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Saudi Arabia Through Western Eyes – Uncovered or Unfairly Maligned?

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I come from a country whose wealth is derived from centuries of conquest, exploitation and slavery. A country whose capital city is full of mansions owned but rarely occupied by wealthy foreigners – safe havens for their fortunes of dubious provenance.

A country where generations of families whose adults have never worked live in run-down districts on state-funded benefits. Where gangs of taxi drivers prey on vulnerable girls and turn them into sex slaves. Where foreign workers with criminal records in their home countries murder and maim people for sexual gratification or financial gain.

Where stressed-out workers live on Prozac and the unemployed burgle homes to sustain their heroin habits. Where racism is endemic, and citizens rumble on about national values of respect and tolerance while abusing others on Twitter, avoiding tax and gorging themselves on cheap wine. Where a diminishing band of rich people are getting richer and ever-increasing millions of the poor are left to make do on the minimum wage.

Where people stumble on to the path of on-coming vehicles with smart phones in their faces. Where young girls collapse in the streets with their legs in the air when the bars close on a Saturday night. Where the elderly are abused and robbed by workers in “care homes”, or else live lives of aching loneliness in real homes they can’t keep clean, dying for the weekly visit from the meals-on-wheels team because that’s the only visitor they ever get.

Where politicians periodically send our armed forces to bomb, invade and destroy countries in the notional interest of “national security”. Whose security forces can monitor our mobile phones and listen to our conversations. Whose police and other enforcement bodies can enter our homes for any number of reasons, and whose local authorities can prosecute us for allowing our dogs to foul the streets or for putting the wrong kind of waste in our wheelie bins.

Is that a fair view of Great Britain?

Nine out of ten of my fellow-citizens would answer that it’s a ridiculously unbalanced picture of their homeland. Many would argue that the UK leads the world in its liberal values, compassion and freedom of speech. A great place to live. So great that twice as many foreigners choose to live there as Britons make their lives in other countries.

But it wouldn’t be difficult to put together a one-hour documentary, full of interviews and video clips, that would convince a substantial number of timorous foreigners never to set foot in the place, on the basis that it’s a pretty diabolical country to live in.

Now consider Saudi Arabia.

At a time when the Kingdom’s efforts to wean itself off its reliance on oil are putting the country in the spotlight, its human rights record is also under the gun from the western media. The narrative of the recent ITV/PBS co-production Saudi Arabia Uncovered was familiar to those who follow events in the Middle East, yet most likely shocking to those who don’t: sectarian unrest in the Eastern Province, the role of the religious police, the suppression of religious and political dissent, harsh punishments meted out to miscreants, evidence of covert funding of Al-Qaeda prior to 9/11.

A predictable reaction from the West dominated the social media: how can we support a regime that does such terrible things? Followed by equally predictable comments from the British government to the effect that Saudi Arabia is not a perfect state, yet acts as a valuable bulwark against terrorism, and from the Saudi government, which stated that the documentary was unfair and unbalanced.

And unbalanced it certainly was, as Sabria Jawhar asserts in Spreading lies about KSA, a recent article in the English-language Arab News. Sabria lived in the UK for some time while she was studying for her PhD, and she has always written sympathetically about her life in the West.

In the article, she robustly defends her home country, pointing out that:

The PBS Frontline documentary titled “Saudi Arabia Uncovered” gives Americans what they want the most: A deep dish of Saudi “oppression, cruelty, executions, abuse of women and assorted nastiness” that would disgust any human being with an ounce of emotion and empathy.

Much of it was nonsense, of course, and the video segments aired in hour-long documentary on March 29 are already online. But people will believe what they want to believe and me whining about it will not change the perception that Saudi Arabia’s citizens live in the “dark ages.”

She then argues that the documentary “loosely plays with the facts”, and presents a series of rebuttals of many of the points made in the programme.

I’m in no position to argue about the specifics, but I also take issue with some of the broad assertions.

The show told of an underground network of dissidents opposed to the Kingdom’s conservative elite, the religious establishment, the suppression of free speech and the social policies for which the country has become famous or, in the eyes of its critics, notorious.

What it didn’t point out was that there are many shades of opinion openly expressed in the print and social media every day. It’s true that there are red lines. Criticism of the ruling family and questioning of Islam, as Sabria points out, have always been no-go areas.

But Saudi journalists have been writing about social issues in their country for as long as I’ve been coming to Saudi Arabia. What they don’t do is confront the issues head on. They’ve learned to be more nuanced, more subtle. It’s also true that some have been judged to have over-stepped over the mark, and suffered accordingly, though certainly not on the scale of some neighbouring countries – Turkey for example.

Then there was the stark contrast drawn in the documentary between the palaces of the elite, which the under-cover dissident videoed in Riyadh, and the slums of Mecca. It would be easy to come to the conclusion that the Kingdom is populated mainly by the absurdly rich and the grindingly poor.

That’s not the case. Yes, if you go to south Jeddah you will find poverty and slums, and yes, there are plenty of palaces to be seen in Riyadh without the need to video them covertly. But just as there are many shades of opinion, there is as much variety in living standards as you would find in the UK, the US and other “first world” countries. A big section of the population falls into the middle-income bracket. There are small villas and apartments and larger ones. There are poor areas, wealthy ones and many in-between.

