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Expatriate Life in the Middle East – Ten Things I Would Miss, and Ten Things I Wouldn’t

April 29, 2013

There’s been a lot of coming and going in the Gulf region of late. In Saudi Arabia, which is making strenuous efforts to slim down its expatriate population, and Bahrain, where foreigners are reconsidering their status in light of the country’s continuing instability, the going has been more frequent than the coming.

I’m currently on a short visit to the UK. And it’s often on trips away that I turn to thinking about the ups and downs of expatriate life. At the moment, the contrast between the UK and Bahrain, where I am based, is between fire and ice. Temperatures rising to summer highs in Bahrain, and tyres still burning. Frosty mornings in the UK, and an economy seemingly in deep freeze.

Though I hope to be living in or visiting the Middle East for some years to come, that’s not a given. It’s not a financial imperative – it has more to do with attitude. What you laugh at today might make you mad tomorrow, and vice versa.

My views are from a relatively privileged perspective. I’m not a construction worker perched on a girder in 40C temperatures. Nor am I a salesman with a target to meet or a salaryman in thrall to a soulless bureaucracy. As the founder of a business, I have stakeholders to satisfy, but broadly speaking I set my own agenda. I made up my mind a while ago that I wouldn’t work in any other way.

So when I leave the Middle East, I intend that it will be at a time of my choosing, or at the very least as a result of choices I make in full knowledge of the possible consequences. Hopefully.

When you make a life-changing decision, be it moving to a new job, a new location or even a new career, it can be useful to have thought through not only the practicalities but also the emotions that you are likely to feel after you’ve made the change. That way you are prepared for them, you’ve weighed up the emotional pros and cons in advance, and you won’t be too surprised by feelings that sneak up once the die is cast.

One way of doing this to list the things that you will miss about your former life, and those you won’t miss. So here’s my current list. Ask me again in a year, and it will probably be different, though many of these are perennials.

Things I would miss:

Generosity, kindness: A good place to start. Over the years I have been the recipient of many acts of kindness – from the gift of a ruler to a gesture in a souk. This is not just because of the traditional rules of hospitality, though these are written into the DNA of the Arab people even if they are fading among the globalised youth. I would miss that spontaneous generosity, and I would miss the friends who have shown it.

Respect for age: There are old fools and young fools everywhere in the world, and the Middle East is no exception. But here at least you have the opportunity to demonstrate that you are not a fool, rather than being automatically written off as no longer useful once you are past the age of 60. There is a genuine respect for wisdom born of experience, even if the downside is that uncritical respect can often lead to unthinking deference, and wisdom is sometimes an illusion.

Food: I would miss the laban and hammour, Bahraini breakfast, the Saudi kabsa, Iraqi kebabs, Al Hasa dates and the universal shawarma. Fortunately Lebanese food  – a common currency in the region – has gone global, so wherever Arabs travel you can always find a mixed grill, tabouleh, kibbis and all the other glories of Levantine cuisine.

Prayer calls: Well performed, the call to prayer is an art form, even if that is not its original purpose. Listen to this example in Karl Jenkins’ work The Armed Man – a Mass for Peace. I even don’t mind the competing calls from neighbouring mosques. When I hear the calls drifting over the fading skyline at sunset, I know I’m in my second home.

Calligraphy: for all the bombastic architecture of the wealthier parts of the Middle East, there is nothing that sums up the Arab culture like calligraphy. It’s a tradition that has outlived trends, fashion and cultural transition. Elegant, abstract expressions of thought that inspire whether or not you are a reader of Arabic, and whatever your faith.

Camels: Grumpy, individualistic creatures with attitude. It’s not just that a camel is such a versatile beast. I love the affection with which they are held among Arabs. I will always treasure the memory of a colonel in the Saudi Arabian National Guard taking me to a camel market and waxing lyrical on the finer points of the ideal camel physique. To be able to appreciate the beauty of a camel is not easily granted to someone who has not grown up with them. They may be status symbols these days, but camels are at the heart of Bedouin culture.

Youth: To talk of youth in generic terms is meaningless. I can only speak of the many young people with whom I have interacted professionally over my time in the Middle East. Many of them are now studying in some of the best universities the West has to offer. I would miss the enthusiasm – misplaced or otherwise – and idealism of the young people I know. It’s a long way from the street-smart cynicism so common among kids in the West. Hopefully their idealism will not be blunted by the education factory that many Western institutions have become. Long may their dreams continue.

Women: Never underestimate the women of the Middle East. The ones I know – and they include the allegedly downtrodden women of Saudi Arabia – are smart, feisty and thirsty for knowledge. Their personalities shine out, even if their eyes are sometimes the only physical indicators. If only more of them were running their countries.

Humour: Watch a bunch of people in a café smoking shisha. You will rarely see them sitting in solemn silence. Humour, even in adversity, is a precious gift that the Arabs have in abundance. Sometimes you have to penetrate masks of shyness to reach it, but it’s always there, waiting under the surface.

Emotion: Emotion is a double-edged sword. It can lead to irrational and impulsive actions – something very apparent every time you hit the road. But show me a people who can laugh and cry without inhibition, who can surf the waves of emotion, and I will show you a people who love life, even when their inability to control their emotions pitch them into disaster.

Stories: Stories retain a place in Arab culture that is fading in the West. The ability to learn from a story, instilled from early age through the monotheistic scriptures, is a precious gift. Western story-tellers are often seen as eccentric revivalists. In the Arab world stories are a normal part of the life of adults, not just children, even if in some parts – Morocco for example – the tradition is dying out.

