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Scottish Referendum – The Morning After: Like the Morning Before?

UK and Scotland

8 am Friday 19 September:

So the angry accountants won.

For all the rhetoric swirling around about no return to the status quo, what needs fixing that didn’t need fixing before this whole exercise started? Not much, except a million-or-so broken hearts in the grieving north.

We are no more and no less beset by problems than we were before. In Scotland, the Poles, Latvians and Romanians who cheerfully locked arms with the Bravehearts and voted yes will return to their previous status as the others. The English who voted no will continue be the subject of the low key resentment for their presence – perhaps a little louder for a while. The politicians will return to politicking. Stickleback and Flounder will be mercifully spared the backlash that would surely have come their way when the populace discovered that they are just like any other politicians – over-promising and under-delivering.

All the while, the birds will sing, the fish will swim and the stags will rut, blissfully unaware of the kerfuffle that has so exercised another species over the past few months. Scotland will still be a beautiful country, and its people a mix of passionate, mean, creative, delusional, industrious and self-centred, just like the rest of us in the still-United Kingdom.

Further south, those of us who watched aghast at the possibility that 8% of our population were on the verge of imposing upon the rest of us a profound change in which we had no say will breathe a sigh of relief and return to our everyday worries.

But the referendum has had one significant effect. It has caused the English citizens of the Union to think afresh about a political order that most of us hitherto have considered – if we ever paused to think – to be as permanent as the granite in our hills and the muddy water flowing through our valleys into the sea.

The British stage is now set for bigger questions to be debated. Should we leave the European Union? How do we deal with the upcoming energy crisis? Should we still insist on “punching above our weight” in foreign affairs? How will we deal with the consequences of massive immigration to our shores? How will we cope with the enemy within that some see as the product of our multicultural society? Will we soon be dusting off our nukes and pointing them eastwards again? And will we manage to re-invent ourselves after the decline of our industrial base, whose destruction played so large a part in triggering the nationalist resurgence in Scotland in the first place?

These are the challenges that face us today. In time they will be replaced by new challenges. Life goes on. Meanwhile, the leaves fall from the trees, the sheep graze on the hills, the brown fug rises from our cities, babies are being born, lovers argue over breakfast and politicians polish their words.

Twas ever thus.

Scottish Referendum – Will Hit and Hope Win the Day?

saltire

Today’s the day then. Throughout the Scottish referendum campaign, I’ve refrained from trying to influence my thousands of Caledonian followers either way (actually, it’s more like three men and a couple of red squirrels, but then this is a season of exaggeration, is it not?).

Like the Queen, I don’t have a vote and I’ve chosen to remain silent throughout the campaign. Unlike the Queen, I’m going to say my piece now that the babble has given way to the sound of boots on their way to the polling stations.

The reason for my silence is that I haven’t been convinced that either side has made a clear case for their cause. On the No side we have heard many economic arguments as to why separation would be a bad thing. It seems to boil down to the opinions of geologists as to the amount of oil and gas left within Scotland’s reach. If the geologists can’t agree, I have nothing further to add.

The closest they’ve come to a non-economic argument is that the two nations would have diminished influence on the world stage.

Given the UK’s recent failure to influence the EU over the appointment of Mr Jean-Claude Juncker to the Presidency of the European Commission, and our seeming inability to influence our traditional ally, the United States, in any direction of late, I wonder what political influence we would actually lose.

Without the Scots, I can’t see our cultural influence diminishing one jot. Yes, it would be a shame not to think of the Edinburgh Festival as a British event any longer, but at the risk of offending our neighbours I would say that London on its own exerts as much influence as the whole of Scotland.

What of commercial influence? Well, Scotland accounts for a single-figure percentage the UK’s economic output. London dwarfs Edinburgh as the UK’s financial centre. I can’t think of a Scottish region to match Cambridge and Manchester as centres of technical innovation. And Scotland’s manufacturing base is much reduced, whether you blame the wicked Mrs Thatcher or the malign forces of globalisation.

Education? In the recent QS Survey of world universities, four of the top six are English. In Scotland, only Edinburgh makes the top twenty. Military? I have no doubt that Scots will still be recruited into the British army in their droves. If we continue to recruit the world’s fiercest fighters, the Ghurkas, why would we turn away the world’s second fiercest? Health? How many of the world’s health tourists come to the home of the deep-fried Mars Bar for their specialist treatment?  Yes, I know the last point was a cheap shot – I just couldn’t resist it.

But in any event, it would do us no harm for our delusions of national grandeur to be cut down to size. We should be competing for influence on merit rather than through a false sense of entitlement.

As for the Yes camp, I have an uneasy feeling about the heady tide of emotion that has pushed Scotland to the brink of declaring for independence. Emotions are powerful levers to pull when they are used to influence popular decisions of this magnitude. I have an uneasy feeling that Flounder and Stickleback (my pet names for Salmond and Sturgeon) are doing a great job of making the facts fit the emotions rather than the other way round.

Emotions are fickle. In the US, revulsion at the deaths of two of their citizens in Syria appears to have turned public opinion dramatically towards approval of US involvement in a military campaign against the Islamic State. If Obama’s war doesn’t yield the desired results, it will not take long for opinion to swing back to fearful disengagement.

