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RetroSaudi: The Agony Uncles

This post, the latest in my RetroSaudi series comparing the Saudi Arabia I lived in thirty years ago with the country today, is about my experience of the rules of observance in Islam.

As someone brought up in the mild traditions of the modern Church of England, I was never much attracted to the symbolism and the rituals of Catholicism. For me, faith was always about the big things – belief, attitude and behaviour – rather than what I saw as the minutiae.

When I first came to Saudi Arabia, I was constantly surprised by the emphasis among devout Muslims of rules – rules for worship and rules for daily life. Lots of them. Big ones, medium-sized ones and little ones.

In the Anglican church, apart from the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, we didn’t seem to have many rules that we were expected to follow if we were to avoid going to hell.

We once even had a Bishop of Durham who doubted the Virgin Birth. Enough to have had him burnt at the stake as a heretic in earlier centuries. And he certainly wouldn’t be very popular if he was a Muslim expressing similar sentiments about the origins of Islam.

Although I had long possessed a rudimentary knowledge of the Holy Quran, and the importance of the Hadiths, in which the acts and words of the Prophet, and, by extension, the example he set, are enshrined, it only fully dawned on me how important rules are in Islam – or at least the Islam practised in Saudi Arabia – when I became a regular reader of the Arab News.

This august broadsheet was Saudi Arabia’s first English-language daily newspaper. Many of the cuttings from previous episodes of RetroSaudi came from copies of the newspaper I brought back to the UK when I finished my first stint in the late 80s.

As anyone familiar with the Muslim world will know, Friday is to Muslims what Sunday is to Christians – a day of rest and religious devotion. Yes, I know, in the West it’s become a day for shopping, football and DIY. But wherever Islam is practised, Friday is still the day for putting your best togs on and going to the mosque, even if you don’t manage it at any other time of the week.

In keeping with the requirement for religious contemplation, this was also the day when the Arab News would publish a centre spread devoted to Islam. I’ve always been interested in the great religions, so it became one of my favourite reads of the week, and not only because of the learned articles contributed by the sheikhs.

What fascinated me most was what could be described as the agony column. Whereas in the West, agony aunts try to unravel a host of sexual and emotional conundrums for their suffering readers, the Arab News agony column was devoted to dilemmas of faith.

People would write in with what to a non-Muslim’s eyes were bizarre questions about religious practice. Many were related to what the business world would describe as compliance issues. What amazed me was the minute detail of observance that clearly worried the readers.

Sometimes the queries were broad and quite fundamental, such as this one on the nature of prayer:

And this one about divorce:

Other questions were related less fundamental issues, such as bodily functions invalidating acts of worship. They are in excruciating detail, as are the answers:

Since the questions appeared in an English-language publication, I doubt if those seeking answers were Saudi. There were numerous Arabic publications with similar sections. I suspect that most of those who wrote in English were expatriates from the Indian subcontinent. As this clipping illustrates, concern with the form rather than the content of devotion was a theme that exercised people back home, too:

The purpose of these cuttings is not to mock, but to illustrate how important detailed observance is to the Muslim faith. It would be highly presumptuous for me to offer an opinion about the minutiae of another person’s religion. I think it’s important to keep an open mind.

In fact I once had a highly informative discussion with a Saudi doctor at a workshop I was facilitating. He was keen to stress the health benefits of the physical act of praying. He then took me into the bathroom and talked me through the process of ablution, which he had me try for myself. I have to say that I would find it hard to carry out such a ritual five times a day, but clearly for an observant Muslim it’s part of the rhythm of life. But as someone who injured his back a while ago, and needs to carry out regular stretching exercises to keep a recurrence at bay, I can certainly appreciate his point about the bending and stretching required at prayer.

More than anything else, what these letters from anxious people conjured up for me is lonely men in their male-only accommodation  – and occasionally women, perhaps working within Saudi families – worrying about whether they’re on the right path to the hereafter. After all, money was not (and still isn’t) the only reason for so many from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh to leave their families and friends and live often thankless lives in the birthplace of Islam.

A wider perspective is that these agony columns were a precursor to the internet forums and religious channels that abound today. Religious TV is as popular in the Middle East as reality TV in the West. Broadcasting from a number of countries in the region, sheikhs deliver their opinions on matters great and small. They have huge followings, even if some of their utterances are met with popular derision.

A few years ago a sheikh in Saudi Arabia, Saleh al-Lohaidan, ventured the opinion that driving was detrimental to women’s health. As the BBC quoted him at the time:

“If a woman drives a car, not out of pure necessity, that could have negative physiological impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards,” Sheikh Lohaidan told the news website Sabq.org.

“That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees.”

Soon afterwards, at least partly in response to the sheikh’s advice, a video appeared on YouTube featuring a young Saudi singing No Woman No Drive, a glorious adaptation of Bob Marley’s classic.

Never let it be said that Saudis lack a sense of humour.

More recently, Sheikh Mohammed Al Arifi, one of the prominent clerics who avoided Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent clampdown, drew a less humorous response when he expressed a view on whether it was permissible to wash the feet before prayers without taking socks off. One Twitter follower commented “Jerusalem is lost and you are talking about socks”.

The agony columns of the 80s seemed to indicate a hunger for guidance. This in turn suggested a lack of confidence, or an unwillingness to rely on one’s own knowledge. Perhaps it also reflected the possibility that religious education was scantier for South Asians thirty years ago than it is now.

The hundreds of madrassas funded by the Kingdom in the intervening years across the subcontinent will undoubtedly have improved understanding among their students of the faith, even if the teachings are not necessarily to the liking of all Muslims, and certainly not to westerners who blame them for the spread of jihadi violence.

Today, most of the religious channels are in Arabic, a language spoken only by a minority of South Asians, which suggests that at least in the Arab world, the hunger for guidance is still strong. Since some of these channels – and those who broadcast on them – are beyond the reach of the most determined autocrats, it’s easy to understand why one country could nearly go to war with another that it accuses of supporting what it considers the pernicious influence of the internet agony uncles and their inflammatory rhetoric.

The sheikhs were far easier to control when their only means of expression were the newspaper articles they wrote the mosques in which they preached. In the 1980s, the nearest equivalent to the modern religious channels were the cassettes of their sermons that found their way into mosques and bookshops throughout the world. Satellites and the internet are far more effective.

I don’t blame those who turn to religious authorities for certainty in a volatile, confusing world. And many of the sheikhs I’ve met are positive, moderating influences. But sometimes I can’t help thinking of the scene in the movie The Life of Brian, when the accidental not-the-messiah appears on his balcony and tries to send away the mob of would-be followers by screaming out:

You don’t need me!

You don’t need anyone!

You’ve got to think for yourselves!

You’re all individuals!

A subversive message indeed.

Jerusalem: “Nothing and Everything”

In my favourite scene from Ridley Scott’s crusader epic Kingdom of Heaven, Balian of Ibelin, the defender of Jerusalem, asks Saladin “what is Jerusalem worth?” “Nothing”, says Saladin, and then, as he turns back to the defeated crusader, “everything!”

I keep coming back to those words when I think about Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

It means nothing in the sense that it will not change the Israel-Palestine impasse. Few countries will follow Trump’s lead. In political terms Israel’s possession of the city is no more legitimate today in the eyes of most of the world than it was before Trump issued his fatwa.

And if Jerusalem’s ancient walls were sentient, I suspect that they would be having a hollow laugh at Binyamin Netanyahu’s triumphant crowing, just as they would have done at Saladin’s glee.

Nothing is permanent in Jerusalem. Saladin passed on. Over the following eight hundred years, and up to the present day, there were more conquests, sackings, periods of peace, changes in control. No faith or political entity could truthfully be said to own the city.

Trump, Netanyahu and Abbas will also pass on. Unless the city is destroyed in an apocalypse, new leaders and new dynamics will come into play, and the struggle for mastery will continue.

No matter that Jerusalem means everything to those who seek to rebuild the temple, regain possession of Al-Aqsa and the Dome or hasten the second coming of Jesus, Trump’s pathetic gesture will most probably turn out to mean nothing to ordinary Israelis brutalised by the fear of encirclement and annihilation, and to ordinary Palestinians whose lives under occupation can hardly get worse.

The sadness in all of this is that we lucky people who only have the price of bitcoins and a few snow storms to worry about seem to think that we live in a better world than that of our ancestors.

The unholy conflict in what the devout call the Holy Land shows us that we don’t.

We’d better not be too complacent, because what we call civilisation is a very thin veneer.

Postcard from Ireland: the Passing of a Matriarch

Last week, Ireland had one of its rare moments in the international media spotlight, as Theresa May struggled to satisfy the Irish government and her obdurate partners in the north over the issue of what kind of border will exist between the two Irelands post-Brexit.

I was in the country for an entirely different reason: to attend the funeral of my mother-in-law Blaithín Meade in a country town thirty miles from Dublin.

Blaithín was a mother of six, a school teacher, music teacher and a tireless worker for many local charities. She died after an illness that caused her to spend the last ten weeks of her life in hospital. Like many mothers – especially Irish ones – she was the hub of her family, even more so in the fifteen years since the death of her husband Pat.

I was at Pat’s funeral as well, but this was before the death of my own parents in England, so I had no opportunity to compare different approaches to death in the two islands.

When my mother died three years ago, it took three weeks to book the church and the crematorium, and for the four of us siblings to agree a date for the funeral.

In Ireland, things work very differently. Funerals are held within a maximum of three days from the person’s death, regardless of who can or cannot attend. And so it was with Blaithín.

I arrived at the family home the night before the funeral. The wake had taken place on that day. Blaithín lay in an open coffin in the front room. A stream of visitors came to the house to pay their respects. Tea, cakes and sandwiches were on hand.

If you’ve ever seen movies in which an Irish wake is portrayed, you might immediately think of men like Milo O’Shea or Brendan Behan with cloth caps supping Guinness long into the night, occasionally bursting into song. That may still happen deep in the country, but not in Navan.

When I arrived late at night I looked at the condolence book, where visitors had signed their names. There were two pages of names, which seemed quite a lot. But that was by no means all. I looked further and found another six. Around two hundred people stopped by in the course of one day. Each would stay for between ten minutes and half an hour, say goodbye to Blaithín, pay their respects to the family and leave.

By the time I arrived, my wife and her brothers and sisters sat in a state of numb exhaustion.

Then there was the funeral itself. The rituals started with the removal of the coffin. The priest came into the house, said a prayer, and after the relatives had had the chance to say goodbye, the coffin was closed, and carried out to the hearse.

A slow procession headed for the church. As the hearse passed, people in the street instinctively stopped, faced the coffin, crossed themselves and waited for it to pass before resuming their business.

As with funerals more or less anywhere, loved ones carried the coffin on to a trolley, and it moved into into the church, where hundreds of mourners were waiting.

Inside the church, an innovation. The parish has installed a webcam, which allows anyone not able to attend in person to log in and view the ceremony. And so they did, from Galway in the west of Ireland to America, Australia, Spain and Germany. One set of relatives, who were delayed by traffic at the start of the mass, even watched it in their car.

It fell to me to introduce a sweet little tribute from Blaithín’s children, wherein each carried up an object that symbolised one aspect of her life. A book, a sheet of music, a teddy bear and a family photo.

On the day when the border controversy was at its peak, I had to resist the temptation to introduce myself to the mourners as a visitor from the land of Brexit, and to tell them how pleasant it was to be among sane people again. But I didn’t, because this occasion wasn’t about me. God knows what Donald Trump would have said.

