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Saudi Arabia thirty years ago – the mother of all U-turns

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Those of you who follow events in Saudi Arabia will be used to the description by many Saudi-watchers of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as impulsive.

That may or may not be the case, and I certainly think that compared to Donald Trump he’s the epitome of cool calculation. The same pundits also tend to characterise the country’s leaders over the three decades leading up to Prince Mohammed’s rise to power as being rather stodgy, conservative and not given to hasty decisions. By and large – and I speak as someone who spent quite a lot of time living in the Kingdom during that period – I would agree that the reigns of King Fahad and King Abdullah were not exactly dynamic. Such change as took place did not take the breath away.

But there was one notable exception. Over three successive days in January 1988, the Saudi equivalent of the Grand Old Duke of York marched his men up to the top of the hill and then marched them down again.

The events of those three days should be seen against the backdrop of the Kingdom going through one of its lean periods, thanks to the low price of oil at the time. Any opportunity to raise additional revenue was not to be sniffed at.

Here’s what happened.

Day 1 – January 4

Tax 1

The Minister of Finance announced the reintroduction of income tax for expatriate workers, of whom I was one. This was a big deal. The Minister pointed out that there had been income tax fifteen years before, but that it had been abolished

However, the vast majority of foreign workers arrived after 1973, and had no memory or expectation of being taxed. In fact, it was the tax-free salaries that led many of them to take up employment in Saudi Arabia in the first place. Especially for those who worked away from the cities, in the oil and construction industries, salaries were generous but working conditions were hard.

So the prospect of being taxed came as a shock. Many western expatriates tendered their resignations on the spot.

What happened next was that employers realised to their horror that if they wanted to keep their best people, they would have to pay the tax for them. Form their point of view the imposition of income tax was therefore a tax on them rather than on their staff.

I was told at the time that a delegation of big business owners sought an audience with King Fahad, and told him of the adverse implications – to them at least – of the measure.

Day 2 – January 5

Tax 2

The Saudi Gazette, one the two main English language daily newspapers, quoted the Vice-Minister of Finance and National Economy as saying that the precise details of the taxation regime had not yet determined.

This came as something of a surprise to worried onlookers, since normally such a major decision would have been thought out in detail beforehand. Perhaps it had, but influential figures in the government had started to row back.

Day 3 – January 6

Tax 3.jpg

A mere two days after the original announcement, the King announced that the imposition of income tax was cancelled. As the Arab News – the other English language paper – reported it, the decision was met with widespread acclaim. Predictably, business leaders thought that this was a jolly good thing. And in keeping with the flowery tone adopted by the media when reporting popular decisions of the monarch, the paper said that the King’s “noble move leaves expats awash with joy”.

Personally, I wasn’t awash with joy. More incredulous that I had witnessed a U-turn of monumental proportions, which is why I kept the press cuttings you see above.

Nor were a number of those who resigned their jobs on Day 1 too enthralled. Quite a few of them found themselves proud possessors of exit-only visas. They were not a essential as they thought they were.

Those bizarre three days in Saudi Arabia reminded me that the King’s power – said to be absolute – actually depended on consent from a number of powerful interests, of which the business community was one.

Quite a contrast to the events of the past week, in which Prince Mohammed has locked up a number of senior business owners on suspicion of corrupt activities.

Which leads me to suspect that today, if a delegation of business leaders still at liberty approached the Crown Prince or his father the King to protest against an unpopular measure, they might find themselves joining their colleagues at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, where all the detainees are being held.

How things have changed. Whether or not for the better is not for me to judge. But looking back at the events of January 1988 makes me wish that another unpopular and poorly thought-out measure could so easily be overturned at the whim of a monarch.

Unfortunately Brexit will not be so easy to kill, whatever the Queen might think.

The outing storm

When the outing storm rolls over a group of people of whom for other reasons one has a low opinion, it’s tempting to shout “out the bastards”. Such, from my perspective, is the case with a bunch of sitting members of the British Parliament accused of sexual misdemeanours at some stage in their careers. Lawmakers should know better.

But then an actor whose work is admired by millions, including me, enters the spotlight. Kevin Spacey is accused of sexually assaulting a minor thirty years ago. He apologises, while denying any memory of the incident. And comes out as gay.

How do we feel about Spacey’s apparent downfall? Happy because another abuser goes down? Angry because he is admitting to being gay to deflect from his behaviour thirty years ago? Sad because a talented artist who has given much to his profession appears to be at the end of his career? Suspicious at the motives of the alleged victim who has waited all these years to make his accusation? Or curious as to why the hell the parents of a 14-year old allowed him to go, seemingly unprotected, to a party full of adults?

Or do we simply shudder, and think “there but for the grace of God go I”? If we happen to be male, that is.

And how does this end?

Does it fade away when the media loses interest in the outing of a never-ending trail of well-known miscreants from politics and show business – rather like an epidemic that runs its course because the most vulnerable are dead?

Perhaps the defining criterion for the hue and cry will be the use of power to abuse others. The trouble is, there’s power and power.

The power of an employer, of political patronage, of money. In the west, these are the main levers. Not so elsewhere. There are some parts of the world where by tradition a man may not approach an unrelated woman, let alone touch her, yet if they get married the man is more or less free to do with her what he wishes, including rape her.

Lurking behind explicit power is the implicit. Physical strength, peer pressure, the power of manipulation.

Where will it end? It won’t end until we start asking how it begins. With pink and blue. With Dad getting pissed and beating up Mum. Or maybe just slowly reducing her over the course of a marriage. And later, with porn, with rugby songs, with MTV, with oral sex in a supermarket car park. With bravado masking fear. With superheroes, bullies and expectations dashed. With entitlement.

Enough books have been written on this subject to fill a large municipal library. I have nothing to add to the literature beyond a personal perspective.

When I look back on my life, I ask myself whether I have ever done anything that if I was famous might thrust me into the spotlight of shame. Perhaps. Grope an employee, send suggestive texts, call my assistant “sugar tits”? Never. But did I use the behaviour of one woman to characterise all women, as in “bloody women”? Yes. Did I hire a woman based on her looks? I like to think not, but when all other things were equal, possibly. And when I was in my twenties with a bunch of guys in a pub, would I join in the banter about the drop-dead gorgeous girl on the other side of the bar? For sure.

And there may be other stuff from another age that I might have said or done that has faded from memory. Nothing awful, I believe. But then again, that’s what the rock stars, DJs, music biz potentates and hangers-on would say about their behaviour in the 60s and 70s. Different times, different norms.

Did I know others who did all those things? Absolutely. Only in the movies did a man ask a woman for permission to kiss her. It kind of happened, didn’t it? And only on TV would some handsome idiot dressed up as James Bond abseil down a cliff to present a beautiful woman with a box of chocolates “because the lady loves Milk Tray”. Most women I knew at the time would have told him to bugger off.

Back in the 70s we were watching Straw Dogs, Performance, the Exorcist or, lord help us, Confessions of a Window Cleaner. We were a generation for whom the boundaries were dissolving, and I’m not just talking about men. Many of us were more concerned about the Vietnam War than whether the person we woke up next to in the morning had really wanted to be there.

Are we any better or worse today? We may have more gender fluidity, with a vocal minority agonising about safe spaces and personal pronouns. But we have Tinder, online porn available on tap to pre-teens, internet trolls threatening rape. And we have a dirty old man in the White House.

Worse still, in much of the world, the old rules about male supremacy still apply.

Will the disgrace of a hundred Kevin Spaceys serve to rewire our brains, and change the habits and attitudes built up over a hundred generations? I don’t think so.

For me, the issue is less about how men treat women, though that’s part of it. It’s more about how people treat people. How the young treat the old, and vice versa. How the rich treat the poor. How we treat the mentally ill. How we treat people with different faiths, ethnic origins and skin colour. How we treat the uneducated and disadvantaged.

These are the perennial questions, against which the experiences of a multitude of actresses, political interns and other victims of pathetic, bullying men pale somewhat into insignificance.

Solve the bigger problem, and we’d go a long way towards reducing the lesser one that is exercising us all today.

But we have to start somewhere. So by all means let the heads roll. Let’s make some examples. Let’s change a few laws, or at least enforce the ones that exist. But let’s not kid ourselves that most of those who end up getting busted are convinced they’ve done anything worse than the equivalent of a traffic violation. That’s a long way from knowing the difference between right and wrong.

I also worry that young people whose communication skills are not fully developed are liable to become ever more confused by what is acceptable and what is not. No rulebooks or seminars can cover every eventuality. The more mixed the messages coming at them from all directions, the greater the danger of a mistake that will ruin their lives.

As for the bigger issues, I’m enough of an optimist to believe that compared with a hundred years ago, we’re in a better place.

But sadly, the horizon is infinite.

Postcard from Bordeaux – pesky Parisians, Frexit and Europe’s worst airport

Everyone knows that sites like TripAdvisor are stuffed full of bull about the wonders of the products they advertise, which is why I don’t bother to visit them. Unless I want a laugh, of course.