Things I wouldn’t miss:

Drivers: Kids hanging out of front windows, lunatic speeding, cutting in, cutting out, cutting off. The passivity of traffic police. Macho behaviour, lack of consideration for pedestrians and other drivers, a ridiculously high death and injury rate. Need I say more?

Racism: A problem not just of the attitude of nationals for other races and cultures. It’s between races and between cultures. Westerners, Arabs, South Asians and East Asians all indulge in it. Sometimes it reflects the financial pecking order, sometimes social divides and sometimes it finds expression in religious differences. But it’s racism all the same. And it’s so endemic that the honourable exceptions stand out. It surprises me to see a wealthy or powerful man saying thank you to the guy who makes him a cup of tea, but not to see one barking an order at a waiter or a barista in a coffee shop. In a region where the scriptures speak of equality of all Muslims before God, I’m constantly surprised at how widely that message is ignored.

Entitlement: Particularly in the wealthier countries, a sense that the state should provide has grown as rapidly as the oil revenues. I’m amazed to hear stories such as that of the physical education graduates staging a protest in a ministry because the government has paid for their education but cannot guarantee them a job. The West is also addicted to entitlement, but when expectations that others will provide spills over into laziness, procrastination and reactiveness, it makes the business environment a frustrating place.

Pollution and Waste: The island where I live sits in a haze of pollution. Industrial gases, automotive fumes and the occasional waft of burning garbage and tyres make Bahrain one of the worst cases. You could argue that current unrest makes it a special case, but cross the causeway into Saudi Arabia and you will encounter a similar noxious fug. I will also not miss the casual attitude towards waste – stuff chucked out of cars in the knowledge that someone else is paid to pick it up. Food waste, water waste, energy waste. Waste is costing the region a fortune. Governments are fully aware of the problem, but seem incapable of getting their citizens to share their concerns in any significant way.

Sectarianism: A new phenomenon, yet an ancient one as well. There’s no doubt that local political and economic rivalries – as well as interventions from outside the region – have stoked the fires. But the fuel has always been there, waiting to be set alight every few generations. It’s ugly and shameful – a fault-line in Arab society that will seemingly never go away.

Authoritarianism: I will not miss the blame culture – where leaders look for a culprit before seeking a solution. Nor the expectation of loyalty without conditions, the fear that many employees have of their bosses, and many citizens have of their leaders. Some of that fear is eroding. In some countries it has fractured, to be replaced by fear of more basic things – civil disorder and personal danger. After all my years in the Middle East, I still find it a contradiction that tradition prohibits the depiction of the human being held to be the ultimate messenger of God, yet in many Muslim countries images of today’s leaders find their way into every public place – schools, offices, hotels and even emblazoned across entire walls of buildings. For me, the “big I am” speaks more of insecurity than entrenchment.

Time Wasting: I have no problem with my time being wasted, as long as it’s an enjoyable process. I have no problem with dhow time – the boat will leave when it will. I like the foreplay of social interaction before business, and I accept that it takes time to build trust, and that trust is a personal matter. If you live in the Middle East, you accept the flexibility of time or you ship out pretty fast. What I don’t like is time wasted through incompetence, short-sightedness, laziness and poor customer service by those who should know better.

Surveillance: It’s not just bloggers and tweeters whose utterances are monitored by zealous information police. The fact that you cannot send an email or make a phone call without the possibility that someone is listening doesn’t sit well with me, even if I’m not the target of the interceptors. An environment where some opinions can only be expressed in closed rooms or on the street is not a healthy one, even if those who watch and listen may have very good reasons to do so.

Print media: The other day I read a leading article in a local newspaper that blatantly misquoted an authoritative source in order to make a political point. The guy who wrote the leader is well connected and influential. I resent that calling him out on his distortion would not be wise, and that he counted on his readers like me swallowing the stuff in the first place. I would not miss him or his newspaper. A pat on the back for the Saudi media, though. They tend to be braver than most of their regional colleagues in pushing against the unspoken red lines, even though the occasional editor loses his job in the process.

There are many other things that I would miss – living in a multicultural society, the souks, the taxi drivers of Bahrain and the courtesy of strangers. And yet more things I would not miss – the casual attitude towards maintenance; low standards of health and safety; religious intolerance of all shades; selective and inconsistent application of criminal justice; weak enforcement of civil judgements; the cynicism of many expatriates for whom the Middle East is a meal ticket to be clung on to at all costs, and who pay little attention to the vibrant culture in their midst.

My perspective is largely of the Arabian peninsula. I have spent some time in other Arab countries, and intend to spend more – wars permitting – in the future. In the Eighties I grieved for the people of Lebanon, whose country I would have loved to have visited before the conflagration. And I grieve today for the people of Syria and Iraq, and for the destruction of their archaeological heritage – the souks, the citadels, the churches, mosques and the burial sites. And one can only hope that the people of Iran don’t have a similar orgy of destruction in store for them.

All are countries that I failed to visit in happier times. Shame on me, since all are a short hop from where I live.

The phenomena I have described are not unique to the Middle East. My country, the United Kingdom, has many aspects that I do not miss today, and a few that I yearn for. But one way to prevent memory from fading into mushy nostalgia is to take snapshots of thoughts before they turn rosy. Diaries are great ways to do this, but I’ve never had the discipline to write one.

Which is one of the reasons for writing a blog.

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