The funeral mass took about an hour, with the usual words of comfort from the priest. He was a young guy with jet-black hair and a long beard. Afterwards, a few people agreed that he would look the part in a black turban, Ayatollah-style. Or perhaps in the regalia of a Russian Orthodox priest. One denizen of Islington even compared him to a Shoreditch hipster. Whatever – he was impressive, eloquent and compassionate.

After the customary conversations outside the church, we then made our way to the graveyard. Cremations are not common in Ireland except in the cities where burial space is limited.

At the grave, more prayers, a piece of Blaithín’s favourite music and a poem read by the undertaker, a family friend. Tears and linked arms as the coffin was lowered into the grave. More holy water, flowers from her sister and a handful of earth.

Then those of us who made it to the grave ceremony moved on to a local hotel, where a three-course lunch big enough to sink a battleship awaited.

And that was what my Irish relatives would describe as a decent funeral, as indeed it was.

But what was just as impressive was the way the family pulled together during Blaithín’s last weeks in hospital. Not a day went past when there weren’t two or three visits from her children and grandchildren, from her sister and brother-in-law in Galway, who were themselves not in the best of health, and from others who knew her well. Not ten-minute visits either – hours sitting by her bed, holding her hand, helping her with physio that they hoped would pave the way to the recovery that never came. Never giving up hope, even as the patient took one step forward and two steps back.

What made the difference was that five out of her six children live locally. That would have been quite normal fifty years ago, but less so now. After all, Ireland has always been a land of diaspora, whose children spread their wings and end up far from home. But in Blaithin’s case, those who had lived abroad – apart from my wife – eventually returned. She was surrounded by loved ones who cared for her until the end.

As I played my limited part in the proceedings, I kept remembering my mother’s funeral. It was a far quieter affair, which reflected her personality – far more introverted than Blaithín, not someone who made friends so easily. She was 94 when she died, ten years older than my mother-in-law. Most of her life-long friends had gone before her.

She spent her last few years in a care home, slowly succumbing to dementia, whereas Blaithín was sharp as a pin to the end. Three of my mother’s four children lived some way away, and for various reasons were not able to visit her often. The burden of care fell largely on my wife, and on me when I was in the country.

Many of her fellow-residents in the care home rarely had visitors, which we found desperately sad. When we visited, we took our dog, and made the rounds of the old ladies sitting aimlessly in their armchairs.

At her funeral there were far less mourners – ourselves, a few family friends and some who knew her from the local church. The wake, such as it was, consisted of light refreshments in the church after the visit to the crematorium.

Two very different endings to life. I’m not saying either was typical of the countries in which they took place, and it would be wrong to draw conclusions from them about the cultures of England and Ireland. Blaithín lived her life in a country town. My mother in a city. A couple of years ago, a close friend died in rural Essex, and his funeral was similar to Blaithín’s. No doubt some urban funerals in Ireland would resemble my mother’s.

There are not many upsides to death, unless it serves to release us from pain and suffering. Yet at the funeral of someone who has lived to old age, we console each other with the thought that they lived a full life and a good one, even if in some cases – though not in Blaithín’s – they haven’t.

With her passing we, the children and in-laws, have become the next generation that will be expected to go. It’s an uneasy feeling when you realise that one of you is likely to be next. Personally, if someone came to me and gave me the choice of not knowing when I would die, or the certainty that I would live to 87, I’d take the latter, even if I might feel differently as the time approached.

Whether you leave this life quietly and hardly noticed, or your passing is accompanied by a cast of thousands, as long as you live your full span, then your loved ones should be grateful that you were so privileged, when others in the past and still today are cut down before their time by untreatable disease, war and the capricious intervention of accidents.

If Blaithín’s funeral followed time-honoured traditions, so did her death – surrounded by people who loved her and cared deeply for her. What more could you ask for?

Rooting out the pussy-grabbers – are we heading for cultural chemotherapy?

The shame-storm is turning into a hurricane, as we knew it would. Everywhere we look, women, and sometimes men, are stepping out to accuse the great and the good of acts that sit somewhere on a scale between inappropriate and illegal.

In my previous post on this subject, I wondered whether, after a crescendo of exposures, abuse allegations would die down because they would no longer be newsworthy, and the powerful would return to doing what they’ve always done:

“Does it fade away when the media loses interest in the outing of a never-ending trail of well-known miscreants from politics and show business – rather like an epidemic that runs its course because the most vulnerable are dead?”

But what if it doesn’t fade away? What if the torrent of disgrace and retribution ends up not as an epidemic, but as a kind of cultural chemotherapy, wherein to root out a cancer we almost kill the patient?

Western democracies tend to respond to outbreaks of perceived wrong-doing by taking preventive action. Public opinion, stoked up by the traditional and social media, screams out that “something must be done”. Governments, if they wish to remain in power, respond with new laws. Organisations, afraid of law suits and reputational damage, adopt codes, rules, charters and values statements.

There seem to be three streams at play here. The first is paedophilia. The second is what once upon a time used to be called sexual harassment. And the third is sexual assault, with rape at the end of the spectrum.

Governments have been very active over the past thirty years in dealing with child abuse. When I was growing up, paedophilia was a dirty little secret that didn’t generate many headlines. That doesn’t mean that it was any less prevalent then than now. It just wasn’t newsworthy.

The exposure of paedophile rings, the misdeeds of Catholic clergy and latterly online child porn and sex trafficking have made it impossible to ignore behaviour that took place with impunity for centuries. Our social antennae have never been more finely tuned to detect activities and attitudes that might indicate an unhealthy interest by adults in children.

As for sexual harassment, which in common understanding can mean anything from wolf whistles on the street to innuendo in the workplace, behaviour that in the sixties and seventies might have been the stuff of sitcoms has become grounds for constructive dismissal. Woe betide the dinosaur male boss who complements his female secretary on her fabulous hair, her figure-hugging dress or even her shoes.

