Skip to content

5G and the Internet of Things – a hidden opportunity

Boiled Eggs

I’m very reassured to learn that the US Department of Defense still uses a 1970s-vintage IBM computer and eight-inch floppy disks to run its nuclear command and control systems. Why? Because the average hacker probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a floppy disk and a hole in the ground.

As for the DoD’s IBM Series/1 computer, it’s far better that America’s nuclear defences should depend on the computing equivalent of a Ford Model T than that of a Google driverless car.

On the theme of technological golden oldies, I’m simultaneously worried and excited by the arrival of 5G mobile technology, upon which driverless cars depend for real-time positional information.

It seems that the new superfast networks will enable the Internet of Things to develop beyond the TedTalk visions of 25-year-old Steve Jobs lookalikes to systems that actually do something useful. Like remotely activating strategically-placed tasers or unleashing a robotic guard dog when your IPhone tells you your house is being burgled. Or instructing your e-cooker to prepare your no-yoke omelette (the raw materials having been pre-ordered and delivered on the instruction of your fridge) before you even rise from your bed in the morning.

This will be the perfect solution for the young Manchester United footballer who was recently reported as requesting a couple of boiled eggs from the club chef because he didn’t know how to make them at home.

Sooner or later it won’t just be Premier League superstars who can afford the Internet of Things, but all of us. The other day, we got a foretaste of things to come when we asked our daughter, who was staying the night, to move her car to a more suitable place. In order to forestall the impending strop (she had more important things to do, she claimed) we offered to move it for her. Unfortunately, cars don’t have keys these days, and we would have needed a seminar on how to start the damn thing. So we had to wait until she got round to doing it, grumbling all the way.

All of which suggests that we’re heading for a multigenerational technology crunch. The young ones don’t know how to use old technology, and the oldies struggle with the new. Twas ever thus, I guess.

But there is a silver lining, which could end up as a lifeline for technology addicts who don’t know how to do things for themselves, as well as for old farts who couldn’t be bothered with all these baffling computer-driven household innovations.

The day will inevitably come when all the devices we’ve come to rely on will suddenly stop working. Whether it’s for a few hours, days or weeks, whether it’s the result of a cyber-attack, a power black-out or some catastrophic event beyond our control, such as a massive solar storm, it will happen. We thought it might happen on January 1st 2000, but it didn’t. But sooner or later it will. If it’s later, it will be worse, because the technology addicts will have become the old farts. And then we’ll be in serious trouble.

But for the time being, there’s hope that we will come through the crisis unscathed. Because there are still people around who know how to boil an egg, drive a manual gearshift car, shop at Tesco’s, count to ten, write a letter, use a landline and read a paper book, civilisation – as we pampered westerners know it – will survive, at least for a while.

And should that moment come when the Steve Jobs lookalikes come crawling back to their parents to beg for their help, it will be an opportunity for the old farts to demand their due. They can ask for an apology for the condescending manner with which the young regard the old, with which the tech-privileged deal with the luddites, with which the smart phone users speak to those who think phones are for talking to people.

I say this with one qualification: that the tech addicts don’t come to rely on their parents for any length of time. Otherwise they’ll end up driving us crazy. Horror of horrors, they might even want to move back in with us.

So God bless the IBM System/1 and the floppy disks. As the DoD spokesperson said, they work. All the time – at least thus far. Which is more than can be said for Windows 10, my internet connection, fly-by wire aircraft, bank websites, and quite possibly in the near future, 5G.

When I grow up, I want to be a visionary

William Blake, Angel of the Revelation

When I no longer do stuff for money, I will try to do stuff for no money. Which is another way of saying that when I retire, I will continue to live. Hopefully.

Perhaps I will become a visionary, like the former owner of a business I once worked for, who describes himself thus in LinkedIn. Unfortunately for the rest of us, he doesn’t appear to share his visions widely. Knowing him as I once did, I suspect that he sees them through a wine glass, darkly.

It would be nice to join the pantheon of visionaries. I imagine myself being dragged out of my last workplace, muttering “I think I’m becoming a visionary” in the manner of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, whose last words were reported to be “I think I’m becoming a god”. Then, from my lofty perch of sagacious retirement, I could prognosticate, cogitate, regurgitate, curse the European Union and issue philosophical fatwas.

And most likely, nobody would be any more likely to listen than they do now.

If I’m not too busy doing stuff, I would also like to be a thought leader. That would be nice. Spending all day thinking without being distracted by worldly concerns. Leading whom, thinking about what, it matters not. Tending to my gigantic ego, convincing myself that I’m not just another clapped-out guy in a culture that doesn’t respect the elderly for whatever wisdom a lifetime of labour bequeaths them.

Blogging perhaps, on matters about which I know little. After all, ignorance is no reason to be opinion-free, right? Ask all the old buffers who are rattling on about how wonderful Britain would be outside the EU, for example. As if they have more of a clue than anyone else about how things might turn out.

I actually think that between the ages of sixty and eighty-five there’s a golden opportunity. You’ve come to the end of your prime working life. Even if you’re still working, your earning power is declining in direct proportion to your advancing years. But it doesn’t matter so long as you’ve made enough to meet your foreseeable needs. And if you’ve stopped “working” (a concept as ludicrous as “retirement”), the chances are that you still retain a degree of mental vigour, if not rigour. Best of all, thanks to the social media – and once upon a time I never thought I would say this – you still have a voice.

Provided your health is OK, you still have a brain that works reasonably well, so why not use it? I use eighty-five as an arbitrary line, after which you slowly descend down the slippery slope of Maslow’s Pyramid to the point where nothing is more important than to be physically comfortable, safe and well fed. To be loved and cared for is something of a bonus.

True, there are exceptions. You could still be watching bonobos at ninety, like David Attenborough, writing at ninety-seven, like Diana Athill, or, like Henry Kissinger, conferring wisdom at ninety-three upon neo-fascist presidential candidates. But most of us, I suspect, once we get close to life’s finishing tape, don’t give a damn any more. We just want a quiet life, unblighted by Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, arthritis and wheelchairs. We don’t expect to be listened to, or our opinions to be respected. At eighty-five, we’re not about to arrive at a Theory of Everything or compose a Tenth Symphony.

But provided we don’t fall over in the deadly seventh decade, like David Bowie and so many others whom we would like to have lived a little longer, once we hit sixty we can still look forward to a golden quarter-century in which to make our mark.

I have a friend who in his twenties wanted to be a successful rock musician. He never achieved that by conventional benchmarks, but probably influenced more lives as a teacher over the subsequent four decades than he ever would have done rubbing shoulders with Marc Bolan and Robert Plant. Now that he no longer “works”, he puts his heart and soul into his music. He’s all over the social media with posts about his latest stuff. He’s had voice coaching, and the jazz influence that was always there has come to the fore. He does regular open mic sessions. Even though he’s the same grumpy old git as he was in his youth, when I last saw him I got the sense that he’s more fulfilled now than ever before.

Then there’s another guy whom I haven’t met since we were in our twenties, though we’re linked on Facebook. He’s a professional cartoonist. He’s still producing superb work with the same wit and invention that he showed when I commissioned stuff from him all those years ago.

Other people I knew in my twenties are still acting, writing, gigging, doing stuff, going places.

Best of all, for me anyway, my business partner in the US is still running our business despite being well beyond the traditional retirement age. He’s as fit as someone half his age, which is possibly down to the fact that he goes to the gym every day, eats well and, alone of his colleagues, works standing up. An example that some of our more corpulent brethren (myself included) could do with emulating.

