All hail the benevolent dictator

Foreign Policy, the rag founded by Samuel P. Huntington, has become a lot more fun (and less dignified) recently. First there was the whole zombie thing. It started with the innocent use of the word zombie (ie, reanimated corpse) to describe the proposed three-state solution to the Israel-Palestine crisis that was being bandied around back in January 09. Then, in August, there was the first of many blog posts by Daniel Drezner: how international relations theorists would cope with zombie attacks, soon followed up with March’s Dawn of the Theories of International Politics and Zombies and June’s Night of the Living Wonks.

Another favorite topic, after the undead, is failed states. They make for interesting photo essays – from Postcards from Hell to The Worst of the Worst (subtitle: bad dude dictators and general coconut heads) to Planet War. The one that stuck with me most, however, is Lifestyles of the Rich and Tyrannical: a short exploration of the lavish real estate holdings of some of the aforementioned bad dude dictators.

Perhaps it just seems topical. I recently returned from Oman, home to the enigmatic Sultan Qaboos and his (estimated) twenty-four palaces. True, he’s had forty years to feather his nest, having deposed his father in 1970. And judging by the looks of his central palace in Muscat (left), I don’t blame him for trying again (and again, and again).

Oman is the second-largest country on the Arabian peninsula, and by most accounts its most beautiful. It’s remarkably peaceful, especially given it shares a land border with Yemen, is 21 miles from Iran, and hosts a large port in close proximity to Somalia.

I was there for two weeks on a business trip – long enough to learn three phrases in Arabic and meet two members of the royal family (one of which took the opportunity to extol, at length, the virtues of Russian hookers as opposed to Chinese ones).

Writing about economic development in the Gulf states, as I have since December, has been an eye-opening experience. With some notable exceptions, these countries were largely sand dunes populated by nomadic tribes until the middle part of the last century. What the Arabs have been able to produce in the last sixty years – albeit with a lot of help from guest workers – is nothing short of revolutionary. When His Excellency Sultan Qaboos came into power in 1970, less than a third of the country was literate, and its people either lived in a medieval-style fort or a tent (the remains of the former dot the capital’s craggy shoreline).

‘If you wanted to go outside at night, you had to carry a sword,’ my driver, Hashim, told me. He was born sometime in the fifties, though he’s not sure exactly when.

Today, 95% of the Omani population is literate and almost everyone speaks fluent English in addition to Arabic. The roads of the capital, Muscat, are wide and nearly traffic-free, there’s air conditioning everywhere, and the tap water is potable (which is more than you can say of Turkey). Life expectancy is in the 70s and the per capita income is $24k a year. Which, incidentally, is an order of magnitude greater than most of my American college-educated friends made last year.

There are two obvious reasons this kind of supercharged modernization was possible. First, the GCC’s rulers – absolute monarchs, or emirs, or sultans – have little need to pander to that pesky bourgeois notion of democracy, thanks to decades of oil-funded public largesse.

In true Maslowian fashion, the idea of democracy doesn’t hold much appeal to the generation who are experiencing life in a safe, stable country for the first time. I asked Hashim if he would like to vote:

‘Why would I do that?’ he said. ‘I live a good life.’

The only country in the region to make any concrete steps towards democratic rule is Kuwait, which formed its first elected National Assembly in 1963. The experiment has not been a smooth one. Critics blame the National Assembly for hamstringing Kuwait’s development through petty, corrupt, and/or incompetent governance. The decision in January to take over responsibility for all consumer loans – effectively, a bailout for some of the world’s least credit-worthy spenders – is only one example of how the short-term interests of politicians worried about reelection are trumping the long-term viability of the country.

I remember writing an essay about how democracy is self-evidently the best form of government back in sophomore year of college. It has since been lost to the sands of time (read: computer failure). I still believe it is, in theory. But subsequent courses back in the Ivory Tower – and, of course, being hit over the head with the disparity between the developing country I live in, a ‘democracy’, and places like Oman – have made me think a lot more about when and where democracy can be reasonably introduced.

Tocqueville thought democracy would lead us a future of equality and blandness. Robert D. Kaplan, in his excellent, if controversial piece on why democracy is bad for developing countries, has a slightly different vision. Kaplan believes our love of the bottom line will lead us to a globalized, and therefore anarchic, economy, which will necessitate tyrannical rule to restore stability. The tyrant will be The Corporation, or the Military-Industrial complex, as the problems of the world are too vast to be controlled by one bad dude dictator and/or coconut head.

In Oman, at least, the promise of democracy – the premise of democracy – is seen by many as dubious. The financial crisis has if anything strengthened the average Omani’s (and Oman-based expat’s) conviction that Sultan Qaboos’s measured approach to development is best for the country (the country continued to grow and saw a minimum or projects go on hold while neighbors like Dubai tanked). One man I talked to, the Dutch GM of a major oil company’s Oman operations, went so far as to call Qaboos ‘a philosopher king in the Platonic fashion.’

As an American raised by a Palin-loving ex-Marine (ex-Marine in the Palinic fashion?) on the good old fashioned values of hard work, industry, and disdain of the Washington establishment, I’m uncomfortable with Omani king-worship. And, for that matter, the docility of most of the people in the Gulf in the face of the abuses of their governments. Yet I also realize I grew up in a state that provided me free education, a childhood untouched by violent or arbitrary crime, and an environment where blog posts comparing politicians to soul-sucking zombies are laughed at and not censored.

I’m sure there are plenty of people doing fascinating work on human development. Some day when I don’t have 26,000 words of copy to write in a month I might have more time to get into it.