And then we have sexual assault. What, when I was a student in the seventies, might have been laughed off as a clumsy pass by an inexperienced teenager during fresher’s week has become grounds for a criminal investigation. A drunken one-night stand carries the risk for a male participant of years in prison for rape.

And finally, the powerful, who know exactly what they’re doing, are being called to account.

Different times, different moral standards? Yes and no. The Summer of Love didn’t change everybody’s attitude towards sexual behaviour. Just as it’s foolish to generalise through the eyes of the English-speaking world, it’s equally invalid to make sweeping assumptions from the perspective of university-educated baby boomers and Gen-Xers.

But much has changed. Some schools have adopted a “no-touch” policy, even to the point of prohibiting teachers from consoling injured or emotionally distraught students in ways that come naturally to all human beings. Others prohibit photos of their students at school events for fear that the pictures will fall into the hands of paedophiles.

Universities have drawn up codes of engagement between students to ensure the consent of both parties before they move beyond each stage of sexual activity. And the other day, a British police force tweeted that bumping into someone under the Christmas mistletoe could be construed as rape.

Are we now reaching the point at which men are assumed by society to be child abusers, sexual predators and potential rapists unless they can prove otherwise? And, acting on that assumption, will society take protective measures that will radically change the way men and women interact with each other at work, in public spaces and even at home?

There will be many people, especially the recipients of unwanted attention from the likes of Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey who might say “bring it on”.

But let’s for a moment consider where this might go.

If we see a child weeping inconsolably, will we be forbidden from putting an arm round them? Instead, will we have to call its mother – not its father, who might be a paedophile – and leave the child weeping until she arrives?

Are we are witnessing a change in western culture wherein any act of touching in the workplace between peers or by those with power is prohibited because it might be sexual? In which every boss is assumed to be a sexual predator unless proven innocent? In which every family friend is a paedophile unless proven innocent?

Do we have to redesign workplaces so that there are no private spaces where men can masturbate in front of their female assistants, or put their hands up their skirts, without being seen by others?

Will CCTV become even more pervasive, including in hotels, offices and public lavatories, or drones, as in Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle, watching for our every misstep?

Will our employee handbooks tell us that we must follow Mike Pence’s rule never to sit down one-to-one with a woman who is not our wife?

Will we have to ask permission to hug a colleague of the opposite sex? Will we even be allowed to offer to hug them, given that that could be interpreted as sexual harassment?

Will employers be required to ask their employees to sign a code of conduct that includes behaviour away from the workplace, whether or not that behaviour is in the course of work?

Will it still be OK for footballers and ice-hockey players to brawl in front of thousands of people, where that behaviour outside a pub would lead them to court? Will it still be OK for them to hug each other, if that act is forbidden in other workplaces, and given that they would be setting a bad example to young fans?

And lastly, whose job will it be to police all this stuff, when the police themselves have their work cut out investigating murder, rape and terrorism? Public morality committees? Corporate morality commissars? Self-appointed vigilantes? Who will bring consistency to all this watching and informing? Who will bring consistency to punishment? How will the innocent be protected when society judges them to be guilty before they are given the opportunity to defend themselves?

I’m not saying all these scenarios will come to pass. But they might. I’m worried that we might end up in a society in which people are afraid to touch, afraid to engage as man and woman, man and man or whatever. And in which those who wish to break the rules of engagement do so in murky places where surveillance and policing is impossible.

All the while, at the cinema, on TV and via our smartphones, we can watch the very behaviour that society seeks to stamp out – rape, murder, abuse of all kinds. And our kids grow up believing that the interactions of porn stars are models for sexual relations.

I worry that in this new society we seem to be building, rules will leave no space for common sense. That people’s behaviour will be dictated by fear of punishment and an assessment of what they can get away with, rather than by a commonly accepted sense of right and wrong.

I also find it ironic that we in the West, who think we know so much better than the Muslim world, appear to be moving towards cultural norms more common in the Middle East, where physical contact between men and women who are not related is often taboo, to the extent that there are many women who reluctant even to shake hands with men outside their families.

If this is where we’re heading, let’s understand what we’re doing. Let’s not drift into it.

Or how about we accept that we live in an imperfect world, in which imperfect acts have been carried out ever since we came down from the trees? That we have laws that forbid us from going beyond existing societal norms. And that when norms change, laws usually follow.

That we recognise that there’s a line to be crossed, and that no matter who crosses it – President, Congressman, Member of Parliament, actor, teacher or garbage collector, gay or straight, transgender or intersex, the consequences will be the same: disgrace in one form or another. That line might move forwards, backwards or sideways as each generation succeeds the previous one, but it will always be underpinned by one fundamental principle: respect for the individual.

And in this imperfect world, we should also understand that not everybody recognises the same lines. The voters of Alabama and Donald Trump, for different reasons, might rejoice if an alleged paedophile is elected as a United States Senator. But it’s up to us to condemn or condone.

If, on the other hand, we need protecting from ourselves, perhaps we should find a way to ban alcohol and pornography, and make it illegal to show movies that include rape, murder and other sexually motivated behaviour. Fat chance.

If the law is only partially effective in providing us with red lines, what else will? Religion? Which religion? And if we opt for religion, is it reasonable that non-believers should be expected to conform to the ordinances of scriptures, divinely inspired but interpreted by humans, sometimes centuries ago? Or do we adopt principles based on humanism, which has no authority beyond shared values?

If in a pluralistic society we believe that we should not be subject to the rules of religion, but seek shared values that transcend individual faith, what are those shared values? If we can find them, are they the same as common sense?

These are all questions I will leave to those who are wiser than me – though not, God help us, to politicians, who seem incapable these days of reaching out beyond their ideologies and personal employment prospects.

If we must embark on a course of cultural chemotherapy, let’s do what we can to make sure that the patient doesn’t end up fearful, confused and permanently weakened.