Emotions with limited scruples are also the stuff of bad politics. In my opinion Alex Salmond, like his English opposite number Nigel Farage, is a demagogue. I have nothing more than a gut feeling to back up what I’m saying here, but I feel that he is more concerned about his place in history than the wisdom of what he proposes. I believe that for him Scottish independence is vastly preferable to the current status quo whatever the consequences for his compatriots. He is the equivalent of a batsman in cricket who closes his eyes and swipes at the ball because he can see no other way to play the game.

He is, in other words, hitting and hoping. For Salmond the game is political immortality. I suspect he knows that his arguments for independence are at best debatable and at worst wildly optimistic. Only on the emotional level does he score a boundary.

This is not intended to be an ad hominem attack on the SNP leader. He’s a politician, and he’s doing what politicians do. His integrity is no higher or lower than any of the other leading politicians on the British stage. But I hate to see such a fundamental issue determined on the basis of hit and hope. I fear for the future of an independent Scotland, because, to use that cherished Scottish legal term, the case is “not proven”.

So if today’s vote is No, close to half the population will be bitterly disappointed. If it’s Yes, I worry that the disappointment will come slowly, be long lasting and equally bitter.

I have kept silent throughout the referendum campaign because I have nothing to offer other than gut feeling, which I guess is the first cousin of emotion. But sometimes it can be worth more than all the manipulable statistics, ecstasy, joy, rage and tears that will ultimately sway a sizeable portion of the voters today.

There was once a theory beloved of pop psychologists that divides the human brain into two competing hemispheres. The left brain was supposed to be the domain of logic, caution and analysis. The right was the source of emotion, risk, imagination and creativity. The two halves were thought to be battling for supremacy. It’s a shame in a way that it turned out to be a myth, because it’s a neat analogy for the battle that’s been going on in Scotland: the left brain of Alistair Darling against the right brain of Alex Salmond.

Will the dusty balance sheet of the accountant win the day, or will it be the flailing cutlass of the salesman? I suspect that the fictional left brain will prevail. And I for one will give thanks for that.

Thoughts on Love and an English Wedding

Winchcombe

Winchcombe

I sometimes wonder if I don’t waste too much energy writing about war, pestilence and foolish politicians. It’s time to talk about some nice people for a change.

Last weekend my wife and I went to a wedding in the beautiful village of Winchcombe, near Cheltenham in the Cotswold Hills. For those of you who don’t know the area, it’s full of villages and towns built from honey-coloured limestone. It’s an archaeologist’s paradise, covered with of ancient settlements from Neolithic to Roman and Saxon. More recent inhabitants gained much of their wealth from the wool trade, and ploughed it into the handsome stone churches, high streets and stately homes that still stand today. No wonder the hills and meadows of the Cotswolds were designated an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

It wasn’t what you would call a society wedding, full of people with titles before their names. More a gathering of achievers – people with letters after their names. Not too much ostentation, but plenty of hats – some mutated way beyond the original purpose of the garment – as you would find in grand social events like Royal Ascot. The leading men were attired in full wedding garb – morning suits, elegant waistcoats and flowers in their lapels. The bride was gorgeous in traditional white, eyes shining with that special ecstasy that only a long-awaited wedding can induce. The groom was confident and gracious.

It was a wedding that had been planned for over a year. Agonised over, wept over, argued over and rehearsed down to the finest detail. Loving parents on both sides, no fractured families with awkward exes coming together for the occasion. Each with their own stories of achievement and heartbreak, united on a day that was as special for them as it was for the loving couple.

The weather for which we all prayed came to be: sunny, but not too hot. The ceremony was traditional. The choir, the hymns, the oft-repeated vows. The priest, good humoured and informal, assisted by an uncle of the groom who delivered the homily. The flower girls, the bridesmaids, the best man and his supporters, all decked out to perfection and playing their part as the chorus in this timeless opera. The counterpoint of carefully selected roles: the father of the bride duly delivering his only daughter, the mother of the groom reading a poem about marriage, friends and relatives reading from the pulpit. We, the congregation formed the base of a pyramid of love, at the apex of which stood the bride and groom – the reason we were there.

Everything you expected to see and hear was as it should be. There was even the obligatory Scotsman, whose kilt reminded us that the union we were celebrating might shortly be followed by the dissolution of another.

The reception was in the grounds of Sudeley Castle, once a feudal stronghold and the resting place of Henry VIII’s last wife, Catherine Parr. Now – as so many castles are – it’s put to work as a tourist attraction and a sumptuous wedding venue. Champagne, canapés, music and dinner in a big marquee close to the castle walls.  The speeches, carefully scripted but delivered from the heart. The usual embarrassing tales about bride and groom. Laughter, tears, embraces and dancing. And of course the inevitable early retirement of one couple, overcome by the hospitality and helped gently into a taxi by the groom’s attendants. Such things always happen at weddings, said the mild-mannered father of the bride, and indeed they do.

Though the wedding was a very English affair, it brought together people from many parts of the world. From India, Canada, the US, the Caribbean and Saudi Arabia, the latter being where the bride’s parents – American and British – have lived and worked for many years. Like the couple themselves, the younger contingent were articulate, friendly and seemingly well-established in professional careers. In thirty years’ time perhaps they will be watching their children walk down a similar aisle.

In what kind of country, I wondered. Will we be balkanised, afraid of our shadows, unable to find any place where we are free of security cameras and safe from random or premeditated violence? Will we have to choose between living in cities where English is just another language, or in country towns where economic barriers of affordability combine with rising xenophobia to create enclaves of “essential Englishness”? Will it be down to their parents’ wealth whether our young learn their values in sink schools ravaged by cultural and religious divisions, and spend their lives in debt and insecurity, or end up in private schools, privatised universities and jobs tacitly reserved for a self-perpetuating minority? Will their future be marred by resentment and envy, or by fearful concern for self-preservation?

Or will we overcome the political, economic and social woes that are causing our country to fracture and shudder with anxiety? Will we start recognising what is good about the new? Will we build on new strengths and mobilise all the talents at our disposal in an inclusive, outward-looking and socially mobile nation, whatever borders end up defining it?

The parents of the newly-weds – Isobel, Fred, Ian, Jennifer – and all the other people of my generation at that wedding will be increasingly incidental to whatever outcomes await us.

We have helped to create the uncertain present. This post is dedicated to you, Jessika and Chris. You gave us a sunny respite from the cares that bear down on all of us. The future belongs to your generation. Make the best of it, and have a long and happy marriage.

Will the Islamic State’s Financiers Send Their Sons into Battle?

Invictus

The opening of the Invictus Games – the British athletics competition for members of the armed forces of various nations injured in recent conflicts – has received plenty of media publicity over the past few days. In the UK much of it is because of the identity of the main organiser, the Queen’s grandson Prince Harry.

That the event coincides with Harry’s thirtieth birthday clearly helps, as we are regaled with articles about his wild youth and new-found maturity.

One distinctive characteristic of the British royal family is that it has never been averse to its members putting themselves in harm’s way while serving in our armed forces. Harry served two tours of Afghanistan as a forward air controller and then as an Apache pilot. In the Falklands War his uncle Prince Andrew was also a helicopter pilot. Going further back, Lord Mountbatten, Harry’s great uncle, was a destroyer captain whose ship was sunk during the evacuation of Crete during World War 2.

Britain is not alone in this tradition. The sons of several leading politicians, including Vice-President Joe Biden, have also served in war zones, as did descendants of Presidents Eisenhower and Theodore Roosevelt. Two of Roosevelt’s sons died in action – one in each of the world wars. Not only that, but distinguished war records have always been an advantage for Americans standing for high office. Presidents Jackson, Grant, Sherman, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and George H. W. Bush, among others, could all point to their military achievements, as can recent presidential candidates John Kerry and John McCain.

Some Arab leaders, however, seem quite happy to pose in uniforms and send their death squads into action (as witness Maher Al-Assad and Mutassim Gaddafi), but exposing themselves to bullets and shrapnel is quite another matter. A notable exception is the House of Saud. King Abdulaziz, the founder, proudly bore the scars of wounds he suffered in numerous battles, and his sons Saud and Faisal fought alongside him. More recently, Prince Khaled Bin Sultan, the commander of the Saudi forces in the first Gulf War, happily exposed himself to snipers at the opening skirmish in the Saudi border town of Khafji.

A bit of a cheap shot perhaps, because not many of the bemedalled Sandhurst graduates strutting round the Middle East have had the opportunity to display their prowess in battle. However, if the Islamic State has its way, they may yet.

But one wonders how many of the shadowy financiers of IS have sent their sons and daughters off to Iraq and Syria to risk their lives for the cause they espouse. Unlike the sons of tinpot dictators, they themselves are unlikely to end their days facing firing squads or falling under a hail of bullets in some final redoubt.

A case of do what I pay for, not what I do.

Book Review: Brian Whitaker’s Arabs Without God

Maqamat_hariri

Scholars at an Abbasid library. Maqamat of al-Hariri Illustration by Yahyá al-Wasiti, Baghdad 1237

There are times when I wonder whether religions can be compared with chemical elements. The relatively stable ones are the most durable. Those that are most volatile and unstable give off most energy, and have the most destructive potential. But they decay over time – sometimes very rapidly.

I fully confess that my knowledge of physics and chemistry is no greater than that of any other non-scientist. You could knock holes in the analogy by pointing out that plutonium has a half-life of thousands of years, so some of the most potent elements take a very long time to decay. But I do feel that that it’s not a bad way of looking at the Islamic State. Volatile, unstable, attracting and repelling human electrons in an unending frenzy – it’s surely destined for a short half-life in its current toxic form.

What of Islam itself, the religion that spawned the ideological obsessions of the Islamic State? A durable faith that has periodically reacted violently with other belief systems, but remains one of the great world religions.

Which element would you compare it with? Plutonium, with a finite – albeit long – life, or gold, a stable element likely to remain intact until the end of time?

No prizes for guessing what a devout Muslim would say. But Arabs Without God, a new book by Brian Whitaker, an Arabist and former Middle East editor of the UK’s Guardian Newspaper, explores a phenomenon rarely discussed openly in the cradle of Islam: atheism, or more specifically believers who drift away from their faith.

This is a serious book about a serious subject. Those who leave Islam can be subject to a range of dire consequences – from social ostracism in a culture where family ties are all-important, to judicial execution or murder by vigilantes. And it’s not only Muslims who frown on atheism. In Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, Coptic Christians face widespread disapproval when they move away from their mother church.

Atheism, especially in countries where Islam is embedded in the law and the social fabric, worries governments whose legitimacy is based on their role as upholders of the faith. It worries extended families that face social disapproval because of their ties with the non-believer. At a personal level it worries parents and siblings who fear for the safety of their errant loved one in this world and for their ultimate destination in the next.

In Arabs without God, Whitaker explores atheism in the Arab world in terms of its theological foundations, its history and the wide-ranging social and political implications of what appears to be a socially unmentionable but growing phenomenon. He looks at the influence of the social media in enabling like-minded non-believers to find each other, at the effect of the Arab Spring – however short-lived – in stirring up debate on the subject that would have been unthinkable only a decade ago.

In the context of various international conventions and national commitments to freedom of speech and belief, he looks at attempts by governments in the region to satisfy criticism by human rights activists in the west while satisfying the devout, and sometimes the extremists, within their borders. Across the Arab world, governments range from equivocal to rigid on the subject. Yet even the most uncompromising, Saudi Arabia, has held back from the most extreme penalty for apostasy, even though a survey in 2012 stated that 19% of the population describe themselves as not religious.

Attitudes towards loss of faith in religious circles range from outright condemnation to acceptance that people can’t be bullied into belief. Saudi Arabia is full of clerics who hold views that provide fuel for western critics of Islam, yet runs a well-publicised programme to integrate Al-Qaeda members back into society. It executes drug smugglers, yet goes to great lengths to avoid doing the same to people its clerics claim are guilty of the sin of apostasy. All goes to show that reality is far more complex and nuanced than that portrayed by some of the louder voices in the western media.

According to the wide range of people Whitaker interviewed while researching his book, many Arabs start on the road to atheism by asking an age-old fundamental question:

“Without realising it at the time, he had stumbled into a debate about free will and predestination (al-qada’ wal-qadr in Arabic) which has exercised the minds of theologians for centuries. If God is all-knowing, He can surely foresee evil deeds; if He is all-powerful He must be capable of preventing them; if He is good, why does He allow evil deeds and then punish people for them? A verse in the Qur’an says: “Ye shall not will, except as Allah wills.””

It seems that loss of faith is a gradual process for most Arab Christians and Muslims. It can be accelerated when a person’s misgivings are answered with a refusal to debate them. Exposure to western philosophy can be influential – hence the widespread if implied concern on the part of conservative factions in Saudi Arabia over the well-funded scholarship programme that sends many thousands of young Saudis to western universities.

The book dwells at some length on Islamophobia and the debate in the west over confrontation versus self-censorship. As Whitaker points out, the robust views of the “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens potentially provide intellectual weapons to the extreme right that enable them to cloak their views in a veil of respectability. He also notes that the Swiss ban on minarets and the French prohibition on the wearing of face veils are at somewhat at odds with cherished western tenets of freedom of expression and belief.

Arabs Without God is an even-handed and sober exploration of its subject. Whitaker rarely lets his personal beliefs intrude – he allows his interviewees to speak for themselves. That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of dry humour – for example when he tells the story of the Iraqi cleric who expresses the opinion that cucumbers and tomatoes should not be sold next to each other since the former is symbolically male and the latter female. The cleric goes on to rule that women should not handle the cucumbers.

It’s a shame in a way that he limits his focus to the Arab world. As he makes abundantly clear, Islam is not a monolith. Beyond the Arab world, it is the dominant faith in much of Asia and West Africa, and it encompasses a huge variety of sects, ethnicities and cultures. It would have been interesting to have heard opinions from countries further afield – especially Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan – where intolerance of other faiths, of blasphemy and apostasy is more extreme and less constrained by the rule of law than anywhere in the Arab world other than the territory now controlled by the Islamic State. But his chosen brief is probably wide enough. The region he writes about is abundantly diverse – from Morocco in the west to the Iraq and the Gulf states in the east.

What of the future? Whitaker observes that in most Arab countries establishments pay lip service towards concepts of liberty that western societies hold dear. He notes that authoritarian enforcement of a state religion is not the only way to encourage a devout population. He cites the United States as a nation in which secularity is embedded in the constitution, and yet which has one of the most fervently religious populations in the west. But he does believe that attitudes towards freedom of religious belief are slowly changing in most parts of the Arab world – Saudi Arabia being a notable exception.

For a number of reasons I’m not confident that the cracks he identifies in the religious edifices of the Arab world will fundamentally change the landscape any time soon.

Firstly, fear of discord – fitna – is deep-rooted within Arab cultures. More now than ever before, I feel that the majority of those not affected by the various conflicts in the region will value peaceful existence far above religious or social tolerance. They may wish for greater elected representation, but not if it leads to the sort of chaos they are witnessing in Iraq and Libya.

Secondly – and this particularly applies to the conservative societies in the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia – many countries are still coming to terms with the rapid influx of petrochemical-derived wealth and what some see as the consequent encroachment of alien – western – values in their societies. This has resulted in a sense of cultural defensiveness that is unlikely to dissipate in the short term.

And finally, the Arab world has never experienced a period comparable to the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, in which much of the religious intolerance of earlier times gave way to a tide of scientific and philosophical exploration. The changes in attitude in Europe evolved over more than a century, and even then were not sufficient to prevent outbreaks of bigotry and intolerance – authoritarian government, pogroms and of course genocide – up to the present day. “Enlightenment” (with no intent to patronise by use of the term) is not something that can be forced upon societies in the course of a few decades.

