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Liverpool and the IAAF: two sporting victories for the mad as hell

Olympics 2

Two smallish news items on the back pages of today’s UK newspapers might not seem immensely significant against a backdrop of financial instability in China, the battles raging in the Middle East and the prospect of a narcissistic property developer entering the White House.

But the stories about Liverpool Football Club’s owners bowing to supporter protests over ticket prices, and Nestlé’s decision to terminate its sponsorship of IAAF, the international athletics governing body, are evidence of two very different sets of customers saying “we’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it any more”.

In Liverpool’s case the decision to raise ticket prices for an upgraded section of the stadium would seem perfectly logical from a business standpoint: I offer you better facilities, you pay more money. Whether the club’s owners factored a tipping point into their equation – the possibility that customers in a city that has been struggling economically over the past half century might vote with their feet – is known only to them.

But the football business isn’t driven exclusively by logic. It’s vulnerable to the emotions of its customers who don’t see the objects of their support as businesses at all. Fenway Sports Group, who own Liverpool, are smarter than most, as witness their acknowledgement of the mystical element of the game, when they referred to “the unique and sacred relationship between Liverpool Football Club and its supporters” in the climb-down announcement.

It would be hard to imagine Apple reducing the price of the IPhone 7 in the face of customer pushback and citing as a reason that it was mindful of the sacred bond between itself and its users.

Liverpool could recoup the £4 million shortfall in its planned annual revenue by buying a star player less or selling another, so the impact in the context of elite football’s bloated economics will be minimal. But I’m one of those who firmly believe that your relationship with your customers is often better strengthened by the way you recover from a mistake than by making no mistakes at all. So Fenway – if they’re as smart as I think they are – will have learned from the mistake and come out smelling of roses.

Whether their gesture will provide a lesson for owners of other clubs remains to be seen. I suspect that the corporate owners will take note, whereas the wannabe Donald Trumps who use their clubs as flagships for their personal prestige might consider that to back down in the same manner would constitute an unacceptable loss of face. Vincent Tan, owner of Cardiff City, would probably be one of those. Here’s a previous post about Mr Tan and other autocratic football owners.

Be that as it may, club owners need no reminding that there’s a delicate balance to be struck in keeping fans onside while trying to run their businesses on principles recognised by the London School of Economics and the Harvard Business School. Though perhaps gate receipts are less critical in an age of monstrous television fees, Liverpool’s retreat might make a few potential investors think twice before taking on a sports franchise in the United Kingdom. And this could have a knock-on effect on valuations for owners looking to make an exit – those of Everton and Aston Villa, for example. A downturn awaits?

The other decision is that of Nestlé to pull out of its sponsorship deal with the IAAF. It’s doing so because it believes that the organization’s failure to deal with doping and financial corruption is damaging its brand. Nestlé funds the organisation’s children’s programme. Its decision comes hot on the heels of Adidas, which has cancelled a far more valuable sponsorship deal. Sebastian Coe, the IAAF’s president, reacted with predictable anger. Compared to the Adidas deal, Nestlé’s support is relatively small beer. But the withdrawal of two big-name sponsors does not bode well.

And so it shouldn’t. Millions of pious and angry words have been spoken over the past couple of decades about unfair completion through the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Yet still the IAAF has failed to come to grips with the problem. Under Coe’s predecessor, corruption, a type of cheating better known within FIFA, football’s governing body, has also taken hold.

Is it not a sign of our times that in two sports that lift the spirits of those who follow and take part in them, money seems to be trickling up as fast as it’s trickling down?

Most of the sports administrators who have enriched themselves seem to be pretty insignificant figures on the global stage – tin-pot emperors in their little fiefdoms. Few if any of them have made it to the top of any rich list, and most probably won’t, because such prominence would quickly lead to questions about their new-found wealth. Instead they hide their gains under the banking equivalent of the mattress.

So we’re not talking here about a major contribution to the polarisation of societies between very rich and the very poor. But what we are talking about is the same uneasy relationship between business and sport that so often alienates football fans – a sense that the underlying joy of sporting competition is being taken away from them.

While it’s true that the serious money is to be made from major competitions and by the relatively few high performers whose prowess attracts the TV dollars, it’s surely depressing for all who take part in and follow athletics to know that to find international success you must dope, and that no high-level competitive sport, be it tennis, cricket, football or running, is immune to match-fixing. And that therefore no result can unequivocally be considered clean. And if that’s not bad enough, that so many of those entrusted with the well-being of sport are quietly growing fat on the proceeds of shady deals.

All of which suggests that although we still need governing bodies for international sport, there are some, IAAF and FIFA being prominent examples, that are not fit for purpose. They should be taken down. Disbanded. Not reorganised, but re-built.

That doesn’t mean that the good stuff they do should be shut down and thrown away. But the structures that protect the corrupt and prolong the tenure of the powerful should be done away with. Those who lose their jobs in the process should be invited to apply for new ones, but subject to new rules and new standards of transparency. In other words, no more jobs for the boys. No more Sepp Blatters.

The problem is, as the Roman poet Juvenal said, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards the guardians? For most sports, it’s the supporters and the sponsors. In the case of FIFA, it seems, it’s the FBI.

I’m one of billions who both take part in sport and watch others doing so. I don’t have much in common with kids from impoverished communities in Ethiopia, Brazil and Cambodia. But if I mention the names of Messi and Ronaldo, and even good old Wayne Rooney, the light of recognition shines through linguistic, cultural and economic barriers just about everywhere in the world.

That’s one of the glories of sport. It transcends barriers. So I congratulate the Liverpool fans and, whatever their self-interested reasons, Adidas and Nestlé, for taking a stand against those who have forgotten that sport is a common denominator  for humanity before it’s a business. And I only wish that the companies that fund FIFA would do the same as IAAF’s sponsors instead of just talking about it.

Every house needs a spring clean from time to time. Some need demolishing. For FIFA, IAAF and one or two others of that ilk, time is running out for them to sort themselves out before someone else does it for them.

The Baby Boomers’ dilemma – how much should we do for our grown-up kids?

Down and Out

One of those PR-generated stories that crop up in the British media from time to time concerns the increasing tendency of female students to hook up with so-called sugar daddies – older men who lavish cash, presents and holidays on kids half their age in return for company and, it seems, sometimes sex.

One company claims that it has 220,000 students on its books who are available for such arrangements. I think that’s hardly credible, and even if the number is accurate, I find it hard to believe that there are so many wealthy middle-aged guys out there waiting to get their hands on kids young enough to be their daughters. At least I hope there aren’t. So I’m not going to bother to link the story. It’s nothing new. Ask Lynn Barber, whose experience in the 60’s was portrayed in the movie An Education.

But even if the number of students actually “using” sugar daddies is a tenth of those registered with the dating company, it still highlights a social issue that affects more than one generation.

Here’s the dilemma for parents of young adults. It’s as old as the hills, yet never more relevant than today. Do you help your kids through school – and possibly university – and then push them off to fend for themselves, or do you continue to fund them until your support is no longer necessary? And does your support in young adulthood delay or accelerate the long-awaited self-sufficiency?

Big questions when the parents have the means to support their kids. When they don’t, no question at all.

The reason it’s highly relevant in the UK is that those coming of age from 2000 onwards are, apparently, the first generation in the modern era to be worse off financially than their parents were at a similar age. Better educated maybe – many more went to university than in my day – but worse off.

Encumbered with student loans, unable since 2008 to get on to the housing ladder without having to raise deposits of up to 35% of the value of properties that in some areas have risen in price by 10% per more over the past decade.

Those who do seek mortgages are asked a whole range of intrusive questions about their spending habits so that lenders can be satisfied that they’re a good risk – one of the legacies of the sub-prime housing scandal that kicked off the 2008 financial crash. If some pre-pubescent bank employee asked me how much I spend on Indian takeaways, underarm deodorant or Netflix, I would struggle to reply in anything other than industrial language.

Meanwhile, the narrative goes, many of my generation, the baby boomers, sit pretty on generous final-salary pensions (not me, by the way). We were able to get 100% interest-only mortgages, and we’ve watched with glee as the value of our houses has grown beyond our wildest dreams. If we need extra cash to build extensions and go on cruises, we can take advantage of equity release schemes. Or we can simply down-size, using the capital released (which are not subject to capital gains) to fund extravagant lifestyles in retirement. We get free bus passes, index-linked state pensions and even a winter fuel allowance.

And those of us who don’t need to raise extra cash on our properties rattle around in homes we originally bought to accommodate our families, while our offspring struggle to pay the rent on their tiny, over-priced apartments.

It’s fair to say that not all baby boomers benefit from the golden scenario I’ve described. But enough have “never had it so good”, as Harold Macmillan said of my parents’ generation, that their votes ensure that his modern successors in the Conservative party will always, barring disaster, enjoy the support of the majority of over-60s in my country.

Until, that is, the first downwardly-mobile generation gets to my age. At which stage, unless they can do something about the problem, the Tories will be toast.

It’s also the reason why Jeremy Corbyn scores highly with the young and dispossessed, as well as with guilty members of my generation. And why Capital in the Twenty First Century, a book on economic inequality by an obscure French academic called Thomas Piketty, topped any number of international best-seller lists last year (mind you, it was probably the least-read best-seller since Steven Hawking’s Brief History of Time).

It’s why every day you will find articles commenting on the factoid that 62 people own 50% of the world’s wealth (62? A suspiciously precise number, don’t you think?). And why David Cameron, the current Conservative Prime Minister, has engaged Alan Milburn, a former Labour cabinet minister, to come up with solutions to the growing gap between rich and poor, and between young and old.

It will take more than an equality czar in a small European country that has seen better days to solve a global problem that’s up there with climate change as one of the biggest potential causes of mass social unrest in this century.

Meanwhile, what can we, the guilty geriatrics, do to alleviate the problem in our insignificant little back yard? Unless we happen to be Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, very little on a global scale. But we can make a difference for our kids?

Quite a lot, I think.

The first thing we should do is ask ourselves, when our kids are still at school, whether we should avoid placing on them the expectation that they should go to university. When I was a teenager, among my peers there was that expectation. And among parents of the time there was a perfectly reasonable view that going to university would boost career prospects and earning opportunities. For me, it was expected but not demanded. So I did it.

These days around 40% of school leavers go to university, as opposed to less than 10% in my day. There are many more courses available to today’s students. Cynics would say that some of them cater for unrealistic career aspirations, or at least prepare them for careers in which the odds against success are high. After all, there are only so many jobs in the media, and only so many opportunities to manage golf clubs.

Whatever the reason, there are too many young graduates working as baristas, earning the minimum wage, still dreaming the dream. Admittedly, that is starting to change. More and more large companies are offering apprenticeship schemes that pay entrants decent salaries while they’re learning, and give them a head start over graduates who enter the market three years later, burdened with debt.

The trade-off is that apprentices miss out on the glorious life experience of three years of semi-leisure in academic institutions. Yes, I know that some might take issue with idea that a university education is a leisurely pursuit, but try convincing trainee lawyers, doctors or accountants – who sweat blood early in their careers – otherwise. For doctors, we’re talking about maybe ten lectures a week versus 80 hours on the wards.

So that’s the first thing: have an open mind about what comes after school, and don’t project the received wisdoms of your youth on to your kids.

Next – and this applies if you have some spare cash lying around – think again about whether you are helping your kids most effectively by helping them buy a property.

The thinking behind getting your kids get on to the property ladder is usually rooted in the assumption that in the long term property is a wealth accumulator. There may be a few up and downs in the market, but you’ll always end up on the plus side, right?

Well maybe, but maybe not. In the era of downward mobility there’s no guarantee that property ownership will be a long-term bet. Certainly those in the UK who lost their homes when property prices tanked in the early Nineties, and Americans who ended up on the street after the sub-prime crash in 2008, would concur. The housing market is one of Donald Rumsfeld’s known unknowns. And a young person investing in property (or having an investment made on their behalf) is riding an increasingly dangerous tiger.

So is the answer to hold on to the cash and let your kids find their own way without your help? Survival of the fittest and all that? Lots of parents feel that way, and in lots of cases this approach pays off. But then what? Your kids might spend their first fifty years hanging on, financially strapped, waiting for “their inheritance”. In other words, for you to die.

Is that sensible? You sit on money that’s no use to you, while your kids wait like vultures for you to fall off your perch. And when you need to spend your savings on geriatric care, they become increasingly bitter as what they thought would soon be theirs is frittered away in exorbitant care home fees. You might also be with the uncomfortable thought that your kids are motivated more by greed than filial piety. Another age-old conundrum. Does one child spend more time caring for aged parents through love and concern, or because they think they might thereby do better out of the will than their siblings?

And what effect does the looming inheritance have on the careers of the kids? Would they make different choices – work harder, save more perhaps – if they knew that there would be no golden cushion waiting for them when their parents pass?

In my view, there’s a very obvious middle way for parents. Much as our kids might not like the thought, owning a property makes little difference to their careers. There are millions of people – especially in continental Europe, who do just fine without ever owning their own houses. We in the UK regard home ownership as a benchmark of professional success and social prestige. It’s a false benchmark, especially if the owner has made use of parental funding.

So what can we do for our kids that really makes a difference to them making it in their own right?

Simple. Invest in their careers, not their houses. If they want to do a master’s degree to increase their chances in the job market, help them. If they’re running their own businesses and are short of the tools to do the job, help them. Do anything that will help them make a success of their chosen path. The important thing, though, is that your support is not the deciding factor in their success. That should be down to their abilities, not your money.

In case you’re wondering what right I have to pontificate on such matters, let me share a few stories from my life.

When I was fifteen, the future was clear and bright. I would go to university, become a lawyer, and whatever I did would be underpinned by a trust fund set up by my father. He was also a lawyer, but moved beyond the profession to become a successful businessman. I was a pupil at a well-known private school. Many of my peers had similar ambitions and similarly wealthy parents.

Then disaster. My father overreached. His businesses collapsed and he went bankrupt, owing a merchant bank nearly two million pounds. A lot of money in 1965. He never recovered from the setback. He did, however, find the money that enabled me and my siblings to finish our secondary education.

Thereafter, I was on my own. No trust fund, no handouts, only the vague possibility that my father might recover his fortune and invest in the business that I eventually started. Which never happened. So all the mistakes I made in that business were my own, which made for a pretty cash-strapped few years after I left university.

But in one sense, I was lucky, because unlike my father, I went through my setbacks in my twenties, when I was young enough to learn lessons and recover from them. He was in his mid-forties when disaster struck, and his downfall was cataclysmic enough to cripple him financially for the rest of his life.

So as a result there was no inheritance to look forward to, no golden cushion. My modest achievements later on were down to me, even though he offered me plenty of moral support. What’s more, I didn’t just learn from my mistakes, I learned from his too.

My siblings all had successful professional careers: a university professor, a teacher and a doctor. I was the only one who eventually went into business. By that time, I needed no support from my parents even if it had been available. Thanks to nearly a decade in Saudi Arabia, I had enough money to invest in the business. Such success as I had was then down to hard work, finding good people to work with and being in the right place at the right time.

But I doubt if I would have achieved much without the education my parents paid for, even if I didn’t realise it at the time. That, and the example of my father’s resilience, lack of bitterness and generosity with his time, was how things have turned out OK for me thus far. And one great benefit from the lack of any inheritance was that there was never cause for me and my siblings to quarrel, scheme and worry over an ancient pile of money.

Given that experience, you could say that I’m biased in downplaying the importance of providing your kids with bricks and mortar, and the virtue of leaving a lump of money for them to remember you by when you’re gone.

And that’s why I would always advocate giving freely of your time when they’re struggling. Advice and expertise, not direction. And if they need some financial support, give it in such a way as they can honestly say in years to come that “I did it thanks to my own effort and talent” rather than “I would never have got to where I am without Daddy’s (or Mummy’s) money”.

Because ultimately the golden dividend of achievement is self-respect, something that can be difficult to gain if you’re addicted to money that is not your own.

Our offspring are a work in progress, as most twentysomethings are. And we’ve made as many mistakes with them as actions that turned out for the best. It’s hard watching them struggle without wanting to make things right for them. Sometimes the only thing you can think of is to put your hand in your pocket. After all, if there’s a choice between emotional and practical support, and throwing money at their problems, money is often the easier option.

And I guess one of the most important things I’ve learned from experience is that support, advice and money on their own won’t make things right for your kids. In the end, it’s mostly down to them.

In other words, we’re not as important as we think we are.

Saudi Arabia’s Brain Drain – The Kingdom’s loss, humanity’s gain

Ghada Falling-Walls

A story in today’s edition of the English-language daily Saudi Gazette has implications beyond what would appear to be its main purpose. It’s about Ghada Al-Mutairi, a Saudi scientist working in the United States who has invented a revolutionary technique for pinpointing inflammations in the human body and enabling their treatment by laser surgery.

The article states that Dr Ghada:

“who holds a doctorate in materials chemistry, currently lives in the US. She is a faculty member at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) and director of the Center of Excellence in Nanomedicine.”

Nobody who has spent time working with medical professionals in Saudi Arabia – as I have – would doubt that the country is producing talented and dedicated doctors, scientists and engineers. Many, but by no means all, study at universities in Western countries. They are encouraged to do so by a generous national scholarship programme. Currently over 200,000 Saudis are studying abroad.

I have met a number of these graduates once they have returned to their country. Almost all say that the experience has transformed them. Like Dr Ghada, they are dedicated and highly patriotic, but there is also a distinct confidence about them. They walk easily between two worlds.

Some, like Dr Ghada, end up either staying in their host countries, or returning after a spell working at home. And that’s where the first implication surfaces. She is one of five children, of which only one, a dentist, is working in Saudi Arabia:

“One of her brothers, Khalid Al-Mutairi, is a well-known plastic surgeon in the United States. Another of her brothers is a professor at Houston University, Texas, and the third is a dentist practicing in Jeddah, while her sister is a radiologist in Boston.

“My mother studied chemistry, and we are what we are because of her. She was a smart woman who dedicated her life to bring up her five children,” Al-Mutairi said.”

I find that rather sad. The Kingdom has a few pockets of medical excellence, yet not many citizens would disagree that there is much scope for improvement. In the case of the Al-Mutairi family, Saudi Arabia’s loss is clearly America’s gain.

The article’s purpose is ostensibly to showcase an outstanding Saudi talent, and to send a message that there are no barriers to success whether you are a man or a woman. And it’s true that there is no shortage of opportunity for women in the medical profession. What’s more, the traditional segregation between the genders is impossible to sustain in hospitals, where clinical practice demands that men freely work alongside women.

But another story puts Dr Ghada’s achievements into perspective. Late last year, women were allowed to stand for election as municipal councillors. The measure had been brought in by the late King Abdullah. It was hailed as a social breakthough. In Jeddah, the Kingdom’s second city two female councillors were duly elected.

This week, when the women showed up for the first meeting of the municipal council, a male councillor objected to their presence in the chamber on the grounds that the mixing of unrelated men and women was forbidden in Islam.

Despite the fact that female members of the Majlis Al-Shura, the consultative council that advises the Council of Ministers on matters of national policy, sit in the same chamber as their male counterparts, the responsible ministry ruled that women councillors should sit in a separate room and participate in proceedings via a closed-circuit TV link.

This is a well-established practice in academia and at conferences, but the ruling raised eyebrows because, according to Catherine Philp, reporting in today’s London Times, councils in other cities had already admitted their newly-elected female members into the council chambers, presumably following the example of the Shura. Thanks to the ministry’s ruling, they must now all be separated.

Now I have no idea what motivated Dr Ghada and her three siblings to make lives for themselves in the United States. In her case, the ability and funding to conduct exciting research must have been a factor. Also the fact that she was born in the US to Saudi parents (which the article doesn’t mention by the way) will have made a difference. But one can only speculate on how the councillor in Jeddah who objected to the presence of his female colleagues might react to a photo in the Saudi Gazette of the smiling scientist, participating in a discussion with two men, wearing no hijab over her hair, and no abaya, the black gown traditionally worn in Saudi Arabia.

The second equally powerful takeaway from the story is that Dr Ghada, as a Muslim, is an example of the sort of person to whom Donald Trump, if elected President of the US, would seek deny admittance to his country. Which goes to show what a fundamentally stupid man Mr Trump is, but also what a distorted and one-dimensional the view of Muslims prevails among large swathes of the American electorate whose prejudices he seeks to harness.

Dr Ghada’s next project is to find ways to remove fat from the human body. If she succeeds in developing a safe technique that is more effective than those currently available, I would be delighted to be the beneficiary of her expertise, just as one day her invention of a nano-capsule to treat inflammation might come to my rescue.

Should the unthinkable happen, and Donald Trump finds himself with the power to carry out his short-sighted plans, I can only say that we in Britain should (and I’m being careful not to say “would”) welcome her and her brothers and sister to our country with open arms.

And yes, she does send out a message to young Saudis about what they can achieve. Hopefully her example will accelerate the pace of social reform in her country, so that Saudi Arabia can most effectively use the many talented people of both genders who have chosen not to emigrate to other countries.

Places to see before I die? Give me Fawlty Towers any day….

migration_wildebeest_river_crossing_762x365

I do wonder about The Times on occasions. Actually no – what I wonder about is what kind of club I belong to by being a regular reader of London’s oldest broadsheet.

That club is a broader church than the crusty old academics, retired politicians and pernickety colonels from Hitchen who regularly have their letters to the editor published, all beginning “sir”, and ending, if newsprint weren’t too valuable to include them, with flowery sign-offs from another age, like, “I am, sir, your obedient servant”.

And the attraction of the paper can’t only lie with opinions of the columnists, which clearly appeal to a wide spectrum of Middle English prejudices, and occasionally explode across the page with audacious bait for the twitter-trolls (a good example being David Aaronovitch’s suggestion that the way to stop seaborne migrants in their tracks is to sink their boats and shoot them in the water to spare them the unpleasantness of drowning).

In fact its columnists are among the best in the business – humane, far from extreme (with one or two mild exceptions), thoughtful and often challenging. And by the way I don’t consider Aaronovitch extreme – I suspect that his piece on migrants was more of a provocation than a serious proposal.

Although for me the columns are the bones of the newspaper, there’s still a wide range of meaty content for people who don’t care a hoot about Syria, climate change and the antics of British politicians.

But if the readership is a broad church, there are definitely a few worshippers whose names are emblazoned on the back of their pews.

What causes me to question the demography of my fellow readers is a piece in last Saturday’s magazine section called “Hotel Lust List – 25 rooms to stay in before you die”. As you can imagine, a title like that is bound to send readers flocking to page 55, passing over Caitlin Moran’s ode to womanhood (how to insert a tampon in the loo of a high-speed train) and other worthy pieces.

Even an old codger like me, for whom lust is a phantom to be occasionally glimpsed through a double-glazed window of decrepitude, is likely to want to browse through a list of locations that might re-kindle the flames of youthful vigour, if only for a few fleeting moments.

But then when I read through the descriptions of the hotels – or tents in many cases – that the travel editor deems worthy of my attention, a hormone other than testosterone surged through my brain. I burst out laughing.

Not so much at the properties themselves. Uluru, Machu Pichu, Marrakech, St Moritz, Cappadocia, Udaipur and frozen Finland are of course jolly interesting places. And no doubt a number of Times staffers (including the editor I’m sure) had a jolly good time trying them out at the resorts’ expense.

What made me reach for a hernia truss was the price of some of these joints. Take the Singita Mara River Tented Camp in Tanzania. The write-up waxes lyrical:

“The Serengeti is the site of some of the most natural spectacles on earth. Singita Mara, a clutch of just six luxurious guest tents, offers an unrivalled vantage point for wildebeest migration, and an ideal base for guided safari walks and drives. The camp itself feels almost like an alfresco art gallery; communal areas are dotted with pieces by young African designers and artists, and the camp has an unexpectedly eclectic wine list, including some private reserves that can’t be found anywhere else.”

The first thought that comes to mind is Basil Fawlty’s dismissal of a guest’s complaint about the view from her room:

“Well, may I ask what you expected to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House, perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically…?”

I’m sure Mrs Richards would be more impressed with the view from her tent in the Serengeti.

It must be a great place. No matter that you probably have to be guarded by some muscle-bound voortrekker in khaki shorts ready to pick off the odd lion that stumbles on the opportunity to make a meal of you. And let’s pass unchallenged the inexplicable assumption that a young African artist is bound to be superior to an old one, and ignore the possibility that the my wine reserve is probably equally unavailable elsewhere (admittedly due to the fact that most of it is well past its drink-by date).

No, what really impresses is the tariff of £860 per night for a double tent. That’s nearly thirteen hundred bucks for those of you not familiar with my quaint little national currency.

Now who but an oligarch, a tech zillionaire or a hedge-fund owner would spend their hard-earned riches on such a place? Not me, for sure. And not, I suspect, more than a tiny percent of the Times readership, unless I’m completely out on a limb from my fellow readers.

£860 is more than my wife and I spent last month on sixteen nights in a four-star resort on the beautiful island of Bali. For that we got a spacious double room overlooking a tropical garden, breakfast and transportation from and to the airport.

I accept that this is not quite the same as waking every morning in front of Uluru, or sitting in an infinity pool that melts into the Singapore skyline. But forgive me for being crass, but there are only so many times you can wake up to the sight of a giant lump of iron ore, or gazing out over an urban sprawl. Every vista, however gorgeous, palls after a while.

And what of the company? Are the super-wealthy any more interesting and congenial than the ordinary Aussies and Canadians we encountered in Bali? As it happened, the most boring people we came across were a bunch of wannabe plutocrats who spent hours in the pool yapping about exchange rates and their apartments in Dubai.

It’s not that I’m especially resentful of the rich and famous. They’re clearly smarter, more focused and probably more obsessive than me. But the fact that the Beckhams and various British royals are fond of North Island in the Seychelles isn’t enough to persuade me to part with £12,399 to spend a measly week there. Same goes for spending £3,200 a night in a suite at the Aman, a palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice. And certainly not while my cash-strapped millennial offspring are struggling to pay the rent.

But of course I have to keep reminding myself that I’m no longer young and aspirational. I have friends of the same age who go to great lengths to show the world how full of life they are by going bungee-jumping and sticking their heads in the bass bins at Guns’n’Roses concerts.

I prefer the opposite approach. By hiding under the mantle of an old fogey, I’m able to surprise people who discover that I’m not dead yet, and certainly not brain-wise. I have no desire to go to every corner of the world before I die, and especially to spend large portions of my children’s inheritance doing so. And that includes taking the advice of the Times travel editor and trolling off while I can still walk to the LikuLiku Lagoon Resort, Fiji, where a traditional cottage costs £1060 per night.

What’s more, I can’t see many other Times readers, whom we see from time to time at those free movie previews the paper provides to subscribers and appear to be perfectly sane people, doing so either. So is the idea to show us what we can’t have? Or possibly to encourage us to buy more lottery tickets? Are there really more seriously wealthy people in my country than I imagined? Or is it simply that the travel editor and her minions enjoy the occasional jolly? Your guess is as good as mine.

Actually I have a feeling that David Bowie – ever a trend-setter – came up with an interesting alternative to absurdly expensive holidays in his will. He wanted his ashes to be scattered in Bali. There’s a thought: 25 places to visit after you die. I’d definitely go for that. Cheaper too. A few jiffy bags and you’re there.

Anyway, later in the week I picked up a clue that might explain the ludicrous advertorial that caused me to spend precious time writing this post. It lay in a feature – again in The Times – about how bankers spend their bonuses.

Ah yes, it’s that time of year. While most of us cut back on the Ferraris and Picassos in the month after Christmas, our banking community quietly waits for the all-important envelope, all the while agonizing over which of the 25 places on the Hotel Lust List they will head towards when the time comes to celebrate their latest cash harvest.

Not stupid, these newspapers, are they?

Being British – what do we mean by “we”?

Land of Hope and Glory

Land of Hope and Glory – Last Night of the Proms

Now class – consider these statements:

“It’s our values that make this country what it is, and it’s only by standing up for them assertively that they will endure.” (David Cameron, arguing that migrants who fail to learn English should not be allowed to remain in the UK.)

“Continually pretending that a group is somehow going to become like the rest of us is perhaps the deepest form of disrespect. Because what you are essentially saying is the fact that they behave in a different way, some of which we may not like, is because they haven’t yet seen the light. It may be because they see the world differently than the rest of us.” (Trevor Phillips, former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, talking about British Muslims.)

Both statements, it seems to me, beg three critical questions. What do we mean by British values? What do we mean by integration? And finally, what do we mean by “we” and “the rest of us”?

Let’s look at David Cameron’s “British values”. The best definition I could find comes from government guidelines for teaching primary school children in state schools:

“Schools should promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.”

According to Mr Cameron, we should kick out migrants who don’t learn English. Can anyone tell me how inability to speak English compromises British values? Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps Mr Cameron is referring to other values beyond those defined by his government. Free speech maybe, or love of country. After all, no point blaspheming or cursing your host country in a language most people won’t understand.

Perhaps I’m being unnecessarily nit-picking (note to migrants with an uncertain grasp of English idiom: nit-picking literally means removing head-lice, but it has come to mean “to be excessively concerned with or critical of inconsequential details”).

Is he saying that it’s OK for us to kick out migrants, because we can, but we should put up with EU migrants – Bulgarians and Romanians for example – who don’t learn English, because we can’t do anything about their linguistic shortcomings? Is he also saying that there’s something special about the British values he talks about? Would not half the countries in the world say that they believe in the same values? More on that later.

Let’s now look at integration.

I spent a total of fifteen years living in Arab countries. I did not learn Arabic with any level of fluency, nor was I expected to by my hosts. What Arabic I acquired was at my initiative, and in the interest of being able to communicate better with my hosts. You could argue that I was a migrant, yet I was not expected to convert to Islam, nor was I expected to adopt native social norms. All that was expected of me was that I respect local customs and comply with the law.

For much of that time, I and most of the other westerners working in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain lived in enclaves. We were, in other words, very far from being integrated into Saudi society. Are we not being just a trifle hypocritical in expecting migrants to our country to integrate into ours?

In the US state of Pennsylvania, which I visited a couple of months ago, there are large communities of a Christian sect called the Amish. They live by their own values, they eschew most modern technology, they dress in a uniform manner, and most of the men wear long beards. This in America, the great melting pot, the nation that prides itself on its ability to integrate new arrivals. And yet the Amish flourish, content in their own communities, and nobody in America contests their right to do so.

In my country, there are communities whose men wear Victorian frock coats, long beards, black hats and ringlets of hair on the side of their heads. They do not work on Saturdays. Their wives are required by religious law to cover their hair. Some wear wigs. Others wear hats or other forms of head covering.  They live according to an elaborate set of practices and rituals, most of which are unique to members of their community. They are called Orthodox Jews. Nobody in the UK seeks to persuade them to abandon their rituals and their clothing in the cause of social integration.

A good friend of mine was born in Wales. He was raised in a Welsh-speaking family. He did not start to speak English until he was seven years old. He grew up to be a patriotic officer in the British Army, and subsequently a senior executive with a number of technology companies. His parents still speak Welsh at home, yet no fingers are pointed at them for failing to integrate with the rest of the population.

So let’s now consider these diverse groups – the British in Saudi Arabia, the Amish, the Welsh-speaking Welsh, the Orthodox Jews. Do they respect the rule of law? Mostly yes. Do they participate in democratic processes? Again, mostly yes. Do they respect the individual liberties of others? Yes, provided that the others do not break the norms of the communities in which they live. Do they respect and tolerate those who have different faiths and beliefs from their own? By and large yes, because they are in a minority and have little choice but to do so, and in any event actions they might take that indicate otherwise are curtailed by law.

And what about our Muslim citizens? The vast majority respect the rule of law, vote in elections, respect the liberties of others, subject to the same conditions about the norms of their communities, and respect and tolerate people who have different faiths and beliefs. The vast majority. A small minority don’t, often with damaging and occasionally lethal consequences. Which is why we, America and most European countries are focused on that small minority, their beliefs and activities. And why we seem to expect the Muslim communities to integrate further than the Amish, the Orthodox Jews and any number of self-contained groups. The difference? We consider that non-Muslim minorities pose no threat to the established order.

But what do we mean by integrate? Is there such a thing as total integration, or are there degrees of integration? If the latter, how much does a group of people have to be like “the rest of us” to be considered integrated to a satisfactory degree?

It’s also highly likely that were it not for the small minority of Muslims who believe in the ideologies of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, most of us wouldn’t be any more concerned about the practices, rituals and beliefs of our Muslims than we are about those of our Orthodox Jews, or Americans of their Amish.

And if we look back at the Britain of my youth, we could argue that a social and legal system that executed murderers, criminalised homosexuals and frowned on extramarital sexual relations would have been far more compatible with the beliefs of our Muslim communities in Britain today.

But things have changed, and they will continue to change. So integration is a constantly moving target.

Where the “small minority” fall short of our expectations is in respecting the rule of law. Female genital mutilation is against the law. So are honour crimes. So are expressions of hatred on religious grounds. So is the formation of vigilante groups to interdict the legal behaviour of others. So is murder and conspiracy to murder. So is failure to apply legally mandated standards of education.

These are all matters of law, even if underlying these kinds of unlawful activity is a lack of respect for the other “British values” defined in the schools guidelines. There are many people in the United Kingdom – not just Muslims – who disagree with any number of laws. There are people who want to bring back hanging, that drug use should be decriminalised, that migrants should be denied benefits. And it’s not just Muslims who believe that blasphemy should be a crime. But the law is the law. If you want to change a law, there is a process, which starts with democracy, for doing so.

Now Trevor Phillips says that we are wrong to expect that Muslims over time will become “more like us”, because they see the world in a different way from “the rest of us”. Broadly speaking I think he’s right. There are some aspects of Islamic teaching which are fundamentally at odds with other belief systems. But there are two problems with what he is saying.

First, he is implying that our Muslims are a heterogeneous group with identical views on all subjects. Clearly they are not, hence the small, or substantial (depending on who you listen to) minority who do not subscribe to the British values as described above. Equally, the majority of Muslims – if we are to believe surveys and research – don’t subscribe to the harsh interpretation of the Islamic scriptures followed by the minority. You don’t, for example, hear many Muslim voices in this country calling for the reintroduction of slavery and the slaying of homosexuals.

Muslims in Britain are as diverse as any other section of the population. Many are integrated to a high degree socially, politically and economically. They would no more think of mutilating their daughters or raising the black flag over Downing Street as any non-Muslim. And there is no consistency about the length of time they or their ancestors have been in this country. We have first-generation British Muslims in parliament, and third generation Muslim citizens making their way to Syria.

I have many Muslim friends, some of whom visit me when they come to the UK from the Middle East. They are educated, intelligent people. There is no big gulf between us that prevents them from being friends. We respect each other’s differences, and what we have in common far outweighs the differences. To suggest that these people should become “more like us” is as insulting as it is unreasonable.

So, sorry again for nit-picking, but making broad statements about Muslims puts Mr Phillips on shaky ground.

Then there’s the question of “we”. Who the hell are we? Big question, I know. Is there a gigantic basket that includes naturalised Russian oligarchs living in Kensington townhouses, agricultural labourers in East Anglia, call centre agents in Manchester, lawyers in Glasgow and shelf-stackers in Cardiff? Of course not, and I suspect that the gap in values, attitudes and perceptions between many of these groups is far wider than what divides any of these groups from most of our Muslim citizens.

So you could argue that it’s meaningless to use the word “we”, unless you’re speaking from the perspective of one of the many social, economic and geographical tribes that make up our country. Lots of minorities, in other words, of which our Muslims are but one. You could also argue that the overarching “we”, Britishness, is a figment of the imagination.

You could still make a case for there being uber-tribes who identify themselves as English, Scottish Welsh and Irish. But Britishness? I don’t think so, except when we’re watching the Olympic Games, or cheering on Johanna Konta, an ethnic Hungarian tennis player who grew up in Australia, moved to Britain at 14 and has just reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open.

Let’s move on to David Cameron’s latest initiative, in which he wishes to compel migrants to learn English. Yes, I know what Cameron’s trying to achieve. He’s concerned at Muslim families living in Muslim-only urban districts where the women are kept at home and out of view, districts which he believes are breeding grounds for extremism.

Yet many of those families hold British citizenship, so he can’t do a thing to force them to integrate, linguistically or otherwise. Just as he can’t force French migrants, whose home country espouses the same values as Britain, to become fluent in English. Nor would he, because he knows that it is in their interest to do so. Without a reasonable command of our language, a Parisian is not likely to find it easy to gain employment in London. The same applies to a Londoner wishing to work in Paris.

So the whole issue of language as a means of forcing the pace of integration seems a bit of a red herring, in that it would be impossible to enforce broadly enough to make it effective. I’m all in favour of it being a condition for the granting of citizenship that candidates should speak an acceptable level of English, as the law currently requires (for reasons of political correctness Welsh and Scottish Gaelic are acceptable alternatives, though I wonder how many would-be citizens invest in Gaelic lessons).

But in the case of migrants, encouragement is surely more in keeping with our values than compulsion. And even for economically inactive dependants, learning the local language would seem to be a matter of self-interest, especially if the migrants are intending to settle in the country permanently. But we should not forget that many migrants are here on a temporary basis. Is it reasonable to expect all member of their families to become fluent in our language, when they fully intend to return to their homelands as soon as it is safe to do so?

None of this contributes towards solving the problems that David Cameron and Trevor Phillips have raised. But we do need to remember that rhetoric is cheap, emotion is as abundant as water, and big pictures are always more attractive than their constituent pixels of detail. Unfortunately, details ignored more often than not lead to unintended consequences.

We also need to remember that solutions are never perfect. Most are the result of trial and error, muddling through, even if we chose to dress them up as grand strategies. And each day that goes by erodes the status quo, and requires us to think again – no matter that the demagogues who peddle panaceas would have you believe otherwise.

Now for your next essay:

“Britain should have a zero-tolerance approach to intolerance – discuss”

Postcard from Bali – Satay, Caesars and Shiva

 

While Britain froze and America’s north-eastern seaboard prepared to disappear under metres of snow, I was in tropical Bali. It was one of those reflective holidays. Bit of reading, bit of thinking, plenty of eating, listening and watching. Not so much doing.

Here’s how it went, starting with the reading. Top of the list was Tom Holland’s Dynasty. A superb read. Study the lives of the first five Roman emperors if you’d like to understand how autocrats rise, prosper and expire.

Then Sapiens, Yuval Harari’s “Short History of the World”. If you want Dawkins without attitude, Harari’s your man. That the Hebrew University in Jerusalem can accommodate such a thinker shows that there’s hope for Israel.

I also read Max Hastings’ account of the SS Das Reich division’s march through southern France on its way to destruction after D-Day. I’d forgotten how much of Southern France was ripped apart by the Second World War, including places I go to every year without a thought for traumas of which there is little obvious evidence – unless you visit Ouradour-sur-Glane, of course, the site of one of Das Reich’s worst atrocities.

oradour

I started Leslie Carroll’s Royal Pains, about various deviant royals over the past millennium, and never progressed beyond Vlad the Impaler. The fact that Princess Margaret, the Queen’s rather silly sister, was up there with Vlad didn’t bode well. Likewise Severed Heads, by Frances Larson. After the story of Oliver Cromwell’s head I lost interest.

By this time I was ready for some fiction. I raced through I Am Pilgrim, a terrorist thriller written a couple of years ago. A well-constructed tale by Terry Hayes, otherwise known as a Hollywood script-writer. Plausible, but hopefully not too plausible. Otherwise I shall take up residence in a remote South Sea island.

And up there with Dynasty as best read of the holiday was Salman Rushdie’s new novel Two Years, Eight Months & Twenty Eight Nights – a sumptuous parable of our times, in which jinns and the ghosts of long-dead philosophers do battle for the future of mankind.

Rushdie twenty eight months

I could have read any of these books at home, or in a two-week stay at a boarding house in Bognor Regis. But then I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of sitting on a balcony overlooking a tropical garden in Bali. Contrast is everything.

As for the thinking, some famous people died over the past few weeks. Before their time? Why are we mourning the loss of David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Glenn Frey, when they achieved so much in their sixty-odd years? Would you rather have a couple of extra decades in an unfulfilled life, or a shorter span in which you leave your mark in as resounding a way as those three? I know what I would prefer, even if my achievements are nothing compared with theirs. What matters is to feel that you have achieved, and not to regret the things you left undone. And while you have the time, if there are undone things that are important to you, get on and do them.

I find it impossible to spend time in Bali without thinking about happiness. Wandering around the island you see a lot of unhappiness, and not in the obvious places. I see it on the faces of visiting Australians, Canadians, Indians and Chinese. They come to paradise and find shopping. Or tattoos. So many people with faces defined by frowns.

And why is it that the Balinese, who possess a fraction of the wealth of the visitors, manage to smile at you when they have no obvious motivation for doing so? How is it that the happiest people we met were a family of fishing boat owners who took us across the bay for a sunset ride? Granddad sitting at the prow with his baby grandson, the son steering the boat. The second son meeting the boat back on the shore. How do they make ends meet? A bit of fishing, rides for people like us and grandma doing massages on the beach. There was a serenity about that little family one rarely sees in the West.

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Yuval Harari’s view is that one of the most profound changes of the last century has been the decline of the bonds and obligations of the family. Not in Bali, I think. We all live in thrall to the past and mortgage our lives to the future. But watching the woodcarvers of Mas or Ubud busily turning out beautiful wooden artefacts despite having vast unsold inventories suggests a clearer focus on the present than most of us manage in our tortured lifetimes. Their work will be sold or it won’t be sold. It’s what they do, and so long as they can feed themselves and their families that’s what they will continue to do.

Then there’s all the stuff that’s raging elsewhere, far away from the rice fields, the temples and the towering volcanoes of Bali. It came closer last week, when gunmen went on the rampage in Jakarta. Since then, armed policemen have popped up now and again on the beaches, but so far, there has been nothing to police. Long may that continue.

If you have an internet connection, it’s hard to tear yourself away from the rage of angry people – from US electors to the burghers of Cologne, from paranoid leaders to murderous fighters, from the deprived to the threatened. I’ve been following as always a wide range of reportage and analysis claiming to make sense of the conflict and hatred afflicting us. And I’m getting tired of it.

The ugly truth is that there’s stuff none of us know, that no amount of analysis can make sense of. The only answers lie between the eyes of those involved. Yes, the secret squirrels manage to gather a few nuggets of intelligence now and again, but what is shared with us often serves to distort, misinform and manipulate. Otherwise, we simply have to wait for stuff to happen, and adjust our thoughts accordingly. As we always did.

Does anyone really know what the ISIS high command is planning? Do we really know what motivates Donald Trump? Or Jeremy Corbyn? Or Ayatollah Khamenei, the King of Saudi Arabia, Vladimir Putin or Bashar Al-Assad? In the land of the blind, there are many would-be one-eyed kings. Enough. Bring me facts, bring me evidence or bring me nothing at all, because your opinion is no more likely to be valuable than mine.

Now for a more pleasant subject: eating. If you like rice and noodles, Bali’s the place for you. Where we’re staying there are a couple of dozen places to eat within walking distance. The difference between these places is not so much the cuisine, more the ambience – from elegant places overlooking the beach to small eateries on the roadside, where you watch the scooters and buses full of tourists buzzing past; construction workers on their way home from twelve-hour shifts mingling with backpackers, guys trying to sell you Viagra and girls offering massage.

I actually prefer the food in Malaysia – more flair and imagination, plus the insidious delights of durian. But if you’re an Aussie dying for a steak or ribs after a week of eating nasi goring, you’ll find that most places cater for your needs. No doubt there is more refined and “authentic” cooking to be sampled in remoter areas, but the built-up parts of the island depend on tourists, so there’s something for every visiting nationality.

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Then there’s the listening. I will probably come over as a cultural Neanderthal immune to the subtleties of Balinese music, but I find it cacophonous and monotonous. Especially when you’re sitting at a beach at one of a long row of restaurants, each competing to out-gamelan the other. Listen to it once and that’s fine, but its appeal doesn’t last.

The same goes for the new-age fluty stuff that plays in our hotel restaurant every morning on a permanent loop. A couple of mouthfuls of fresh mango and I want to fall asleep.

No, the sounds I enjoy are made by the geckos that pipe up now and again from the bushes. The lizard equivalent of uh-oh, as if they’ve dropped their dinner on the kitchen floor. And the sound of tropical rain splashing against the palms, something we’ve heard all to rarely in this allegedly rainy season. The squeaking bats at dawn, and birdsong you’d never hear in the northern hemisphere.

Oh, and a solitary bell sounding at 7am on Sunday morning, the Christian day of worship. A plaintive contrast to the florid prayer calls that ring out from the mosques every evening at dusk. Indonesia is a Muslim country after all, even if Bali is not.

As for watching, I’d like to say I’ve seen plenty of wildlife, and that would be true. Except most of the wildlife is human. Apart from the people, feral dogs and the odd enthusiastic mosquito. I did pay a visit to the monkey forest in Ubud. But it’s not so much a forest, more a few acres of paths and trees, populated by a few hundred macaques, a few hundred tourists and the ubiquitous stalls where you can buy bananas to throw at our cousins.

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The ones most visible are sad-looking creatures, sitting on walls twitching their droopy moustaches, posing for selfies with giggling tourists, while sulky-looking alpha males skulk in the trees, waiting to pounce on any tourists foolish enough to bring their lunchboxes with them into the park.

While in Ubud, the spiritual centre of Bali, I looked hard for Julia Roberts with her beatific smile, but didn’t find her. In fact, not many beatific smiles at all. There’s plenty of eating to be seen, but precious little praying and not a lot of love. Just a lot of visitors “doing” the town.

And yes, we what tourists do, and saw some temples, a waterfall, a rice plantation and some lovely sunsets.

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If I sound a little jaundiced, it’s not with Bali or the Balinese. It’s a beautiful island, and most of the people are inhumanly cheerful and kind. There are a few who resent us tourists, and our relentless urge to beat down prices when what is being offered costs a tenth of what we might pay at home. But most accept our less attractive ways with humour and good grace.

What I find sad is that the island has become so dependent on visitors, which means that at so many beautiful places you run the gauntlet through rows of stalls filled with people desperate to get you to buy something. A people whose living depends on strangers.

Perhaps it’s more a paradise for the young. I’m too old for rafting, diving or climbing mountains. I don’t go clubbing or sit at bars whispering sweet nothings until the early hours. Whatever your age, It’s a great place to visit as a couple, but not somewhere I would go on my own. You occasionally catch sight of a middle-aged western guy sitting alone in a restaurant, and wonder what’s in it for him. But you can be lonely anywhere, I guess.

Would I come to Bali again? You bet. A country whose people who greet you with a hug and remember your first name a year after your first visit knows a thing or two about hospitality.

And I never forget how blessed I am to be able to come to a gorgeous island many thousands of miles away from home, and spend a couple of weeks in comfort, while a few miles from my island, teenagers ripped away from their homes and families wait in a cold and windy camp for the chance to cross the English Channel.

Iran: the end of an unnatural state

The Cyrus Cylinder

The Cyrus Cylinder

In case you haven’t noticed, Iran is no longer in the nuclear bomb business. As the result it is able to do business with the outside world again.

The more remarkable is that this has not happened in the wake of smouldering holes in the ground where the nuclear sites once were, and half of the already-diminished Iranian economy in ruins after the inevitable fire-fight that would have followed the bunker-busting bombs.

Which shows that there is a role for international diplomacy beyond the delivery of threats and ultimata. One was beginning to wonder.

Whatever one might say about the Islamic Republic’s politics, the ambitions of its factions and its role beyond its immediate borders, commercial and cultural isolation is not a natural state for a country that has played a key part in the development of humanity over the past three thousand years.

In my home my walls are adorned by two magnificent Isfahan carpets depicting the Tree of Life. There’s one from Shiraz on the floor of my lounge. In my library sits a collection of the poems of Rumi. And in the kitchen there’s a box of saffron tea from Mashhad. Just a few objects, but ones that remind me of their place of origin whenever I pass them by.

Iran has never been far from my mind over the past few decades. When I first arrived in the Middle East, it was at war with Iraq. During the four years when I lived in Bahrain, rumours were constantly flying around about an impending Israeli strike on the nuclear sites. Had that happened, the whole region, including the place where I was living, might have gone up in flames.

I’ve met enough Iranians in my time to know that most are not fanatics. They are smart, curious and proud of their heritage. And they have much to be proud of. They have a great sense of humour. And now they have the opportunity to engage with the world once again.

For once, diplomacy worked. A roadblock has been cleared. There are many more that prevent a state of justice and equilibrium from returning to the Middle East. But it’s a start.

The negotiating parties deserve our congratulations, and the hard-pressed people of Iran deserve our best wishes.

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