That’s not to say that, as the lifestyle columns in the print media would have it, sixty is the new forty. Utter nonsense. At forty, unless you happen to be a retired hedge fund manager, you may be at the zenith of your career, but typically you might also be fraught with worries. Maybe about your kids, the state of your marriage, about the next step in your career, about the looming realisation that your maximum earning years may soon be coming to an end. The future is no longer bursting with unlimited opportunity. It’s also full of demons and monsters.

And for some people, the years from sixty onwards are also times of anxiety and decline. Perhaps their pensions haven’t worked out as they hoped. Or maybe they’re suffering the consequences of questionable decisions, like a guy I know who chose to stay in a foreign country in order to pursue an employer against whom he won a judgement for unpaid wages fourteen years ago. He’s now living in penury, because he can’t get the court to force the employer to pay up. I can’t help thinking that if he’d quit the country and started again somewhere else, he would have more than made up the sum he lost in the intervening years.

But for those of us who have survived relatively unscathed, there really can be plenty to look forward to. A Mormon couple I met the other day are planning to spend a couple of years teaching in the Brazilian outback. Not out of religious obligation, they say, but because there’s a shortage of teachers.

As for me, I’ll keep working for money as long as there are people who want me to do so, provided I like the work and I like the people I’m working with. And if the time comes when nobody wants a visionary thought leader in their midst, I shall concentrate on extending my career as an embarrassing old fart and keep doing stuff for nothing. After all, it’s no bad thing being able to walk away with no financial consequences.

Far from believing that rot about sixty being the new forty, I have another theory. It’s that for many people, adolescence ends at fifty-nine years and eleven months. Or, to put it another way, we only truly grow up when we hit sixty. Until then, our emotional intelligence is only as good as the next crisis. We’re driven by desire and fear. We don’t feel in control of our lives, and the spoilt child is never far from the surface. Once we sense that what we see as the major life opportunities are past us – we’ve either grabbed them or walked away – the real opportunities present themselves. Opportunities to reflect, to correct mistakes that can be corrected, to look at the world without our perception being coloured by worrying about the next dollar or the next career move.

Equally importantly, we have the chance to shrink the ego to manageable proportions. Not everybody can do that. In my perception, this is the reason why some old people remain adolescent to their dying day. I might joke about having a gigantic ego. Actually mine, as all my friends know, is as small as a walnut. I might think that, by the way – you couldn’t possibly comment. For those with seriously big egos, life beyond sixty can be a real challenge.

Fortunately for the rest of us, few people at that age embark on a vanity project as colossal as Donald Trump’s. It must be tough for people who think a lot of themselves suddenly to find that theirs is a minority view. But I suspect that if he fails in November, he’ll just carry on with his business and keep blathering on about his personal greatness until there isn’t a breath left in him.

Not so easy for Louis van Gaal, who’s just been sacked by Manchester United. Though he’s been quoted as saying that this is his last job in football, it’s hard to imagine him being content with gardening and the occasional evening at the bowling alley with his mates. If he doesn’t take another job, expect that favourite last resort of high achievers, the ghosted autobiography. At least that would get him out on the road for a few book signings. And given that he’s just pocketed £4.5 million in compensation for early dismissal, he could easily resort to that other device beloved of big egos, and set up a charitable foundation under his name.

Most of us, though, have less lofty ambitions. We would just like to continue to mean something once our time as cash dispensers is over. To make a difference to our families, friends and local communities, perhaps. Or, like my new Mormon friends, to make a difference further afield.

The key word, it seems to me, is purpose. Lose your sense of purpose, and you’ve lost virtually everything. And if you’re lucky enough not to have to till the soil until you drop dead, there has never been a better time to extend your usefulness beyond your occupational sell-by date.

After all, what do you want people to see on your gravestone? “He cruised, then he cruised”?

Think about that, boys and girls of any age. Barring misfortune, it’ll be your turn someday.

Nuclear War in the Baltics – the General is Wrong

H-Bomb-Operation_Castle_-_Romeo_001

According to Sir Richard Shirreff, a recently-retired British general, there’s a fair chance that next year we will be involved in a nuclear war sparked by Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions in the Baltic. If we are not involved, we will still be caught in the economic blast that such an event would trigger. That would be the best case. The worst would be that our membership of NATO would oblige us to join in the nuke tossing.

So what are the vast majority of us who are not generals, politicians and geopolitical analysts to make of this dire warning?

Well, I suppose we could buy his novel, in which the dire scenario he envisages unfolds. That, presumably, is the reason for all his recent interviews. Though if a nuclear war breaks out, the general would be unlikely to be around to enjoy his newly-enriched retirement.

Sir Richard is wrong, for one simple reason. The dynamics that have prevented nuclear war between the superpowers (if Russia can still be given that accolade) for the past seventy years have not changed. Those who launch such a war will not benefit from its conclusion.

That’s not to say that there isn’t still a high risk of a nuclear exchange being triggered by a computer error leading to one side concluding that it’s under attack when actually it isn’t. And a regional nuclear war surely becomes more likely as current non-proliferation protocols continue to be broken by the like of North Korea.

But is Vladimir Putin mad enough to risk his nukes in an exchange with NATO? He might be, but it takes more than one madman to start a war. Even though Putin seems to have concentrated more power into his own hands than was ever vested in a Soviet leader, he still depends on his supporters and on the chain of command. All of those who have ridden on the back of Putin’s rise to power would find themselves destroyed, if not physically, then financially. It would only take one sane intervention, even if it’s motivated by instincts of self-preservation, to break the escalation chain before the big bang.

This happened during the Cuba crisis in 1962, and more recently in 1983, when a Soviet commander used his own judgement to stop the response sequence in its tracks after an alert based on a computer error. For those of you who are keen on might-have-beens, you could do worse than to read David E Hoffman’s The Dead Hand – The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race, which I reviewed here a couple of years back.

Whatever safeguards exist today to prevent an accidental war, Mutually Assured Destruction still applies. No matter that the US, Russia and probably China possess tactical nukes that can take out something smaller than a city – a ship or a tank battalion for example – any nuclear exchange would light a fuse that would be hard to extinguish.

So I for one will continue to live my life in the knowledge that tomorrow I could be knocked down by a bus, killed in a car crash or choked to death by a fish bone. And that any of those outcomes would be far more likely than to end up as a bunch of disassociated molecules in a mushroom cloud.

Should the general be right, sadly he would be unlikely to be in a position to tell us that he told us so.

My plan for American Airlines – a solution to many problems, including Mr Trump

American Airlines

Last week I put my heart and soul into trying to persuade America to step away from Donald Trump. Obviously Trump isn’t going anywhere – at least, not yet – so I’m done with pretty please.

It’s time to say a few words about America’s leading airline. Notice that I didn’t say favourite. British Airways adopted that accolade for themselves, and, in a singularly un-British act of immodesty, applied it to the world. They never were and probably never will be the world’s favourite. But at least they’re trying. Which, sadly, is more than can be said about American Airlines.

Usually, when I fly to America, I travel with BA. I’m the proud owner of a frequent flyer card that lets me use the business check-in even when I’m in economy. I also get to enjoy the bacon rolls and fresh fruit for breakfast in their Galleries lounge. Just occasionally I might get an upgrade without paying a fortune in air miles for it. And best of all, I get to use Heathrow’s wonderful Terminal Five, which is only a few minutes away from home and has seriously got its act together after its initial teething problems.

Unfortunately, not all routes to the USA are operated by BA. Some are the exclusive preserve of American, BA’s OneWorld partner. “Exclusive preserve” is obviously a phrase beloved of Mr Trump, who would like to turn his country into one. Anyway, more of him later.

So yesterday, I was obliged to fly out of Terminal Three, which is where American has its perch. I showed up at the AA Premium check-in, an enclave to the side of the terminal that is reserved for First and Business passengers. I kind of assumed that my BA card would allow me to check in there. It was packed. There were two people serving around twenty high-status passengers, and each passenger was taking at least five minutes to get their boarding cards. When you fly to America, you get asked all sort of questions, such as why are you flying? Business, pleasure, nefarious activity? Where are you staying? Your grandfather’s inside leg measurement?

So I did the math. Twenty divided by two times five equals a wait of at least fifty minutes. I checked with the guy standing beside the line and discovered that my card didn’t enable me to check in there anyway. He suggested I join the economy line. To hell with that, I thought, and toddled off to the “Priority” line just inside the main terminal. There I found a line with ten people and two check-in agents. And twenty minutes later I was done, wondering at AA’s strange world, in which those who are First will be last. Then I saw the seething masses up at economy in a snaking line that wouldn’t have been out of place in Ellis Island circa 1910. And then I thanked the deity of aviation, or rather my wife, who is so good at sorting these things, for my little silver card.

After a pleasant hour with bacon rolls and raisin swirls, I boarded the plane. That was when I received the first and only smile from a member of the cabin crew in the whole flight.

Now one of the things you notice in many of the established airlines in the West, BA included, is the relative, shall we say, maturity, of the crew. This is fine on one level, because in an emergency you don’t want to be in the hands of a flock of twentysomethings running around like headless chickens. On the other hand, you don’t want your exit blocked by a sumo wrestler. Yes, that’s an exaggeration, and I’m not suggesting that all the crew were a tad large. But several of them were not small. And most probably not exactly fleet of foot.

Which again is fine. I know several ladies of a certain age who would make excellent cabin crew. They’re motherly, jolly, sometimes a little rotund, caring and excellent communicators. Rather like the average BA crew member.

Not this lot. It grieves me to say this, but I’ve rarely encountered a more stone-faced bunch of attendants on any light – admitting at this stage that I’ve never flown with Aeroflot. From the evidence before me, I would say that American Airlines has a serious staff morale problem.

Fundamentally, these ladies (there were no men to be seen – presumably they were hiding behind their female colleagues) didn’t appear to enjoy what they did, and made no effort to disguise the fact. We, the passengers, were clearly an inconvenience. And they seemed to have been trained in the Trump school of monosyllabics. As witness this conversation, which took place more than once after a strenuous effort to establish eye contact with the owner of a passing trolley:

Her: “Any drinks?”

Me: “Yes please, coffee.”

Her: “Milk and sugar?”

Me: “Yes please.”

(Coffee duly deposited)

Me: “Thank you.”

Her: “Uh huh.”

The final acknowledgement of my thanks was delivered with that characteristic upward inflection that sounds like a question but comes over as a sneer. And that was that. No smile, no conversational grace notes. No grace. And it wasn’t as if they were exceptionally busy. The flight was two-thirds full.

As for the aircraft, it must have been more than twenty years old. A Boeing 767 with overhead video screens, showing apologies for movies that everyone around me watched with vacant expressions.

The seats, on the other hand, seemed relatively new. They were different to those I’ve encountered on AA before. And yes, you guessed it, different doesn’t mean better. It means smaller. Time was when a redeeming feature of an American Airways flight was that even in economy, the seat pitch and width easily accommodated those with a more ample frame and longer legs than the average human. Sadly, not any more.

The food was OK, though miles behind BA’s offerings and light years behind the kind of stuff you get on the newer airlines like Emirates and Qatar. I did enjoy the mid-flight chocolate ice cream, even though it came frozen close to absolute zero, and took a good twenty minutes to consume. In its initial form it would have made a very effective offensive weapon.

No matter. The flight arrived on time. I managed to avoid all but snippets of the in-flight movies – a ghastly rom-com and a cheesy pre-teen kung fu love story – by sleeping through much of the journey.

As I stepped out of the aircraft past the grunting cabin crew, I reflected on the experience. Was I being unkind? After all, it was a bit of a miracle that American was still around after its bankruptcy. And who was I to complain when coming to a country that has always regarded air travel as akin to travelling on a bus?

But then I remembered that one of many things America has taught the world is the art of customer service. While it’s true that in a restaurant the cheery demeanour you usually encounter is specifically engineered to extract the maximum tip, it’s still more pleasant to be greeted by service with a smile rather than a scowl.

Of course, cabin crew on airlines don’t get tips. But neither do hotel receptionists and shop assistants, and they still manage to put on a good show. Like the cheery assistant in North Carolina who once asked me “whereabouts in England is Paris?”.

And finally it occurred to me. The answer to a number of problems.

Should Donald Trump fall at the final hurdle, perhaps he should expend his titanic energy on an equally worthy project. A project almost as tough as running America. He should spend his billions on buying American Airlines.

No doubt he would rename it TrumpAir. But a resurgent airline rebuilt in his image would surely be a wonder to behold.

No Mexicans running around the cabin imposing a mile-high experience on unwilling passengers. No expulsion of people speaking strange languages to their relatives in Baghdad before take-off. No need for cabin crew to have to tell the difference between written Arabic and an algebraic formula. No flights to and from South America, China and the Middle East. In fact, no Mexicans, Chinese and Muslims allowed on Trumpair flights in the first place, so no need for those tedious interrogations at check-in.

The cabin crew could wear their surliness as a badge of honour. Every so often, The Donald – like Richard Branson on steroids – could appear on one of his flights (emerging from Seat 1A, naturally) and progress down the aisle to rapturous applause from the exclusively Caucasian passengers heading for one of his resorts. Wearing latex gloves, of course, and accompanied by his uniformed posse of sky marshals armed with chocolate ice cream grenades.

Just as the average male North Korean expresses his admiration of Kim Jong Un by sporting The Leader’s distinctive short-back-and-sides with soaring bouffant, the TrumpAir staff could stand out from the crowd with orange make-up and comb-overs that wouldn’t look out of place on a stadium roof designed by Zara Hadid.

The in-flight entertainment would consist of the entire back-catalogue of The Apprentice, all the super-hero movies and endless re-runs of American Sniper. And before landing, a video of The Donald would appear, asking the passengers to vote on which member of the cabin crew they would like to fire.

Oh, and I almost forgot. A wall between business and economy, and electronic slots on the back of very seat.

Thus Trump’s disappointed followers would at least have a Donald experience now and again without the rest of us having to put up with him.

TrumpAir would also do us a great service by taking care of the fearful and the ignorant. Then, perhaps, a person who can tell the difference between Arabic and algebra could – without fear of being chucked off the flight – let the nervous person sitting next to them know that actually algebra is derived from an Arabic word.

They might also be able to point out that the algorithm – without which our  IPads, the aircraft’s flight management system, the internet and virtually every other modern convenience on which our world depends – was named after a ninth century mathematician by the name of Al-Khwarizmi. Who happened to be an Arab and a Muslim.

Well, perhaps that would be too much to hope for. But giving the great man’s admirers their very own airline would surely be a start.

In fact, why wait for the elections? Shareholders of American Airlines, do the right thing, and sell out to The Donald before it’s too late. Give him something else to do before he brings America down, and you with it.

Working in Saudi Arabia: ten things to do if you want to succeed (and ten things not to do…)

100_0033

View from Khurais Road, Riyadh

People sometimes ask me for advice about working in Saudi Arabia. I try and share my experience with anyone who asks, whether or not they’re from the same background as me  – a relatively privileged westerner. If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that I’ve written quite a lot about the country and its people. It’s been a labour of love. The Kingdom has done much for me, and I sometimes feel that it doesn’t get a fair hearing in the western media.