Share this:

The Bush-Ahmadinejad Connection

(Originally published in The Greenwich Citizen)

Backpacking, for all its wonders, can be tiring. I took refuge from hostel beds and train bunks at an old friend’s house in northern Sweden at the beginning of September. Philip, who sang with me in the Christ Church Choir, has just moved back to his mother’s hometown of Östersund, a little more than halfway to the arctic circle from Stockholm. It was a wonderful opportunity to sit back, hammer out some job applications, and revel in those things I never realized I was taking for granted: drinkable tap water, toilets with seats, and relatively unpolluted air.

Sweden, at least in the summer, is pretty close to paradise. I don’t like to think of what it would be like in winter, though everyone around here says it’s most beautiful in the twilit snowy months when the sun only shines from 11am-2pm. I am not cold lover. The ninth circle of hell, according to Dante, is not the inferno of popular imagination but a ring of ice, where Satan suffers in deep freeze for all eternity. That was pretty much my experience of Boston in January and February. I have no desire to go somewhere even colder.

But back to the summer. It’s clear, cool sometimes, and starkly clean. Old barns in romantic states of disrepair dot the hillsides and the lakes – everywhere, lakes! – never seem to stop sparkling. It’s a bit like northern Michigan except the roadside greasy spoons are replaced by artisinal cheese shops and gourmet bakeries. You can’t have everything.

We went mushroom hunting in the mountains on my first day. Philip’s mother insisted that we talk loudly to scare off any bears that might be in the area. I thought this was a bit silly until we came upon a large pile of recently produced bear droppings. I then had a flashback to Werner Herzog’s ‘Grizzly Man‘, a documentary about a man who observed Alaskan grizzly bears. He thought they had accepted him into his pack until one ate him alive. We began singing nervously, then raucously, imitating opera singers and post-menopausal community choir members with uncontrolled vibrato.

I spent more than a week being coddled by my surrogate mother’s home cooking and broadband internet, but all good things must come to an end, and so I headed south on the 7th September. I spent a night in Uppsala, a medieval university an hour outside Stockholm, with an old friend named Viktor, who did a year abroad at Greenwich High School back in 2001. Other than Viktor, I’d never met a foreign-exchange student before I got to Harvard, which was full of both internationals who had spent years at public schools in the US and Americans who had studied abroad. I’m not sure why foreign exchange is so uncommon in Greenwich, and I think it should change. I fully appreciate that the Greenwich Public Schools offer an excellent education, one that I profited from for thirteen years. But there are millions of intangible things one can gain from time abroad: sensitivity to people of different cultures, gratitude for the smoking ban (a stray cigarette burned a hole in my favorite scarf in the Kiev airport), awareness of the kind of hurdles and benefits that affect people living in different parts of the world.

Spending serious time abroad is different than being well-traveled. Going to a lot of exotic destinations doesn’t necessarily mean you have learned about another culture, as any college student on their way back from Cancun can tell you. A semester or a year are better for observing and, eventually, absorbing the rhythm of life of another culture.

If you’ve already graduated from high school or college, or if time or money constraints make travel difficult, there are other ways to branch out: take couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is sort of like hitchhiking for apartments. Open-minded people who have a spare bed or room can create a profile on or its sister site, and travelers can send requests to ‘surf’ for a night or several. An essential tenet of the community is that you are not to pay for the privilege, or demand payment: it is meant to be an opportunity for cultural exchange or simple altruism. While the potential for abuse is remarkable – the host is giving a set of keys to his/her apartment to a stranger, the hostee is putting his/her personal safety at risk by staying in a stranger’s home – reports of abuse have been few and far between. And it’s not just a young hippie thing. Though the majority of surfers and hosts are in their twenties and thirties, a growing number of retirees and empty nesters are opening up their homes. I’ve used the service to sleep for free in Burgos, Moscow, Stockholm, and now Kiev, and never had the slightest problem: on the contrary, I’ve made some very good friends.

Standard protocol is that you send out five requests a few days before you arrive. One or two won’t get back to you, one or two will be busy or out of town, and hopefully, one or two will offer their couch. My host in Stockholm was Meysam, a twenty-nine year old Iranian PhD student who lived in the university dorms in the north of the city. We spent two long nights in the kitchen of his dorm with an Italian woman who lived down the hall, arguing about international security policy and whether it was important to get married before you were thirty. On the latter point we all agreed it wasn’t; on the former we had more to talk about. Meysam supports Moussavi, one of the reform candidates that challenged now re-elected Iranian President Ahmadinejad, but he abhors US/UN attempts to dismantle Iran’s nuclear development project. ‘We have a right to clean, nuclear energy,’ he said. ‘Why on earth would we make a bomb? It would be suicide. But it’s also suicide to rely on outdated, dirty technology as the world is getting warmer.’

The man has a point, I thought. But did he expect the international community to trust Ahmadinejad? Shouldn’t there be a revolution against his illegitimate regime?

‘Of course the election was to some degree rigged. But you have to respect the rule of law. We’ve tried in the courts, but they’re biased, which sucks. I don’t know much about American history, but didn’t something similar happen in your country in 2000?’

‘I don’t think you can compare Bush’s election with Ahmadinejad’s,’ I said.

‘But didn’t the other candidate, whatever his name was, have more of the popular vote?’

I didn’t have a very good response for him.

‘Anyway. What I am getting at is that we should not do anything crazy. We will gain support and try at the next election. Maybe we will have a Kerry, but maybe we will have an Obama. We’ll see.’

Share this: