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Damn you Twitter, you keep shattering my windows

Yemen

I’m having a red hat day. And I blame it on Twitter.

About two months ago I started checking out Twitter feeds on a daily basis. I wish I hadn’t, but now I’m addicted.

I avoid the feeds of the great and the good, because half of them aren’t written by them. They’re the work of blatherous PR people. And anyway, what can I hear from Barack Obama and David Cameron that I can’t pick up with lashings of opinionated tosh (I was going to say comment and analysis, but as I said, this is a red hat day) from newspapers and websites?

Celebs are boring. Thespians should be watched and not read. Footballers tend to be as thick as two short planks (with a few honourable exceptions). Rock musicians? I suppose those who still have functioning brains have something to say, but there aren’t many of them left from my era.

So what’s left? Writers, journalists, and people valiantly tweeting from a stricken land. People who dance on a tightrope between saying what they want to say and being persecuted for saying it. Historians. People writing from and about the Middle East. Not everyone’s taste for sure, but they work for me.

Some of them are such prolific tweeters that you wonder how they find the time. Is this a hobby or profession? If the latter, how the hell do they make money from it? What’s the motivation? Ego, celebration, concern for the world, personal branding, boredom or cries from the wilderness?

I don’t follow many people, and not many follow me. The tweets of the people I follow outnumber those who follow me. This is not surprising, since I only tweet when I post to my blog. I can’t bring myself to play the town crier who feels he has to tell the world about everything he finds interesting. Selfish me.

As a side issue, the balance between followers and the followed is quite interesting. Has anyone created a power index based on the gap between the two? Christiane Amanpour, for example, has 1.36 million followers, but only follows 124 lucky people. She must be near the top of any such listing. You could call it the Narcissus Index.

As for my followees (anyone used that word before?), many impress with their renaissance-grade range of interests. Tom Holland, for example, a historian whose work I greatly admire. When he’s not playing cricket against the Vatican XI in Rome, he’s off to Alberta in search of dinosaurs. Or risking his life at the Hay Festival by talking about reforming Islam. Or checking out Roman ruins at glorious locations on the west coast of Italy.

Then there’s Mary Beard, ancient historian par excellence (and I’m not talking about your age, Professor – after all, I’m older than you are). She pops up on regular basis sharing thoughts about subjects far beyond Greece and Rome, opening herself up to yet more abuse from slimy trolls.

And Laura Rozen, who writes for AlMonitor. She’s my queen of the re-tweeters. 24 re-tweets in four hours on subjects ranging from Don Blatterone of FIFA to shenanigans behind the scenes of the Iran nuclear negotiations, with the thoughts of Putin and Obama thrown in.

Another favourite is Rashid Abu-Alsamh, a Saudi-American journalist who lives in Brazil, and whose eclectic taste in stories knows no bounds. Pity I can’t read Portuguese, so I’m precluded from enjoying his Brazilian posts (lazy me, I should use Google Translate. Sorry Rashid).

I read lots of posts about Yemen, Syria and Iraq. The most heart-breaking stuff comes from Ammar al-Aulaki, who tweets from Sanaa. Every day he reports on bombings in the city. A recent one shattered his windows and rearranged the furniture. Power cuts, water shortages, deaths, injuries and human suffering from one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. A people caught between various actors beating the hell out of each other and them into the bargain. And for all that, someone with great fortitude and relentless optimism.

So my problem is that in between the fun and eccentric tastes of some people I follow, the endless stream of posts about the manipulation, cynicism, stupidity, envy, cruelty and hypocrisy of the self-serving SoBs who hold sway over vast areas of the globe, and the poverty, repression and destruction of the soul over which they preside, make for a pretty depressing read.

And in no region are those qualities shown in greater abundance than in the Middle East, most of whose people just want to be left alone to pursue better lives for themselves and their loved ones. The stamped-on majority, dodging bullets, bombs and policemen in a region I love almost as much as my homeland.

My fault. I chose the people I follow. Maybe I should sign up with Pope Francis, Kim Kardashian, metal bands or stodgy academics.

Yet I continue to read, because in between the stream of posts about stuff I already know or don’t want to know about lurk gems in places I might never have explored. Fresh opinions. Sites I’d never heard of. The occasional flash of 140-character wit (mostly from Tom Holland). Great travel writing by Matthew Teller. Insight from the likes of Andrew Hammond, Frank Gardner and Brian Whitaker.

And anyway, why should I be depressed? Think of the starving millions, as the nuns used to tell little schoolgirls who wouldn’t eat their lunch. Wherever I go it’s in relative comfort. No RPGs and snipers waiting around the corner (though I sometimes wonder about that when I venture out in the streets of Riyadh). No sitting beaten and bloody in some cell from which I might never emerge. No need to pander, flatter, crawl and tip the non-existent forelock in deference to some arbitrary power.

So those Twitter feeds serve another purpose. To remind me how very lucky I am that an accident of birth brought me into a part of the world where the rule of law prevails (mostly). Where I’m free to mock and be mocked. Where I was fortunate enough to get an education that saved me from the dole. And where I have a reasonable chance of dying in my bed rather than at the bottom of a rubble-filled bomb site, or by a flashing blade on a piece of desert wasteland.

Yet all the blessings counted daily are not enough to spare me from regular waves of melancholy. A wringing of impotent hands at daily acts of inhumanity.

So what to do, as my Arab friends like to say? Keep reading, keep writing, keep caring. Keep loving life, keep loving people and throw the occasional oar in as the need arises and, I’m ashamed to say, expediency allows.

That’s the life of a back-seat witness whose armour-plated windows keep being shattered. Damn you Twitter.

Saudi Arabia and Britain: Very Different Games of Thrones

Prince Charles Saudi

It’s tough being an intellectually curious member of the British royal family. No royal knows this better than poor Prince Charles. The heir to the British throne is perhaps squirming a little because of the enforced publication of his letters to various government ministers a decade ago. The famous black spider memos were supposed to be confidential, but legal action by the Guardian newspaper forced their publication.

Not that he really has much to squirm about. There have been critics who accuse him of wasting ministerial time by lobbying them over his various hobby-horses. Some have accused him of citing bad science in his arguments. If that is the case, there are many so-called experts who are guilty of the same offence. Climate change and health sciences come to mind particularly.

The prince’s topics reflect deeply-felt concerns on a number of topics. Having a future king who is concerned about issues rather contenting himself with being a mute constitutional ornament is absolutely fine by me. Prince Charles, after all, would never suggest that his mother’s subjects should eat cake.

The hoo-ha about the black spider memos calls to mind the role of the monarch, which by custom is “to be consulted, to encourage and to warn.” How the heir to the British throne must occasionally wish that Walter Bagehot’s definition finished with “and to kick ass”.

Other monarchies have that prerogative, not least in Saudi Arabia, where I’m currently on a visit. Prince Charles is also a frequent visitor to the Kingdom. He had a close relationship with the late King Abdullah, who liked to take him out to the desert for traditional Arabian pursuits. I wonder if he has ever cast an envious eye on the wide-ranging powers of his fellow royals, not least the current Crown Prince. Unfortunately for Charles, the last monarch in these isles who exercised anything like the power of the Al-Saud was Charles I, and he lost his head for his injudicious use of that power.

Yet while the modern Charles must sometimes feel that he is waiting an eternity to step on to centre stage as king, spare a thought for the senior members of the Saudi royal family, some of whom must have felt over the last forty years that they were playing an interminable waiting game with no guarantee of the outcome.

What kicked off this train of thought was a long feature in the Arab News, Saudi Arabia’s English-language daily that appeared a few days ago. It was a tribute to the outgoing foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal. In a cascade of extravagant praise, the writers chronicled Prince Saud’s forty-year career as foreign minister in glowing terms that you would rarely encounter in an English newspaper. We’re far too cynical. Here’s how the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates began his eulogy:

“Those who do not know him will say he is an adept foreign minister and a faithful politician. Those who do know him will say, in addition to the above, that he is a master, and a cultured and well-read man of the highest caliber, the likes of which we see only every now and again in the annals of Islamic and Arab history. One can only marvel at the man’s astuteness and eloquence, at his soft-spoken words and decisive actions.”

A little over the top perhaps, but the truth of the matter is that Prince Saud did indeed have a distinguished career. He is highly respected within and without the Kingdom. He is an impressive man. His austere features remind one of his father, Saudi Arabia’s third monarch, Faisal bin Abdulaziz. Saud’s brothers, Khaled, Turki and Khaled are also impressive men, with long careers in government. Prince Khaled is currently Governor of Mecca. All the brothers are in their late sixties or seventies.

So here’s where the British royals differ from the Saudis. Whereas from the moment he was born Charles’s place in the line of succession has been was assured, unless of course he makes some gigantic constitutional faux pas. For prospective rulers of Saudi Arabia, accession to the throne is by no means assured. Only two men stand formally in line to succeed the current king. After them the succession is anybody’s guess – or strictly speaking a matter for the senior royals to decide. And perhaps being in the right place at the right time.

King Salman, who assumed the crown three months ago on the death of his half-brother King Abdullah, has finally passed the baton to the next generation of the extended Al-Saud family. Until last month the designated line of succession has featured only the sons of the founder, King Abdulaziz, known internationally as Ibn Saud. But now that the few remaining sons have been deemed too old, not suitable or unwilling to shoulder the responsibility, Salman has appointed two of Abdulaziz’s most talented grandsons, Mohammed bin Naif and Mohammed bin Salman as second and third in line to the throne. The crown prince is the King’s nephew. The deputy crown prince is his son.

For one reason or another the sons of previous monarchs did not make the short list. In the case of Faisal’s sons, age was an inhibiting factor. Prince Saud, for example, is older than at least one of his uncles, Muqrin, who last month stood down as crown prince in favour of Mohammed bin Naif.

It was never an option for King Faisal to put his sons into the line of succession. Faisal’s brothers, particularly Fahd, Abdullah, Sultan, Naif and Salman, were all ambitious and capable men who would have been outraged if their expectations had been thwarted. In the end Sultan and Naif died before they could succeed to the throne. But the family as a whole would have prevented Faisal from elevating his sons. It was only the dwindling number of eligible sons of Abdulaziz that led Salman to the next generation.

Would Saud Al-Faisal and his dignified, well-respected brothers have been regarded as candidates for the succession if their equally respected father had been the fifteenth son of the founder instead of the third? Quite possibly. An accident of primogeniture took them out of contention.

A few years ago I was asked to run a programme for a class of Saudi schoolchildren. The aim was to prepare them for studying abroad. To of find out more about them, I asked them a series of questions. One was “name the person, living or dead, whom you most admire”. Their answers were interesting. Those who did not name the Prophet Mohammed – a natural choice for devout Muslims – almost all chose King Faisal. Apart from one lad who came up with Lionel Messi.

Those who named Faisal gave many reasons for their decision. He was devout, he was principled. He pioneered girl’s education. He made his country respected throughout the world. I’m sure that their choice of Faisal was no reflection on King Abdullah, who was on the throne at the time and was also held in great esteem. But the children I worked with were born many years after Faisal was assassinated by a member of his family. So it’s highly likely that their views reflected those of their families.