My sense is that it will take much longer for the Arab world to become sufficiently confident and secure in its cultural identity to accept in its heart – rather than in theoretical terms – that diversity of faith and belief, and particularly non-belief, are not threats to the coherence of society. And for that security to come about there will need to be greater equality and distribution of wealth, particularly among nations – such as Egypt, Yemen and Jordan – that are not blessed with an abundance of natural resources.

There is much talk among the oil-rich Gulf states of the desire to develop knowledge economies in which human ingenuity supplants mineral resources as the mainstays of their economies. But for that to happen, the people of the region will have to re-acquire the habit of curiosity, questioning and critical thinking, the very faculties that many state education systems have traditionally not encouraged, particularly when it comes to religious belief. So you could argue that these societies seek the impossible – to encourage free thinking while placing one primary subject off limits.

Nevertheless I do believe that even the most conservative Arab societies will eventually embrace diversity of belief without fear, but that it will take several generations and much pain and turbulence before that day arrives.

That’s not to say that Arabs are not debating the subject. This recent opinion piece by Mohammed Al-Osaimi, originally published in the Saudi daily newspaper Okaz, and reproduced in its English-language sister publication Saudi Gazette, shows that even Saudi Arabia, the ultimate bastion of conservatism, is not averse to discussion on political and religious freedom:

Those who lose their mind ultimately lose their ability to be logical. I thought of this when I read a reply from a reader to a tweet I had written. I said in my tweet that the Arab world would advance only when the value of an Arab was equivalent to the value of a man in the West.

In his reply the reader said: “The sheep you call human beings in Europe have been enslaved by their own democracy. We will plunge down to their low level when we give up our religion”. I want to say to this reader that I cannot understand how people who live in a democracy and who respect human rights can be called “sheep”.

In the West, Muslim and non-Muslim men and women are respected and valued as real human beings. They are given their full rights. They are provided with all the facilities necessary for them to practice their religion.

If any European is displeased with the religious practices of others, he can file a case against them in the court. He does not have the right to take the law into his own hands. People in the West do not take up swords, daggers or rifles to express their opposition to the followers of other religions. Arab and Muslim countries, however, are replete with mad extremists who say that they worship God by chopping off the heads of those who are not of their religion.

In the democratic West, mosques and Islamic centers are built according to the rule of law under which all people are equal regardless of their race, color or religion. Muslims there are looked upon as real human beings who are worthy of respect. In the democratic West, the police will provide you with protection if you decide to demonstrate peacefully in support of any cause even if this cause is against Western interests. In the democratic West, freedom of expression is guaranteed by law. You can say whatever you want to say and do whatever you want to do as long as you respect the rule of law.

In the West, all people are equal before the law. There are no big or small people. A prime minister may be given a traffic ticket just like any other driver. He can be taken to court if he is accused of embezzling a single penny. A Swedish female minister resigned because she used the credit card of the ministry instead of her own card to fill her car with gas.

In the democratic and free West, there are things which for an Arab remain dreams that will never come true. In our Arab and Islamic countries, some people put on the dress of religion in order to coerce us, block our minds and force us to follow their ideology no matter how good or bad it may be. They are ready to exclude you if you are not one of them. These people see democracy in the West as a method of enslaving people. Therefore, it is not surprising when they look at people who live in a democracy and consider them to be sheep.

A somewhat rosy picture of the west with which I suspect many westerners would disagree, but Al-Osaimi’s piece represents a sizeable, though probably not dominant, constituency of opinion in Saudi Arabia today.

Arabs Without God provides many important insights into a region that the rest of the world ignores at its peril, as recent events clearly demonstrate. At present it’s only available as an e-book. You can find out more about it by going to Brian Whitaker’s website, Al-Bab. I recommend a visit – the site is full of interesting articles by a writer who shows deep knowledge of his subject in everything that he writes about the Middle East.

Business Hotels in the Gulf- My Top Ten Moans (Spoilt – Moi?)

Middle East hotels

Anybody who’s done a reasonable amount of business travel outside what pampered business travellers from the west define as civilisation – in other words, the major metropolitan centres of North America and Western Europe – will be familiar with the scene. The pasty-faced, grumpy middle-aged businessman (and yes, it’s usually the men) bristling with indignation at some imperfection in the hotel he’s just checked into, giving the management and staff a hard time and spreading an air of disgruntlement wherever he goes.

I’ve done enough travelling, especially in the Middle East, over several decades to realise that explosions of outrage rarely bring more than raised blood pressure on the part of the exploder.

Quiet persuasion followed by weary resignation is more my style unless grievously provoked. But a recent three-week trip around Saudi Arabia and Bahrain served to remind me that the niggles never seem to go away. So, in the grand tradition of listicle blogging, here are my top ten moans about business hotels in the Middle East:

Bath Taps: is it beyond the wit of bathroom designers to indicate which way you push the handle to get hot water, and which way for cold? You read the sanctimonious notices in hotels about conserving water, and yet it takes on average three minutes of water flowing down the drain before you can get the shower temperature right. Sanctimonious the notice may be, but water is a big issue in the Gulf. Governments are turning the waters of the gulf into a salty soup devoid of life with their desalination plants. They are steadily draining the aquifers beneath the desert, yet here is a prime example of needless water waste.

Internet: the internet in most hotels may be free, but it’s steam-powered. So whenever I check in, I search the corridor top see how close the internet hub is to my room. More than five yards way, and I try to change rooms. It’s extremely irritating when your email server times out, and your skype calls fall over every few minutes. Equally irritating to be offered a premium “fast service” when the bog standard free version hangs like a giant sloth.

In-room supplies: why is it such a struggle to extract more than two sachets of coffee, tea and “creamer”. If you’re a coffee addict like me, you run out within an hour. I’ve gotten into the habit of going off to the local store to buy my own supplies of milk and coffee. Anything to avoid the dreaded room service! Oh, and why does someone have to check the minibar every day???

Air-conditioning: Just as I have a regular problem with hot and cold shower handles, I’m constantly amazed that when you enter the room it’s as if you’ve wandered into a refrigerated meat wagon. Why 18C when it’s 45C outside? It usually takes about half an hour to figure out the controls sufficiently to reset the climate to the equivalent of the British summer rather than temperatures prevailing in Greenland. And speaking again of waste, you wonder why these hotels seem to keep their rooms so ridiculously cold whether they’re occupied or not. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that in many Gulf countries the cost energy is highly subsidised. And because it’s cheap they waste it with gay abandon.

Buffets: in most hotels I stay at there is an evening buffet. But the last thing I need is a three or four course meal every night. Yet if I want two courses or even one, I still have to pay the full price. Would it be so difficult to set a variable tariff for people like me who want to pick and choose? Burgers and french fries in the coffee shop do get rather boring after a while.

Breakfasts: why do you have to be asked for your room number every morning even if you are there for a week? And why are you asked to sign a bill even when breakfast is included in your package? And wouldn’t it be nice if the hot dishes were changed a little more regularly than the same boring options every two days?

Currency exchange: why do hotels offer such a ludicrously unfavourable exchange rate for currency? Would they not make far more money if they provided rates closer to the commercial exchange companies? I can understand that they would rather not exchange currency at all, which is probably why they offer such rip-off conversion rates. But aren’t hotels supposed to be in the business of customer service?

Room phones: Outrageously inflated external call rates is an age-old beef against hotels everywhere. It’s less of an issue now that everybody has mobiles. But wouldn’t you think that they could use a competitive landline rate as an additional benefit for customers?

Room safes: a good percentage of all safes in Middle East hotel rooms don’t work, or have indecipherable instructions. I generally don’t bother with them, but if I was carrying jewellery or large wads of currency I’d be pretty irritated.

Power Cut-Off devices: why do power cut-off devices switch off all power outlets in the room? Power saving is all well and good, but if you leave phones or laptops in the room to charge, you have to get another room card to put into the slot so that they keep charging while you’re out. Would it not be a simple fix to install one “always-on” socket?

Another more general moan is about branded hotels. In the Middle East, mid-market chains like Holiday Inn and Ramada are mostly franchises. So the brand promise of these big names – that you get the same standard of service wherever you are in the world – is usually subtly degraded by the owner-operators under the justification of cultural difference. Whereas the real cause is usually poor training and poor treatment of staff, leading to high staff turnover.

One of my favourite sayings about business and public life in the Gulf is that the real objective of many initiatives, especially those involving social change, is not the change or improvement itself, but “the appearance of” the desired outcome. Thus when you check into a hotel with an international brand name, you often get the feeling that the hotel has “the appearance of” a Marriot or a Hilton, but the reality is far fuzzier.

This is particularly the case with hotels that have been around for a while. They may have started off bright and gleaming under the eagle eye of the corporate brand police, yet slowly but surely they gracefully degrade under the weight of apathy and cost-saving measures. Décor looks tired. Things don’t work very well because of poor maintenance. Managers value job preservation over customer service.

Thankfully the hotels in the Middle East haven’t yet copped on to the Ryanair model of customer service, namely that the profit is all in the add-ons. You can still negotiate a late checkout at no extra charge, for example. Gulf nationals often like to sleep late and work (or party) late, so I suspect that they would be outraged at having to pay extra for a long sleep-in followed by a leisurely check-out late in the afternoon.

Moans apart, the one redeeming factor of most of the hotels I visit is the poor, hard-worked, put-upon staff. Most of the waiters, bellboys, room service and maintenance guys are unfailingly polite, cheerful and helpful. They tend to come from low-wage regions such as the Philippines, Nepal and the Indian subcontinent. They work long hours. Some only get home every couple of years. They put up with guests barking at them, clicking their fingers to summon them and sometimes far worse. I heard one story about a housekeeper at a five-star hotel in Riyadh who knocked on a room door several times. On getting no response he went in to clean the room. He was met by a husband who, outraged by the fact that the housekeeper had seen the man’s wife unveiled, beat the poor guy so badly that he had to be hospitalised. An Egyptian I met on a plane the other day told me that he once worked in one of the big hotels in Sharm El Sheikh. A drunken Russian tourist took offence at some minor issue, invited the guy outside and punched him so hard that the poor chap fell and broke his leg.

And yes, when I hear such tales, I do feel like a bit of a prima donna for getting aerated about the trivial annoyances I’ve listed above. Spoilt? Most definitely!

Letter from Saudi Arabia: Trains Ancient and Modern

Saudirailways

I’m just home from a business trip to Saudi Arabia. I’ve been travelling back and forth to the country for over thirty years, ten of them as a resident. In that time I’ve made countless internal flights between the major cities, and sometimes to outposts most western expatriates never get to see – from mountainous areas with green valleys and as many baboons as people, to small towns notable only for the size of their airports.