There are plenty of books for people intending to work in Saudi. Some of them I find rather dated, which is not surprising given the pace of change the country is currently experiencing. Others tend to dwell on fairly superficial stuff – enough to get you through the culture shock. And some are far longer than they need to be. So in this post, I’m going to try and share a few of what I see as essential do’s and don’ts based on my own experience. If you are looking at the country for the first time, you might be surprised to find that much of what I’m saying here is common sense that might equally apply at home.

If you’ve come to this blog for the first time and you want to read some more about this fascinating country, try searching below on the phrase Postcard from Saudi Arabia. You’ll find a number of recent pieces on various aspects of Saudi society.

So without further ado, here are ten suggestions that might help you make a success of your new job in Saudi Arabia. Following them, ten more bits of advice on things you should avoid doing. They’re written from the perspective of a western professional, but many of them apply whatever your origin and background.

Learn some history: that you should learn something of the history of a country applies just about anywhere you might visit. History enriches understanding, and provides context for what you see and experience.

When I first went to Saudi Arabia in 1981, Robert Lacey’s The Kingdom was an essential companion. He’s since written an update (Inside the Kingdom). Both are accessible and sympathetic views of the country. Beyond Lacey, there are any number of books available, some of which are not available in Saudi Arabia. If you’re into novels, read the Cities of Salt trilogy by Abdulrahman Munif, an epic that traces the evolution of a fictional Arab kingdom from the beginning of the oil era.

Also take time to study the recent history of the country. The Kingdom’s ambitious 2030 Economic Vision promises to deliver far-reaching change in Saudi society. To understand the context, it’s worthwhile reading up on the factors that have led to the aspirations it contains.

If you would like to compile a reading list, you’ll find some reviews of books relevant to Saudi Arabia and the wider region under the Books tab in this blog.

Learn about Islam: not taking the trouble to learn at least something about Islam in its spiritual heartland is the same as coming to the UK and driving on the wrong side of the road – potentially disastrous. And no, we’re not just talking here about fatwas, jihad and religious police – all the stuff that makes headlines in the West. You don’t need a course on the subject, nor do you need to buy Islam for Dummies. Just do some browsing, learn about the Five Pillars of Islam, find out where the religion comes from and what distinguishes the different schools of thought. The rest you’ll pick up as you go along.

And if you’re curious about any aspect of the faith, just ask any Muslim. The vast majority, whether Saudi or not, will be more than happy to answer any questions you might have. And that includes the rather forbidding-looking guys with long beards, who, when you engage with them, often turn out to be delightful company. That’s been my experience anyway.

Reach out: in some parts of Saudi Arabia, people are more reticent than in others. Reticence is often mistaken for arrogance. My perception is that if you make the effort you can penetrate that wall of formality. Just as if you engage the stone-faced commuter on the train in conversation, there’s a good chance they will open up. But often you have to make the first move.

The best way to establish a connection is by talking about things you admire about the country. There’s no reason to be false or obsequious. Every culture has its good points, so share your impressions. Also open up about yourself. Self-deprecating humour goes down well, and so do stories from your life that chime with theirs – the challenges of bringing up children, for example.

Recognise boundaries: there are social boundaries in every country. In mine, you wouldn’t take kindly to being asked how much money you earn. In Saudi Arabia, especially in more conservative circles, it’s bad form to ask someone about their families, unless they volunteer the information first.

Likewise, don’t invite them to open up about the classic taboo subjects: sex and politics. These subjects are increasingly discussed on the internet, but people know that if they go too far they are liable to get into trouble. So caution tends to be a way of life.

Understand where you fit: you might think that you’ve been brought to the country to do a specific job – engineer, consultant, academic, whatever. With some employers, you might be wrong. You’re a resource, and if you’re a westerner, you’re a high-status asset, to be used for all manner of purposes.

The status of the westerner is not as high as it was, partly on affordability grounds, and partly because there’s plenty of expertise available from other parts of the world, now that the country has strong relationships with countries like Russia, India and China.

But many Saudis still value having a westerner on their staff because they believe that a khawaja, as we’re often referred to in the region, brings them credibility. So be prepared to be asked for advice that might sometimes be beyond your pay grade, and to be given projects that have nothing to do with your day job. As long as you don’t make claims of expertise you don’t possess, you will endear yourself by showing the flexibility to meet the needs of the moment.

And if you find yourself seriously out of your depth, don’t be afraid to use the magic words “I can’t do this, but I know someone who can”.

Another thing you should be aware of is that organisations are often not what they seem. You might find your name slotted neatly into a hierarchy that looks straightforward on first glance. Before long you might come to realise that the neat set of boxes and arrowed lines that appears on paper bears little resemblance to the real organisation, which is built around relationships and trust, rather than functions. This is especially the case in family businesses. Your superior could be a yes-man with little authority. Your subordinate could be a key influencer behind the scenes.

So when you’re bedding in to an organisation, take the time to look, listen and learn. Don’t make premature assumptions based on first impressions.

And last but not least, don’t underestimate your Saudi colleagues. There are some very smart people out there, and I’m not just talking about those who were educated in the West. Some just need the confidence to spread their wings. And that’s often where you can help.

Learn a little Arabic: you don’t have to be fluent, but at least learn enough Arabic to communicate at a basic level. Start with the traditional greetings, and then pick up the kind of words you will need for a taxi – left, right, straight on, next and so on. Words denoting time – today, yesterday, tomorrow, days hours and weeks – are obviously useful, as are the numbers, which are pretty easy up to ten, and then get complicated.

I once did a deal with my Egyptian assistant. We would spend each successive day for two weeks speaking only each other’s language. It was an unfair arrangement, given that he spoke more English than I did Arabic, but it certainly helped me.

Reading is tough, even if, like me, you’ve previously learned a language in a different script. One little trick I’ve used to pick up on the Arabic script is to take advantage of traffic jams by looking at number plates on front of you. The Arabic letters appear next to their English equivalents. Ten hours in traffic should be more than enough for you to pick up all the characters, even if they look different when strung together.

Learn the social conventions: you can get these from all the guide books or cultural briefings, so I won’t go into the taboos in any detail. But things like where to put your feet at a traditional feast, not shaking hands with women, Arabic coffee protocol and other conventions are worth learning. You won’t be cast into the outer darkness if you break them, because the Saudis are very tolerant of the clumsy foreigner. But they’re a matter of good manners. And the less faux pas, the more easily you will win their respect and trust.

Accept the contradictions: your Saudi colleague might speak perfect English with an American accent. You might assume that he’s studied in America, and therefore invites friends to his home every weekend for barbecues, where wives and daughters mix freely with guests outside their immediate families. You’d probably be wrong, at least in your assumptions about his lifestyle.

You might also hear idle chat about weekends in Bahrain and Dubai – of wine, women and song. Don’t assume that your colleague would tolerate such behaviour in his own country. You might also think less of him for behaving one way outside his country and another way within. Understand that in Saudi Arabia the guys-only culture leads a few men to do stuff abroad that might be frowned on at home, but as long as they don’t embarrass their families, they consider their indiscretions as adventures rather than mortal sins. In other words, what happens in Dubai stays in Dubai.

Be curious: Saudis are proud of their culture, traditions and history. Most will be happy to explain any aspect to you if you take the trouble to ask. I recently spent a good half-hour being given a learned lecture by a colleague on the art of camel farming. Much of it I’d heard before – the animals’ beauty features, the cost of keeping them and the joy they give their owners. But each recitation brings a few new vignettes.

