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Saudi Arabia – Getting Twitchy About MERS Coronavirus

The sacking of Health Minister Abdullah Al-Rabeeah, about whom I wrote a couple of years ago, comes at a difficult time for health services in Saudi Arabia. Whether his dismissal is the result of the sudden spike in new infections by the MERS-CoV coronavirus or for other reasons remains to be seen. It cannot have helped his cause that his ministry issued statements to the effect that it had the virus under control at precisely the time when a number of new cases were reported in Jeddah.

Also, as John Burgess reported in Crossroads Arabia, the statement that experts from a drug company were in discussions with the Saudis about developing a vaccine may be comforting for a worried population, but developing and testing vaccines can take months or even years, depending on the virus. The virus in question is a relative of the common cold and also of the more lethal SARS, which caused 800 deaths and a worldwide scare in 2003. I’m not aware of there being a vaccine for either, despite the cold being responsible of millions of days of absenteeism every year around the world. This is partly because there are so many variants of coronavirus, and also because rapid mutation renders a specific virus a constant moving target.

What is spooking the region about the new MERS-CoV clusters – cases have now been reported in the UAE as well as several population centres in Saudi Arabia – is that whereas previously it tended to attack older people with immune systems compromised by other conditions such as diabetes, its victims are getting younger.

Most people assume that infections move as people move. But there’s another interesting possibility. Because the virus has been identified in camels, is it possible that it’s the camels moving around that are causing the problem. If you drive on the main highway from Dammam to Riyadh you pass a huge camel market. Trade in camels is brisk, not only within Saudi Arabia but across neighbouring borders. I’m sure that the authorities are looking at camel mobility as a contributing factor.

An additional concern is that in October around three million pilgrims will be pouring into Makkah and Madinah for the annual Haj pilgrimage. Many of them will pass through Jeddah, where the new outbreak started. It’s highly likely that the authorities will attempt to prevent the elderly and infirm from travelling to this year’s Haj, but if the virus is now infecting the young and fit, this measure would most likely reduce but not eliminate the risk of mass infection.

This is not the first time that health fears have focused on the Haj. The last time was in 2009, when swine flu was the concern. In that instance the festival took place with no adverse consequences. But that doesn’t mean that mass infections can’t take place in the future. Think of the consequences of an Ebola outbreak, for example. Although the Saudis are making noises about not issuing visas to Haj applicants from Guinea and neighbouring Senegal and Liberia, it would only take two or three infected people to find their way to the Holy Places for the authorities to have a major health emergency on their hands.

However, if there’s one area in which the Saudis have deep and long-standing experience, it’s in the logistics of the Haj. No doubt there are contingency plans in place for dealing with unexpected outbreaks of disease among the pilgrims. But anything that weakens that confidence, particularly on the part of the World Health Organisation, which monitors global disease outbreaks and has strict protocols to which the Kingdom is a signatory, is likely to have weakened the position of the Minister.

Dr Al-Rabeeah is an eminent surgeon whose speciality – separating conjoined twins – has brought him and his country considerable prestige. Even while serving in the government he still practised medicine. Only two weeks ago he supervised the separation of twins from Iraq. He will not be unemployed for long.

As for Adel Fakeih, the Minister of Labor, who has taken over Al-Rabeeah’s duties on a temporary basis, he adds a second sensitive brief to his existing portfolio. His regular job is stressful enough. I hope that he is taking good care of his health in what will be a difficult period for him.

 

 

Postcard from Saudi Arabia: The Grey Entrepreneurs

Employment is a perennial hot topic in Saudi Arabia. Successive Ministers of Labor have struggled with the conundrum of how to replace foreign labour with qualified Saudis. The latest figures from the Saudi Central Department of Statistics and Information suggest that as of the last quarter of 2013 the unemployment rate for males is around 6%, and that among females who want to work it’s 36.7%.

One statistic I have never been able to find is for multiple employment in the Kingdom. By this I mean the number of people who work in more than one job, or who carry out a number of activities that might not technically be regarded as employment but are nonetheless income-producing.

It’s well known that many Saudis in government jobs have businesses on the side. They may be anything from import-export to small family shops. Though there are restrictions limiting their extra-curricular business activities, it seems that many government employees are adept at getting around them.

On a recent visit to the country I encountered a couple of examples of what is effectively an alternate economy. Not black, because taxation in the Kingdom is minimal, but certainly sufficiently grey to creep under the radar of the official employment statistics.

The first example emerged from a casual conversation with a couple of young Saudis in a hotel lobby. After going through the ritual enquiries “where are you from?”, and “what do you think of Saudi Arabia?”, we started talking about their jobs. One works in the private sector, and the other with what you could describe as a semi-government organisation – a company wholly owned by the government.