I’ve also eaten up my fair share of kilometres on the road, swerving on the highways to avoid manic drivers risking death to shave a few minutes from their journeys, running into sandstorms that strip the paint from your car and pit your windscreen, colliding with swarms of locusts that leave a nasty yellowish goo all over your radiator, all the while staying ever-vigilant for wandering camels.

The one Saudi mode of transport I had never used  – until a week ago – is the one most of us in Britain usually resort to when we couldn’t be bothered with driving and flights are too much hassle: the dear old train.

I am not alone. What was until recently the only train line in Saudi Arabia is the country’s best kept secret – at least as far as outsiders are concerned. It runs from Riyadh, the capital, to the eastern port city of Dammam. There are two stops in between: Hofuf, one of the towns in the Al Hasa oasis – a conurbation famous for its date palms and once one of the ten most populous cities in the world – and Abqaiq, one of the main  centres for the all-important Saudi oil industry.

Much of the traffic on the line is goods. Half-mile processions of containers and wagons full of the materials that feed Saudi Arabia’s endless development boom. Minerals, cars, white goods, downstream petrochemicals, frozen food. Trainloads of stuff that if carried by truck would render the Dammam-Riyadh highway even more dangerous than it already is.

But in amongst the goods traffic there are six passenger trains a day in either direction. The journey times compare favourably with equivalent car trips unless you’re in the suicide class of driver whose speeds would be enough even to give a German autobahn jockey a dose of atrial fibrillation.

On this trip a quirk in the schedule led me to abandon my usual drive-or-fly mode and step out into the unknown by sampling the Saudi train experience.

When I told a Saudi friend in Riyadh of my intention his eyebrows raised a little, and he murmured about the carriages being rather old and a bit stuffy – not a ringing endorsement given that the summer temperature here gets up to 50C. He gave a smile that I took to be the Saudi equivalent of “nowt as queer as folk”, and wished me good luck.

I inwardly scoffed at his misgivings, thinking that here was another luxury-sated Riyadi, and that I, with the pioneer spirit running through my British veins, was made of sterner stuff. If it turned out to be a nightmare, then at least it would be a good story to write about.

So I went to the Saudi Railway Company website, and set about making a reservation, only to discover that I couldn’t. There’s no online booking, which was a bit surprising. Everyone does online bookings these days, don’t they? Anyway, I checked out the times and found one that worked well. The second surprise was the price. A single second-class ticket for the 300 kilometre ride to Hofuf is 60 Saudi riyals – the equivalent of US$12. Compare that with $130 for a flight to Dammam, plus a taxi to Hofuf – 130 kilometres away – which would be another $90.

I decided to go first class, for all of 100 riyals, or $26 – still a steal at around one tenth of the airfare and taxi cost. But what was I buying, I wondered?

First class is called Rehab. Rehab? Is this a train for alcoholics or drug addicts? Surely not, for this is Saudi Arabia! If I didn’t know better, I might have thought of another meaning of the word. The only other long-distance train line in Saudi Arabia stopped running at the end of the First World War, before the Kingdom even existed. It was called the Hejaz Railway, and took pilgrims from Damascus to the holy city of Madinah. The Turks used it to bring troops and supplies for the defence of Madinah against the Arab revolt, commanded by Lawrence of Arabia, or El-Orens as the Arabs called him. What fun to have been travelling in a reconditioned carriage of that era, with the ghosts of El-Orens and his Bedouin tribesmen lying in wait for the train, dynamite at the ready.

Hejaz railway 2

The Hejaz Railway

Actually Rehab is the Arabic for welcome, a much more logical meaning of the word in this context. But still, it set me wondering when you’re offered the choice of train: “Regular” or “Modern”. Assuming that Regular means ancient in Saudi marketing-speak, I opted for Modern. Perhaps my Saudi friend was thinking of the former when he gave me his understated warning.

A few days before the journey, my sponsor duly made the reservation and picked up the ticket – an A4 sheet of paper in Arabic with what I assumed was my name – “SAEP H E” in English letters – about as remote an equivalent to Stephen as the imagination could conjure. On the other side of the ticket was a full colour ad offering me a pepperoni pizza or a chicken wrap for 59 riyals – about the price of the second class fare. More significantly the pizza company made use of the space to advertise for Saudi staff – a big issue these days since the Ministry of Labor started a recent initiative to get Saudi into jobs, with serious penalties for those firms that fail to reach their quotas of nationals on their payrolls.

On the appointed day I showed up at the station, which sits in an unprepossessing suburb of Riyadh. It’s near the famous Batha souk, which is the antithesis of Riyadh’s shiny, mall-studded centre. A place full of shabby shops selling designer stuff of dubious provenance and at unlikely prices. Batha doesn’t benefit from the watered greenery of the wealthy areas. It’s dusty and desiccated, like the most of the terrain around the city. The station itself sits next to what looks to be a massive industrial estate. In fact it’s the Riyadh Dry Port, where all the containers arrive from Dammam. It becomes pretty obvious what the main purpose of the line is. The passengers are a bit of an afterthought.

Riyadh Railway Station is not a monument to the heyday of the train as the ultimate passenger transport mode, like Grand Central or St Pancras. Not surprising since it was built long after the end of that era. But it’s spacious, cool and well laid out.

