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Thoughts at Eid-Al-Adha

October 28, 2012

There are times to do and times to think. Usually I can do both, though rarely in parallel. I am, after all, a man.

The last month has flown by. Too many airplanes, some seemingly saturated by the pungent odour of shirts rarely washed. In others, the sweet scent of wealth in a freshly-pressed thobe or Western suit is the prevailing aroma. At this time of year, hopping between Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Bahrain is rarely a calm experience. Airports are packed with travellers to the Haj, and with others taking advantage of the Eid-Al-Adha holidays to get a well-earned break with their families.

In Dubai, which I visited this week, there are 150,000 Saudis enjoying the holiday, according to the Saudi Travel and Tourism Department. In Bahrain, where I live, every second car in the City Centre Mall – the plushest on the island – seems to have a Saudi number plate.

The exodus from Saudi Arabia is dwarfed by the influx of people into the Kingdom. Official figures suggest that 1.75 million visitors have flocked to Makkah for this year’s pilgrimage.

For me, this year’s Eid-Al-Adha is a quiet time. Time to reflect on all the stuff that is going on, both near and far.

Here in the Middle East, three words come to mind: loading, exploding and imploding.

First, loading. It seems as though we are living though a phoney war. Israel preparing for strikes against Iran. The US and its Gulf allies getting ready to defend the Straits of Hormuz against Iranian threats to mine the shipping lane on which half the world depends for its oil supplies.

This is not merely of academic concern to me. I live a mile or two from the naval base that hosts the US Fifth Fleet. If the balloon goes up, Iran’s Silkworm missiles will surely be winging their way over my roof. If any manage to penetrate the screen of Patriot batteries, then I can only hope – for my sake and that of thousands of others – that they don’t fall on my neighbourhood.

The argument on nukes has gone beyond logic, if it ever started there in the first place. Iran will not be told that there are many wealthy and influential nations that have never sought nukes, and yet wield substantial influence in their own back yards and beyond. Israel will not be persuaded that there are other ways to protect itself from another holocaust than being able to create another one. It’s all about emotion. Fear, pride, suspicion, unwillingness to be pushed around. Thus, the swords are being sharpened.

Exploding. That’s easy. Syria’s agony is unmatched in the region since the Lebanese civil war in the 80s. Lebanon and Jordan are threatened by the overspill. I was in Jeddah when Lebanon blew up. After a while, one became numb to the endless slaughter, the car bombs and the bewildering shifts in allegiance between the warring parties.  What made it worse was that the whole region seemed to be in flames – Eritrea, Aden, Palestine, Iran and Iraq. It amuses me when observers speak of a status quo before the Arab Spring. Some status quo.

Syria, to an onlooker like me, is Lebanon redux. Except that this time the nerve stays raw. If I sometimes look away, it’s not because I don’t care. It’s because it’s too bloody painful to dwell on the viciousness, the suffering of innocents, the intransigence and the pure evil – if there is such a thing – loose in that country. Will the fall of the Assad regime herald a new era of stability in the region? Hell no. Expect the Jihadi road show that has sustained the uprising to find another playground in short order.

And finally imploding. The collapse of the Iranian economy is affecting every Iranian except the oligarchs who are – at least partly – responsible for it. I could use the same language to describe the prevailing conditions in Iran – viciousness, suffering of innocents, intransigence and pure evil. The only difference between Iran and Syria is the scale. People are not being killed every day in Iran. Yet the millions of innocent citizens are caught in a vice of the regime’s making. Drastically declining living standards, brutal suppression of dissent, a self-serving oligarchy and a ruthless police state. To top that, the average Iranian lives in fear of cruise missiles in the night, and of a conflict that could ultimately send the country back to the stone age.

The Syrians and Iranians I have come across are intelligent, educated and moral. They don’t deserve what is happening to their countries. They don’t deserve leaders who are prepared to sacrifice the welfare of present and future generations on the altar of self-preservation.

Further afield, we have an election in America. Much of the time America’s political systems work well. But am I alone in wondering why a country would elect a president at a time of extreme crisis, prevent him from carrying out his mandated program, subject him to intense personal animus, and then kick the guy out because he failed to do the job?

Yes, I know all about the separation of powers. But I also know about the power of money in the hands of the unelected, many of whom set out to get Barack Obama from the moment he was elected. Natural justice, for me, says that you kick someone out only after giving him a fair crack of the whip and seeing him fail. Obama has not had a fair crack of the whip. He has achieved plenty, despite the efforts of his political opponents to hobble him, and he doesn’t deserve to be sacked.

Elsewhere in the world, we have the claims that Chinese leaders are enriching their families thanks to their privileged positions. The 90-year old mother of outgoing party leader Wen Jiabao, a former teacher, sitting on a huge stake in an insurance company. Relatives of the heir apparent, Xi Jinping, also appearing to enrich themselves.

This may be China’s century, but I see no evidence that economic and political dominance will be any easier for China in this century than it was for the USA in the last one. China no longer insulates itself from the world, and therefore cannot fully protect itself from economic contagions that start outside its borders. For all its achievements, it faces demographic, social and cultural issues that are yet unresolved – a gender imbalance as the result of the one-child policy, a large portion of the population that have not benefited from the economic miracle, and shortages of water and other resources. We have yet to see how a serious economic downturn will affect the stability of China’s freshly-minted dynamo.

In Britain, apparently the average person  is £1,800 worse off today than he or she was before the banking collapse. So? What law, natural or human, ever guaranteed an ever-improving standard of living? Have we British forgotten what real deprivation is all about? If so we should speak to the generation that went through the Second World War. A time of blitzes, rationing and the fear of imminent death in the home or the battlefield. Better still, we should read Paul Ham’s Hiroshima Nagasaki, an account of the suffering of the Japanese in the aftermath of the first and only use of atomic weapons, which I reviewed earlier this month. Or Savage Continent, Keith Lowe’s account of the suffering of the European populations in the years after the end of that war.

And if those accounts don’t make us realise how lucky we are to be living in the West, then perhaps a conversation with a few survivors of more recent conflicts – Syria, Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan for example – might convince us.

Zooming back to the Middle East, I hope that the multitudes in Makkah and Madinah take comfort and solace from each other and from their communion with God. They need it, because many will be returning to places that are hardly godly.

As for the rest of us – especially those of us who have enough to eat, are able to elect a leader without goons looking over our shoulders, do not fear people in helmets barging in on us in the night, do not see drones circling the skies above  and are able to express our opinions freely in public – we should count our blessings.

Fifty years ago today, Nikita Khrushchev and John F Kennedy reached an agreement  that ended the stand-off over the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. It was the closest the world has come to all-out nuclear war. All the more reason for all of us – of whatever faith, culture or political persuasion – to reflect on today’s unresolved conflicts, and support the efforts of those who are seeking to bring them to an end without further senseless bloodshed.

Eid Mubarak to one and all.

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