Another time, a doctor at a workshop I was facilitating gave me a demonstration of ablution before prayers. He went on to share a number of practical reasons why the act of praying had physical as well as spiritual benefits. Conversations like these bring a deeper connection than anything you might share on the work front. And if you’re genuinely curious, you will have made a priceless bond.

Share your knowledge: the sooner you realise that you’ve been employed not only to do stuff but to show your hosts how to do it, the sooner you will win their respect and trust.

A long time ago, my Saudi boss at the time gave his team of westerners a talking-to about Saudization. The message was that those who most effectively eliminated their jobs by sharing their knowledge would be the people who would be with him the longest.

You will find many expatriates who don’t buy into the ethos of knowledge-sharing. They consider that knowledge is power, and that holding on to what they know is an essential job preservation tactic. Ultimately, though, I find that attitude to be unproductive. You might prolong your employment, but will you learn anything, increase your skills, grow personally? I doubt it. My personal philosophy is that every time I share knowledge, I end up getting something back. Maybe not immediately, but learning is a two-way thing.

And now, here are some no-no’s. 

Don’t play office politics: especially if you’re a westerner in a workplace largely populated with Saudis and other Arab nationals. Everyone gets caught up in workplace politics to a greater or lesser extent. But if you start playing games, you’re at a distinct disadvantage, especially if you’re new to the region, because you don’t know the rules.

If you don’t know Arabic and you’re unfamiliar with the cultural nuances, the chances are that you will make serious mistakes and end up alienating people you wouldn’t want to upset. Only a fool plays politics in an environment they don’t understand, so it’s best to steer clear of games of thrones. Just do your job to the best of your ability, don’t take sides and watch dispassionately as the smooth operators wield their stilettos. And quietly learn.

Don’t cross the red lines: especially those applying to the social media. If you’re tempted to post your opinions about a colleague, your employer or the latest decision by the government on Facebook or Twitter, be very careful. Saudis are extremely sensitive about personal insults. The government monitors the social media, and people do get into trouble for what they say.

One way to figure out what the red lines are is to read the local English-language newspapers. You’ll find plenty of opinion critical of the performance of government departments, or deploring anti-social behaviour. If you feel you must speak out, be sure to go no further than the local media do. And never, ever, ever, attack or insult an individual.

Red lines apply in your face-to-face interactions, too. You can talk to a local about crazy drivers, and he will probably agree with you that drivers in Saudi Arabia leave much to be desired. Make disparaging remarks about women in face veils, and you will be on dangerous ground. Topics such as the segregation of women, the female driving issue, the practice of Islam and other fundamental aspects of Saudi society are best avoided in the company of your hosts unless they bring them up first, and provided you discuss them in a constructive manner.

Don’t be surprised by surprises: or, to put it another way, always expect the unexpected. The reason for this advice is that even if you think you see the big picture, you probably don’t. Your boss, for example, is unlikely to share his complete agenda with you. If he’s inexperienced, he might not have a complete agenda. A broad set of intentions, yes, but not necessarily a fixed view of the way forward. Experienced managers will often be quite prepared to change their minds for no apparent reason. No matter how senior you are, they are likely to tell you only what they think you need to know, which might not be the same as the information you think you need.

This can be maddening if you’re not ready for it, which goes back to the advice about knowing where you fit. A key word in a typical Saudi job description is flexibility. In practical terms this often means stopping what you’re doing at a moment’s notice and getting on to something else. Immediately. In fact, yesterday.

Some people find this requirement demotivating, because they don’t feel they have any control over what they’re doing. In fact, there’s no harm in pushing back, and asking why the sudden change of direction, and warning of the potential consequences of delaying the task in hand. What response you’ll get depends on how autocratic the boss is. Sometimes you might even find that the person is expecting push-back. In reality, asking you to do something, and waiting for push-back, is his way of seeking advice without having to admit that he needs it.

It’s worth remembering that Saudi society is strongly hierarchical, and the person at the top of the pyramid might find it difficult to admit weakness or uncertainty. To do so requires him (and, increasingly, her) to trust the confidant, and trust builds up over years, not weeks and months.

Don’t make fun of your hosts: it’s the same the world over – most societies are happy to mock their own foibles, but don’t take kindly to others mocking them.

The Saudis have a great sense of humour. Ask them to illustrate what they find funny and they’ll show you videos on WhatsApp and explain the humour. Every Ramadan between 1992 and 2011, there was a TV program called Tash Ma Tash (No Big Deal) that got huge audiences. The program featured sketches poking fun at Saudi society. The subjects were surprisingly close to the bone: gender politics, pompous patriarchs, incompetent officials, the religious establishment.

It’s perhaps significant that the series was discontinued in the year of the Arab Spring. Since then, the authorities have been less inclined to look kindly on satire. Whether this will change in the wake of the 2030 Vision, which includes plans to set up entertainment and cultural centres, remains to be seen.

The humour is still there, especially on YouTube. But your hosts know the red lines. So laugh with, and not at.

Don’t spend all your money: I first came to Saudi Arabia when I was 29. My tax-free salary ended a decade of penury. It would have been easy to have blown the money on stuff: expensive holidays, cars, gadgets, clothes and so on. Even easier when there wasn’t much opportunity to spend the money while I was in the country. But holidays were a different matter.

But for one reason or another, I managed to hang on to a good proportion of what I earned, and when I came home nearly a decade later, invest it in a start-up business. But things could have been very different. As an expatriate, you never know when the days of milk and honey will end. A change of policy, a new person at the top, a misstep on your part, and bang, you’re out of work.

So even though saving or investing your ill-gotten gains is a smart thing to do in your own country, it’s especially wise for an expatriate. If you’ve been away from home for a while, you may find yourself less employable than you were when you first set off on your Arabian adventure. A cash cushion to ease your return can be extremely useful as you adapt to a less opulent lifestyle.

Don’t think you’ve made friends for life: I have met hundreds of fellow expatriates over thirty-five years of traipsing back and forth from Saudi Arabia. My wife and I made good friends and generally had a great social life. Whether it’s a reflection on us, or the transitory nature of some friendships, we can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people we met in the Kingdom with whom we are regularly in touch, and whom we see quite often.

There’s a wider circle we’re in touch with occasionally, but less than I would have imagined at the time. One of the reasons is pretty obvious. The people we knew came from all corners of the globe, so when we all left, there was no longer the proximity that sustains most friendships. Another was that being strangers in a strange land gave us a commonality of interest that dissipated once we returned to our own little patches. There are only so many reunions where you rehash the old war stories before you start realising that actually your shared past is the only thing you now have in common.

Don’t mistake a conversation for a fight: one of the cultural aspects of the country that takes a bit of getting used to is that loud conversations are not necessarily confrontational. They just sound that way. This is especially the case when you listen to a couple of Bedouin people talking. The absence of personal space between the two, the tone of voice and the volume of speech might give you the impression that they’re about to go for each other’s throats. Then you see the twinkle in the eyes, and the smiles break out, and you realise that they’re probably engaged in some form of negotiation, or just chatting about weather.

The lesson here is that in a different culture, you need to re-learn what you think you know about the art of communications, and especially body language. The language of emotion can be strikingly different from what you’re used to, so avoid jumping to conclusions.

Don’t assume you’re safe everywhere, or nowhere: there’s safe and safe. Take to the roads and you’re no safer than any other passenger or driver in a country that loses thousands of lives a year to road accidents. Walk through the streets of Jeddah and Riyadh and you’ll find areas with no pavements, open manholes and often precious few safe ways of crossing the road.

Read the advisories from the US State Department and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a Daesh member lurking around every corner waiting to blow you away.