People kept coming up to them to say hello, and I wondered why they were there. Training perhaps?

Mohammed and Abdullah (not their real names) proudly produced a lavish brochure with pictures of watches, other accessories. They turned the pages and showed me the logo of a Swiss university, and details of its distance learning MBAs and PhD courses. It seems that they are into network marketing.

The way network marketing – also known as multi-level marketing – works is that when you sign up with a company, you start by selling their products to your friends. You get commission on the sales. Then you recruit two people to sell to their friends. You get commission on their sales. They then recruit two of their friends, and so the story goes, your network grows to tens or even hundreds of people. The larger your network, the more commission you earn. It’s a time-honoured system in the West, though much criticised because of the inflated income expectations many of the operators appear to engender in their recruits. In many cases, such schemes actually break laws against pyramid selling in the US and the UK.

Mohammed and Abdullah did not seem to be concerned about any ethical considerations. They considered themselves to be entrepreneurs. Both said that they are doing very well. Mohammed claimed that he earns more than his day-job salary in commission. Abdullah, who has a smaller network, is apparently well on his way towards doing the same.

It seems that many of the sales agents are women. And certainly network marketing would be a logical outlet for non-working women who have time on their hands and plenty of female friends. There are enough of them – a 2012 survey by consultants Booz and Co claimed that 78% of female graduates were unemployed. Some prefer not to work. Others are not allowed to by their families or are put off working because of the low salaries on offer. But network marketing allows them to earn money from the comfort of their own homes and without breaking any social taboos.

I asked the two guys when they thought they would be able to give up their day jobs. Neither said that they were planning to do so – clearly they have enough spare time for network marketing despite holding down full time jobs. They told me that the marketing company assured them that they should be able to make enough money to stop working altogether within three to five years. Retire is probably not the most appropriate word to use when you’re talking about a couple of people in their twenties. So I asked Abdullah what he would do when he reached that point. “Sleep!” he said with a big smile.

I was curious as to whether these guys were pioneers. How widespread is network marketing in Saudi Arabia? Before they went back to their friends, I posed the question. The answer came back loud and clear: 1.2 million people.

I have no idea whether or not this was a gross exaggeration – it’s not, according to several people I spoke to subsequently – or whether my new friends’ claims about their own success stacked up. But even if you halve their estimate of the number of network marketers, they would represent a very significant percentage of the working-age population. It’s also worth noting that neither of them said that there was any problem with their effectively having two jobs.

But I did discover that in 2012 the Saudi government banned the company Mohammed and Abdullah are associated with. A local newspaper reported at the time:

“This network marketing activity involves deception of citizens and has been banned in a number of countries,” the Ministry of Commerce and Industry said.

The ministry urged Saudis and expatriates not to take part in the activities of such network marketing companies.”

“This business activity has not been registered with the ministry. Moreover, there have been official instructions in the past banning activities that involve deception and stealing others’ money through falsification,” it explained.

The ministry stressed that it would take all measures to stop this form of business activity in the Kingdom with the support of relevant agencies.”

I suspect that the company in question eventually managed to persuade the Ministry that it was not breaking any rules, which was why my friends were openly talking about their involvement. Or maybe they changed their business model to address the concerns of the religious establishment that network marketing might be forbidden under Islam.

If not, then large numbers of people in Saudi Arabia would seem to be earning income illegally but with apparent impunity.

My second encounter with Saudi Arabia’s grey economy came a couple of weeks later, when I got into conversation with another parallel entrepreneur. Hamza (also an assumed name) is a 29-year-old government worker. In his “spare time” he runs a car importing business. He has over twenty staff and three showrooms.

Hamza’s business is used cars. My immediate thought when he told me about his company was that he must surely have some stiff competition from companies much larger than his. All around the country you can easily find used car sellers. Some are huge. But this is a country where the death toll on the roads is a fifth of that in the US, but whose population is one tenth of the size. Drive from Dammam to Riyadh on the six-lane highway and you’ll see plenty of evidence of the reckless habits of Saudi Arabia’s drivers in the form of detritus on the side of the road. So would you buy a used car when you don’t know its accident history?

Hamza’s solution is to import used car from the US, where drivers are somewhat more careful with their cars. Each car he sells has a certificate from the US guaranteeing its accident-free history. Clearly this assurance is a comfort for his customers, because last year he sold 400 cars.

His next business, he told me, will be importing motorbikes into the Kingdom. Given the love of bikes among young Saudis – go to Riyadh any weekend and watch the kids doing wheelies in Olaya and Tahlia Streets and you’ll see the evidence for yourself – I reckon he’s on to a winner.