Saudi Arabia: “What should Mohammed bin Salman do?” Good question….

Over the past couple of months both the mainstream and the social media have abounded with material about Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his foreign policy and the domestic reforms he has launched. Some has been supportive, but by no means all.

I’ve very rarely seen an article in the New York Times met with such scorn and derision on the social media as Thomas Friedman’s recent piece about the crown prince, also known as MbS.

Most of the comments on the article focus on MbS’s intolerance of dissent, his country’s blockade of Qatar and his pursuit of a war in Yemen that has left disease, starvation and thousands of casualties in its wake. But the quotation from Friedman’s interview that seems to have exercised most people has been his comparison of Iran’s Supreme Leader with Hitler.

In MbS’s defence, I suspect his comment about Iran was more about territorial encroachment than any genocidal intent by the Iranian regime. But as soon as you press the Hitler button you unleash all manner of reaction.

As for the interview itself, Friedman is widely accused of writing an apologia for MbS, or, in the words of one tweet, delivering a warm french kiss to the crown prince. Here are a few comments to be found on Twitter on publication day:

Whatever you think about the article, and Friedman’s journalism in general – this is a man, by the way, who has won three Pulitzer Prizes – the question that critics are failing to ask was simply put in a tweet by Blake Hounshell, editor of the US journal Politico:

Very good question, and worth exploring.

Before we go into that, we should probably ask what King Salman should have done. After all he, not Mohammed bin Salman, is the king. Should he have ditched King Abdullah’s “continuity candidate” Prince Muqrin as crown prince on acceding to the throne? As far as anyone can tell, Muqrin, Salman’s half-brother, would most probably have represented a “business as usual” faction within the royal family. Under his rule, Saudi Arabia might have continued on Abdullah’s path, reactive rather than proactive.

But would the stability that yet another son of Abdulaziz might have delivered have survived the economic sclerosis that has set in over the past twenty years, and has been exacerbated by the decline in oil prices over the past three? How would the continuity faction have dealt with Iran’s perceived encirclement of the country? Perhaps not with a full-scale war in Yemen, but surely by continuing to sponsor proxy wars elsewhere.

Instead, Salman promoted Mohammed bin Naif, his nephew, to crown prince. MbN, as he is known, was a highly respected Minister of the Interior who led an effective anti-terrorism effort against Al-Qaeda in the mid-2000s. He was liked by Barack Obama’s foreign policy team, and again seen as someone who would not rock the boat.

But Salman didn’t just promote MbN. He put MbS, one of his younger sons, into the line of succession, and gave him a host of powers that gradually eroded MbN’s position. Eventually MbS supplanted MbN as crown prince, which leads us to where we are today.

Apart from dynastic considerations, what were Salman’s reasons? Most likely MbS convinced his father that business as usual was not an option. Had things continued in the usual Saudi way, senior princes from the various al-Saud clans – sons of Fahad, Abdullah, Naif and Sultan – would have continued to occupy the critical ministries. Consensus would have continued to be the order of the day. And consensus, Salman and his son would have calculated, gets in the way of rapid and decisive action.

Would MbN have gone into Yemen? Probably not. Would he have commissioned a 2030 Vision? Perhaps. Would he have locked up his cousins? Probably not.

Would Muqrin or MbN have declared that the Kingdom is committed to a “moderate Islam”, and moved against the conservative faction, including the religious police? Almost certainly not. His father and predecessor as Minister of the Interior, Naif bin Abdulaziz, was a noted religious conservative.

All speculation of course. But we can be sure that neither of Salman’s designated successors before he elevated his son would have undertaken such a radical set of measures both without and within his kingdom. If they resembled their predecessors in any respect, it was in aversion to risk.

So we are where we are. Let’s now look at two aspects of the way forward for Mohammed bin Salman and his father: what the West would want, and what the Saudis want.

Neither are clear-cut. The West is not a political monolith, but politicians from America to Japan would probably agree that the one thing they want from Saudi Arabia is to have a stable and reliable ally – one that will not descend into chaos like Iraq and Syria, that will not pivot towards Russia and China, and probably one that will act as a reliable counterweight to Iran.

If we translate that desire into potential political outcomes that might arise out of the current turmoil, lets look at three scenarios, and the risks that might upset the applecart as far as the West is concerned.

  1. Democracy: a high level of power devolved from the royal family to an elected assembly that has the power to make laws – probably subject to the veto of the King. Potential risks: tribal factionalism, sectarian unrest and salafi control of the assembly. Interference by Iran in electoral processes.
  2. Authoritarian rule: with social liberties, as in the UAE, curbs on corruption, curbs on religious extremism, clampdown on dissent across the spectrum. Potential risks: passive resistance on the part of the disenfranchised – particularly the religious establishment – leading to active insurgency. Resentment among the marginalised factions within the royal family, especially those who have been targeted in the recent anti-corruption drive, and those who maintain close links with their former military fiefdoms.
  3. Status quo ante: glacial change, oligarchic rule, widespread corruption, continued funding of salafi ideology, and from the West’s point of view, “they may be bastards, but at least they’re our bastards”. Potential risks: frustration among the middle class at their declining income. Frustration among western-educated technocrats at the slow pace of change and their lack of ability to find meaningful roles within government and business. Continued frustration among educated women at their lack of social freedoms.

What most governments in the West would probably want is somewhere between 2 and 3, while publicly supporting 1. Remember, they prize stability over all other things, including human rights, freedom of expression and – whatever the neoconservatives might say – over democratic government.

Now let’s look at the Saudis themselves. After all, it’s their country.

Here again, the picture is fragmented. The country is not a monolith. There is a wide range of opinion across different segments of society: generational, geographic and economic.