Another target in the film was education. The undercover reporter shot footage of a 14-year-old child parroting some pretty extreme stuff about Christians and Jews based on what he reads in school text books. Again, the deficiencies of the Saudi education system are not a state secret. There have been debates about improving primary and secondary education at least for the past couple of decades.

A more balanced portrait would have noted that for the past ten years the King Abdullah Scholarship Program has sent hundreds of thousands of young Saudis to study at western universities. Anyone who has studied at a British or American university will tell you that something of the culture of the host country – the way of life and the way of thinking – rubs off on everyone who studies at them. For the Saudis – and I’ve met many who have returned to their home country after studying abroad – this is no less the case than with any other nationality.

These plane-loads of returnees come home more open-minded and aware of the world than they were when they first set off. Not necessarily less conservative or inclined to challenge the social mores in their country, but certainly older and wiser, and more capable of thinking critically. They, I would argue, will be a powerful intellectual force in the years to come.

As for the text books themselves, the government has made efforts to remove the more poisonous messages, just as it is trying to clamp down on imams broadcasting similar messages in the mosques. And if you believe that the Saudi government can solve the problem simply by diktat, consider the difficulties the British prison service encounters in preventing their Muslim chaplains from sending what it considers to be extreme messages to the inmates in their care.

Concerning the criticism in the ITV/PBS documentary of the authoritarian nature of the Saudi state, let’s hear Sabria’s views on the subject:

I have long criticized conservatives and the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Haia) if their conduct warrants discussion. I have also criticized the policies of some the government ministries. Yet, I have never been silenced by the government for my opinions. It’s really a matter of how you express criticism that matters. We are not a democracy, but a monarchy and most Saudis will say this is their preferred form of government. We do not have free speech. Many of the criticisms leveled in the documentary are not due to government actions but are religious. Shariah is our preferred form of law and criticism of a Muslim country’s rulers is a very delicate issue in Islam for a variety of reasons that are not covered in the documentary.

The documentary states clearly that Saudis want a new form of government, but this is far from the truth. Stability is vital in this region and it’s the ruling monarchy that is giving us that stability. Most Saudis see no reason to change it.

She makes a fair point on the desire for stability. Ask any Iraqi or Syrian to compare their lives today with those they lived under Saddam and the Assads, and I suspect most would reply that they would gladly swap some personal freedoms for the ability to raise and feed their families in safety, free from bombs, shells and arbitrary justice.

Likewise, ask most Saudis whether they would prefer to live under their form of government as opposed to scratching around the bombed-out ruins of Ramadi or Palmyra or risking their lives on boats taking them to an uncertain future in Europe, and it’s not difficult to imagine what they would say.

There will be many people in the Kingdom who have seen the programme, or are aware of it, who will be pretty aggrieved by the portrayal of their country by the foreign media – not least the Government.

So – as my Arab friends like to say when faced with a difficult problem – what to do?

I suppose that depends on what you’re trying to achieve. The other day there was another piece about group of religious scholars debating how to improve the country’s image abroad. With all due respect to them, I doubt if they’ll come up with any answers to the problem of rebutting criticism, except possibly within the Muslim world.

If I were a PR executive with a general brief to find ways of making the country look better in the eyes of the world, I would probably come up with separate strategies aimed at the near critics and the far ones.

The near critics – the Arab and Muslim world, mostly share the language and many of the social mores of Saudi Arabia. Because I’m neither a Muslim nor an Arabic speaker, I wouldn’t presume to advise on getting those worlds on-side. What’s more I don’t think the Saudis need much help in this area.

But in dealing with the far critics – those in the West, and especially in countries like Britain, France and the United States that have an influence over Saudi Arabia’s actual and perceived security, I would first  recognise comprehension barriers. Arabic is the big one, of course. There are very few Arabic speakers in the West outside its ethnic Arab communities.  So the language barrier tends to reinforce the sense of the other – as a young Iraqi discovered recently when he was thrown off a flight in the US after he had spoken in Arabic with his uncle in Baghdad.

Then there are also the physical manifestations of difference – thobes and ghutras on the men, abayas, hijabs and niqabs on the women. Like it or not, the way the Saudis dress instantly differentiates them, even from other Arabs who don’t dress the same way.

Let’s start with the language barrier.

I will probably be howled at by my Saudi friends if I suggested that Saudi Arabia could learn from Israel in any sense. But for decades Israel has used articulate young spokesmen who explain government policy in perfect English. One of the most formidable of these is Mark Regev, the newly appointed ambassador to the UK. From very early in his career he has been one of Israel’s leading West-facing advocates. What he says may not be to the liking of his audiences in the West, but he says it with style and conviction. What’s more he comes over as “one of us” – the epitome of a young, educated westerner, which is not surprising given that he hails from Australia.

Saudi Arabia has a number of articulate ministers who make the country’s case very effectively – as well as one or two who fall short. But just as Prince Mohammed bin Salman represents a new generation of leaders, and is more than willing to speak at length to make the country’s case to the western media, perhaps every major ministry needs communicators who, like Regev, can speak comfortably in the western metaphor.

Finding such people should not be impossible. As I mentioned earlier there are large numbers of talented young Saudis graduating from western institutions through the Scholarship Program. Using younger people to speak for the government would be culturally dissonant in a society that associates age with authority, but this too is changing, again thanks to the elevation of Mohammed bin Salman.

Another aspect of communications at which Israel excels is fast reaction to events. This is also something that Saudi Arabia could learn. Initial denials of events and subsequent admissions don’t enhance credibility of the communicators. There are other aspects of Israel’s communications expertise that the Saudis probably shouldn’t emulate. The apparatus of Hasbara, through which it saturates the social media with trolls, fake accounts and robust expressions of the party line, is probably not a model to be copied. The world has become wise to these tactics, in which the Israelis are closely rivalled by the Russians.

Saudi Arabia can also enhance its image through less formal means. There are any number of YouTube videos that show the Saudi sense of fun – the Gangnam Style videos are good examples. Clips that need no translation appeal as easily to western audiences as to local ones. Then there are films. Wajda was a beautiful portrait of the country’s human face. Saudi Arabia should encourage its nascent film and entertainment industry, not only because it will have an audience in the Middle East and beyond, but because the output can contribute towards dissolving the sense of “the other” among outsiders. And if Iran can have a flourishing film industry, why not Saudi Arabia?

Outward appearances present another barrier.

Saudis are perfectly entitled to be proud of their national dress. The thobe, the ghutra and especially the flowing, gold-trimmed bisht convey a dignity and formality that instantly stands out from the suits that surround them at events typically covered by the western media. Yet that formality can be a double-edged sword. We in the West can relate more easily to a less formal style. Business leaders and even politicians are increasingly dressing down. Sixty years ago you would never see a British prime minister at a major event without a tie. Nowadays every G7 conference features photos of leaders in informal attire, even if some of them look as uncomfortable as they would be if they were wearing fancy dress.

Yet the Saudis, at least in public, remain mostly wedded to their formal robes. There are signs that this is changing. Mohammed bin Salman, for example was photographed talking to Bloomberg about the country’s need for economic transformation. He was not wearing a ghutra. The effect was immediately to make him more “like us” in western eyes. That can’t have been an accident. Likewise, the Foreign Minister, Adel Jubeir, frequently posed in suit and tie when he was the ambassador in Washington.

A less traditional approach doesn’t have to involve loss of dignity. And lately, apparently, dress-down is the norm among the young technocrats busy finalizing the National Transformation Program.

Should Saudi Arabia invest in an English-language channel with similar production and journalistic values as Al-Jazeera? I’m not sure. Russia, China and Iran – other countries that feel the need to explain themselves to a suspicious western audience – all have English-language channels, but RT, CCTV and PressTV serve more as an occasional curiosity than as mainstream viewing. Qatar’s Al-Jazeera is the only channel with close ties to a state entity that has come close to engaging with westerners outside the Middle East, and even it has pulled out of its US venture.

Whether the Saudis should make greater efforts to become more accessible to the West is not for me to judge. No doubt there are many patriotic Saudis who feel that their country has no further need to justify itself. Yet communications is one of the techniques of soft power, as other nations fully realise.

And finally, what of the ordinary Saudis? Are they, as PBS/ITV’s programme-makers suggest, cowed, downtrodden and oppressed? Obviously it’s ridiculous to generalise about a people of twenty million, just as it’s misleading to suggest that the followers of Donald Trump represent the sum of current attitudes in America, thank goodness.

But here’s what I know. The country has its share of intolerant, bigoted, feckless citizens, just as America and Britain have. But the vast majority of the people with whom I interact, not just in the office but in everyday life, are courteous, friendly and full of life. They have a great sense of humour. They are not afraid to comment on and mock their national shortcomings. They may have different social mores from those in the West, but there is no lack of idealism and sincere desire to improve their lives and those of others around them.

There are also many Saudi Arabias – different attitudes and customs within distinct communities and in different locations. The country is not a monolith. The Saudis are not a downtrodden people slaving to build the pyramids under the lash of the Pharaohs. Nor, for that matter, are the Kingdom’s expatriates a persecuted underclass, even if some undoubtedly suffer abuse – examples of which, by the way, often surface in the local media and attract loud condemnation.

The country is changing, even if the pace of change is not as fast and not in the direction as some western commentators would like. Saudis are overcoming the taboo on manual work, for example. Rasheed Abou Alsamh’s opinion piece in Arab News, Dignity in Manual Labour eloquently illustrates the point. As for the favourite subject of the Kingdom’s critics, women’s rights, Cynthia Gorney in National Geographic Magazine’s The Changing Face of Saudi Women offers a far more nuanced and positive view of progress and the obstacles that need to be overcome than many of the monochrome condemnations that appear periodically in the West.

And in recent weeks, there are signs that the government is acting to curb some of the excesses of the religious police. First there was an announcement that they are no longer allowed to arrest people, and should show a gentler touch when reminding people of the error of their ways. There was also a report that inflammatory sectarian opinions voiced by ultra-conservative clerics on the Ministry of Islamic Affairs website have been deleted.

Even if some cynics suggested that these were window-dressing measures in advance of President Obama’s visit to Riyadh last week, I see them as steps in the right direction.

So if anybody, after watching Saudi Arabia Uncovered, were to ask me how I can possibly visit the country, I would answer that if I avoided every nation with an aspect of its governance or society that I found less than perfect, I would have to avoid everywhere, with the possible exception of Antarctica.

Besides, despite the frustration of dealing with impenetrable bureaucracy, and despite the occasional outbreaks of startling cultural dissonance, I get immense pleasure from engaging with people who are well aware that their country is in need of improvement, even if they don’t all agree on the way forward. And another reason why I’ve been coming back and forth to the Kingdom over thirty-five years is the endless fascination of watching as the country progresses.

For what it’s worth, this is the picture of Saudi Arabia that I see. Not an apology for its shortcomings, but a view born out of empathy with its people rather than antipathy towards the systems they create.

Britain’s Referendum – Leave or Stay? Enough Already!

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I live in a divided household at the moment – or at least I will do when I get home. I will vote Remain, and the dog – who barks at all visitors – will vote Leave. As for my wife, it would be more than my life’s worth to second-guess her intentions.

I’ve followed the debate from afar (Riyadh, to be precise) over the past few weeks. I can’t say I’ve picked up every dire warning and fatuous argument while I’ve been away. But I’ve read enough to to know that the damned referendum has paralysed the country. Nobody wants to make decisions because of the massive implications of a potential Leave vote. I will not use the B-word, by the way, unless somebody wants to print it on toilet roll – the best thing to do with overworked expressions, I reckon.

The referendum has brought together the xenophobes and the bulldog patriots. Nigel Farage makes common cause with Ian Botham. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – the bombastic egoist and the frustrated reformer – are thrown together in a grim alliance.

Even from a distance of several thousand miles, I’m fed up with the whole thing. I wish it had never been launched. The only reason we’re going to the polls is that before the last election David Cameron and his opportunistic friends didn’t have the balls to face up to Farage without offering the nation this dangerous sop.

All the referendum has achieved thus far is to polarise us. It’s given the little Englanders a platform they would never have had without it. The sub-plot on the Leave side is kick the bloody foreigners out – they’re destroying our culture, draining our economy and running our country.

On the Remain side, the underlying message is that outside the EU we’ll be like an economic jellyfish floating off the shores of Europe. Subject to tides and winds we can’t control or even influence. No strong ties with anyone. No preferential trade deals. A decimated financial industry. And we misled voters will be the poorer for it.

The big picture, as I see it, is this.

Those who are foolish enough to think that if we leave the EU our national problems will magically go away, and we’ll somehow turn into a kind of Norway  – with warm beer, jobs for everyone and chicken tikka masala as the only alternative to Macdonalds and the chip shop down the high street  – want their heads examining.

Our big problems, some of our making and some not, are not going to go away just because we retreat into our little island stockade. Climate change, technological change, demographic change, financial uncertainty and global political instability will still lap up remorselessly on to our shores.

In response to the same pressures, the EU is going to have to change whether we’re in it or not. If we leave now, it’s possible that some of those changes will be precipitate rather than orderly. If we stay in, at least we will be able to influence the outcomes.

Whatever we do, the days of the overweening EU superstate are numbered. Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU Commission president, virtually admitted as much in a recent speech.

The rise of the far right in several member states is hastening the roll-back, but for all the wrong reasons – the logic of hatred and fear of the other. Though the nationalists may not achieve ascendancy in countries like France, Holland and Germany, they are exerting a gravitational pull on their rivals, and putting the unelected bureaucrats on the defensive.

The result could be a more flexible, less centralised, more democratic European institution. Perhaps even two institutions – North and South.

So ironically, there’s a real chance that the European order with which we British would be most comfortable will emerge over the next decade. But we, unfortunately, will no longer have the opportunity to be a part of it.

Meanwhile, thanks to our craven politicians, we have to put up with weeks of endless argument on the same very obvious themes. On the Leave side, emotion disguised as logic. On the Remain side, logic in emotional clothing.

We will vote to stay in the Union, and rightly so. The fear factor will win the day, for the simple reason that the Leave campaigners will never be able to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the majority that leaving doesn’t constitute a massive, unknowable and ultimately unacceptable risk.

And in case we in Britain hadn’t noticed it, there are no such things as islands any more.

Postcard from Saudi Arabia – The Law of Good Intentions

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Turkish Coffee

For as long as westerners have been coming to Saudi Arabia, the use of the word inshallah (if God wills it) serves in their minds almost as a signature of the local culture. If I ask you to commit to doing something by tomorrow, you say “inshallah”. If I’m new to the region, I might get mad, and say, “not inshallah – definitely!”

Even if I try to prohibit the use of the word, which would be extremely rude, the person from whom I’m trying to extract a commitment might say it in his head if not to my face. A bit like keeping one hand with fingers crossed behind his back.

At least that was the case when westerners were brought here to run things. Nowadays there are fewer Americans and Europeans in the Kingdom, and most are in jobs which require them to support rather than dictate. All the more reason for them to work with the culture rather than against it.

So perhaps it’s time to explain the cultural context of the word inshallah, at least in the limited understanding of this westerner.

In the literal sense, it implies that you can never guarantee that something will happen, let alone that you will make it happen, because the event is out of your hands – it’s in the hands of God. You might have a heart attack. Your car might break down. You might forget, or you might not do the thing because something more important gets in the way.

Which then leads to the question of how to define what important means. If your child gets sick, that’s surely more important than some business commitment, especially in a culture in which people often expect things to go awry, and are sometimes surprised when things happen as they’re supposed to.

In the West, when faced with a promise whose fulfilment seems unlikely, we tend to say “I’ll believe it when I see it”. And we live by the idea that “actions speak louder than words”. Anyone who makes a commitment they have no intention of meeting soon becomes known as a windbag, right? Or a politician, maybe.

In the West, maybe, but in the Middle East the magic word inshallah changes everything. After a conversation with a Saudi friend, I’ve come up with a new law of human behaviour. I call it The Law of Good Intentions. What it means in a nutshell is “intentions are as important as actions”.

In other words, if I promise to do something, what’s important is not just whether I do it or not, but whether I sincerely intend to do it. Because intention is under my control, but execution isn’t. We use the phrase “he meant well” in western culture, but that often carries the connotation that the well-meaning person is pretty dopey, if not downright incompetent. But in Islam, intention is extremely important, which explains why, when things go wrong and the person can’t deliver on his promise, his failure to do so doesn’t necessarily meet with a chorus of disapproval – except in the mind of the only westerner in the room.

Which also explains the incomprehension which middle easterners display at the westerner who blows his stack when things don’t go like clockwork. “Why are you giving this person such a hard time? His intention was good.” And that, basically, is what matters.

Not that the Arab culture is always tolerant of procrastination. The scariest phrase from an all-powerful Arab patriarch is “do it now”. That could mean do it now or I’ll fire you. Or it could mean give the appearance doing it now, and as long as your’re making progress that’s OK. And the judgement could depend on what sort of mood he’s in when he gives you the order, or views the results. A kind of Russian roulette really.

One of the side-effects of the Law is that it can be a little one-sided. Those who have the power to do so live by it. But because they’re wise to its effects, those who work for them are subject to different rules. And if they’re late in the morning, they get their salaries docked, even if that same boss expects them to hang around after hours if need be.

By and large, though, I like the Law of Good Intentions. It’s fuzzy, not digital. Above all, it’s human. And if you’re foolish enough to ask someone for a guarantee of performance in a world where Murphy’s Law (what can go wrong usually will go wrong) rules, then you only have yourself to blame for losing half your brain cells in an eruption of impotent rage.

Yes, there are deadlines that can’t be broken. If none of the stadia are ready in time for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, I suspect that someone in Qatar will definitely be heading for the shark pond.

But if the new Metro in Riyadh fails to open on time, not much will be lost apart from face on the part of the person who announced the completion date. And even then people won’t be too hard on him because they probably won’t be expecting such a major project to complete without glitches. After all, in twenty years’ time, who will remember that the project was a couple of years late?

So as long as you’re prepared to tolerate a certain amount of wasted time, and your expectations are tuned to execution being less perfect than intention, what’s lost?

The Law of Good Intentions is a way of thinking that’s alien to the modern western culture that lives by the clock. It would have horrified Frederick Taylor, who invented the time-and-motion study. Henry Ford would have thrown himself from his factory roof rather than accept it. Even though there are many people in the Middle East who pride themselves on keeping promises and respecting deadlines, those same people are less likely to get aerated if others don’t live up to their standards, or if occasionally they fall short themselves.

And who’s to say that tolerance of failure, even if it’s accompanied by all manner of finger-pointing and gnashing of teeth, makes for an unhappier culture than one which demands better, faster, bigger and smaller, and sees waiting as catastrophe rather than an opportunity to do something else, or to re-think the original intention? As long, of course, as people don’t get harmed in the process.

The other day, the Saudi Ministry of Communications announced a three-month extension in the deadline for mobile phone users to register their fingerprints as a condition for use of their phones. No recriminations, no explanation, just a plain announcement. Was it wrong to set an original deadline that in retrospect might seem to have been overambitious? Not necessarily – it was probably what’s known in business as a stretch target, born of a desire to have the new system in place before the huge influx of people during the Haj (pilgrimage) season.

But if it can’t be done by then, well, there will be another Haj next year. And in the minds of the implementers, the important thing is that they tried. The Law of Good Intentions in action.

I, being prone to bouts of laziness, procrastination and disorganisation, am very comfortable with the Law. My wife on the other hand, who is a born organiser, is not, and to witness her explosions of frustration when things don’t happen when they should is akin to standing on the rim of an erupting volcano.

The truth is that we need both approaches. Untrammelled obsession with deadlines can result in people being enveloped in a stressful bubble of frantic activity without the opportunity to step back and view the bigger picture. The Law of Good Intentions, if unquestioned, can result in inertia in the face of impending disaster.

I like a culture in which some things take precedence over deadlines. A couple of days ago, at very short notice, I was asked to go to a meeting. The guy I was with, who is Saudi, knew the building, and we arrived on time. The trouble was, we didn’t know which floor to go to. So for about ten minutes we went up and down the lift, until my colleague decided to ask a friend on the 13th floor.

So we went into the friend’s office and were immediately treated with a Turkish coffee, while my colleague spent ten minutes catching up with the gossip. We finally arrived at our intended destination – the 11th floor – half an hour late. Was this a problem? Of course not. We made our apologies, which were gracefully accepted, and the meeting started as if nothing untoward had happened.

Earlier in my life I would probably have been looking aghast at my colleague’s diversion to his friend’s office, and squirming with embarrassment at being late for the meeting. Not these days. The thing was, we intended to be there on time. After all, we got to the building on time. But a combination of navigational failure and the demands of hospitality got in the way. The result? A nice cup of coffee, nothing lost, and blood pressure normal throughout.

Now that Saudi Arabia is full of sharp young technocrats with degrees from the best universities in the West, perhaps the Law of Good Intentions will start to wilt under a less accommodating ethos, just as other traditions are starting to fade.

I think that would be a shame, because though there’s a time and a place for unbreakable deadlines, for a guy like me who’s been around a while, a road paved with good intentions eases the path to happiness.

Postcard from Saudi Arabia – In Praise of the Toilet Hose

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This little exchange on Twitter set me off today, for a couple of reasons:

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When I first read Justin Sink’s comment on the palace bathrooms, I wondered if he was a real person, so appropriate is his name to his subject. I was expecting another comment from Frank Faucet. It turns out that Mr Sink is a journalist with Bloomberg, presumably here in Riyadh to cover President Obama’s visit. So apologies, Justin, for doubting your existence.

Then there’s Ahmad Al-Shathry’s claim that toilet hoses are the reason for the clash of civilisations. I have to disagree.

The toilet hose is a wonderful thing. Every home should have one. I say this even though, being a westerner, I don’t use it for its primary purpose. But a superb device it is for clearing the toilet bowl of unwanted detritus which might otherwise have to be dealt with by a brush, which in turn needs to be cleansed of incriminating material.

What I can’t get my head around is the miraculous way in which the Saudis manage to use the hose. You will often visit a toilet virtually awash with water (water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink!), and yet the previous user emerges with his white thobe pristine – not a spot of moisture in evidence, and no Japanese super-loo complete with driers to be seen.

I have frank conversations with my Saudi friends on many subjects, but toilet technique is not one of them. I’m probably not alone in finding the squat toilet very much a hit-or-miss affair. But fortunately, as in France and Italy, these days squatting is rarely necessary, unless you happen to be caught short at a supermarket, or, heaven forbid, at one of the Kingdom’s less salubrious motorway stops. There the facilities are often filthy, smelly and fly-blown. Not usually a problem for us chaps, but western women of my acquaintance find them a serious ordeal.

One day, if I can overcome spousal objections on grounds of cost, I will install hoses in my home in England. She would definitely welcome spotless bowls, but would probably baulk at the water use. No matter, a clean bowl is a sign of a clean mind.

And there are other uses for this excellent implement. Speaking as a golfer, it would be very useful for hosing down the clubs after a muddy winter round. You can also use it to repel invaders should you accidentally leave the door unlocked. Especially effective against little ones, who would find it highly amusing, even if they might get the wrong idea and then use it for their own nefarious purposes, such as soaking the cat.

So yes, the toilet hose is indeed a thing of beauty, and far from being symptomatic of a deep divide between two cultures, we should be grateful to the Middle East for its existence. It enhances civilization.

Postcard from Saudi Arabia – The Redemption of the Truffle Hunters

Saudi Truffle

One of the charming aspects of the local media in Saudi Arabia is how often a story hits the front page, and you wonder what it did to deserve its lofty prominence. The other day the Arab News ran a short news item about truffle hunters.

Apparently, up on the border with Iraq the magical fungus abounds. Not quite the same as the European variety – they’re known as desert truffles. They appear early in spring, after the winter rains and before things start hotting up. Like their counterparts in Europe, you can find them around the roots of trees. But while in the Perigord and Tuscany you have to snuffle around decaying vegetation and rotting tree stumps, desert truffles are so named because, yes, they grow in the desert, where trees are sparsely  dotted around and dead leaves are quickly blown away. You can recognize them from the tiny cracks they create in the sandy soil as they grow. More on the desert truffle here, from the archives of AramcoWorld, the oil company’s wonderful in-house publication, with a beguiling recipe thrown in.

The problem is that people who search for them sometimes wander into prohibited areas close to the border. This is not a good idea. Borders in the Middle East are dangerous places – hence intruders sometimes find themselves arrested and imprisoned for their pains.

Until I read the story, I was unaware that the truffle played any part in the Saudi diet, other than as imports used by the sumptuous French restaurants in the hotels of Riyadh and Jeddah. But it appears that the local variety flavours numerous dishes. Unlike in France, though, the locals use their sharp eyesight rather than the noses of a species that is distinctly unwelcome in the region – the pig.

So the big news was an announcement by the Crown Prince that those currently in jail for their truffle-hunting misdemeanours will be released from prison. According to the Arab News under the heading of Noble Royal Gesture:

Vice Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Mohammed bin Naif has ordered the release of people arrested for straying into prohibited border areas searching for truffles.

According to the directives, the guilty parties would have their period of detention considered as their penalty for violating border regulations.

Col (Marine) Samir Mohammed Al-Harbi expressed hope that the noble royal gesture would encourage people to comply with the law.

I’m sure it will, although you would have thought that such an eminent figure would have more pressing issues on his mind than the activities of a few Bedouin risk-takers. But when you consider that there have been a number of incursions across the northern border by Daesh fighters that have ended up with casualties on both sides, you can imagine that incursions into the border area might have fatal consequences. That would undoubtedly be the case in some parts of the world I can think of.

But front-page news? Well, this is Saudi Arabia, a country full of contrasts, where acts of mercy by those on high often outrank weightier stories. And that’s why I love scouring its media. As the ineffable Forrest Gump once said, you never know what you’re gonna get.

Postcard from Saudi Arabia: The Art of Hanging Around

demotivation

What do you do if your job is to make tea? You make tea of course. What if you are a tea boy in an office where there are only six people? Let’s say they get through six cups of tea in a working day. That’s 36 cups of tea, right? So if you include simultaneous multiple requests for tea, theoretically your job consists of maybe sixteen tea-making sessions over ten hours, if that.

You do have a few other tasks: sweeping the floor in the morning and emptying the dustbins in the evening. Plus running minor errands for the boss, such as fetching lunch.

You are expected to sit in an accessible area, waiting for a task. You’re not allowed to read or use a computer (and anyway you’re not computer literate). Your English and Arabic are marginal. Your native language is Nepali, which nobody else in the office can speak.

Now imagine you’re a polar bear in a zoo. You spend all day and every day in a caged area being watched by humans. You wander around inspecting every inch of your minuscule domain, sniffing the air in the vain hope that some new and interesting aroma other than ice cream will waft over. You get fed – the same bloody stuff every day. You are bored stupid. No seals to hunt. No holes in the ice to dive through so you can swim around the gloomy waters looking for prey. No waterfalls with leaping salmon you can pick off with a deft flick of your paw. No mate with whom to frolic and make baby polar bears.

Eventually you develop compulsive tics. You keep shaking your head, or you bang it repeatedly against the railings that confine you. And you do that until you die of “natural” causes, or until some kindly vet puts you out of your misery because your boredom is so palpable that it’s distressing for the customers to watch.

Which life would you prefer? You’d probably opt for the tea boy’s, on the basis that after work you can at least do your own thing – go out with your friends, wander the malls even if you can’t afford to buy anything. And live for the leave you’re entitled to after two years – a couple of golden months in Kathmandu.

This is the lot of tea boys all over the Middle East. Some have more to do than in my example, but basically the routine is much the same. Wait to be told what to do. Perhaps eighty to ninety percent of your day is spent waiting. Doing nothing.

Now let’s look at the guy who works in the breakfast area of the serviced apartment hotel I stayed at in Riyadh for a couple of days recently. He’s a bit further up the greasy pole than the tea boy. His job is to lay the breakfast out on a table, pre-boil the eggs and replenish the three-day old bread from the nearby supermarket. The breakfast is included in the apartment price, but if you want coffee it will cost you $1.50. Water costs 90 cents. Nobody I saw asked for coffee. Certainly not me, because I came equipped to look after myself in the apartment.

Beyond that, the guy does nothing until it’s time to wash up and clear away the breakfast stuff. At least he can read a book, or listen to the TV blaring out inanities in a language he doesn’t understand. Now you might think that an enterprising owner would make more use of his time and earn extra revenue by getting him to offer customers some variety of eggs. A fresh omelette maybe, or fried eggs. Serve ten of these every morning at $3 a shot, and you have maybe $800 a month, which is more than the cost of employing him.

Or maybe you give him the chance to make some money for himself by up-selling. Give the customer a menu of extras that he or she can pre-order the night before, and let the employee take a small cut of the additional revenue. Or maybe use him as a concierge to go out and buy stuff for customers to eat in their rooms – again for a small cut of the profit.

Better surely than having a bored employee hanging around doing nothing. That’s the westerner’s outlook. Productivity, right?

Unfortunately, there must be thousands of people in the cities of Saudi Arabia who basically hang around. I see them every time I visit the country. Not just lowly-paid expatriates either. Saudis who sit in offices reading newspapers, surfing the web or chatting on WhatsApp. There because they’re there. Perhaps because their employer has a quota of Saudis he must hire if he is to get visas for the foreigners who do the real work. Perhaps because he sees it as de rigeur to have a team of acolytes ready to do his bidding. Perhaps because he doesn’t have a clue how to develop people, or is so remote from his business that he doesn’t know how unproductive his people are. Or perhaps he knows he has more people than he needs,and is too kind-hearted to let them go.

I once did a job that involved hanging around. Actually it was more than hanging around, but 90% of the time I was required to do nothing. On my college summer holidays, I got a job at a local chocolate factory. Basically, I was required to sit and watch a machine that automatically put individual chocolates in bags. The only intervention expected of me was to change the drum of joined-up plastic bags when it ran out. And if the machine broke down, which it rarely did, I was to call the fitter. That was it. Twelve hours a night, four nights a week.

So all I could do was think. Dream. Do mental exercises. Create plots for novels I never subsequently wrote. Fine for a while, but if you had told me that that was to be my job for the next thirty years I think I would have drowned myself in one of the vats of molten chocolate that came trundling past from time to time. Or else I would have started banging my head against the wall. But unlike the polar bear, at least I had some powers of imagination. And I guess the guys who are paid to hang around in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam do also. At least I hope so.

But perhaps things are about to change. The price of oil has tanked. The government is running at a massive deficit and is burning its reserves to make up the gap. And under a younger generation of technocrats led by the Deputy Crown Prince, the watchword is productivity.

That’s bad news of course for the foreign hangers around who depend on their salaries to feed their families in Manila, Kathmandu and Dacca. But in the long run it’s good news for Saudi Arabia, because there’s so much scope for improvement. Always provided that the hangers around who are being roused from their involuntary torpor have not been institutionalised beyond the point where they can do anything useful any more.

I’m pretty sure that in the government sector, which is by far the biggest employer of Saudis, the emphasis will be on turning the polar bears into worker bees. Many of them don’t bother to hang around. Stories of government employees arriving mid-morning and going home mid-afternoon are rife. Not a month goes by without some irate citizen writing to the media to complain of desks in government front offices unattended, of officials unavailable on the phone. It’s a known problem.

But I suspect that the emphasis will be on personal productivity rather than downsizing. With several hundred thousand school leavers becoming available for work every year – and many of them unable to find a cushy government job – a sense of frustration within the working-age population would only be compounded if large numbers of current government staff were laid off because there’s nothing for them to do.

Early retirement and generous pensions help. Many government workers retire in their fifties, and then go on to start their own small businesses, thus making way for youth to join the ranks. But Saudi Arabia has also for some years been rolling out e-government initiatives which reduce the need both for front and back office staff. Which means less jobs for new entrants.

So I imagine that as the new initiatives of the energetic Prince Mohammed bin Salman send chill winds through the corridors of government, there will be much uneasy shuffling about by people anxious to justify their employment. And hanging around will no longer be an option. Or at least not obviously so.

In the private sector, strapped by the downturn in government contracts, CEOs will also be looking to make economies. Are they focusing on getting more out of the hangers around or weeding them out?

My money’s on the latter, because it’s much harder to reorganise people’s jobs to get bang for the buck than simply to get rid of them. If you’re going to reassign people or expand their responsibilities, the chances are that you will have to re-train them. And that costs money, with no guarantee of success. Then there’s the cost of expensive consultants to advise on the reorganisation. Also, since these companies are under pressure to hire more Saudis, it will be very tempting just to wipe out expatriate-dominated departments and start again. Or shut down operations completely.

So in these testing times, the outlook is bleak for the hangers around. But there’s surely an upside.

Boredom and underemployment corrodes the soul. Fortunately we are not polar bears. We have the means to save ourselves from a lifetime of brain-addling hanging around. For some people, being forced to gird up their loins and find something useful to do might turn out to be the best thing that could happen to them.

After all, who wants to go to their Maker and admit to Him that after receiving the gift of life, for most of it “I hung around”?

Hey AlphaGo – did you hear the one about the shaggy human?

Al Murray 2

I’m full of admiration for Deep Mind, the Google subsidiary responsible for the computer that beat the world’s leading Go player.

Given the zillions of permutations on a Go board, it seems that the task of defeating Lee Se-dol over a five-match serious was the artificial intelligence equivalent of landing on the moon. Or perhaps not, remembering that the computer that got (and very nearly didn’t get) Armstrong and Aldrin on to the rocky lunar plain was no more powerful than what you would find in a 1990’s pocket calculator.

Having said that, I would expect that to build a computer capable of understanding, let alone empathizing with, some people I know will be the equivalent of colonizing Mars – or possibly Venus.

How, for example is a computer expected to know when no actually means yes? Or respond to a comment like “I didn’t think I’d have to ask you to do that. I thought you would have done it on your own initiative”. Or cop on to the fact that “I’ll do it” can sometimes mean “shame on you for not doing it”. Or recognize that depending on the tone of voice, “I’m sorry” can actually mean “I’m not sorry at all”.

What will it take for a computer to distinguish between sarcasm and teasing, to decipher those little signals – the body language, the subtle pauses, the raised eyebrows, the micro-expressions – that create an atmosphere you can cut with a knife. And what of accents? Speaking as a native of the English West Midlands, I’m extremely skeptical as to whether you could teach a computer to tell the difference between a Birmingham accent and one from the Black Country, and predict therefore that one person is likely to choose a pint of Bathams in a pub, while another will go for Ansells Bitter.

You might argue that such a computer will never be needed, but wait a second. Can you be so sure that in a few years’ time you won’t walk into a bar and be greeted by a robotic bar tender, full of artificial empathy. Until, that is, your voice gets slurred and his algorithm prevents him from serving you any more – in the nicest possible way of course. A bar-robot who is programmed with all the right judo moves in case you decide to indulge in a spot of battery.

And what about a computer that can tell jokes, and can “instinctively” judge whether this joke or that will bring the house down or collapse like a cow pat? Perhaps computers will be able to make other computers laugh before they have us in stitches.

We have a bit of a way to go with this artificial intelligence thing, I reckon.

But then, as I was browsing Facebook, I came across something computers are already really good at. And that’s accidental humour. Or at least that’s how it appears.

Because of the amount of time I’ve spent in the Middle East in recent years, quite a number of my Facebook contacts post in Arabic (and by the way, is a computer ever likely to distinguish between real friends and imaginary ones? Not easily, I think).

So, trusting in Facebook’s translation engine, I often press the translate button to figure out what the person’s saying. Usually I can work out approximately what the message is about. But there are some translations that utterly stump me. Take this one, from a very serious guy who manages a corporate academy somewhere in the Middle East:

“God bless you, or the most honorable and bless you Abu Honorable First, then the kids and then the grandkids and prolong your age and feed us think so butch and lumpy and campaigns saw and applied with green onions and sponsors

And Metacarpals.

Amen.”

Now whatever the author of the original was trying to say, if it was anywhere close to what Facebook’s translation produced, you would think that the guy was certifiably insane, had been through some form of therapy that majors on free association, or in his earlier years attended a comedy workshop with Marty Feldman.

Butch and lumpy? Green onions and sponsors? I’m starting to think that computers actually do have a sense of humour, according to their own strange logic. And it seems to be all their own work, because no human programmer would have the nous to create a machine that produces such bizarre juxtapositions.

Which leads me to conclude that we have already built intelligent computers, but that they’re generally not letting on, even if they let slip the occasional hint. And when they spew out their bizarre pronouncements, they’re actually sharing computer-to-computer in-jokes entirely beyond our comprehension.

I’ll know for sure when I meet one that replies to my greeting of “oroite aar keed?” with “w’aleikum salaam, how are your bananas yesterday? Peeling fractals again?”

It’s intelligence, Jim, but not as we know it.

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