I was impressed, and told him so. Here was a guy who will be running a very big business in ten years’ time if he keeps going at his current rate of expansion. But one thing didn’t make sense. Why, with this obviously successful business, was he still working for the government on a very modest salary? He gave a cryptic reply: “I’ve been working in this job for four years, and I need to convince my family that I’m capable of holding down a government job”. I didn’t press him further, but I suspect that the respectability of working for the government was more important to his family than his burgeoning career as an entrepreneur.

For a young Saudi a government job is the key to a good marriage and much else besides. One of the factors that prevent the private sector from employing more Saudis is the perception of risk, especially at the smaller end. Families – and equally importantly, families of prospective brides – will accept their sons working for one of the big industrial firms like Saudi Aramco and SABIC on the grounds that they’re virtually part of the government. Banks are fine, as are the long-established family conglomerates. But go lower down the scale to the level where young entrepreneurs like Hamza operate and the greater the chance that status-conscious Saudi families will view your career prospects with increasing scepticism.

Which could explain why Hamza works eight hours a day for the government and spends the rest of his waking hours on his own business. For all that, he must be good at delegating, because he insisted that he didn’t work at weekends.

If these stories are representative of a wider phenomenon, it’s no wonder that Minister of Labor Adel Fakieh is scratching his head to come up with ways to get more Saudis into paid employment. Nitaqat, the quota system by which the private sector is judged on its success in replacing foreigners with Saudis, and Hafiz, the employment benefit scheme of which many of the unemployed women avail themselves, can only partly address the problem if large numbers of women are finding ways to create incomes for themselves outside employment, and if large numbers of government workers are running businesses on the side – either in their own right or through proxies.

The concern must be that those benefiting from the grey economy are likely to be from the better-educated and better-connected echelons of society. If this is the case, the question still remains of how to prevent the underprivileged and undereducated members of Saudi society. The last thing the country needs if it is to maintain stability and social cohesion is a growing perception that the rich are getting richer and the poor are becoming a marooned underclass.

Add to the employment conundrum an education system whose well-documented shortcomings are contributing to a lack of work readiness on the part of high school graduates, and staunch resistance to labour reforms among powerful business owners and you wonder how the Minister doesn’t wake every morning with a severe headache. If he doesn’t have the toughest job in the Saudi government, I don’t know who has.

Mohammed, Abdullah and Hamza are living proof that entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Saudi Arabia. The government’s challenge, it seems to me, is  - rather than curtail their activities – to find ways of harnessing that spirit in the interests of the greater good by making entrepreneurship not only socially respectable but an accepted and celebrated bedrock of the national economy.

Not an easy task, but a critically important one.

The Meaning of Courage

Just a couple of quick thoughts, in contrast to my usual blatherous outpourings.

I’m speechless in admiration of the nine million Afghans who went to the polls in defiance of the Taliban. Yes, the Afghan reality is different from mine, and perhaps it’s less of a big deal to go out to vote when bullets and bombs are an ever-present threat in your normal daily life. Nonetheless the Afghans yesterday showed collective courage beyond my understanding. Let’s hope that the leaders they risked everything to elect are worthy of them.

As for individual courage, I saw The Railway Man last night. It’s the story of Eric Lomax who, alongside thousands of other British and Australian prisoners of war, suffered appalling cruelty at the hands of the Japanese on the Burma railroad in World War II. Again, his courage was in a different universe to mine. Would I have forgiven the person who tortured me? I’m not sure.

Interesting also that the harrowing centrepiece of the torture sequence was the two weeks Lomax was most reluctant to talk about, in which he was waterboarded in an attempt to find out why he built a radio. This of course was one of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed by the CIA in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It didn’t work on Lomax, and as the US Congress appears to be discovering, it probably didn’t work for the CIA either.

It’s easy for those of us who have never been at the wrong end of a rifle or a torturer’s tools to pass blithely on to the next news story or action movie. It does us no harm to stop and reflect now and again about acts of courage that few of us need to summon up in our lives, yet are commonplace in the lives of others less fortunate.

Postcard from Bahrain – When is an Airline not an Airline?

When is an airline not an airline? When it’s an heirloom.

Such is the fate of Gulf Air, Bahrain’s flag carrier and perennial financial basket case. It’s the airline that can’t find a CEO – as the transport minister noted a couple of months ago in a fit of dangerous candour – because nobody in the aviation industry wants to take the job. The reason? According to the minister, too much government interference, which is not surprising given that there are three cabinet ministers on the Board, and that each time the airline goes to its masters for another subsidy to shore up its losses, questions are asked in Parliament.

For a Gulf state, a national carrier is more than a means of ferrying its great and good from A to B. It’s a symbol of national prestige. If Gulf Air were allowed to fail, it would be a humiliation – an admission that this tiny country couldn’t stand shoulder to shoulder with its oil-rich neighbours in the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Some might argue that Bahrain already suffers from a bit of an inferiority complex. Although it was the first of the Gulf states to discover oil, it was also the first to feel the effects of depletion. Today it’s a minnow in production terms compared with every other member of the GCC. Was “small-man syndrome” at play when the country decided to upgrade itself from an emirate to a kingdom? Apart from Saudi Arabia – a zillion times larger in terms of territory, population and economic output – none of the other hereditary rulers in the Gulf have seen fit to place a crown upon their heads.

And also, apart from Saudi Arabia, none of its neighbours invests so heavily in the cult of royalty. Pictures of the leading royals are hard to escape. They are on highway hoardings, buildings and shop windows. In every hotel reception, office entrance and even in school classrooms. (That said, I’d take royalty any day over the cults of personality pursued by the gimlet-eyed action man in Russia or the grim clerics of Iran.)

So it’s hardly surprising that the country’s prestige-conscious rulers would be reluctant to let their beloved airline go to the dogs, despite losses that critics claim should be going towards other much-needed development: education, public transport and affordable housing, for example. Not to mention the clean-up of a spoilt environment and measures to reduce air pollution.

In one way, Gulf Air has been a success story. 60% of the airline’s staff is Bahraini, a far higher proportion of nationals than the local giants, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad employ. But therein lies the dilemma. If you follow the ruthless dictates of capitalist theory, you might be tempted to put the airline out of its misery, despite the impact on thousands of Bahrainis who either work for Gulf Air or supply it with goods and services. A couple of thousand job losses from a single enterprise would make headlines in Britain, France or the US, even if the consequences would barely dent the economies of those countries. But in a nation with 600,000 citizens and only half that number of working age, the economic impact of Gulf Air’s disappearance would be significant – the more so given that Bahrain is not without its political problems right now.

Leaving aside its massive year-on-year losses, how does Gulf Air shape up against its rivals? Pretty well, at least in my experience.

I use the airline frequently on short-haul flights around the Gulf. The online booking system works well, the aircraft don’t look as if they’re falling apart and the cabin crew are friendly and helpful, even if they’re relatively hopeless at settling back the surge of passengers who rise from their seats even as the aircraft is taxiing to the terminal – it takes the British Airways memsahib death stare to sort that one out.

What often makes or breaks the customer experience is how an airline deals with problems. The other day I arrived in Bahrain at midnight on a flight from Riyadh. I got to my hotel at 1am, and discovered that I had left my IPad in the aircraft. Panic ensued. It was in the seat pocket, and I had visions of the morning flight winging its way back to Riyadh with my device serving as an additional attraction for some lucky passenger. I called the Gulf Air helpline. No response. I called the airport lost and found number that was on the website, and got through to a customs officer who gave me a couple of numbers to try. No response.

So at 2am I jumped into the car and headed back to the airport. The airport information desk couldn’t find anyone to help. But in the booth next door I spotted a guy from the airline. He made a couple of calls, ascertained that the cleaners had found the IPad and suggested I come back for it the next morning.  I told him I had a full morning – couldn’t I have it now? Without any argument he said sure. It would take about twenty minutes, because the plane was not parked at a gate, and he would have to drive out to it. I went for a coffee, and before I’d finished it he was back with the IPad.

Now I’m pretty sure that it was not his job to go off and fetch my lost property. He would have been within his rights to make some excuse not to get off his backside and insist that I came back in the morning. After all it was my senior moment that created the problem in the first place. But he made the effort, for which I was extremely grateful.

Therein lies one of the secrets of good customer service. It’s not enough to have a well-honed process that makes one human interchangeable with another – I’m thinking of Qatar Airways here (see Qatar Airways – Operational Excellence, but at What Price? for more about them). It’s having people prepared to deal with the consequences of Murphy’s Law using their own initiative rather than reading the rulebook before taking action. Or, as is perhaps the case with Qatar, being afraid to deviate from the rulebook.

This was not an earth-shattering example of going the extra mile, but it was clear that the guy made an extra effort. Both government and private sector organisations in the Middle East are full of bureaucrats who wouldn’t lift a finger without the requisite forms and a dollop of bowing and scraping – unless you happen to be a friend or a relative. I have written before about that great international beacon of customer service (not) – HSBC – for example.

But what this guy’s helpfulness does show is that a single act of decency can transform one’s perception of the organisation that the person represents. All the better if the attitude that engenders the act is part of the culture of the organisation, because then you have the ultimate prize: operational excellence with a coating of customer intimacy.

I’m not sure that Gulf Air matches Qatar Airways in operational excellence, and it certainly can’t compete with its neighbour’s opulent faculties. However all other things being equal – such as price and convenience – as long as an airline is reasonably efficient, I would always choose travel with the one that has people like the guy who retrieved my IPad.

Does the high proportion of nationals that work for the company make a difference? Maybe. Certainly friendliness and willingness to help are endearing personal qualities of many Bahrainis, even if those attitudes can be ground out of them by years of working in hierarchical bureaucracies.  I would far rather travel with an airline staffed mainly by nationals than one whose workforce is mainly foreign and lives in fear of being caught committing some peccadillo by a rampaging CEO on his frequent forays through his empire masquerading as Attila the Hun. No worries on that score for the Gulf Air staff, because they don’t have a permanent CEO, let alone a rampaging one.

In recent years the airline has had to slim down and abandon its pretensions to be a major world player. In the process it has cut down its losses. That clearly makes sense. I would hate to see it disappearing altogether. This is not because I believe in sacred cows or national heirlooms. But countries like Bahrain have in recent decades become so drenched with the vanilla of globalisation that it’s hard to find institutions with a genuine local flavour.  I defy a visitor to the City Centre Mall to find a single shop selling Bahraini products outside a small area called The Souk that sells incense, traditional clothes and trinkets. The rest are outlets you could just as easily find in London, Paris or New York.

Gulf Air may have started under the ownership of several Gulf states, but now it’s exclusively Bahraini. It should capitalise on that, and seek to reflect the positive qualities that endure in Bahrain despite the country’s current problems: hospitality, friendliness, tolerance, openness to new ideas and an abundance of talent in its young people. Perhaps a re-brand is called for. Since the demise of Bahrain Air, there is no airline that carries the name of the country.

I for one believe that Bahrain is better off with Gulf Air than without it. It’s not the perfect airline, but it’s more than a just a business for the country. It will have a future if Bahrainis continue to believe in it and want to work for it. Just as I love the gnarled and slightly eccentric taxi drivers – all Bahraini – that pick you up from the airport, I appreciate their friendly sons and daughters who check me in.

Bahrain might be a minnow, but as long as it retains its distinctive qualities it doesn’t have to be overshadowed in any sense by its big-boy neighbours. The same goes for Gulf Air.

One Person’s Expatriate is Another Person’s Economic Migrant

I’m currently in Bahrain on business. This weekend we have the Formula 1 Grand Prix. My hotel is overrun by British engineers, technicians and racing fans. Despite the unseasonably cool weather, they congregate at breakfast in their shorts and sleek tee-shirts emblazoned with logos. They spend the meal discussing stuff like torque, power units, fuel consumption and other subjects beloved of petrolheads.

At a table nearby, a couple of bearded guests  in short white thobes – most likely weekend visitors from Saudi Arabia – survey the scene with expressions varying between bemusement and stern disapproval – perhaps exacerbated by the aroma of bacon emanating from one of the hot-plates.

F1 is a travelling circus, brought to Bahrain at considerable cost. It brings with it a flurry of economic activity. Whether the economic boost is worth the price is not for me to say. But my hotel benefits like all the others on the island. When the circus moves on, the 600,000-odd foreign workers will resume their normal daily lives alongside a roughly equal number of locals, and occupancy at my hotel will drop down to normal levels.

Watching the throng of Brits strutting around the buffet caused me to reflect on the polyglot multitudes that have settled in my own country, and our attitude towards them.

For four years Bahrain was my temporary home, as it is for thousands of other Brits, Irish, Americans, Canadians, continental Europeans, Indians, Filipinos, Pakistanis and a smattering of people from just about everywhere else in the world. These days I come back and forth from my permanent home in the UK.

Non-Bahrainis frequently refer to themselves as expatriates. Among the British “community” in Bahrain, you will find that the majority of people would describe themselves a conservative with a small C. If you pushed them to say who they would vote for in the next general election I suspect that the majority would go for the Conservatives or the UK Independence Party. The reasons will be primarily economic. Nobody who goes abroad for the money is likely to opt for a party that will tax them until the pips squeak when they finally get home.

I lived in Saudi Arabia in the Eighties, a time when the country boasted a much larger British population than it does today. In those days expatriate was a term reserved for to Westerners, or more specifically people with white skins. The guys who came from poor countries to sweep the streets, climb up buildings and stack the supermarket shelves were bracketed under the rather disparaging term “third country nationals” or TCNs for short. A tinge of racism in a country where just about every ethnic group found a reason to look down on the next group for one reason or another.