The first point to make is that the vast majority of Saudis do not want social and political chaos. They are only too aware of the consequences of instability. They see it in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. A minority, however, believe that it will only be through massive disruption of the status quo that they will achieve the state they desire. Saudi Arabia was one of the largest contributors of foreign fighters to ISIS. The sentiment that led those people to fight in Syria and Iraq has not gone away with the demise of ISIS as a proto-state. What the West calls the extremist salafis will be biding their time for an opportunity to turn Saudi Arabia into an Islamic state – and possibly an Islamic republic.

How do other Saudis view Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms?

What follows is an educated guess. It can be no more than that, because there is no formal method of measuring opinion across the country, let alone within individual demographic components.

As for my qualification to make such guesses, I’m not a journalist like Friedman and others who are currently offering opinions within and outside the Kingdom. But over the past ten years I have met hundreds of Saudis – doctors, students, academics, and young professionals (Taxi drivers? No – hardly any of them are Saudi!). I haven’t deliberately sought to talk politics with these people, but some have done so of their own volition. I’ve probably spent more time in Saudi Arabia – and not just in Riyadh – during the decade than any foreign journalist who is not based in the country.

For some collateral on my experience, search this blog for two series of articles: Postcard from Saudi Arabia, and currently, RetroSaudi, which offers a series of comparisons between the country of today and how I saw it thirty years ago.

So here’s a broad-brush view, based on my experience and observation, of the support, or otherwise, of the Crown Prince’s domestic initiatives.

This table shows what I consider to be the likely spread of opinion by geographical region.

Next, here’s a breakdown of attitudes by age group:

And finally, by economic status:

Jeddah, the Kingdom’s second-largest city, has always been more cosmopolitan than the rest of the country. As a port city and the traditional gateway to the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah, it has been open to more foreign influences and cultures than any other conurbation.

I have not included Mecca and Madinah in this table because I simply know too little of them to hazard as guess. As a non-Muslim I’ve never been allowed to enter either city. Historically, Mecca was never the heartland of the Wahabi movement. Like Jeddah, it’s a multi-ethnic city that welcomes all shades of Islam to the annual pilgrimage. Madinah, on the other hand, was the Prophet’s chosen city. Would Mecca be more open to MbS’s religious reforms? Possibly, but I’ll defer to others who know better than me.

The central region of Saudi Arabia is probably the most conservative area of all. The cities of Hail and Qassim have long been where you will find the sort of traditional social and cultural attitudes most commonly associated with the Kingdom. Heavily tribal, socially conservative, family-oriented and strongly supportive of the religious practice that MbS has undertaken to modify. Many of the influential religious preachers come from the area, and it has been a rich source of recruitment for Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Riyadh has also been part of the conservative heartland, but its population has grown rapidly over the past twenty years. Many of the younger people, especially the women, are challenging the conservatism of their parents. The government has spent huge amounts on tertiary education, both within the country (and especially in Riyadh) and on scholarship programmes for foreign study. The young people of the capital have been beneficiaries of that expenditure, and I believe their attitudes have led many to embrace MbS’s reforms. But there is still a strongly-entrenched conservatism, especially among the older generation, that acts as a counterweight.

The East of the country includes the communities built up around Saudi Aramco. By and large, they are likely to support most of the reforms, especially the Vision 2030. The picture here, however, is complicated by the sectarian dynamic. The majority of Saudi Arabia’s minority Shia population live in the Eastern Province. While they might be in favour of the economic reforms, would they be strong supporters of “moderate Islam”? I suspect that many will be wondering if they will be beneficiaries of the new spirit of pluralism. After all, the government has long suspected them of being a fifth column for their fellow-Shia in Iran.

There is no inherent reason why the Shia should not be brought in from the cold. I have been to cities such as Al-Hasa, where Sunni and Shia co-exist quite amicably. But it will take a concerted effort by the government to overcome decades of what the Shia consider discrimination, suspicion and sometimes outright persecution.

Other parts of the Kingdom that I have not included in the tables include Asir, in the South-West. Like central Saudi Arabia, the region is innately conservative, but it has a distinct culture, and a tradition of religious plurality. If any region stands to gain from Vision 2030, it’s the Asir, which is poorer and less developed than other areas.

Finally, to the question posed by Blake Hounshell: what should Mohammed bin Salman do?

On the international front, three things.

First, he needs to find a way to end the Yemen conflict. It is causing Saudi Arabia massive reputational damage and is draining the treasury. Admittedly, this is easier said than done. He needs help from the international community to achieve this. But at the very least, he must alleviate the suffering of the Yemenis by allowing food and medicines without putting up insoluble bureaucratic roadblocks.

Second, he needs to make his peace with Qatar. The dispute is getting in the way of any concerted action he wishes to bring against Islamist insurgencies, and is enabling neighbouring actors to exploit the division in their interests, not necessary Saudi Arabia’s.

Third, if he really believes in “moderate Islam”, he should cut off funding and support for salafi propagation in other countries. That means funding for textbooks, literature and imams, especially when they espouse extremist sentiments at odds with the yet-to-be defined moderation he supports.

Domestically, Mohammed bin Salman has been receiving unsolicited advice from just about anyone who thinks they know anything about his country (including me). Based on my own experience, I’ll address in detail one critical long-term improvement that the Kingdom urgently needs. And that’s the secondary school system.

I’m not about to suggest that the schools need less religious instruction and more of other subjects. They probably do, but for me, they first need to focus on five key areas:

Critical thinking skills – particularly the ability to deal with manipulation via the social media

Career guidance – expert advice on how to choose a career rather than take “any job”

Citizenship skills – understanding responsibilities and obligations of adulthood, including money management

Preparation for work – understanding CV preparation, interview skills, the work ethic, employers’ expectations

Soft skills – including communications and emotional intelligence

Getting the kids into satisfying, reasonably paid and sustainable work is – hand-in-hand with a strong economy – one the surest guarantors of the long-term social stability of the country.

I also believe that he should focus on rapprochement with the Shia minority. That means investment in infrastructure and businesses, and bringing more Shia leaders into political institutions such as the Shura Council. A good start would be to commute the death sentences hanging over a number of people arrested during the recent disturbances in the east.

Other commentators are urging a number of actions – for example abolition of the female guardianship laws and improved judicial due process, particularly for corruption cases. They’re right to do so.

Finally, one can understand MbS’s thinking in locking up critics, and anyone who he thinks might be a critic. But he needs to realise that it’s not a viable long-term option for preventing dissent. There also needs to be dialogue and reconciliation, especially with members of his own family.

I have written this rather long piece not because I have any need to curry favour with MbS and his government. My days of visiting Saudi Arabia are probably over. But I do want Saudi Arabia to succeed, for no greater reason than that I still have many friends there. I may well be wrong on my assessment of the Crown Prince’s support within the country, and would be happy to be corrected by those who know better than me.

And for those who are lining up to criticise the current reform programme, I will end by quoting the words of Joni Mitchell:

“Don’t it always seem to go / that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

RetroSaudi: The British

T E LawrenceIn my last RetroSaudi piece, I shared my thoughts from thirty years ago about the Americans I encountered in Saudi Arabia. I wasn’t very kind at the time, but looking back, my views have changed.

This time it’s the turn of the British, who probably exceeded the Americans in the size of their population in the Kingdom at the time. I always thought that my fellow British expatriates were far from representative of the UK as a whole. In fact, I used to say that if they were allowed to vote an MP to Parliament, they would be the only constituency to return a candidate for the National Front, which was the far-right party of the time.

Here’s what I had to say at the time.

Then (1987):

The British influence in Saudi Arabia is strong. Not a strong as that of the US, of course. We British failed to pursue the oil concession we negotiated before the Americans came on the scene. A missed opportunity almost on a par with the record company that failed to sign the Beatles.

As a result we lost a long-term source of income that could have replaced our fast-declining colonial revenue.

The Saudis have always had a soft spot for us. Maybe it’s because we invaded, occupied, colonised, “protected” or imposed political settlements upon just about everybody else in the region over the past hundred and fifty years, but had the decency to leave most of the settlements that now comprise the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to their own devices, or to those of their Ottoman overlords.

If that’s why they’re fond of us, they’re conveniently forgetting that we left the Arabian interior alone because it wasn’t worth interfering with. The ancient Romans felt much the same way about Ireland.

So the Saudis buy our Rolls Royces, Jaguars and Range Rovers, as well as other less glamorous products that we still have the wit to export. But more than anything else they buy, or they think they buy, our expertise. Often enough they get the expertise they pay for. We do have some clever and capable Brits working here, despite our airs and graces that our hosts find rather comical.

We tend to blend into the local environment a little better than our American cousins. Whereas they try to create little Americas wherever they go, you’ll more often find us living outside the walled compounds beloved of the Yanks. Many of us have apartments and villas in ordinary streets, next to Saudi neighbours and within full blasting range of the loudspeakers coming at us from mosques on every street.

If we can afford it, my fellow Brits like to go sailing with their families every weekend, or to set off through the desert in search of little-known beaches miles away. If we get lost, we amuse the Bedouin with our garbled Arabic, perhaps opening with “Salam aleikum. El Orents, my grandfather”, in the hope that our new friends will also have grandparents with fond memories of Lawrence of Arabia.

Shuaiba 1987

When we find the place we’re looking for, we pitch our tents, hit golf balls through the sand and organise a Scrabble competition. We swim, cut our feet on the coral, and spend the night fending off millions of curious crabs, claws clicking, that try and get into our tents.

Shuaiba 1987

Those of us who don’t have families with them get into more traditional pursuits: soccer, darts and the occasional booze-up with home-made intoxicants that sometimes cause the drinker to lose the use of one side of his face for several days after. Life can be hard without female company, and these are often the same people who get extremely drunk on flights home, and spend much of their time trying to grope the long-suffering air stewardesses.

Upstanding Brits (definitely not gropers!) Jeddah 1987

Some British families talk endlessly about property and investments. The future is everything, sometimes at the expense of the present. They dream of thatched cottages, cricket by the village green and other vanishing symbols of a long-gone age that they never knew. It’s only when they buy their cottages that they notice juggernauts rolling past their front doors like battalions of tanks on Salisbury Plain.

Others never make it home. I know of one guy who worked away from his family for thirty years, sent all his money home, educated his kids and provided them with a comfortable home. On his way to the airport for his final flight home, the poor chap had a heart attack and died.

Which suggests a lesson for all workers in a foreign land: make the most of the life you live. You may never get to enjoy your hacienda on the hill.

Now (2017):

What’s changed? In those days there were thousands of westerners across Saudi Arabia. Now, not nearly so many. The Saudis soon realised that they could buy their expertise from much less expensive sources. That process accelerated with the end of the cold war, when the Kingdom established diplomatic relations with former Soviet Bloc countries, while at the same time countries considered then as third world upped their education systems and started producing bankers, engineers and technicians with skills just as good as those of the pampered westerners.

We Brits have continued to sell stuff to the Saudis, most notably endless consignments of weapons, war-planes, jet engines and other high value technology. With them came the people to install and maintain them. But by and large, Brits who are not holding down executive roles are harder to find.

There is one curious remnant of the past. For all the diverse sources of expertise available to the Saudis today – including large numbers of their own people who have returned from expensive degree courses in America, Britain and other western countries – many Saudi businesses value the presence of the token khawaja – the slightly derogatory term used in Egypt for westerner – often an American or a Brit of advanced years, who can deliver words of wisdom in meetings and sales presentations.

I know this, because I have served as that khawaja on occasions. Not, I assure you, because of my expertise, but because my age and nationality brings an implied credibility. Of course if I was incapable of playing the part and adding some value to the proceedings I would have been out on my ear shortly thereafter.

But I think it’s sad that so many Saudi businesspeople feel that they have to rely on people like me. They have plenty of talent within their own ranks and ought to have the confidence to rely on it more. Perhaps in the shiny new era of Prince Mohammed bin Salman this will change. Otherwise, what has been the point in spending billions of dollars on sending hundreds of thousands of young people to be educated abroad?

I suppose one of the problems the Saudis have always had with their foreign labour, including the Brits, has been that knowledge is power. Whoever can keep their knowledge to themselves has a better chance of keeping their job than if they pass it to others.

Back in 1987, my Saudi boss gathered all his western managers together, including me, and told us that those of us who were best at eliminating our jobs by passing on our expertise would be the ones who would be with them the longest.

Perhaps Mohammed bin Salman would be wise to send that message to the millions of foreign workers who still ply their trade in the country. For Saudi Arabia to become more self-reliant in labour is surely the element in his reforms that he cannot allow to fail, and yet has been an objective that has eluded all his predecessors.

RetroSaudi: The Americans

King Abdulaziz meets President Roosevelt

Since today is Thanksgiving, I think it’s appropriate to continue my RetroSaudi series with the words I wrote thirty years ago about my American colleagues in Saudi Arabia. There’s one problem. I wasn’t very kind to them.

I don’t often post stuff I’m subsequently ashamed of, let alone ashamed of before I post it. So I’m a bit squeamish about what follows. On the other hand, authenticity rules, so I’m sharing the thoughts of my younger self anyway.

Then (1987)

Ah yes. Well. Ah. Well I’m British, so I supposed I’m biased. I don’t wasn’t to go into observations about Americans in Saudi Arabia that might seem cliched, but I probably will. I like many of the Americans I’ve met here. But I’ve had to forgive them for many things.

For slip-roads and left-hand drive; for thinking they founded Saudi Arabia; for thinking the world owes them a living; for sending back US-educated Saudis who sound like Texans; for using long words when short ones suffice, and teaching the Saudis to do the same; for interminable and impenetrable acronyms; for being so aggressively ignorant of their host country, or so cloyingly curious about the things that aren’t important; for forcing me to change my spelling; for being so maddeningly hierarchy-conscious; for their blustering salesmen who promise more than they deliver.

I do thank them for a few things. For mistaking education for talent (in my case); for some rewarding friendships; for the fast food outlets they franchised in Saudi Arabia; for the strength of the US dollar; and for employing me in the first place.

All that said, my most serious reservations about the Americans I have come across in my work has been about their management capability. I admit that my workplace is perhaps not typical of all US operations in the country. Many, if not most of the managers are ex-armed forces. They’re either gung-ho Robert Duvall officer types straight out of Apocalypse Now (as in “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”), or they’re favour-trading Sergeant Bilko types.

Few of them would last five minutes as managers in their home country. If they did, the USA would rank just above Paraguay in terms of national dynamism. By and large, the American managers I’ve encountered are lazy, incompetent and complacent, or any combination thereof. I get the overwhelming impression that they’re in Saudi Arabia for an easy life, and as a means of topping up their military pensions.

Why? Could it be because the US military’s confidence-sapping reverses from the Vietnam War onwards spawned a generation of shell-shocked incompetents among the officer class? Could this be the reason why so many of the Pentagon’s new toys have failed to perform to expectations?

For whatever reason, as far as I can tell, America has sent very little of its managerial talent to Saudi Arabia. Short-sighted or smart? Only time will tell.

Now (2017):

Oh dear. In fact, ouch. Looking back, I accept that I was very harsh in my assessment. At the time when I wrote that piece, the American company I nominally worked for was being battered one way the next by a young Saudi manager who was intent on wresting operational control of his department from the contractor.

Relations became so strained that many of the Saudis referred to the US program manager, whose surname was Calp, as Ibn Kalb, which Arabic speakers will recognise as meaning “son of a dog”.

So the Americans thought they were in charge, and so did the young Saudi. He had more leadership ability in his little finger than most of his adversaries, so he won the battle, and every prerogative he seized from them they gave up with bad grace. I became a manager at his request, and worked directly for him. Perhaps my perception was coloured by that experience.

Looking back, I can see that I was hopelessly one-eyed. Of course there were some outstanding American managers in the country at the time, especially with Aramco, the national oil company. And many of the UN advisors I worked with were both wise and deft politicians, who were highly respected by the Saudis.

And as we now know, many of the junior officers who went through Vietnam are now the thoughtful, erudite generals like Mattis and McMaster who surround Donald Trump, and hopefully in extremis will save us all from him.

I also met some real characters. Guys like Tex Tutas, who stuck cattle horns on the bonnet of his truck, and whose favourite saying was “let’s get the hell out of here before they sell the car” in the manner of John Wayne. And Leroy Kelly, who taught me to cut out the multi-syllabic bull I used to write, and introduced me to the Fog Index.

Then there were also the wondrously talented Americans I worked with on theatre productions. Many of these people were English teachers, yet their acting and their musical abilities transformed many of the shows we worked on to a level that wouldn’t have been out of place in the professional theatre.

Many of them subsequently died of AIDS, but anyone who was in Jeddah at the time would fondly remember the likes of Paul Jones and Dick Hollenbaugh, who are no longer with us, and Ron Daugherty and David Frontin, who hopefully are.

Rubbing shoulders with so many different types of American, from dour, ass-covering ex-NCOs to exuberant actors and musicians was an education that prepared me for the next thirty years, during which in my business life I’ve had many dealings across the pond. And one of two of those I met in the 80’s are still friends today.

So here’s to you America. Happy Thanksgiving, and may you flourish again once you’ve expunged Donald Trump from your national stage.

Sorry, couldn’t resist that.

This post is dedicated to the good guys – Tex, Leroy, Stan Gray, Jim Gibson, Steve Smith and Ben Helms – from whom I learned much, even if I didn’t appreciate it at the time.

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