Tom Friedman Is Still Optimistic

The longtime New York Times op-ed writer on his controversial Saudi Arabia column, how he views his job, and cab drivers.

Thomas Friedman speaks in Washington on Jan. 5.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

From his perch as a columnist at the New York Times, Thomas Friedman is one of the most prominent and debated—indeed sometimes derided—commentators on foreign affairs. Known for his writings about the Middle East in particular, Friedman—the best-selling author of numerous books—still travels the world, interviewing business and political leaders and dispensing catchy bits of wisdom. Recently, he wrote a controversial column about Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Bin Salman, who is known as MBS, has already orchestrated a purge of a number of prominent Saudis, ostensibly for their corruption. He has also ramped up the country’s aggressive regional posture, from Lebanon to Qatar to Yemen, the last of which is undergoing an extreme humanitarian crisis thanks in large part to a Saudi blockade. Friedman wrote that MBS was modernizing the kingdom and bringing about an “Arab Spring, Saudi style.”

I spoke by phone with Friedman, whose most recent book is Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, this week, for one of his relatively rare print interviews. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether he was too nice to the Saudi regime, how Trump is warping our view of world affairs, and how he sees his role at the Times.

Isaac Chotiner: What was it about your trip to Saudi Arabia that made you optimistic about the goings-on there right now, and MBS in particular?

Thomas Friedman: Let me put it in a broad historical context, and I alluded to some of this in the column. Basically, what happened in 1979 in Saudi Arabia was that these fundamentalist, extremist, Muslim radicals took over the Mecca mosque, and they basically are in there for two weeks. The Saudi ruling family can’t get them out, and during those two weeks, every day they are broadcasting that the Saudi ruling family has become Westernized, secularized, abandoned Islam, and polluted their religion. As a result of that event, Saudi Arabia took an incredibly sharp right turn. The ruling family, to protect themselves, basically really let the clerics loose at home, imposing much more puritanical rule, and because all this coincided with the Iranian Revolution, [it] began a kind of worldwide competition with Iran over who is the most pure, fundamentalist regime or government in the world. And you had this incredible competition between fundamentalist Sunnism and fundamentalist Shiism.

What happened, Isaac, basically, was that Islam took an incredible right turn after 1979. What the Saudis projected onto the world of Islam—from Morocco, to London, to India, to Indonesia—really recast the center of gravity in Islam. It had a huge and I would argue incredibly negative effect on women’s rights, on Islam’s embrace of modernity, on Islam’s embrace of pluralism. It ended up with 9/11 as the darkest end point of that journey. I really blame the Saudi regime for 9/11. You unleashed this force onto the world.

So then—

Let me just finish this point, and I’ll be done in a second. You unleashed this onto the world, and then you see where it ended up, at the far edge. One of the things I would always say and write about that, after 9/11: We come to them and say, “Arrest this player, arrest this extremist, or this guy,” whatever. They would arrest whoever we wanted, but they never took on the idea. They never fought the war of ideas within Islam. That’s the backdrop for me of everything I am seeing in Saudi Arabia today.

Then why such optimism today?

At two levels. At the ground level, when you talk to young Saudis, as I did there, what you see … Toby Keith performed there. You have music again. Basically, fun was outlawed in Saudi Arabia in 1979. Now suddenly you have concerts. You have music. Women can go to sporting events. People are mixing—young men and women.

Sending Toby Keith was revenge for 9/11.

Exactly. Forget Toby Keith. The idea of a Western performer having a concert: You couldn’t have Muzak in the elevator and suddenly you’ve got all this openness happening. This is being told to me by young Saudis, not by MBS.

Well let me—

Let me just finish this one point again. The important thing he is doing is for the first time, and he says this in the interview, “Do not say I’m reforming Islam. I am restoring Islam.” He is fighting the war of ideas with these people. That has simply never, ever happened by a Saudi leader.

Saudi Arabia is not a democracy. You’re there to visit the de facto, or I don’t know if you want to call him de facto, ruler of the country.

Yeah, he is the de facto ruler.

Who are the young Saudis you’re talking to, and how are you certain you’re getting honest appraisals from them?

Obviously I’m talking to them. I’m also talking to government officials. There are people I know there. This is not my first trip to Saudi Arabia. I’m also reading about what’s going on there. I prepared myself quite a bit before I came. I didn’t just go there, and the curtain came up.

Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center, on Sunday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

People may be hesitant to give you their honest opinion of MBS.

