner of three Pulitzer prizes, writer of several bestselling books, is a man known for his big ideas.

Friedman never ceases to amaze us with a new ‘big idea’ every now and then, from the bizarre to the ridiculous. For example, Friedman created the ‘burger’ war theory that suggests: “No two countries with McDonalds go to war with each other.” But when they do, as Belén Fernández reported on Kosovo in Alter Net online magazine, “…it is preferable if the outcome of the conflict indicates that Serbs ‘wanted to stand in line for burgers, much more than they wanted to stand in line for Kosovo”.

Or consider his big idea in “The World is Flat”, in which he asserted that the Internet levelled the playing field, and an Indian man with a modem can now compete with General Motors, or IBM. In his book, “The Lexus and the Olive Tree”, Friedman professed that “globalisation is what is new…world affairs today can only be explained as the interaction between what is new, as an internet website, and what is old, as a gnarled olive tree on the banks of the river Jordan”.

It is worth noting that this book was primarily based on one visit to an automated car plant in Tokyo, where cars are made almost entirely by robots. Would it have been a different premise if he had visited a sweatshop in China, or Vietnam? On his return on a train, he read an article about people in Beirut and Jerusalem who were fighting over who owned which olive tree, and, hence, the juxtaposition of these two ideas.

I would contend that rather than a big idea, what is behind most of the fighting around the worlds is competition for resources. Friedman has a great affinity for what is new and what modern technology can offer humanity in solving our social and cultural problems.
Thomas Friedman also has a knack for ignoring history, facts, and socio-political realities; he can reduce a complicated social issue to a sound bite and a sixth-grade essay. His big ideas are largely based on anecdotal personal experience, a friend, a trip, or a hotel bar conversation. Consider a few more of his big ideas over the last 20 years, as researched by Belén Fernández. Enjoy the ride!

  • 2004: If the US lowers its profile in the Arab world, the Arabs will realise that their children are being outperformed academically by the children of their maids.
  • 2003: Saudi Arabia suffers from an excess of democracy.
  • 2002: Massacres of Muslims are a sign of freedom.
  • “…. the Iraq war was the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the US has ever launched.”

Big ideas indeed.

In an op-ed he wrote late last year, Friedman came up with another big idea – an idea that is so outlandish and out of step with history that it nearly takes your breath away. In the article titled “Did Dubai Do It?” he remarks: “Dubai/ UAE is the capital of the Arab Spring — the real revolution started here.”

Yes folks, and he had more than three years to think and research this little ‘gem’ of an idea. He goes on to explain: “The Arab awakening did not start because they wanted freedom and democracy. It started in the mind of the average (Arab) who saw the evidence in Dubai that we could do things that are hard, and we could do them world class (like Dubai Ports and Emirates Airlines).” According to Friedman, it wasn’t the years of Mubarak, Ben Ali, Gaddafi, Salah, and the Bashar dictatorship that sparked the awakening of democracy after all.

As a journalist, I attended three “One Million Man” marches in Tahrir Square, and at each event, I never saw one sign for Dubai, the Emirates, or even one chant expressing the right to have a fine, clean airline; the right to have clean bathrooms, maybe. Of course from an orientalist mindset, Friedman believes he can understand Arab minds more than Arabs themselves.

As a matter of fact, the Arab Spring started with the escape of the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali, and he went, of all places, to Saudi Arabia. Which, along with Dubai, and the Emirate sheikhs, are leading a vicious bloody counter-revolution, supporting the regimes of old dictators to return them back to power. In Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria, these powers are making sure that the Arab Spring is dead on arrival before reaching the kingdom’s gates.

Based on Friedman’s thinly veiled racist analysis and oversimplification of Arabs and their struggle, we can surmise that he thinks Arabs don’t aspire for freedom and dignity, like in the west, but rather, they want malls, iPhones, and luxurious airliners. Friedman maybe confused by the fact that Dubai didn’t really inspire the Arab revolution, but rather has inspired an Arab dictators’ counter-revolution, punctuated by a fascination of putting their names on buildings and cities.

The Saudi and Hashemite families named the whole country after themselves. In Egypt we have Nasser City, Sadat City, Mubarak ‘disaster’ city and now General Al-Sisi moving Cairo capital city away from Tahrir Square.

Writing in the Egyptian Observer, the academic and Cairo native Khaled Fahmy argued: “The glistening Gulf metropolis fascinates Egypt’s authoritarian leaders.” But perhaps a better comparison to the effort might be found in distant Burma. In 2005, the southeast Asian nation moved its government from Rangoon, Burma’s largest city, to an uninhabited patch of land in the country’s centre. (According to rumour, Burma’s then-president Than Shwe chose the location on the advice of his astrologer.) A decade later, the new capital, Naypyidaw, is a ghost town—a monument not to clever planning but to megalomania. According to Gulf Business the United Arab Emirates government has apparently pledged almost $4bn in aid to Egypt; in turn, a major part of the new city is expected to be named after one of the UAE’s leaders. Maybe this will inspire Friedman’s next big idea theory!

Ahmed Tharwat is host and producer of the Arab American TV show Belahdan

“A show with accent for those without one”, which airs on Minnesota Public TV on Mondays. He blogs at www.ahmediatv.com. Follow him on Twitter @ahmediaTV

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