Riyadh_Station

Riyadh Station

The great thing about trains in most places  – with the possible exception of India – is that you don’t have the usual airport hassle. You can turn up 20 minutes before departure and get straight on the train. The Riyadh check-in was fast, despite the inevitable X-ray machine, and there’s even a first class lounge. Not quite akin to an airline lounge – you get offered a cup of gahwa (Arabic coffee) and a couple of dates, but that’s the limit of the hospitality.

When departure time came up I had a momentary panic. The trolley with my bags disappeared. It turned out that an enthusiastic porter had thought they belonged to another passenger, and was about to put them on the train – without me. I stopped him at the last moment, and, reunited with my bags, stepped on to the carriage.

What followed was not one of the Great Railway Journeys of the World, but having driven from Riyadh to Dammam, I knew what to expect of the terrain. My allocated seat was comfortable enough. And none of that awful rush of the Gadarene sheep (no swine in Saudi Arabia) as passengers fall over each other to squeeze into their pitifully small seats on a domestic economy flight. All very calm. Plenty of room for kids to run up and down the aisle rather than spend the journey screaming with frustration at being held in the iron grip of a frazzled mother.

The carriage was cool – too cool for my taste actually. 40C outside and 18C in is just a bit too much of a contrast, but the same goes for every hotel room I stay in. I’m constantly fighting a battle against over-zealous air conditioning. In this case, there wasn’t much I could do about it, and everyone else seemed comfortable enough, so what the hell, when in Riyadh…. Also I was the only westerner on the train, so there wouldn’t have been much tolerance of mad dogs and Englishmen trying to jack up the temperature.

There really wasn’t much to see as we rolled out of the station. The industrial area – dun-coloured and dreary – seemed to go on for miles. It was eventually replaced by semi-open desert with ramshackle cabins, pick-up trucks and roaming camels – the Saudi equivalent of the country dacha, sans birch trees and gardens of course. And what there was to be seen was obscured by a thick layer of dust on the windows that created a grey-brown filter.

The guy sitting opposite me was an Egyptian soil specialist on his way to Al Hasa, where he spends his time measuring the salinity of the soil around the date plantations. He told me that since the national oil company, Saudi Aramco, started boosting production from depleted oil wells by injecting sea water into them, water salinity in the area has increased fourfold. In the old days sweet water springs would bubble up all over the oasis. These days it has to be pumped. One can imagine that there will be a tipping point at which the date plantations will no longer be viable. He and his colleagues had flagged the problem up with officialdom, but to no avail. After all, he said with more than a tinge of irony, Saudi Aramco knows best, and oil is more important than dates.

The sun set, and fortified with coffee and a sandwich from the trolley, I got stuck into a book. Two hours and fifteen minutes from departure, exactly on time, the train rolled into Hofuf station, disgorged me and a few other passengers, and set off for Dammam.

And then followed the final joy. Most major airports in the Kingdom are at least half an hour’s drive from anywhere. By the time you’ve retrieved your baggage and dragged yourself out through the throng of freelance taxi drivers, you’re looking at a minimum of an hour between touch-down and final destination – sometimes longer. In Hofuf, I jumped into a cab and was at my hotel in ten minutes.

And that was my first experience of Saudi trains. Now if you’re a regular train user in Europe or North America, you might say no big deal. But trust me, if you’re used to at least three near-death experiences every time you hit the highway, and hours of hassle and waiting around when you cross the Kingdom by air, you would not have taken that journey for granted. It was a relative joy.

Though there’s no railway network as such at the moment – just the one line to the East and a train system that takes the pilgrims in Mecca from one holy place to another, Saudi Arabia is beginning to catch up. Among a number of projects under construction is a line that goes all the way from Jubail in the Gulf to Jeddah on the Red Sea. It’s known as the Saudi Land Bridge. Also there’s the North-South Railway that goes from Riyadh up to the tribal heartlands of Buraydah and Hail up to Al-Haditha in the far north. This will be primarily for goods, and is important because the country is ramping up its mineral production – particularly bauxite – in the north. But apparently there will also be a passenger service.

northsouth-railway

And then there’s the long-awaited Haramain Railway that shuttles the faithful from the port city of Jeddah to Mecca and on to Madinah. If you’ve been on the Haj, the annual pilgrimage, along with up to 3 million others, you will know what the dust and pollution caused by the endless procession of buses and cars making the triangular journey does to the lungs. Take a flight out of Saudi Arabia after the Haj, and you will be surrounded by passengers coughing and spluttering in the attempt to rid their bodies of all the gunk that accumulates over that journey of a lifetime. Not pleasant for you or for them.

Finally, there are long-term plans to link Egypt, Jordan and Syria, as well as several of the Gulf states into the network.

The railways are the last piece of the Saudi transportation jigsaw. The country has highways connecting all the main population centres, some of them excellent, some in need to upgrading. It has numerous international and domestic airports, with improvement projects underway in Riyadh, Jeddah and Madinah. If the population can be enticed on to a fully developed railway network, as well as urban metro systems like the one currently being built in Riyadh, one would like to think that at least some of the 7000 people who die on the roads every year and the 38,000 who are seriously injured can avoid their misfortune.

For a whole host of reasons, including not least the benefit to public health and the environment, the railways can’t come to Saudi Arabia soon enough.

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