Actually, we’re not even talking about MBS. We’re really talking about their lives more than him per se. Obviously they connected with him. One always has to filter that out, but I also know when I’m seeing something new. Women couldn’t drive there. Women will be able to drive. That’s not their opinion of him. That’s something that simply never happened before. Somebody wrote me after they got back that she was at a conference three years ago.* There was a wall separating men and women. Last year, there were trees. This year, there was none at all.

I’m getting more than one input from the people that I’m talking to. I’m at the Ministry of Education. I’m seeing what’s going on there, the kind of initiatives they’re doing. By the way, these are all early signs. All I’m telling you is that after how many years, 38 years after 1979, I am seeing concrete steps going in a different direction, no matter what anyone is telling me or not telling me.

You only alluded to it in only one line in your column, but your own newspaper wrote that Saudi Arabia was trying to “starve the people of Yemen into submission.” Did you talk to MBS about that?

I put what’s going on in Saudi Arabia in three buckets: what’s going on domestically, what’s going on on the Islam issue, and what’s going on in foreign policy. If you want to talk about Yemen, Yemen is a really complicated story, because Yemen had a democratically elected government that was ousted by the Houthis, supported by Iran, then the Saudis came in and basically put a blockade on the place. I find the whole thing appalling. [Editor’s note: Calling the government “democratically elected” is a stretch. The president of Yemen had stepped aside in 2011 amid protests, and a transitional, Gulf state–backed president was installed. The 2012 presidential election included only one candidate.]

I’m sure that what the Saudis are doing there has caused enormous pain, but they are hardly the only people involved in bringing that situation about. Five percent of the population, the Houthis, took over the whole country and ousted a democratically elected government. I could have talked about Yemen until the cows come home, but nothing is new in Yemen for me. I have nothing to add to that story. Yemen is a tragedy that is brought to you by Saudi Arabia, by the Houthis, by the Iranians, by [former Yemini President] Ali Abdullah Saleh. You can apportion the blame wherever you want.

What’s going on inside Saudi Arabia? There are people being arrested for corruption, etc. Really it’s an interesting development, but as I say in the piece, if it isn’t ended in a way that offers transparency and a sense of the rule of law, I said, “He’s at a very delicate point here.” How he ends this thing is very important. If it ends with some kind of transparent rule-of-law conclusion, I think that will strengthen him. If it doesn’t end that way, I think it will weaken him. Isaac, both of those stories in comparison to the world-shifting events that happened in 1979, and the potential, it’s only a potential, of turning that back from the only place it can be turned back, the place it started …

We didn’t explore Yemen a lot because frankly I was most interested in the Islam issue. But he said, “We’re winning,” and I said, “I’m skeptical.”

I’m not an expert on the region, but in the one country I know a little bit about, Pakistan, I know that the Saudis have been funding bad actors there—

Oh my God, yeah.

The way Saudi Arabia behaves in the world in terms of funding extremist Islam in Pakistan, in Indonesia, and all across the Middle East.

Absolutely. Kosovo.

Could this change?

It has the potential for that. I’m an old fart. I’ve seen too much now to want to say, “It’s over. 1979 is over,” but it has the potential to begin, and I want to be careful and not overstate this, but begin to reverse those trends. That to me is just hugely important, because what they unleashed on the world, on Pakistan, on all these societies by funding these really retrograde interpreters and interpretations of Islam, a misogynist, a very anti-pluralistic, anti-inclusive version of Islam, it tipped the world. It’s shaped the world we live in.

How do you understand MBS’s apparent fondness for Trump and the Trump administration’s apparent fondness for him?

I can’t give a categorical answer to this, but it goes back to Obama. Obama really got sick of all these people, and he made that very clear. Obama really saw these guys as corrupt and unserious. I’m talking about the Sunni Arab regimes in general. He saw the Iranians as a civilization that, if you could turn it around, had a lot in common with the United States, pluralistic, its history of pluralism, diversity …

You were sympathetic to that idea, no?

Absolutely, and I supported the Iran nuclear deal and still do. But that’s what it’s about. The Saudis felt he held them in contempt. Probably was some truth to that. When Trump came along with this visceral anti-Iran attitude, this was music to their ears.

Why did MBS talk to you, do you think?

This is the third time I’ve interviewed him. I interviewed him two years ago. It was probably his first interview.

He likes mustaches?

Exactly. I don’t want to get into this. [Goes off the record]

How long have you been at the New York Times?

I’ve been here since 1981. I am really old.

How long have you been an op-ed columnist?

Since ’95.

What do you see as your role, writing about foreign policy for the New York Times once or twice a week? How do you understand your role?

I went into this business, I mean journalism in general, because I hoped to one day work for an organization where I had a platform where I could get behind good people doing good things. Frankly, in the last few years, that’s been really hard, certainly in America but even in the world. That’s in general what I do.

I also described myself in my last book as a translator from English to English. I really like taking complex issues and breaking them down so I can understand them, and figure if I can understand them, I can help other people understand them. I’m a big believer in Marie Curie’s point that , “Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less.” At a time when the world’s getting really complicated, if people don’t understand what’s going on, they’re so easily manipulated, and so that’s really what I enjoy doing. I enjoy taking a complex issue and telling you, “Really, the roots of this issue are in 1979, and here’s how you should think about this. Yes, Yemen is terribly important, and yes, corruption is terribly important, but this issue here, this is huge. This is so much bigger than these other things, so please pay attention to that differently than you pay attention to these other issues.” That’s what I like to do.

I read somewhere that you do not read online criticism of your work. Is that true?

Yeah. My basic rule of life is I can either respond to critics or I can interview the next person, and I’d rather just interview the next person. At the end of the day, I can’t tell you a column is better than you thought it was. I can’t tell you a book is better than you thought it was.

But you stay off social media and stuff?

I’m not on social media at all.

You have to modernize.

As I say, I just am really focused. My real view of life is that, “And you shall know them by their books,” not by their blogs, not by their tweets. At the end of the day, I’ve written seven books. They are my biggest statements of how I see the world and how I interpret things, and I’d much rather be known for those seven books than seven blogs or seven tweets.

You know that people make fun of you for asking cab drivers things.

Yes, right.


Do you realize that I have actually never interviewed a cab driver?

What do you mean?

You can actually Google my work. I’ve actually never quoted a cab driver.

No drivers? Am I crazy?

No. I have never, ever … as I say, you can Google it.

Is this urban legend?

There’s two things I would say to you. One is that I’m really lucky at this stage. I can actually interview anybody, so why would I go around interviewing cab drivers, No. 1? No. 2, I interview all kinds of people everywhere because I learn from everyone, and I’ve learned that I’m interested in data, but interviewing another human is also data. If you hung around with me, you’d see me carrying my notebook and interviewing people everywhere. People also stop me a lot at this stage of my life. I will stop and interview them. Google “Tom Friedman New York Times cab driver” and you will discover it is a complete urban legend. Do that.

I will do that, for the sake of accuracy for this.

Yeah, exactly. That’s how I learn. I learn by talking to people, and I talk to a lot of people, because I believe that talking to people is data. I learn from people all the time. I find that it’s just a weird criticism that people would criticize you for talking to people. If you read my column and my books, they’re full of people of all shapes and sizes. At this stage in my career and in your life, people are always looking for something to get you on, so that’s that. That’s my whatever.

[I Googled as Friedman suggested, and also did a Nexis search, and found that Friedman in fact interviews many fewer cab drivers than his reputation suggests. Drivers sometimes show up and are quoted in his pieces—and books—but this might qualify as somewhat of an urban legend.]

You and many other people supported the Iraq war.


It’s obviously had a very bad effect in numerous ways that we can’t even count.

Yeah, sure.

What is it about the Iraq war and the catastrophe of it that’s maybe changed the way you think about foreign policy or America?

It’s not that I don’t want to answer that. I have such a long answer to that question, Isaac, it really is like a whole other interview. That’s not a one-liner for me. I just don’t want to. I’ve written about it a lot. I’ve thought about it a lot. If you want to do a separate interview on that, I’m fine with that.

If there’s any particular theme? Just the way it—

That one I’m not so comfortable with. I would want to sit down. That’s not a toss-off thing for me. If you wanna sit down for an hour some time—

OK. You’ve been writing about tech companies in Silicon Valley for a while now. When you see all this stuff about Russian interference and fake news, and their testimony before Congress, and the various social and political issues of social media, are you surprised or scared, compared to where you were five years ago?

Yeah, I’m scared at two levels. One is how easily these platforms seem to have been manipulated at scale, you know? In the sense that first Facebook said, or Mark Zuckerberg said, “No, that’s crazy that anything happened.” Then, “Oops, I guess some happened.” And then, I think the last I saw was that 128 million people may have read these fake news things. So it’s how easily they were manipulated at scale.