Some people take these warnings very seriously. In 2008, five years after the spate of Al-Qaeda attacks on westerners, I worked with a number of consultants who insisted on spending every minute of their leisure time holed up in a plush, heavily-guarded hotel. They never went out, even on an occasional foray to a well-guarded shopping mall. When I drove one of them to another city 400km away, he refused to get out of the car at the gas station to stretch his legs for fear that someone might be waiting to take a shot at him.

That’s a long way from the life I lived in the Eighties, when I felt perfectly safe wandering around the back streets of Jeddah. Since then, street crime has increased. And yes, there are occasional attacks on westerners, and more than occasionally, armed confrontations between the security forces and armed insurgents. But I try and let common sense prevail. There are some parts of Riyadh I would avoid, just as there are some parts of London and Los Angeles. There is always the risk of opportunistic crime, whatever the motive. But I don’t let the fear of such an event dominate my outlook any more than I would stop walking the streets of central London or refrain from visiting Istanbul.

After all, bad luck comes in many different forms. You can only do your best to mitigate the risk. Bottom line: if you’re habitually nervous about your personal safety, stay at home. In my view, no amount of money can compensate for a life lived in fear.

Don’t lose your sense of humour: assuming, that is, that you have one in the first place. The best way to cope with the cultural dissonances you’ll encounter in Saudi Arabia is to be able to laugh about them. Laugh at your mistakes, your faux pas, and laugh at the absurdities (from your perspective) that you’ll encounter in daily life.

What’s the alternative? Get angry, get frustrated, lose your temper, waste precious energy raging at things you can’t change. Remember also that what might first appear absurd might have an underlying logic that becomes apparent with the passage of time. For me, watching hidden meanings unfold is part of the joy of discovery.

Don’t be a walkover: you’re an employee, not a slave. Act that way. Don’t let people take liberties with your willingness to fit in, to help out and be a good team member. Sometimes an ownership attitude leads employers to take the view that your time is entirely theirs. Unconditionally. The more you comply, the more they’ll expect your compliance.

I’ve often found myself working twelve-hour days and weekends. I do so when I judge it’s necessary. I’ve never clock-watched. As a consultant, I work what is usually referred to as a professional day. At times, that day stretches beyond normal limits. But in Saudi Arabia, as in other parts of the Middle East, attitudes towards time and productivity can often be at variance with the western compulsion to make every minute count. See my recent post, The Art of Hanging Around, for more on this.

Most Saudi employers treat their western employees with respect. They will always try to get the most out of you that they can, just as employers do in the West. If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself with an employer who tries to push you beyond reasonable limits, make sure you have your own red lines that you will not allow to be crossed. If necessary, tactfully and politely stick to them. Or look for another employer.

That’s just about it.

Except to say that working in Saudi Arabia can be truly exhilarating, madly frustrating, deeply fulfilling, and occasionally soul-destroying. Whether you succeed or not largely depends on you, and also on how you define success. On whether you’re prepared to learn from the good experiences as well as the negative ones, adapt rapidly to change, and see every situation as an opportunity to develop your skills.

Good luck!

 

A Letter to America

Grand Canyon

Dear America

Forgive me when I fail to encapsulate my feelings for you in a tweet or a three-minute video. I know that’s what you would probably prefer, because you must get any number of letters from friends, admirers, detractors and enemies. But I’m relying on your famed ability to get to the heart of the matter, no matter how long, torturous and clumsy the message.

I’m writing to you as a friend and admirer. You don’t know me, but we’ve had a relationship for many decades.

You’ve been in my life ever since The Lone Ranger, Rawhide and the Beverley Hillbillies first hit our tiny black-and-white TVs. And on the big screen, How the West Was Won showed us the broad sweep of your early history. Wide open spaces, triumph over adversity, right defeating wrong. So much classier, so much, well, bigger, than Hancock’s Half Hour, Z-Cars and Doctor Who.

You have always been big for me. Broad, optimistic, high as the sky. Even your dark moments were big. Cuba, when the lights nearly went out. Vietnam, when big turned out to be not enough.

But even before I first set foot on your shores, you dominated my life and gripped my imagination. Your enterprises were always big and so were your aspirations. The space program. Jumbo jets. Skyscrapers. Mount Rushmore. Aircraft carriers. Hydrogen bombs. Dams. Multi-lane highways. It was as if you were constantly striving to match the majesty of your natural landscape – the Rockies, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone – in your feats of engineering, construction and technological innovation.

No matter that we Europeans sniggered at your unsophisticated ways. Your absurd can-do attitude. Your vulgar materialism. Your liking for settling disputes with guns and bombs. Your crass, in-your-face sales methods. Your gullibility. Your unsubtle sense of humour. You didn’t get our decadent old continent at all, did you?

Yet for all our snobbish dismissals of your culture, or lack of it, we envied you – and how. And even though we objected to your bombers, your nukes and your cruise missiles, we felt safer under your protective shield. Our parents – and then, when we took time to think about it, we baby boomers – were grateful when your soldiers saved us from Hitler, your dollars helped rebuild Europe after the War, and your soldiers stood on the Rhine alongside ours.

As I grew up, I came to love your music. And hand-in-hand with the music, I embraced the counter-culture that we helped to create together. We might have thought that our music was superior to yours. But without your audiences, your adoration and your spending power, our acts would fared no better than Johnny Hallyday. And where did our musicians draw their inspiration from? It seems that for a few years, for young people at least, the Atlantic really did shrink to a pond. On our side, the Beatles, the Stones, Zeppelin and The Who. And on yours, Dylan, the Doors, the Byrds and the Dead.

Our cultures seemed to coalesce. Hendrix came from Seattle and made his reputation in London. Mancunian Graham Nash went to LA to join Crosby and Stills. We did the same drugs. We were all against the Vietnam war, and we all wanted to ban the bomb. Well, most of us.

Then, from the mid-seventies onwards, the idealism faded, and the common ground receded. On my side, the hippies became hip capitalists. Nobody epitomised the progression more than Richard Branson, whose Virgin brand started with a chain of pokey little record shops staffed by cool dudes with sandals, bells and Jesus beards. The shops reeked of incense and other aromas less legal. By the end of the decade, Branson was the owner of a flourishing record label, and dreaming of cola, financial products and a transatlantic airline all bearing the image of that dreamy hippie chick. He was always a businessman, of course. We just kidded ourselves otherwise for a while.

Meanwhile, you were inventing stadium rock. Big again. Rock entourages advancing with military precision from city to city, hard-nosed record companies and gangster managers in tow. Debauchery on an industrial scale. Baseball stadia filled with the adoring masses.

Your baby boomers who, at the end of the previous decade, flooded to Woodstock, started getting proper jobs, just like ours. In enclaves across the country, socially inadequate kids started acquiring their ten thousand hours of experience writing software programmes on mainframes using time cadged from academic institutions and corporations. Those with better social skills went into banking or real estate.

Those who didn’t have the education went to work in car factories and steelworks, or started their own small businesses – repair shops and hardware stores. Because in those days, despite the ups and downs in your economy, sometimes triggered by oil shocks and unsustainable booms, there were plenty of jobs, plenty of opportunities for those lucky enough not to end up in your rotting inner cities.

At the end of the decade, we watched aghast as a Hollywood actor of seemingly limited intelligence became your president. But when he proclaimed that it was “morning in America”, you believed him, and kissed goodbye to the painful seventies with a surge of optimism. You proceeded to get on with what you do best – creating businesses out of nothing, using technology to change the game. Microsoft and Apple were born. Intel and Motorola thrived. The Star Wars bluff brought the Soviet Union to its knees.

