Fareed Zakaria had that whole dust-up a while back (well, and a while before that too) on account of how so much of what
he his interns write tends to be straight jacked from some other, less famous writer. In all fairness RE: my headline above, I obviously have no way of knowing whether or not he’s still plagiarizing on the regular, but if his Washington Post editorial yesterday was original material, he needs to go back to ripping people off.
Zakaria is trying to debunk the idea that the Saudis will pursue their own nuclear capabilities in the (almost certain at this point) even that Iran’s nuclear program is allowed to continue in some fashion. Since the specter of a regional nuclear arms race is one of the bogeymen that Iran deal opponents like to trot out from time to time, this is an important argument. But it’s one that was much better handled by Ali Gharib at LobeLog about a month ago. Ali cited actual experts who seemed skeptical about at least one of Saudi Arabia’s pathways to a bomb (calling in a favor to Pakistan) and a couple of whom even argued that a Saudi nuclear program, if it’s instituted under the same stringent restrictions and requirements as Iran’s is likely to face under a comprehensive deal, would be a positive step for the global non-proliferation agenda. Zakaria decided not to go looking for what experts had to say, probably because he thinks doing so would diminish his own expertise, so his argument is much simpler: the Saudis are D-U-M dumb and L-A-*yawn*…ah, lazy, and that’s how come they can’t build themselves no nucular bomb.
Oh, please! Saudi Arabia isn’t going to build a nuclear weapon. Saudi Arabia can’t build a nuclear weapon. Saudi Arabia hasn’t even built a car. (By 2017, after much effort, the country is expected to manufacture its first automobile.)
I will admit that there is a strong correlation between having a nuclear weapons program and having a car industry, for some reason. But it’s not like you need to master the intricacies of Henry Ford’s assembly line to obtain a couple of nuclear bombs so as to deter your cross-Gulf rival and to give yourself nuclear club bragging rights or whatever.
Saudi Arabia can dig holes in the ground and pump out oil but little else. Oil revenue is about 45 percent of its gross domestic product, a staggeringly high figure, much larger than petro-states such as Nigeria and Venezuela. It makes up almost 90 percent of the Saudi government’s revenue. Despite decades of massive government investment, lavish subsidies and cheap energy, manufacturing is less than 10 percent of Saudi GDP.
OK, but, like, that GDP is 19th in the world, at around $750 billion, and since surprisingly few people live in a country that’s mostly uninhabited desert, its per capita GDP is (depending on which list you consult) around 10th in the world. That kind of money can make up for a lot of deficiencies if it’s really applied to a particular goal.
But so far, OK, Saudi Arabia is a borderline dysfunctional petro-state. Nothing too outrageous yet.
Where would Saudi Arabia train the scientists to work on its secret program? The country’s education system is backward and dysfunctional, having been largely handed over to its puritanical and reactionary religious establishment. The country ranks 73rd in the quality of its math and science education, according to the World Economic Forum — abysmally low for a rich country. Iran, despite 36 years of sanctions and a much lower per capita GDP, fares far better at 44.
I confess, this paragraph here is really where I lost it with this piece. Let’s come at this in two parts. I lived in the Persian Gulf for a while, and so I know from personal experience just how many promising students from countries in that region are financed by their governments to study in universities all over the world, regardless of the deficiencies of the educational systems back home. There were 54,000 Saudi students in US universities last year, according to a report issued by a couple of groups including the US State Department. That number is probably higher this year, and that’s just at US universities. And the Saudis are specifically targeting nuclear-related fields for study. See, in 2010 then-King Abdullah decreed the creation of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, to be built near Riyadh. This place is expressly intended to spur investment and training in, like the name says, atomic and renewable energy, and it’s started paying for college-age Saudis to study abroad in fields like nuclear physics, nuclear safety, nuclear plant engineering…well, you get the idea. Where are Saudi kids going to get the training to operate a nuclear (and nuclear weapons) program? Pretty much anywhere the Saudis can pay to send them.
The third reason it’s flawed is because, well, he’s just wrong about the math and science education stuff. Per arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis on Twitter, Saudi Arabia actually does better on those WEF rankings than at least two nuclear weapons states:
If placing 73rd is disqualifying for developing a nuclear weapons program, explain Israel. And how the heck did Pakistan manage to build a bomb without blowing itself up?