Do you think that people in Silicon Valley running the companies get the seriousness of this stuff?

It’s really hard to generalize. Generally speaking, I think they’re really focused on getting more eyeballs and more clicks and then monetizing that. So, no, I don’t think this is a high priority of theirs. And that’s another reason I’m not on social media. I know who my friends are; they’re not a thumb up or a thumb down.

I have been sort of working backward in my life, basically in the sense that I covered the Middle East for all those years. And it really came to a point in the last few years it was just clear to me … it was just … there was nothing to get behind there, particularly Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bibi.

And so I really brought my thinking back home. In 2011, Michael Mandelbaum and I wrote a book, That Used to Be Us, really focused on nation-building in America, how do we make this work. And then I woke up one day and really looked around and realized that the Middle East had followed me home. That we had become the Sunnis and Shiites. We called them Democrats and Republicans, but we were becoming as tribalized as the region I was in some ways running away from.

Jared is MBS.

And so I really went back home. I went back home to Minnesota. And I tried to go back to the roots of my own optimism and really say, “What was going on there?” ’Cause I grew up in a really neat little community outside of Minneapolis, and what was going on there, and first of all, was it real? Did I just remember it in a kind of gauzy way? And if it was real, what could I learn about from it that I could take back to my readers and to American politics?

And if you wanna know where my head’s at right now, it’s really thinking about cities, community—that’s really what I’m thinking about. Much more than foreign policy, but obviously I’m gonna take advantage of these opportunities. I was actually in India. I flew [to Saudi Arabia] from New Delhi.

What worries me about this moment, just from the point of view of someone who is partly responsible for writing about things outside of the United States, is that you’re in this real dilemma with Trump. He’s doing and saying outrageous things almost every day. And if you ignore them, it feels like you’re normalizing them, but if you write about him all the time, it feels like you’re not learning. And I really do not wanna wake up four years from now, and I’m 64, so I don’t know how many more years I may be doing this. But I sure don’t want him to own the last four years of my career.

I went to India just partly to say, “Hey, what’s new here?” Just because I want to write about something other than him.

There’s long tradition of Westerners going to India to chill out and find some inner peace.

Yeah, I wish I could say we’ve done that, but it’s just to say, we are really not going to serve our readers. They’re going to wake up in three or four years and discover, Holy mackerel, that was going on in Venezuela?, or That was going on in India? But meanwhile, I got all these clicks for Trump, and so I’m just gonna keep writing about him. It’s not a good moment for that.

Update, Nov. 30, 2017: After this interview published, Friedman emailed the following:

Isaac, you are right to say that calling Hadi’s government “democratically elected’” is a stretch. But his government was originally at least the product of a power-sharing deal among Yemeni tribes, elites, Islamists, youth representatives and regional powers that was dedicated to a national dialogue and democratic transition to a new parliament and presidential elections. I was in Yemen in 2013 shortly after Hadi took over from Ali Abdallah Saleh and there was a lot of optimism at the time that Yemenis might finally have found a legitimate power-sharing path forward. Sadly, the transition failed for a lot of reasons, from Hadi’s mis-governance to tribal divisions to the Houthi-Saleh-led coup to a myriad other uniquely Yemeni issues. My point is simply that Yemen is a humanitarian disaster today with many fathers who should be held accountable for ripping the place apart for narrow tribal, sectarian, regional or political interests—Saudi Arabia, the Houthis, Saleh, al-Qaeda, tribes, Iran all shoulder responsibility for perpetuating the tragedy there and it will only end with some form of power-sharing. As blogger, Jan Keulen, put it in an essay on “There are no heroes in Yemen’s conflict, only villains and victims.’’

My primary goal in what I wrote about MBS was to highlight something I believed was vastly under-appreciated and had enormous potential—and that was not his foreign policy. It was the concrete steps he had taken to begin to reverse the wrong turn Saudi Arabia took in 1979, and the fact that his steps seem to be being driven as much from the bottom up as from the top down. Given Saudi Arabia’s religious centrality in Islam, if these steps were to continue they could have profoundly positive impacts across the Muslim world—for pluralism, education, women’s empowerment and modernization generally. The stakes are huge. Since no one has really made that point that was where I thought I could advance the story most.

*Correction, Nov. 30, 2017: This piece originally misquoted Friedman as saying that a woman told him about her experience at a concert, where there was a wall separating men and women. She was talking about a conference, not a concert. (Return.)