Back in Britain, we were preoccupied with shoring up the last vestiges of our colonial possessions. National pride restored following the Falklands campaign, our trenchant leader sold the family silver, presided over the decline of our industrial base, and by deregulating the banks opened the door for the greed and speculation that led to disaster two decades later. In both our countries, greed was good.

When the nineties opened you were top of the world – the only superpower left standing after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. You led us and a host of other willing participants in liberating Kuwait, once again showing us your technological prowess with your laser-guided bombs, cruise missiles and Patriots. Your corporates embraced the internet. Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon became household names. You started connecting the world, and spawned a host of dotcom millionaires. Everyone was a winner, including citizens of limited means whom the obliging banks helped on to the housing ladder with no-questions-asked mortgages.

We shared your enthusiasm for property. Our financial industry thrived. As your faithful ally, we basked in the reflected glory of your ascendancy. It was the economy, stupid, and for all the bumps in the road –  civil wars and genocide – we both still ended the decade feeling that we were in a better place than when it started.

But we should have realised that not everybody in the world was happy with your supremacy. Russia’s humiliation coiled a spring of resentment. China began to emerge as an industrial power. And in dusty training camps, armed veterans of the Afghanistan struggle pointed the finger at you as the root cause of the Middle East’s pitiful status as your personal gas station, to be sucked dry of pride and resources.

9/11 changed everything. As you recoiled in surprise and outrage at the audacity of nineteen men armed with box-cutters, you lashed out. You took out the Taliban and degraded al-Qaeda. Then you took Iraq, and hunted down the leader who “tried to kill my Daddy”. You –  and we – ended up with an unwinnable war in Afghanistan and a bloody power vacuum in Iraq, happily filled by the very people you thought you’d eliminated.

Just when you reckoned that your surge had finally beaten back Al-Qaeda in Iraq, two decades of greed and dubious banking practices came to a head with the sub-prime crisis. Suddenly your citizens found themselves sleeping in their cars in parking lots. Millions thrown out of work and on the streets.

At that point we both realised how skin-deep was the veneer of the prosperity we thought would never end. In the subsequent years we saw a tepid economic recovery, but the underlying poverty and hopelessness of the dispossessed became clear as never before. As the internet billionaires got richer, the average wage stagnated. In my country and yours, unemployment statistics masked the underlying reality that the next generation couldn’t rely on being better off than their parents. Yes, there were jobs to be had, but only provided you were prepared to accept the minimum wage.

And people got angry. None more so than your white population who found themselves outvoted and out-numbered by migrants from Asia and south of your border. In my country it was a similar story, except that our migrants came from Europe and our former colonies – and lately from those displaced by the battlegrounds of Afghanistan and the Middle East.

And now that anger and disappointment has come to a head, like a gigantic boil.

In my country, pressure from the resentful has led to a referendum in which we will be deciding whether to become an island again. To put up the barricades that will protect our sovereignty from encroachment across the channel.

And on your side, you have a presidential candidate who wants to build a wall across your southern border to stop people from entering because they’re rapists. Someone who wants to stop people from entering because they’re Muslims. A man whose battle cry is anger and resentment, who is defined not by what he is for but by what he is against, not by what he wants to start but by what he wants to stop.

Can it be that you want to be small again, after a century of being the biggest guy on the block? And does small mean that you will spend your treasure on a wall to seal your borders (because you know your neighbours won’t pay), yet inside those borders you will allow your bridges and roads to crumble, your dams to fracture and your lakes to dry up?

And will you leave your friends and allies to fend for themselves unless they’re prepared to pay the bill for their protection? What? Are you going to turn your military into a force of mercenaries? Are you proposing to run an international protection racket?

If those friends choose not to pay the bill that you think appropriate, and acquire their own nukes, carriers and Delta forces, do you seriously believe that you will be just as safe within your fortress? And when you erect your trade barriers, can you assume that your allies will continue to align with you when they have no good reason for doing so?

Will you really be safe in a world whose big guys don’t recognise borders? In a world more connected and interdependent than ever before? In a world bristling with unstable dictatorships brandishing nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, or with rivals ready to bring you down through cyber attacks that would dwarf the damage caused on 9/11?

I’ve visited so many of your cities and marvelled at their diversity. I’ve admired the energy and enterprise that led to their creation. Big in ambition, big in scale. The spirit of optimism so beautifully captured in Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. I love your celebration of success. I love the pride you have in your national parks and your great outdoors. These, not the mean streets, are what come to mind when I think of you.

Yes, I know you have a dark side, none darker than the civil war whose scenes were captured by Matthew Brady, and whose scars are still evident on the Virginia battlefields I have witnessed with my own eyes. A thousand movies and TV series show the violence, greed and corruption in your inner cities, your suburbs and your corporate citadels.

But I never thought you would let a cynical, sneering hypocrite stand so close to the footsteps of Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt.

And yes, I know you’ve had your fair share of demagogue politicians – your George Wallaces, Huey Longs and assorted post-bellum carpetbaggers. Not to mention the racists, religious rabble-rousers and lynch mobs – your Nathan Bedford Forrests, Klansmen and real-life Elmer Gantrys.

We’ve had a few – still do, as a matter of fact. But none of them, on your side or ours, has ever come within touching distance of the nuclear button. None of them have had the power of the social media at their disposal. And none of them have been able to harness so effectively the myth of the super-hero relentlessly propagated by an entertainment industry so bereft of artistic imagination.

None of them have had the power to destroy – through pride, vanity and a blinkered sense of national interest – so many of the positive aspects of our civilisation that you have helped to create.

Generous, decent and principled America, I’m begging you. Pull back from the brink. Don’t entrust this man with your future and ours. Through your abundant natural and human resources, your competitive spirit and yes, though the ideals implanted in your DNA by your founding fathers, you have become the world’s lodestar, its reference point.

You are the one nation that’s too big to fail. You may no longer want the responsibility that comes with your exalted position, and you may not have asked for it in the first place. But it’s yours, whether you like it or not.

I will never forget the moment when you truly stood for mankind. When, with the whole world watching, you stepped on to another world, and said “that’s one small step for a man….”.

And I was so proud of you when you elected a black president, just as I was proud of London more recently for choosing a Muslim mayor. Not because I’m black or Muslim, but because in great societies ethnicity and religion should be no bar to leadership.

Don’t let this small man who claims to speak in your name diminish you. Don’t turn in on yourself. Don’t become a black hole, a malevolent dwarf that sucks all of us into your orbit of decline, resentment and suspicion.

You may feel that the rest of the world is against you. You may not understand why. And yes, you’ve made your mistakes. Goodness knows, we all have. But you still have the power to do the right thing. To right wrongs. To keep the show on the road – yours and ours. You must surely realise that your power is not unlimited. That these days you need to exert a different kind of power. The power of persuasion and of example, rather than that which comes from the barrel of a gun.

You still have the power. So again, I’m begging you. Use it wisely. Stay big, but be a different kind of big. Now more than ever, we need you, and whether we know it or not, we would be bereft without you.

Please, America, pull back from the brink. You are so much bigger than Donald Trump.

Affectionately yours,

Steve

Anti-Semitism, Demagogues and the Three Statements of Hatred

 

violence2

The trouble with -isms is that they are dangerous tools in the hands of accusers. Dangerous because for the politician, the demagogue or the anonymous name-caller in the social media, there are no gradients. You’re either a racist or you’re not.

The same goes for hatred. It’s a definitive term. You don’t vaguely hate or mildly hate. You hate. Or you loathe. You might hate very much, but you don’t hate very little.

Which is a problem, because anybody who is honest with themselves will admit that there is in fact a spectrum.