Then Zakaria moves on to the “those Saudis are SO LAZY” portion of his very sophisticated argument:
And who would work in Saudi Arabia’s imagined nuclear industry? In a penetrating book, Karen Elliott House, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, describes the Saudi labor market: “One of every three people in Saudi Arabia is a foreigner. Two out of every three people with a job of any sort are foreign. And in Saudi Arabia’s anemic private sector, fully nine out of ten people holding jobs are non-Saudi. . . . Saudi Arabia, in short, is a society in which all too many men do not want to work at jobs for which they are qualified; in which women by and large aren’t allowed to work; and in which, as a result, most of the work is done by foreigners.”
All the Gulf states import foreign labor — maybe you’ve heard about it — because they have big energy reserves that can fund big economies, but relatively tiny native populations upon which to build those economies. And yes, the size of the fossil fuel-funded social welfare state in those countries does probably discourage some (though by no means all or even most) people from working (though House’s book, full of “this one time, at band camp, I saw a young Saudi guy who didn’t want to get a real job”-style anecdotes, is probably not the strongest source to help you make this point). Again, Saudi Arabia is dysfunctional top-to-bottom (most petro-states are once you scratch the surface); it’s an totalitarian monarchy that manages to just barely tamp down strong undercurrents of instability by paying people not to complain, and the money from that is taken from the country’s control over an inherently limited supply of resources that has probably already started to run out. It’s a country with big problems. But that shaky monarchy has managed to survive into the year 20-freaking-15, with no end in sight, because while that supply of resources may be running out, it’s still worth a massive amount of money right now.
Who would work in Saudi Arabia’s imagined nuclear industry? There would be some Saudis, but I’d imagine the rest would be, you know, whoever the Saudis felt like hiring, given that they can afford to hire pretty much anybody they want.
Zakaria also discounts the possibility that the Saudis would just buy a bomb, which I agree is pretty unlikely, the whole Pakistan theory notwithstanding. But he doesn’t even make much sense on this point:
But couldn’t Saudi Arabia simply buy a nuclear bomb? That’s highly unlikely. Any such effort would have to take place secretly, under the threat of sanctions, Western retaliation and interception. Saudi Arabia depends heavily on foreigners and their firms to help with its energy industry, build its infrastructure, buy its oil and sell it goods and services. Were it isolated like Iran or North Korea, its economic system would collapse
Sure, it probably would, but so might the economic systems of every industrialized country on the planet. The Saudis still have enough juice (literally and figuratively) to essentially dictate global oil prices, or at least they still have that reputation, and in an oil market where prices are often driven by the irrational fears of the people buying and selling the stuff, a complete breakdown of Saudi Arabia’s relations with, well, basically the rest of the world would probably send the oil market into what professional analysts might call a “total conniption fit.” While the scenario Zakaria describes could happen, it’s also completely plausible to imagine a scenario where the rest of the world catches the Saudis trying to buy a bomb and decides to give them a slap on the wrist in order to keep crude at ~$70/barrel.
Jeffrey Lewis, whose tweet I cited above, also wrote a longer response to Zakaria’s piece for Foreign Policy, and aside from criticizing some of the same errors I’ve noted here (full disclosure: I learned about the King Abdullah City from reading his piece), Lewis points out that, hey, it’s just not that hard to build a nuclear bomb. It’s easier than it’s ever been to acquire the necessary materials, for example, and it was already pretty damn easy to acquire them back in the 1960s and 1970s. What stops countries like Saudi Arabia from producing nuclear weapons isn’t stupidity, or laziness, or an inability to get the right equipment, and it’s not even international efforts at blocking proliferation through sanction or force. Instead, it’s been a 50+ year global effort to encourage non-rogue states to voluntarily reject nuclear weapons that’s kept the number of nuclear states so low:
The nonproliferation regime can only function with the support of those states that can build nuclear weapons, but choose not to — states like Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are clearly alarmed by the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon. While I suspect that a lot of the talk about acquiring nuclear weapons is intended to make the United States focus on Saudi security concerns, it doesn’t help to dismiss Riyadh’s anxieties by mocking their educational system and ability to go nuclear.
Look, I’m no pundit, but it seems to me that there ought to be some minimal standards for the job. If Fareed Zakaria had for some reason approached me about carrying this column on my little web home here, I would have sent it back for a rewrite. How does The Washington Post let him get away with just farming it in like this, particularly when the alternative is apparently that he makes more sense but does so by pilfering other people’s work?