While a century ago we British came to the Middle East to run the empire, today we do so for less exalted reasons. We are attracted by the tax-free salaries. Some would say that another reason for fleeing UK is because it is “not what it was”. By that they usually mean that the essential nature of the country is being changed by unfettered immigration. Britain is, they might argue, overrun by Poles, Lithuanians, Albanians, Kurds, Asians of various origins, and currently by a wave of Romanians and Bulgarians.

If they’ve had a few drinks they might describe these people as foreigners, maybe with a few salty qualifying adjectives. On the other hand, if the BBC interviewed them, they might more politely describe them as economic migrants.

So we are expatriates, and they are economic migrants. The first term sounds distinctly grander than the second, doesn’t it? Which is a sublime irony. Because ever since we set about acquiring an empire, we British have been the ultimate economic migrants. Hundreds of thousands of left Britain to “seek our fortunes” abroad. We went to the Americas, the Middle East, the Far East and the Antipodes. In other words, we engaged in wholesale economic migration.

We still go to the Middle East in large numbers. We expect countries like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to welcome us with open arms because we are Westerners, and by implication more knowledgeable, educated and skilled than the locals. Even when we know that this is not the case, we make no effort to deny our implied superiority. Why would we? It’s hardly in our financial interest to do so.

Right now there are over a million Brits working abroad. And yet we complain when a million foreigners come to our country to work. Have we ever considered the effect that we have had on the countries where we work? Many of our favourite Middle East destinations have been under our political or commercial influence for decades, not to say longer. We would probably say that we are contributing to the development of those countries – making them better places. Really?

Some would argue that thanks to us there are many countries that live under rulers who siphon off for their personal use large proportions of the oil wealth we and the Americans helped them to discover. Their young people are hopelessly conflicted between the seductive freedoms of the West and the socio-religious values that underpin their culture. Like our society, theirs have become venal. Observance passes off as spirituality. Their language is diluted with English words and phrases. Their literary heritage is drying up because less and less people have the patience to read books. Western media determine the vast majority of what they see on TV or in the cinema – assuming they’re allowed to go to the cinema.

While we can’t be held responsible for all the ills of the countries where our footprint landed in the past couple of centuries, it seems to me that Britain has changed many parts of the world far more – and not necessarily for the better – than the current crop of migrants is ever likely to change us.

So aren’t we being just a wee bit hypocritical in railing against the economic migrants who arrive on our shores, the vast majority of whom, contrary to popular belief, wish to find better-paid work rather than gorge themselves on benefits, when thousands of us head for Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrain, Australia and the United States for exactly the same reason?

Just a thought…..

For a related post see: To Be or Not to Be….. British

Britain’s Tax Collectors – Coming to Get Us

Offshore Tax

I came across this interesting advertisement in yesterday’s Sunday Times newspaper. What appears to be a woman using an atlas as a hijab is in fact a message from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the UK government body responsible for collecting our taxes.

In the small print it reads:

New international agreements will let us see more information about your overseas accounts. If you’ve declared all your income you have nothing to worry about. But if you haven’t, and we catch you, you’ll have to pay your undeclared tax, a penalty of up to double the tax you owe and you could even go to prison. So come to us before we come to you.

Apart from the ethnic and religious overtones of the woman’s picture (assuming she is a woman), it’s a pretty unsubtle message. I wonder who will respond to it by coming out with their hands up. Can there be anyone with sufficient funds offshore to warrant the HMRC’s attention who is not aware of the rules and penalties around undeclared offshore income – apart that is from gullible comedians, footballers and actors who place their trust in sharks who devise allegedly rock solid tax avoidance schemes characterised by their cynicism and amorality? Apparently there are. HMRC claims to have raised £600 million from tax evaders in the last financial year.

But let’s face it, the really high net worth individuals whose ill-gotten gains might conceivably contribute more than an infinitesimal increase in Britain’s tax take have enough accounting and legal brainpower behind them to tie the HRMC up in knots. So presumably with this kind of meat-axe campaign, out tax collectors are aiming at the small fry – the low-hanging fruit.

If they really want to raise some serious money, they should remember the exploits of Hervé Falciani, whose alleged theft of the details of 130,000 potential tax evaders from his employer, HSBC (known to readers of this blog as my favourite bank), led to the creation of the Lagarde List. This list, a subset of Falciani’s, contains the names of 24,000 European “potential” tax evaders. was named after Christine Lagarde, then the French finance minister and now the managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. She shared nearly two thousand names from the list with the Greek government, who have failed to prosecute any of those named, presumably because they as as innocent as new-born babies.