Let’s take an -ism. Anti-Semitism. Do you hate “the Jews” so much that you would harm a Jew whom you meet in the street? Or would you personally do nothing, but approve the actions of other people who harm Jews? Or vote for a political party or leader committed to harming them? Would you deliberately avoid employing someone you knew was Jewish? Would you avoid their company, or find an excuse for not allowing them to become a member of your golf club or flower-arranging circle?

Would you avoid shopping in a store on the grounds that it’s obviously owned by a Jew? At a party or among like-minded people in a pub, would you blame the Jews for many of the problems in the country and the world beyond. And if you knew that anti-Semitism was so socially unacceptable that you were afraid to air your views, would you use the word Zionist instead of Jew, even though in your mind the two words were interchangeable?

Or would you do none of the above, but nurse a prejudice – without knowing where it comes from – that leads you only to seek opinions similar to yours?

Now substitute Muslim for Jew, and ask the same questions of yourself. And in the context of the last question, would you substitute the word Islamist, or extremist, for Muslim?What about blacks, whites, Asians, non-believers, Tories, Trots, fox-hunters, animal testers, smokers, cyclists, frackers, gypsies, gays, immigrants, Arsenal fans or fat people?

The sad reality is that anybody who has no prejudice – mild or strong – against any person or group of people is either brain dead, or lives in a cave separated from the rest of humanity.

But -isms don’t allow for shades of opinion or belief. You’re either an -ist or you aren’t. What is why they’re such powerful tools in the hands of demagogues.

Let’s now look at hatred. In the real world, are there grades of hatred?

Prejudice may not be the same as hatred, as I hope I’ve demonstrated. But in the hands of skilled politicians and demagogues, it can be fertile ground for breeding full-blown loathing. So let’s think about these words in the hands of politicians, or more specifically, at what I call The Three Statements of Hatred.

Here’s how it works. Consider these statements:

  1. I hate Jewish people because they have no loyalty to anyone but themselves
  2. I hate people in Israel who attack innocent Palestinians
  3. I hate Binyamin Netanyhu, because he’s a Zionist

Which of them is anti-Semitic? This theoretical hatred ranges from carpet bombing to precision-guided. Most people I know would regard only the first statement as being 100% anti-Semitic. The second statement could be anti-Semitic because there is an assumption born of prejudice that some Israelis kill innocent people. The third statement could be anti-Semitic if the person making it equates Zionism with anti-Semitism, or it could be political if the person sees Zionism as a political movement.

Complicated, right? Now it’s the turn of Muslims:

  1. I hate Muslims because they want to turn the world into a Caliphate
  2. I hate Muslims who mutilate women
  3. I hate Abubakr Al-Baghdadi of ISIS because he’s a murderous fiend

Now blacks:

  1. I hate black people because they’re lazy scroungers
  2. I hate black people who rape women
  3. I hate Robert Mugabe because he’s a tyrant who has ruined his country

Immigrants:

  1. I hate immigrants because they are taking our jobs
  2. I hate immigrants who don’t integrate into our society
  3. I hate Sadiq Khan (Labour candidate for London Mayor) because he’s a covert Islamist

Each of these statements is subject to the same range of underlying attitudes, ranging from outright, blanket condemnation of an ethnic group, a race or a social group to specific, targeted disapproval.

The difference between the first statements and the second is the use of two words: “because”, which allows condemnation for a generic reason, and “who”, which targets behaviour that might not necessarily characterise the whole group. The third statement reverts to “because”, either on the basis that the subject’s behaviour is objectionable, or because he or she is deemed to symbolise the characteristics of the group in Statement 1 or the sub-group in Statement 2.

The likes of Donald Trump rarely use Statement 1. In fact, they rarely use the words “I hate”. But they do use Statements 2 and 3, because they know that they will reach those who use Statement 1 in everyday life. In other words, by criticising individuals and subsets of larger groups, they appeal to those who have prejudices that could be described as anti-Semitic, racist, Islamophobic or fascist. All the while they retain the ability to deny that they are racist or anti-Semitic, while appealing to people that actually are.

Now remove the words “I hate”, “because”, and “who” from the statements and we get, in the case of the last set:

  1. Immigrants are taking our jobs
  2. Immigrants don’t integrate into our society
  3. Sadiq Kahn is a covert Islamist

And voila! We have a set of assertions that are highly likely to send a message that we should therefore hate immigrants, and Sadiq Kahn in particular. Meat and drink for Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, who leave it to their listeners to draw the final conclusion.

Even if they qualify these statements with “who” and “because”, in the minds of their audiences, the qualifiers disappear.

Thus, Donald Trump’s statement about Mexican immigrants,

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best [sic]. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

becomes, in the minds of his followers:

“Mexicans are drug dealers, criminals and rapists”

What of Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, who has been suspended by the Labour Party for alleged anti-Semitic remarks? In this transcript of a BBC interview, he’s talking about Naz Shah, the Labour MP also suspended from the party because of her allegedly anti-semitic tweets from 2014:

“She’s a deep critic of Israel and its policies. Her remarks were over-the-top but she’s not anti-Semitic. I’ve been in the Labour party for 47 years; I’ve never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic. I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the state of Israel and its abuse of Palestinians but I’ve never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic.

“It’s completely over the top but it’s not antisemitism. Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism – this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.

“The simple fact in all of this is that Naz made these comments at a time when there was another brutal Israeli attack on the Palestinians; and there’s one stark fact that virtually no one in the British media ever reports, in almost all these conflicts the death toll is usually between 60 and 100 Palestinians killed for every Israeli. Now, any other country doing that would be accused of war crimes but it’s like we have a double standard about the policies of the Israeli government.

His logic seems to run thus:

– There has never been any anti-Semitism in the Labour Party

– Hitler supported Zionism, therefore Zionism must be bad

– Naz Shah made offensive comments in reaction to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians

– Criticism of Zionism is not the same as anti-Semitism

– Therefore Naz is not anti-Semitic just because she’s opposed Zionism

– And what’s more, Zionists are war criminals, just like the Nazis

Sort of…..

Based on his words alone, Livingstone can’t be accused of being anti-Semitic, never mind an apologist of Hitler. What you can say is that he was extremely dumb to quote an historical “fact” that is not only of questionable accuracy, but is also a non-sequitur. He shows himself to be a man who is quite prepared to use dodgy history – the idea that Hitler wasn’t mad in 1932 but went mad afterwards is quite ludicrous to anyone who has read Mein Kampf – to fit his political world view. Like his party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, he is a man who sticks to his principles. Like many politicians, he chooses only the facts that support those principles. But on this occasion he chose badly.

His approach is very different from that of Donald Trump. Trump, in my estimation, is an opportunist totally focused on personal electoral success. He sensed a groundswell of discontent, and is prepared to say anything necessary to tap it. If it increased his chances of election, he would happily reverse his position on just about any issue. And if elected, he wouldn’t feel bound by any of his campaign promises.

So it seems to me that the true demagogue of the two is Donald Trump. He uses the Three Statements progression, whereas Livingstone is merely guilty of a clumsy framing of long-held convictions.

Either way, it’s clearly the season for wonky inductive reasoning on both sides of the Atlantic. It will be interesting to see Trump explain away his wilder campaign statements if he’s nominated for the presidency. On the European side I look forward to hearing Jeremy Corbyn declare victory in the upcoming council elections, and the Brexiteers claiming that black is white in the referendum debate.

Whoever ends up as winners and losers, the art of reasoned argument is dying. Nowadays, it seems, you can only get widespread attention if you employ the tactics of the shock-jock. And if disapproval breeds prejudice, and prejudice is repeated enough to become respectable, then it’s only a short step to the Three Statements of Hatred. And from there, all manner of destructive possibilities lie.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 620 other followers

%d bloggers like this: