In honor of Thomas Friedman’s latest love letter to the ruling dynasty in Saudi Arabia, here is seventy years worth of the New York Times describing the royal family as reformers.
The article describes King Saud as “more progressive and international-minded than his autocratic father.”
This piece does not refer to Saudi Arabia specifically, but it is an incredible headline nevertheless.
“King Saud has increasingly assumed the role of liberal champion of constitutional reform.”
Note: The Saudi constitution was adopted by royal decree in 1992.
“The Oil Genie and the Sheikh” offers a tour of Gulf palaces that marvels at their “gilded furniture of impressive ugliness.” Here is also a page from the photo spread of Oman and Bahrain with the caption “’heaven on earth’—air-conditioned palaces, Cadillacs, girls.”
During the so-called “Arab Cold War” the United States supported the Saudi royal family as a bulwark against Nasserism. This piece celebrates Crown Prince Faisal’s “burst of social reform and economic development.”
“With his older brother no longer looking over his shoulder . . .”
“He is a man who has gained nearly absolute power without really wanting it.”
In this article, King Faisal is described as “ascetic, with only one wife, who lives on grilled meat and boiled vegetables and makes a fetish of moderation.”
An obituary reads, “Faisal, Rich and Powerful, Led Saudis Into 20th Century.”
Faisal’s successor, King Khalid, was a “moderating force.”
Two more reform-themed headlines from 1975, including one on “planting the seeds of a parliamentary system in the kingdom.”
An epic lede here from 1979: “His black Trans-Am sports car creeps along the Corniche Road on the edge of the Red Sea. To the left, skyscrapers jab into the humid air, a sight made more impressive by the desolation surrounding the ancient city of Jidda.”
“King Fahd has been depicted as the leading figure in a progressive, modernizing faction within the tradition-minded monarchy.”
Operation Desert Storm and the mobilization of US troops to the kingdom placed Saudi reform under more of a spotlight, as made clear in these headlines featuring “major political changes,” “modernizers,” “governmental reform,” “and other political reforms.”
Despite prior reports on the ebb and flow of the fortunes of reformers, the appearance of continuity remained crucial: “In making the changes, King Fahd is following previous generations of Saudi rulers who had also moved toward modernization since King Abdelaziz united a vast territory populated by feuding tribal leaders into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia 60 years ago.”
Thomas Friedman makes his first appearance, lauding King Fahd as a “bulldozer” in tackling political problems on behalf of the United States.
“Saudi Heir Urges Reform, and Turn From US”
Shortly after the attacks of 11 September 2001, Friedman models “2 futures” for Saudi Arabia, concluding “Which school would I bet on? Ask me in five years.”
Luckily, we would not have to wait that long. On eve of US invasion of Iraq, Friedman makes the case that war “could drive reform in the Arab/Muslim world.”
“For Abdullah, who has fashioned himself as a reformer in a land where conforming to tradition is a virtue, the challenge now is to make good on longstanding promises for change.”
Employing its narrative of reform as a product of fits and starts, this article reports on “stalled” reforms before listing the ways in which “some change has occurred.”
Another piece about a land of contradictions: “The (Not So) Eagerly Modern Saudi.”
“Saudi King Tries to Grow Modern Ideas in Desert”
Apparently, a cabinet reshuffle can sometimes be reform.
This editorial welcomes the reshuffle.
“More generally, the reform agenda has drawn momentum from King Abdullah’s personal popularity . . .”
Announcing that local elections have been delayed for two years, this report nonetheless lauds the king’s reformist intentions before concluding with the following quote: “You have a reform-oriented king trying to push in the direction of reform, but you have a non-reform-oriented structure that is close to impossible to change.”
Columnist Maureen Dowd offers her reflections from a visit to Riyadh: “Yet by the Saudi’s premodern standards, the 85-year-old King Abdullah, with a harem of wives, is a social revolutionary.”
While Saudi society is divided, this article claims the monarch’s sympathies lie with the reformers.
During the height of the Arab uprisings: “In Saudi Arabia, Royal Funds Buy Peace for now.”
“King Faisal, in a rush to modernize his realm, created Saudi state television in the 1960s, and that bold step is widely believed to have led to his assassination.”
The Twitter revolution reaches Saudi shores: “Twitter for us is like a parliament, but not the kind of parliament that exists in this region.”
Reporting from the front lines of the Arab uprisings in Dubai, Friedman calls Saudi King Abdullah “a real progressive” and offers more “data” on the Twitter revolution.
King Abdullah’s obituary describes him as “a cautious reformer amid great changes in the Middle East.”
Friedman on what messes him up in reporting on Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s economic revolution offers “tantalizing hints at even broader reforms.”
Saudi reforms include smart robots.
From earlier this month, this Friedman piece includes such gems as “he is much more McKinsey than Wahhabi — much more a numbers cruncher than a Quran thumper.”
And finally, the one that inspired it all, a hagiographic ode to royal reform that represents seven decades of strategic policy objectives barely concealed beneath recycled cultural tropes.