It was a nice idea, so why does the HMRC not announce that it will pay a bounty of 20% of tax recovered to anyone who blows the whistle on tax evaders, with no questions asked as to how they came by the information? That surely would attract the attention of a whole host of people in the know about the various scams used by the seriously wealthy on a n-win-no-fee basis, most likely with a modest witness protection programme thrown in.

Either that, or the tax man should prevail on the GCHQ – our national snooping service – to spend less time looking at the naughty pictures they came across by hacking into Yahoo’s video traffic and more time going after the tax evaders.

On the other hand, perhaps they have been persuaded that the consequences of getting too tough on the UK-domiciled plutocrats might be that these guys would get out of the UK for good, precipitating a sudden glut of large houses on the property market, thereby leading to a house price collapse and a dramatic decrease in negative equity, with all the resulting negative consequences for the national economy.

If its hands are thus tied, it’s not surprising that the HMRC should choose to spend our money on nasty little ads like the one in the Sunday Times. The only trouble is that the £600 million raised from 617 prosecutions in the 2012/13 tax year represents  a mere 0.13% of the £470 billion raised  - according to the Guardian newspaper – in tax revenue during that year. Still, I suppose that’s enough to pay for a couple of extra hospitals, or maybe a school or two. Or, to put it another way, it contributes 6% of the total cost of the National Health Service patient records computer system abandoned last year.

Oh well, at least we have another slug of money to set aside for the next bank bail-out, or maybe to waste on another ill-conceived IT project. One step forwards, three steps back. Meanwhile, watch out for the mean-looking lady in the paper hijab….

Facebook at 10 – What to Do with the Silent Majority?

As Facebook reaches its tenth birthday, it claims to have 1.23 billion subscribers. That’s more users than any country has citizens, with the exception of China. I suspect that like most countries, it has a silent majority. But while many real-world regimes thrive on the apathy of their populations, silence is not golden for the world’s leading social media company.

When I first became one of those users five years ago I felt like a grouchy old interloper in a youthful world of parties, restaurants and foreign holidays. I hated the feckless narcissism of many of the posts, forgetting that in my twenties I did a good line in feckless narcissism myself, even though I didn’t have an application like Facebook as a mirror for my fragile vanity, and I couldn’t afford foreign holidays.

Though I’m as ambivalent about the site as I was then, I have to admit, grudgingly, that it’s become one of my most frequently visited websites. Not because I’m any fonder of the airware that people insist on sharing with their public, but because I’ve managed to pare the content I see down to posts from people who have something to say that I sometimes find interesting.

Of the posts that do appear on my home page, I’d say that maybe one in ten is worth reading. Ignoring the nine that are profoundly uninteresting is no more effort than ignoring the ads in a newspaper. So that’s enough to keep me scrolling.

Yes, I know, I’m just an antiquated killjoy who can’t stand seeing people taking pleasure in other people’s meals, fluffy animals, boozy nights out and one-liners about hangovers and phones not working. And yes, new babies are cute, and while parents and grandparents are entitled to post endless bulletins about the size of their nappies, their delightful burp-precursor smiles, you can definitely get too much of a good thing.

Most people post photos and little vignettes about their own lives, or links to other people’s content they find interesting. But the posts that attract me most are from people who do stuff themselves. People like Robin Valk, who writes a great music blog. And my own daughter, Nicola Royston, who posts the music she writes for films. Or Andrew Morton, an old friend, songwriter and Tolkien expert, who after a lifetime in music reckons that he’s probably writing the best stuff in his career for his two bands, Café Culture and The Details. I wouldn’t disagree with him, by the way. Then there’s Hunt Emerson, a superb cartoonist whose work I first came across in Birmingham in the early 70’s. And John Whelpton, author of a history of Nepal, who writes many of his posts in Latin, and who provides well-chosen links to political stuff ranging from Nepal to Ukraine, as well as cultural pieces, often about language. All provide stimulating content of a kind that keeps me coming back.

One of the classic criticisms of the site is that it dilutes the meaning of friendship. It takes some effort of will to avoid allowing people into your magic circle who are no more than acquaintances. And indeed, why should you refuse to admit them? So I do make friends with some people I barely know in the hope that they might have something worth looking at. I’m sure you do too, assuming you’re a user. Otherwise, how would you manage to accumulate 1345 friends?

Which leads to the strange phenomenon of millions of people opening a window into intimate areas of their lives to other people who otherwise would never have had the chance to peer through.

But what happens within, for mere acquaintances, is largely without context or meaning. So all you learn is that the person through whose window you are peeping has lots of friends, drinks a lot and likes tiramisu. Not so intimate, maybe. On the other hand, not knowing someone well is no bar to appreciating the links they post, be they political analysis or videos of talking dogs.

And speaking of political analysis, Facebook is also a useful conduit to writers I admire, such as the redoubtable Robert Fisk, whose angry writing about the Middle East is always worth reading, even if I don’t always agree with his views.

I actually post very little on the site apart from my blog pieces, but I do quite often comment on other people’s stuff.

So as an old fart, I have more than enough bombulous (as in bombulus, Latin for fart) content to keep me interested in Facebook thanks to the efforts of those who escape my periodic purges of friends whose posts are so tedious that blocking them is a significant contribution towards energy conservation.

That the site’s appeal has widened to encompass people of my age is not, I suspect, the result of a deliberate policy by Facebook beyond a general lust for users. Now that there are over a billion users, how many of them are real users, as opposed to people for whom having a presence is not much different from having their name in the phone book (if such things still exist)?

To put it another way, how many of those 1.23 billion users are inert – there because they’re there, not posting, not visiting and not contributing in any way to Facebook’s economic success? The company doesn’t tell you that.

To get a snapshot from my own friends, I did a quick survey. I looked at every friend, and made a judgement on the extent of each person’s activity. I split them into three categories: inactive, posts less than once a month and posts more than once a month. Out of my modest total of 168 friends the result was:

  • Inactive 90 (55%)
  • Less than once a month: 22 (13%)
  • More than once a month: 53 (32%)

You could argue that the sample is too small to extrapolate from it the total number of inactive users on Facebook, but I’ll do it anyway: it’s 670 million users. In some countries I suspect that the proportion of inactive users is higher. I know that what follows is anecdotal evidence, but a few weeks ago I chatted with a group of young Saudis about the social media. They said that Facebook is being abandoned in the droves by his friends. Their favourite social media are Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp.

That would be of concern to Facebook because Saudi Arabia is a country, like others in the region, that’s going through a youth boom. There are over 5 million Saudi subscribers out of a population of 20 million, so if the number of active users in that wealthy country is falling, that’s not good news for the company.

But Saudi Arabia is also a country whose demographics justify Facebook’s move towards mobile. I’m regularly told by young Saudis that they don’t watch TV any more – virtually everything they view is via online media, and primarily through mobile devices, despite the fact that bandwidth that supports video streaming is not cheap.

So if I was running Facebook, my main concern would not be to acquire another billion users, but to convert existing users from inactive to active, and preferably economically active. And in this respect I wonder whether or not they’re missing a trick. Speaking as a user of, shall we say, advanced years, I can safely claim that I have contributed no economic benefit to Facebook beyond making my content accessible through the site and adding my vacuous comments to the zillions of others that flit like meteors across the cyber-sky. I never read the ads, and I can’t remember any corporate page that has caused me to buy anything. I don’t access the site through my IPhone when I’m on the move, though I do through the IPad. But that’s not 3G – I only have Wi-Fi.

And yet my generation typically has greater disposable income than Facebook’s early user base, with the possible exception of Zuckerberg’s Harvard colleagues, who by now are most likely as rich as Croesus as they scale the commanding heights of America’s robber economy. So what is the company doing to grab a piece of baby boomer action? Not a lot, as far as I can see. And if a sizeable number of users are like me, then they are wasting an opportunity to sell effectively to us.

Looking at the ads that Facebook believes are appropriate to me, I see that I’m invited to join a dating website for “mature Brits”, to enter a care home (or maybe put someone else in one), to get some false teeth, to become a day trader, deal with tinnitus, join a gym and buy life assurance. A pretty scatter-gun attempt to anticipate the needs of a male in late middle age, I would have thought.

But I’m not particularly important to Facebook, though my presence and those of millions more of my age do have consequences. As the site becomes universal, it becomes progressively uncool. After all, what university student wants a censorious parent, a potential employer or a religious policeman looking through their wild and woolly window? So rather than unsubscribe – because that would be far too much effort – people for whom Facebook is no longer “our thing”, slowly disengage and let their accounts go dormant.

If the declining participation of active users is fact rather than supposition, then that has to be a contributing factor towards the purchase of WhatsApp,  - definitely a “cool” service that shelters its users (for now) from the prying eyes of the silent majority. The gadarene rush to mobile – so important for Facebook’s market value – also deselects people of a certain age with poor eyesight and fingers like sausages.

Which leads me to wonder whether when Zuckerberg’s creation turns fifteen, its younger users will have abandoned it to their parents, and the site will be left with a massive majority of inactive users and a sizeable minority of people like me who are growing old disgracefully and flaunting it.

O fortuna, velut luna. Or, in the clichéd vernacular, what goes up comes down.

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