You want the unvarnished truth? You won’t find it here, but in keeping with my reputation for fearlessly telling my version of the truth, here are a few thoughts on a short trip we’ve just made to France.

I learned three things about our nearest neighbour this week.

The first is that Bordeaux has a truly horrible airport – the worst I have passed through in France, and possibly in Europe. The second is that the French have their own version of Brexit. It’s called Frexit. I know this because I saw a poster advertising “Le Candidat du Frexit”. And finally, it’s a toss-up who the locals dislike more – the British or the Parisians.

The source of my stunning enlightenment was a three-day break we took this week to the Bay of Arcachon, which lies thirty kilometres west of Bordeaux.

I will save the description of our airport experience until last.

What of M Frexit? He turns out to be a chap called Francois Asselineau, who stood in the presidential elections against Macron, Le Pen and gang. He looks like a corpulent version of Nigel Farage, and he turned out to be about as successful as Farage in getting elected to a meaningful office. He came nowhere.

I suspect that his adoption of Frexit in his political banner might have been part of the reason. French purists abhor the creeping colonisation of their language by us Anglo-Saxons. They would argue that exit is an English word that has no place in a French political campaign. It would be difficult, though, to cobble some snappy word out of “France” and “sortie”, which would have been a problem for Assileneau. Whereas Brexit has the wholesome ring of a bowel-scouring cereal, Frexit conjures up an unpleasant cause of death. Almost as bad as Grexit, which sounds like a condition that requires the Heimlich Manoeuvre.

Anyway, the fact that nobody has bothered to deface or remove a fading poster of Le Candidat du Brexit from a wall just outside Bordeaux suggests that unlike Farage, M Frexit has hopped back into his pond.

Since this is supposed to be an alternative to TripAdvisor, I should say something about where we stayed. This is also where the antipathy towards Brits and Parisians comes in. The Bay of Arcachon is a huge bite out of the Atlantic coast. It’s almost a lagoon, but whoever did the biting clearly lacked the courage of their convictions. The result is a tidal basin in which the water virtually disappears for much of the day, leaving sailing boats stranded. It’s ringed by pine forests, villages full of plush holiday homes and miles of cycle paths.

The holiday homes are the source of anti-Paris resentment. Improvements to the rail network have reduced the travelling time from Paris to Bordeaux to two hours. This means more Parisians buying up properties around the bay, which also means more places sitting empty for much of the year.

How the Parisians can afford their plush holiday homes is a bit of a mystery, given that the French economy is supposed to be in a worse state than ours. But they have little competition from us Brits. There are no wrecks waiting to be renovated, and few achingly beautiful medieval squares where we can enjoy our coffee and croissants in the sun as we bray about property prices. Besides, why would we come to Arcachon when we have the Isle of Wight?

Our scarcity partly explains why we seem to be viewed with thinly-veiled contempt, and why waiters are almost as keen as those in Paris to watch with a malicious gleam in the eye as those of us who don’t speak French struggle with their ornate and incomprehensible menus. All very French. Even the Irish pub we visited when we tired of fusion cuisine was about as Irish as a Pyongyang caff.

Which was fine, because we were in France. And the Bay of Arcachon is place for vigorous pursuits beloved of the French – sailing, cycling, trekking, oyster-guzzling and even dune climbing – Europe’s tallest sand dune sits like a white elephant within the tree-lined coast.

Our base for the three days was a ludicrously expensive Italianate villa overlooking the bay. We managed to secure a room for a reasonable rate through an online auction. It was billed as private villa, not a hotel, and we shared the communal dining room and kitchen with other guests. In England we would call it a high-spec B&B, but you wouldn’t get many takers for a place in Bognor Regis with a rack rate of nearly 400 euro a night.

That said, there are probably not many B&Bs in Bognor with landscaped gardens, an eco-pool that uses no chemicals, a house full of Balinese wood sculptures and other effortlessly cool features, including a room at the top of a tower with a 360-degree view of the surrounding landscape, which was where we ended up.

All of which was fine and dandy, except that the bathroom was on the next floor down. To reach it you needed to descend down a steep spiral staircase. Not ideal if you’re suffering from the effects of too much red wine (which we didn’t), or if you have creaky knees and are of an age when you need to get up for the occasional night-time pee (which I do).

The absence of a kettle in the room was explained by the charming manager, Aurelien, on the grounds that you don’t usually have one in your own home. True, but in my home I’m not charged 8 euro for a cup of coffee from the machine in the kitchen. Tea, though, is free. So at our home from home, I reluctantly suspended my daily Alzheimer’s test of bringing my beloved her morning cup of tea, navigating over a sleeping dog and up a single flight of stairs in the process. A journey akin to the ascent of the Old Man of Hoy with a mug of hot tea in one hand would have been a climb too far.

Minor quibbles though. The place was lovely, the view was great and the weather a very pleasant mid-20s.

Our forays out included visits to both ends of the bay – Cap Le Ferret at one end, and the town of Arcachon at the other. At Cap le Ferret you can just about see the Atlantic breakers on the horizon and the monster sand dune sits across the water.

Dune de Pyla, Bassin d’Arcachon

Unfortunately our attempt to secure a coffee and snack at the restaurant overlooking the bay were contemptuously dismissed, on the grounds that it was after 3pm, and wasn’t it obvious that we close for three hours during the busiest time of the day?

We had more luck at Arcachon, which has a promenade of hotels and cafes on the beach-front. It could have been an August day, with the beach full of kids making sandcastles in the sun, and the well-dressed boulevardiers strolling down the pavement with the usual variety of dogs in tow.

Arcachon beachfront

I was conveniently reminded that I’m a stupid Englishman when I expressed surprise that the guy in the ice cream van was also selling churros, which I’ve rarely seen outside Spain. Pourquoi? You bought a mango ice cream, and mangos come from China, he replied. Silly me.

All in all, a pleasant trip, but a timely reminder that there are many parts of France that won’t miss us Brits if we sail serenely away into the mid-Atlantic, unless, of course, we can read their menus and bring large amounts of money with us. Perhaps the locals feel able freely to express their contempt for les rosbifs because, unlike in some parts of France, such as the Dordogne, we don’t outnumber them.

Now for the airport.

We arrived on Easyjet at the low budget shed on the side of the terminal. Nothing too traumatic about that. We hired a car, and were informed that we must fill up with petrol before we hand it back, otherwise we would be charged a full tank and 40 euro for the hassle. Again, relatively normal, though the inconvenience charge seemed a bit stiff.

On the way back we started off fairly early. Our flight was at 10.30pm, this time on British Airways, and we wanted to get back to the car hire cabin before it closed so that that they could certify that we had not damaged their precious property.

We allowed an hour to make the 35km journey to the airport so that we could stop by a filling station. But there was none. After 15 minutes driving back and forth around the airport we finally found one courtesy of satnav. We sat another 10 minutes behind a long queue.

It turned out that the establishment closed at 8pm for some reason. What kind of stupid bloody petrol station in the middle of a large urban area shuts at 8pm, we wondered. And why did they choose to locate it in some obscure location miles from the terminal? Even Gatwick, which ticks many of the boxes in the most horrible airport category, has a gas station in plain sight just off the South Terminal.

We filled up with a minute to spare, but missed our rendezvous with the car hire guy. My wife, who is convinced – probably with good reason – that car hire companies are even more grasping than bankers, then spent five minutes videoing every inch of the car with her phone as evidence of its pristine condition in case someone took a sledgehammer to it after we’d left.

The main terminal at Bordeaux is a concrete monstrosity that has plenty of space but nothing to fill it. One of those ambitious Euro-projects, perhaps, that’s designed to handle a passenger throughput that it will never achieve. Large, soulless and lacking the vital ingredient of people. There is but one food outlet on either side of security, selling the inevitable ham and cheese baguettes and a limited selection of rather sad pastries.

The people at the X-ray machines are surly – clearly graduates of the Homeland Security charm school. In fact they’re worse than their American counterparts. At least the Yanks say Sir when they put you in a choke-hold and march you away. It made me want to give a big hug to the folks who do the same job with infinitely more jollity at our airports.

When they ordered me to put my swatch through the machine, I found myself turning into Larry David and arguing with them about the explosive capability of a plastic watch. But these are not the kind of people to pick a fight with.

When we got through to the other side, it became clear that our flight was the last one of the day. Which was just as well, because the main concourse was tiny, with nowhere to sit other than the floor, and we were unable to get to the gate because the immigration police were nowhere to be found. So about a hundred of us – yowling babies and all – stood around for an hour until a few minutes before departure waiting for a solitary policeman to show up.

The lack of immigration officers was a new one on me. Even in Saudi Arabia, which is the proud owner of Jeddah International, of one of the world’s worst airports, there is no shortage of officials delighted to stamp our passports and get rid of us. Could it be that our French gatekeepers were taking a malicious delight at keeping a plane-load of Brits standing in a queue and wondering whether we’d ever be allowed to leave France? Surely not. We finally made it out, late of course, on a packed flight full of bawling infants back to jolly old Gatwick.