And no wonder. After all, Saudi Arabia has Faisal to thank for the fabulous wealth that has enabled his successors to build the infrastructure that stands today. It was Faisal who engineered the oil embargo against the west that increased the price of oil many times, and brought the economy of the US to its knees. His reason for doing so was to protest against America’s support for a country that he regarded as illegitimate – Israel. The era of cheap oil was over, with profound implications worldwide. Once the embargo was lifted, the oil price stayed as a much higher level than before, thus enriching Saudi Arabia beyond the wildest dreams of its people.

The fact that Saudi Arabia has remained coherent and prosperous over the seventy years since the passing of the founder is a tribute to the ability of the sons and grandsons of Abdulaziz who have held executive power since then. These days absolute monarchy is something of an anachronism more or less everywhere except in the Gulf region. Absolute dictatorship, on the other hand, or rather various degrees up to absolute, is alive and flourishing. Dictatorships often ends badly. So do monarchies sometimes. And yet Al-Saud are still very much with us.

Part of the reason is that they can no longer be considered a family – more a tribe. There are many thousands of them. So the king has a large pool of talent to choose from. And despite the possible frustration and thwarted ambitions of those who might feel they deserve to be closer to the big prize, successive kings have been able to manage those tensions without letting them erupt to the surface.

Of all the Kingdom’s rulers since Abdulaziz, Faisal – I’m assured by those schoolboys and by a number of my Saudi friends – holds a special place in the hearts of ordinary Saudis. For all his ground-breaking achievements as king, he is particularly respected – to use modern parlance – for walking the walk. Whereas his predecessor, King Saud, was known for his self-indulgent spending, Faisal was a devout and frugal man. All families have their wayward sons and daughters, but Faisal’s offspring reflect his own example and his disciplined approach to parenthood. Not only are they known to be hard-working, but they are untainted by personal scandal.

The younger generation will before too long be in control of Saudi Arabia’s future. If filial piety doesn’t prevent them from looking for role models in addition to their own fathers, Mohammed bin Naif and Mohammed bin Salman will surely consider the careers of King Faisal and his sons. After all, were it not for that accident of primogeniture, at least two of Faisal’s offspring might have been standing in their shoes.

And others who may be champing at the bit for more responsibility could perhaps take some inspiration from the dignity and good grace of Prince Charles as he patiently awaits his place in history.

After the UK Election: Five years of certainty? I don’t think so….

Polling Station

So it’s over, thank goodness. And what now?

I’ll start with a truism popular both in business and politics: there are times when it’s better to make a decision that turns out to be the wrong one than to make no decision at all. And that, effectively, is what the electorate has unwittingly done by returning the Conservatives with an overall majority.

The stock market has reacted positively. Oligarchs and mansion owners have quickly moved to unblock the logjam of delayed activity in the upper end of the housing market.

Financial confidence, however, may prove to be short-lived if the certainty of majority government is tempered by the uncertainty of a referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union. According to David Cameron’s schedule, that event is due in two years’ time.

When I was a young boy learning about politics, I understood that Conservatism was about maintaining the status quo. That may have been the case in 1961, when Harold Macmillan was telling us that we’d never had it so good.

But since Margaret Thatcher handbagged her way into power in 1979, our largest right-wing party hasn’t done too much conserving. Deregulation, privatisation and outsourcing have been the hallmarks of Conservative rule, and there have been times when the Labour Party has come over as the reactionary force. Perhaps not during the Blair years, but certainly under Gordon Brown and prospectively under Ed Miliband. Under Brown, the mission seemed to be to roll back Blairism. Under Miliband, the positive proposals he put forward were overshadowed by the overwhelming impression was that the objective was to get rid of the Tories. That was also the most common sentiment I’ve seen expressed among Labour supporters in the social media.

To take Britain out of the European Union be would a staggeringly risky step, outstripping any risks Thatcher took. Not necessarily wrong, just risky. Projections that show the impact – positive or negative – of a British exit are basically extrapolations into an uncertain future. They prove nothing either way. For that reason I have a hunch that that the outcome would be that the out lobby will fail, unless a Greek exit triggers a financial disintegration within the Eurozone. The majority of us will simply not want to take the risk.

Even so, a referendum would not end the debate. The out voters would continue to agitate against our membership of the EU, just as in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum enough voters have rejected the result to turn Scotland into a one-party country as far as Westminster is concerned. I’ll come back to Scotland a little later.

A vote to stay in the European Union would certainly give David Cameron the prospect of calmer waters over the remaining three years of his government unless some new black swan – one of Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns – throws everything out of kilter. I would put the chances of that happening as highly likely. In which case the natural momentum of politics would suggest that disillusionment with the Conservatives and a reinvigorated Labour Party could threaten Cameron’s fragile majority by 2020. So another coalition or even a majority Labour government would be in prospect after the next general election. The electoral boundary changes now on Cameron’s agenda may prevent a Labour majority, but would almost certainly not stop the Conservatives losing their majority.

If you happen to be a house-owner looking to cash in on the long house price boom by downsizing and pocketing the profit, it would therefore seem that black swans permitting – 2018 will be the last opportunity to do so without your sale being blighted by yet more political uncertainty. Also by that time the current housing shortage will have started easing, because you can bet on the government introducing measures to encourage the construction of more affordable housing.

For the rest of us it looks like more of the same austerity medicine as the government struggles to meet its ambitious commitment to reduce the deficit. Further cuts on social benefits and public services await. Further tinkering with the National Health Service. Stealth taxes here and these.

The National Health Service is the ultimate sacred cow. Free at the point of delivery is the mantra with which no government since its establishment has dared to tamper. Except that it’s not free. Taxpayers pay for it. Those who don’t pay taxes don’t. Is it so iconoclastic to suggest that the mantra could change to free at the point of delivery, but only for those who don’t have the means to pay for it? Already there are voices calling for a £10 charge for general practitioner visits.

If the tax burden was shifted to allow the NHS to charge for certain services, an argument could be made that those who rarely used the service would no longer end up subsidising the frequent flyers to the extent that they are today. Tax breaks for infrequent use could incentivise healthy habits (maybe!). Any charges need only kick in when a user has achieved a certain level of income – say the 25% tax level.

I’m not advocating abandonment of the principle of an NHS free for all. But I can see that there are alternatives that would not necessarily be counter to social justice. Sacred cows may be sacred for a good reason, but that’s no reason not to cast a sceptical eye upon them from time to time.

The extraordinary political upheaval in Scotland raises some interesting questions. For any party in British politics to gain a virtual monopoly over a region is an anomaly to say the least. The Scottish Nationalists will need to walk on water over the next five years to maintain their current ascendency in 2020. Labour, from being an integral part of the Scottish establishment, will become the insurgents.

The SNP’s performance in government, which this time around escaped any serious national scrutiny, will be under the microscope. The three other parties whose representation in the region has been reduced to almost zero will be looking to exploit any failure by Nicola Sturgeon’s Holyrood legions. Therefore expect the SNP numbers in Westminster to decline from the current high water mark next time round.

One potential consequence of the SNP’s triumph might change the landscape dramatically. A major reason for the SNP’s success seems to have been a disillusionment with Westminster politics. The SNP is of Scotland and for Scotland. Its opponents in this election, even if they give themselves a tartan identity by inserting “Scottish” before the party name, are seen as instruments of their national party machines. Ergo, according to the SNP narrative, they are not of Scotland or for Scotland.

What if one or two parties arose that were genuinely independent of Westminster and the central party machines? Parties, say, that espoused left-wing, right-wing and centrist principles but were not in thrall to their natural allies in Westminster? They would therefore compete on equal terms with the SNP – untainted by a Westminster connection.

The fastest way for this to happen would be for the existing parties, Labour, Conservative and the Liberal Democrats, to allow their organisations in Scotland to sever formal links with the central party machines. A re-brand, including as a minimum a name change, would almost certainly be necessary. As is the case in Northern Ireland, the main Westminster parties would no longer contest Scottish elections, leaving the field to the new-born Scots-only rivals to the SNP.

While the Westminster parties would lose control over Scottish MPs wearing their colours, they could expect the support of the parties most closely aligned with their policies. And the SNP would be deprived of their unique sales proposition: of Scotland and for Scotland.

Even if the major parties decided against such a step, new home-grown Scottish parties will almost certainly be formed in opposition to the SNP. But it might take them much longer to become serious players.

However things pan out in Scotland, looking forward twenty years, it’s easy to imagine a federal Britain in which each region has a lively political forum in which parties are no longer campaigning on the narrow agenda of nationalism, but on issues specific to the regions. Just as political alliances within the European Parliament reflect common but not necessarily identical ideologies of parties in member states, so there would be natural alliances in Westminster.

Whether an English parliament emerges remains to be seen. But a federal model seems to me to be the most likely long-term outcome from the turmoil we’ve just experienced.

My personal feeling after this election is one of relative detachment. My constituency is one of the safest Conservative seats in the country. The sitting member is a cabinet minister who clearly has better things to do than run around chasing voters when he knows he’s going to win. I can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of leaflets we received, and those were for the local council elections.

I would have loved the opportunity to debate a few issues with the great man, but he didn’t come anywhere near my house or any others in the constituency as far as I’m aware. Too busy with more weighty matters no doubt. Nonetheless I felt taken for granted, as I always do on these occasions.

I have some sympathy with the Greens and UKIP, who argue that that the millions of votes they received bought them one seat each, whereas the SNP’s 1.5 million reaped them a far richer harvest. But I don’t see the first-past-the-post system changing any time soon. So my vote, which went neither to the incumbent nor to the two above, will continue to count for nothing.

After all, newly-empowered turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

My Country on Election Day

Spring 2015

May 7 2015

On this Election Day I have nothing to add about the political talk-fest beyond what I’ve already said in previous posts. But I will say this about my country: for all its faults and problems, I would rather be a citizen of the United Kingdom than of any other nation.

We may not be the best in the world at cricket. Our health service may be creaking at the seams. Our weather might be unpredictable. There are too many cars, perhaps too many people and not enough houses. Our scenery lacks the grandeur of other countries. Our food is of uneven quality, good in parts and awful in others. Our education system likewise. We have too much crime, too many drunks, too many self-righteous bureaucrats and too many greedy bankers. Our trains are packed, our roads are crowded. Our politicians can’t think beyond their noses. Our royal family is a benign irrelevance. Income inequality is at an all-time high and too many people are working for the minimum wage.

And yet we live in a country where by and large the rule of law prevails. Whose elections are largely fair and free. Where extremities of behaviour are only frowned upon when they impinge on the rights of others. Where you are unlikely to be shot in the street for expressing your opinion. Where men and women can use the law to complain about sexual prejudice, employment abuses and racial hatred. We have a generous welfare system that does a reasonable job of protecting the weak and needy. We are tolerant of social deviation, protest and individual difference. We have a press that is mainly free of political constraint. We make great films, TV music and art. We have an amazing diversity of culture for such a small country.

Is it any wonder then that so many people want to come and live among us?

We’d be foolish to think that we’re an exceptional nation. We’re better than some other nations in certain respects, worse in others. But if you look at the whole package, it’s pretty good, and it’ll take more than the current crop of politicians, whichever fails to lose heavily enough today, to screw it up beyond repair.

As I write this I’m sitting in my conservatory on a typical spring day – periods of glorious sunshine, and then clouds and chilling winds. The birds are singing and the trees have the rich green of the new season’s leaves. There are bluebells at the bottom of my garden and a robin that comes by every day to collect the dog’s discarded fur for its nest.

There are lots of people without the green and pleasant view that I enjoy, yet the same sights can be seen in urban parks and country meadows. I’m not sitting here in suburban complacency. I want us to fix the things that are broken, and make what’s mediocre excellent. I want us to show compassion and humanity towards Nepali earthquake victims, African boat people and Syrian refugees. I’m proud that our foreign aid budget is among the largest in the developed world.

I suppose this makes me in the eyes of many some kind of pie-in-the-sky liberal, thinking benign thoughts from my privileged nest. Maybe. But that’s what my family, my education and my country’s culture have instilled in me. And I’d rather be as I am than someone who advocates kicking out foreigners, persecuting gays, mutilating women and crushing diversity of every kind.

This is a country worth living in, and will remain so after the votes are counted in the next 48 hours. Whatever the result, I can’t imagine ever wanting to live anywhere else.

World Domination Shock – Gamers Find Another Way

File1050 Cropped

The Brothers Royston c1964

I learn from the London Times that a growing number of our gilded youth are abandoning PlayStations and other gaming devices. Apparently they are taking up the games that their parents and grandparents used to play – and still play.

Good for them. I always thought that there was something slightly onanistic about sitting glued to a screen for hours on end, zapping the bad guys or raiding tombs. I admit that I’m a complete ignoramus when it comes to “gaming”. Space Invaders in the pub in the late Seventies was about as far as I ever got. There are only so many aliens you can destroy before it starts getting a tad boring. I did have a brief flirt with Flight Simulator, but that was before the days when such pursuits could get you arrested as a suspected terrorist.

I do know that gaming can become addictive. For a couple of years I worked with some very bright young people in the Middle East whose grades started to fall over a cliff when hours at the joystick turned to uninterrupted days and nights.

Grown-ups do this too, especially in Las Vegas, where the hotels deliberately make it impossible to tell night from day, and people sit at the slots or the tables in marathon stints that would attract the attention of the health and safety police if this was what they did for a living.

So welcome to my world, young fogies. From the age of eight I was honing my competitive instincts with the most popular board games of the time: Risk, in which you fought for world domination; Monopoly – a perfect introduction to capitalism for an eight-year-old in short trousers. Then there was L’Attaque, in which you took to the board with an army of combatants that looked as though they had been plucked out of World War 2. Colonels with bristling moustaches, generals, sappers and so forth.

Of course there were also the perennials: draughts, chess, scrabble, backgammon and various card games including bridge, piquet and bezique (Winston Churchill’s favourite). I never really got into the more cerebral games favoured by the school intelligentsia – in other words those who were destined for Oxbridge – like Go and Mah Jong. Too cool for my taste. There was more than enough power and domination to be had from the other stuff. Ask someone if they played Mah Jong, and an odd look might appear on the would-be opponent’s face, as if you’d developed acne in an unusual location, or half of your dinner was adorning your school tie. But everybody played the mainstream games, and did so with the evil intent that so easily grows in the fetid micro-climate of a boys-only boarding school.

School was not the only place for games. At home on holidays, I would play endless bouts with my older brother, who was far brighter and more competitive than me. He took delight in crushing me at whatever we played. On the odd occasion when I won, he would get quite miffed. It was not unknown for him to throw the board in the air and scatter the pieces around the room. But I never resented his pre-emptive termination of hostilities, because, after all, that was what big brothers did. It was the prerogative of seniority. And anyway, an hour or so later we would be back in the fray. The picture at the top of this post is of the two of us in the late Sixties battling away by the swimming pool. Happy days.

One of the joys of playing board games, or bored games as some would have it, was that you could see your opponent, a pleasure that most gamers don’t experience. The sight of your victim losing his shirt in Monopoly, as Mayfair and Park Lane fall into your grasping hands (much as modern hotels end up in the portfolios of the Qataris) was a joy indeed. Especially if the loser happened to be your sister or younger brother, whose control over their emotions might not match the rapidly-developing stiff upper lip you had developed on the playing fields and in the dormitories of an English prep school. Snide text messages between online opponents are pretty tame compared with spectacular family meltdowns over one faction ganging up on another in Risk, or bitter accusations of cheating at scrabble. And there’s nothing like looking into the whites of the other person’s eyes as their defence crumbles at chess. Not quite as visceral as Game of Thrones perhaps, but I’ll bet George RR Martin, who wrote the books, is a dab hand with the chequered board.

Another attraction of board games is that they stimulate the imagination in a way the electronic equivalents don’t. Stacking armies of little red counters on Irkutsk and Kamchatka is not the equivalent of immersing yourself in hyper-realistic street fighting. Modern games are designed to leave nothing to the imagination. Are they creating a generation of kids who are incapable of creating their own fantasies because all their dreams are served ready-made on an electronic plate?

The time may be fast approaching when more gamers may have to seek alternatives to Call of Duty Black Ops 2. The internet is currently soaking up as much as 16% of Britain’s power capacity, and some experts predict that if usage continues to grow at the present rate we can expect rationing of bandwidth in the future. What better preparation for that moment than for our screen-sated youth to learn to play real games, in which protagonists scratch each other’s eyes out across a real table? Better than having to invent a new psychological condition: Internet Deprivation Syndrome, for the treatment of which vast funding from our cash-strapped National Health Service will no doubt be available.

Who knows, perhaps a few of our stroppy teenagers might even resort to humouring their elders and betters with the odd joust on the Monopoly board. The young may be smart and tech savvy, but put them up against their battle-hardened capitalist grandparents, and they will soon learn to know their place in the real world.

Postcard from Saudi Arabia: Changing to stand still? I don’t think so…

King Salman and heirs

King Salman (c), Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (r), Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (l)

Big changes have been taking place in Saudi Arabia of late. Professional Saudi watchers are not the only ones with plenty to do right now. These are happy days for the printing trade.

Within a day of the government reshuffle that left the Kingdom with a new line of succession to King Salman, I saw the first giant poster of the monarch with his nephew Muhammad Bin Nayef, the new Crown Prince, and his son Mohammed bin Salman, whom he has appointed Deputy Crown Prince. That was pretty quick on the draw.

Pictures of those who sit at the apex of the ruling family are to be found everywhere across the country – in hotels, schools, government offices and in massive roadside hoardings. With the passing over the last four years of two crown princes and more recently of King Abdullah, the printing presses have been busier than ever.

Now, two months after Abdullah’s death, the crown prince who was appointed immediately afterwards, Salman’s half-brother Prince Muqrin, has disappeared from the royal portraits, just as did leading Soviet luminaries in Stalin’s time. The difference is that Muqrin moves into a graceful retirement with the thanks of the King and the nation, whereas those airbrushed from Stalin’s history had usually met their end in a dank cell underneath the Lubyanka. That, fortunately, is not the Saudi way.

I’ve just finished my first visit to Saudi Arabia for several months, so it was a good chance to catch up what’s been happening since I’ve been away.

Lots is the answer.

For starters, there’s the new king on the throne. Not an unfamiliar face, because King Salman has been at the heart of the Saudi government for over forty years as governor of Riyadh and lately Crown Prince and Minister of Defence. In my country, when the Queen dies she will be replaced by her eldest son Prince Charles, assuming he survives her. Nothing much will change except that we will have a king who delights in talking to plants. No change in government, no change in society, except a different face at the Buckingham Palace garden parties.

But in Saudi Arabia the accession of a new monarch is more like the arrival of a new occupant in the White House. He brings his team with him, and out go many of the trusted servants of the previous king. Thus it was with King Salman, who removed a number of King Abdullah’s lieutenants while taking care not to disrupt the balance of interests within the royal family. Some of Abdullah’s favourites remain – most notably his son Prince Miteb, the head of the powerful National Guard, which has always been fiercely loyal to Abdullah’s branch of the family. But without going into the arcane details of the various comings and goings, Salman has his people firmly in the commanding heights of the government.

One of the dangers of Saudi watching – in which I am only an amateur – is that new monarchs tend to confound the most “informed” predictions of the direction they would take. King Abdullah was supposed to be a hard-line conservative and anti-American to boot. Yet he ended up presiding over a steady trickle of social reform, and his relationship with the US was no less cordial – until the Arab Spring – than that of his predecessor King Fahd. When the US effectively abandoned Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and started talking to Iran again, Abdullah became less impressed with US foreign policy. The US, he considered, was no longer a reliable partner.

King Salman promised upon his succession that little would change. But quite a lot has. Believing, as Abdullah did, that he could no longer count on America as the region’s policeman, he has taken the Kingdom to war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen – a Shia tribe supported, to a greater or lesser extent according to who you talk to, by Iran.

Other less dramatic indicators of a change in style as well as substance surface occasionally in the media. A few weeks ago, the recently-appointed Minister of Health was fired for speaking disrespectfully to a member of the public who asked him an awkward question. And last week he took severe action against a minor member of the royal family, Prince Mamdouh bin Abdulrahman, for making racist remarks on a radio show. The prince will never be allowed to speak in public again. To single out a member of the extended family for such public humiliation is a rare action among an elite that traditionally closes ranks behind its members. As the newspaper that ran the story commented, it sends a powerful message to the thousands of other princes and princesses that nobody is above the law.

Twenty years ago, the offending family member would have received a sharp slap on the wrist in private, and would have slinked away, never to take to the airwaves again. Someone I spoke to about the story pointed out that what the prince said in public only reflects what many people say in the privacy of their homes. But you could also say that of Britain and America too. You can’t eliminate racism with a hammer, but making it difficult to express racist opinions in public without consequences will surely influence attitudes in the course of time.

Some credit for the king’s swift action can probably go to the social media. Twitter was so full of adverse comments on the prince’s behaviour that some official action was perhaps inevitable. As one commentator pointed out the other day, the social media has become the voice of people who are normally not heard. Outrageous behaviour, especially if it ends up on YouTube, can result in almost instant action by government departments, many of which are known for their heavy, slow-moving bureaucracies. A few days ago a video of a man slapping a woman in public so hard that she fell to the pavement went viral. Police are actively looking for the perpetrator as I write this.

Nonetheless King Salman – who has always been known as a man with strong opinions and a willingness to take swift action – seems to be creating a new atmosphere by his own initiative in which those who cut through official inertia are encouraged and rewarded. Among the people I have encountered during my visit, he has gained almost universal plaudits both for his policies and his style.

Apart from changing the senior hierarchy, Salman has presided over two serious cabinet reshuffles. Those who believe that he’s rolling back some of Abdullah’s modest reforms cite as evidence the dismissal of the only female minister of any consequence, Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez, who was Deputy Minister of Education. She apparently incurred the wrath of the religious conservatives by paving the way for physical education in girl’s schools.

I wouldn’t be so sure that the move has long-term significance. Saudi rulers have long danced a delicate two-step with the religious establishment, as with other vested interests in the Kingdom. Pragmatism is the secret of the monarchy’s success, and King Salman is nothing if not pragmatic. Progress often comes not so much with two steps forward and one step back, but also with a couple of steps sideways thrown in.

I suspect that the national security is the top priority of the moment, with the Islamic State raging on the northern borders and the Houthi rebels of Yemen in the south. The well-publicised recent arrest of 93 alleged IS sympathisers within the Kingdom is an indication of the current concern.

Then there’s the economy. Low oil prices are affecting all oil-producing countries. Although Saudi Arabia has the reserves to ride out the current period of low revenue without seriously affecting its spending plans, it would be surprising if the government were not on the lookout for economies. Although generous subsidies and welfare payments are an obvious target, it’s clear that the king is also looking for improved efficiencies in the government apparatus.

And a third topic high on the agenda is the replacement of foreign workers with Saudi nationals. Saudization is a perennial objective, for social as well as economic reasons. Over the past three years the pace has stepped up, with a raft of regulations intended to force the private sector into greater efforts to employ Saudis, especially women. At the same time hundreds of thousands of illegal residents – many of whom have overstayed their visas or have been employed in contravention of the labour laws – have been rounded up and deported.

Weaning Saudi business off its addiction to cheap foreign labour is not a simple matter. Part of the price is the cost of helping young Saudis to become ready for work, which requires continued investment in education, both on the government’s part and by the businesses themselves. And then there’s the additional burden of paying the new Saudi employees a living wage. But whatever the cost, the dangers of the alternative – huge numbers of young Saudis living for long periods in the wilderness of unemployment – are far greater.

So it’s easy to understand that the social reforms that many would like to see – the most high-profile of these is women being able to drive, although there are many others that reform-minded citizens consider more important – are not at the top of the new king’s agenda. He will consider that there are many other issues worthy of his attention right now. And the last thing he will feel he needs is the inevitable clamour of protest from the religious conservatives at any attempt to disturb the social status quo.

One commentator recently suggested that you need continual change in order to stay in the same place, and that King Salman’s measures are for exactly that purpose. I’m not sure I agree. Saudi Arabia is a vastly different place to what it was when I first visited it thirty-odd years ago. Aside from all the infrastructure that has transformed its cities, for me the biggest difference lies in the country’s young people. In the eighties they were relatively compliant socially. Also there weren’t so many of them.

Now, according to the Saudi Gazette, 67% of the population is under 30. Whereas three decades ago there were no mobile phones, social media and satellite TV, today’s youth is assailed by multimedia influences both within and from outside the Kingdom. Young people are more vocal, and have ready outlets for their views. So have those who seek to manipulate them. From a Saudi perspective those influences are not always benign. It’s not just movies, videos and TV shows from the decadent west that concern them. The seductive messages from religious extremists – especially those from Iraq and Syria – are as much a worry to the Saudi government as they are to us in the west. For every young Briton who slips into Raqqah to join the IS jihadists, the BBC last year reported that five times as many Saudis have made the trip.

The reality is that there is no such thing as the status quo for the Saudis any more than for their neighbours in the Middle East. The political landscape is more volatile than at any time in the past thirty years. So King Salman and his younger heirs, as well as all the new technocrats who have moved into key positions over the past couple of months, will need to be fast on their feet, sometimes reactive and sometimes pro-active.

Standing still is not an option. I expect more developments in the months to come. Even in the last couple of days, changes to the governance of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company and the jewel in the Kingdom’s economic crown, are evidence that there’s much more to come. After all, why put all these new people in place if you don’t intend to shake things up?

The people of Saudi Arabia will have to get used to each dawn looking a little different from the one before. And the printers no doubt will be delighted with the prospect. There may be no need to change the roadside awnings for a while, but all the new regulations and announcements running off their presses will keep them busy for some time to come.

Eight Medics, an Injection in the Backside and a Strangelove Moment

Dr Strangelove 2

Yesterday afternoon I had a Doctor Strangelove moment.

Those of you who read my posts on movies and books will know that Stanley Kubrick’s masterly black comedy about World War Three is one of my all-time favourites. At the climax of the movie, an insane commander of a US nuclear bomber base in England appears to have succeeded in triggering nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union by sending his squadron on an unauthorised mission. Deep in a bunker in Washington, the president meets with his advisers to decide what to do.

The eponymous Strangelove, played by Peter Sellers, is a former Nazi scientist who is crippled and wheelchair-bound. As he speculates on the chances of survival in a nuclear bunker, and becomes increasingly excited as he describes a scenario in which there are ten women for every man, he loses control of his right arm, which snaps into an involuntary Hitler salute. At the climax of the scene, in a sublime moment of comic acting, he rises from his wheelchair and stumbles towards the President, uttering a triumphant “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!!!”. You can see the clip here.

My Strangelove moment was not quite as dramatic, but from my perspective just as joyous.

After months of pain around the lower back and left leg, during which I spent three weeks in a wheelchair (as described in my post Crippled in Bali) and the subsequent months dosed up with every pain killer known to man, I checked into a private hospital near my home for what’s known in the trade as a caudal epidural injection.

Basically what happens is that you get injected in the base of the spine with a combination of steroid and analgesic. This little cocktail is supposed to seep up your spinal cord and anaesthetise the inflamed nerve (caused in my case by a couple of wonky discs). The steroid then gradually reduces the inflammation.

My only previous experience of an epidural anaesthetic was as a spectator. Both our children were born with the assistance of an epidural that blocked all feeling below the lower back. Hence when our second child was about to arrive, my wife was chatting away as the surgeon got busy cutting her open. I wasn’t supposed to see that bit, but I caught a glimpse and nearly fainted. Very gruesome.

Anyway, my epidural wasn’t supposed to be so drastic. Just a needle into a little space between the bottom of the spine and the coccyx. Not serious, really, except that if the doctor screws it up you can end up permanently paralysed.

So having survived a week in Riyadh and Jeddah, with frequent sit-downs on the nearest available seat every hundred yards or so, I was due to arrive at 5.30 in the morning on the red-eye flight from Saudi and show up at the clinic for registration at 7am. Not necessarily the best preparation for a life-changing procedure, especially as I was seated next to a bear of an Ulsterman whose upper body rippled over the niggardly 17 inches that British Airways allocates to economy passengers. I don’t ripple – I tend to overhang – so we sort of collided in the middle. Fellow sufferers probably recognise the experience of eating your meal as politely as you can with your arms descending on the food from a vertical position.

A quick pick-up from Heathrow, and my loving wife duly ferried me to the hospital. There all kind of wonders awaited. The usual baggy gown that you don’t know how to wear – a choice between your backside sticking out or your other even less pleasant bits. I guessed that since an injection just above the bottom might be difficult to accomplish through a layer of hospital linen, it was the gluteus maximus that should be on display. Apparently I was supposed to don a pair of paper underpants, but none were provided. So I used my own. Charming ladies came and went. One to take my blood pressure and another to take my order for a post-procedure meal – assuming that the medics didn’t have to deal with the sudden onset of paralysis.

The consultant, equally charming and one of the best communicators I have encountered in a doctor, came in to brief me on the procedure and get me to sign the consent form. He went over the side-effects once again, but in such a way as to suggest they would never happen under his watch. Duly encouraged, I signed my life away.

Now you might expect that I would be gripped by a touch of pre-op nerves. But lulled into a questionable sense of security, I nodded off for an hour while waiting for the execution party. Though perhaps the fading imprint of the Ulsterman’s arms in my ribs had something to do with it. It wasn’t the best night’s sleep in BA’s cattle pen.

In due course they came to take me down to my fate. For the umpteenth time I was asked for my name and date of birth. Perhaps they were afraid that someone else might slip into my place for a dose of steroids.

Down in the torture chamber another team was waiting. Including the consultant, I counted at least four people who were there to tend to my needs. They included a nurse whose main purpose seemed to be to hold my hand while the needle went in. If only one received such attention in the dentist’s chair!

So I was asked to lie on my front with my backside protruding from the gown. As they prepared for the jab, they peeled down my underpants in stages. Strange feeling. When you’re under general anaesthetic all kinds of indignities can be inflicted upon you and you wouldn’t be any the wiser. But lying fully conscious on a table while a pair of female hands is progressively exposing your bum to the elements is definitely different.

These days they use some kind of ultrasound to make sure that the needle goes through a little hole in the bone structure. Looking up at the screen, I could see everything in real time. Not much pain, and five minutes later it was over.

It was back in the room where I started that I had the Strangelove moment. For the first time in three months I was completely without pain moving around. I resisted the temptation to exclaim “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!” out of respect for my Polish nurse, whose national experience might not have helped her to share my sense of humour.

Since yesterday, I’ve almost forgotten that I had a problem. True, I’m not cured, but there seems a good prospect that things will start to settle down. And thus far, none of the symptoms of steroid abuse – no sudden facial hair, acne or irrational outbursts.

Why have I bothered to bore you with this lengthy description of a routine procedure?

Well it makes a change from talking about tetchy politicians. But it’s also because every encounter with British medicine seems to give give me fresh cause for thought. In this case it does seem extraordinary that I should attract the attention of at least eight people for an injection. My stay lasted for about three hours. It was not always thus. Two hundred years ago, in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo, soldiers had their limbs amputated in 15 minutes with only a slug of brandy to lighten the pain.

The complete deal cost my insurers about two thousand pounds. That’s private medicine for you. Yet if you’re prepared to wait, you can get exactly the same treatment in the same hospital under the National Health Service. So actually you’re paying for fast treatment. But is that all?

While I was in the treatment room I heard that NHS staff now have to pay for car parking. Also that they have to pay for the milk in their coffee. I couldn’t help thinking what effect such petty cost-cutting measures must have on the morale of the staff. One of the consequences of giving accountants too much say over the running of an organisation is that the cost savings they so diligently achieve can be outweighed tenfold by the lost productivity that stems from demotivated staff asking themselves why they could be bothered. I’ve seen this over and over again in my business career. Saving a few pounds by cutting out inexpensive benefits can cost many times the value of the cost reduction, as staff no longer go the extra mile, people more frequently call in sick and employee attrition rates rise. As they blather away during the current UK general election campaign about reducing deficits, politicians should note that too often austerity is the bringer of false economy.

Before checking out I was presented with the inevitable “how did we do?” feedback form. I was asked whether I would recommend the hospital to others. I checked the Highly Likely box. Thinking about the smiling, highly competent people who looked after me, I wrote in the box that asked for the reason for my response: “The staff. Keep them happy.”

You can have the best facilities and equipment in the world, but without the staff, you might as well make do with a few couches in a cow shed. As for the eight charming medics, in the nicest possible way I hope I don’t get to see them again.

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