I can only sum up our experience of Bordeaux Airport by saying that if Tom Hanks had arrived there in the movie Terminal, he would have slashed his wrists within hours.

Then again, it’s quite possible that I’m turning into a spoilt old curmudgeon who travels abroad too much for his own good.

Never mind, better times are on the horizon. After Brexit, when the planes are grounded and the ports are choked with lorries, I shall introduce myself to the delights of coach trips to Bognor Regis, Skegness and other fascinating parts of my home country. Like all the other (relatively) ancient people.

Saudi Arabia’s NEOM – moving towards one country, two systems?

The current pace of change in Saudi Arabia reminds me of global warming. We know it’s happening, but can we predict the outcomes? Will Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s intention to transform the country into a haven for “moderate Islam” eliminate the influence of the conservative elements in its society?  Or will he inadvertently create an underground resistance that will lead to perennial unrest?

After decades in which change has proceeded at a glacial pace, the ice is thawing rapidly. Economic and social measures are announced on a regular basis. A far-reaching 2030 Economic Vision. The ARAMCO flotation. Cinemas and entertainment zones. Women allowed to drive. Possible changes to the female guardianship rules. Even Richard Branson has got in on the act. Yesterday he announced that the Saudis would be investing a billion dollars in his space business.

The one constant is on the political front. Nothing and nobody is being allowed to challenge the supremacy of the royal family. Most recently there have been arrests across the social spectrum – from ultra-conservative clerics to liberals pressing for democracy. Saudi Arabia remains in the thrall of al-Saud. Those who have traditionally served as a brake on its absolute power – such as the religious establishment – appear to have been sidelined.

The Crown Prince is not without his opponents and naysayers both within and without the Kingdom. The war in Yemen is draining the treasury and going nowhere, they say. The 2030 Vision is hopefully ambitious and will fail. The marginalisation of the conservatives cannot be achieved by decree – hearts and minds need to be won. Others describe the task of embracing “moderate Islam” as a counter-reformation, pointing out that a Reformation of sorts took place more than two centuries ago when the first Saudi dynasty came to power in alliance with the “back to basics” preacher, Mohammed ibn Wahab. They claim that an open society promised by the Crown Prince cannot exist without the political plurality that he shows no sign of tolerating.

Whether or not the sceptics are right, there’s little doubt that Mohammed bin Salman has a massive task ahead of him if Saudi Arabia is to wean itself from dependence for its prosperity on oil and gas.

Saudi-watchers often claim that he sees Dubai as his model of governance. Tightly controlled by the ruling family, but socially liberal – up to a point – and rampantly entrepreneurial. But Dubai is a city state. It’s relatively easy to control politically and its population of nationals is far smaller compared with its expatriate s than Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is sprawling and diverse.

My guess is that the Crown Prince looks further for his model – to China, where the entrepreneurial spirit thrives within the iron grip of the Communist Party. To compare Xi Jinping and his party oligarchs with Al-Saud might be a stretch, but the royal family numbers many thousands and its patronage extends far and wide.

In one aspect the example of Dubai does loom large in Saudi thinking. With its cinemas, bars and relatively relaxed social mores, it’s long been a honeypot for Saudis who wish to escape from the restrictions of their homeland for a weekend or sometimes longer. “Why can’t we be like Dubai?” is a familiar refrain, especially in cities, such as Jeddah, that have always been more cosmopolitan than those in the Saudi heartland – Riyadh, Hail and Qassim.

The news that the Saudis are planning to create a new megacity on the north-west coast, close to Jordan, Egypt and Israel made me smile, for reasons I will explain shortly. NEOM will be nearly the size of Belgium. It will be socially liberal, powered by sustainable energy, and devoted to high-tech industries. As Prince Mohammed explained, “this place is not for conventional people or conventional companies”.

Certainly not in Saudi terms. Potentially it represents the first step in solving the ages-old tension between the conservatives and those who chafe under what they see as unnecessary social restrictions.

Why the smile? Because six years ago in this blog I anticipated a development not a million miles from what is now being contemplated. In a piece called The New Saudi Arabia, I imagined the monarch at the time, King Abdullah, upon his return from surgery in the United States, addressing the nation thus:

….Of one thing I am sure. We cannot stand still. Today our economy is stronger than ever. We are a respected member of the G20 group of nations. We have carried out many initiatives to foster a new economy that will remain strong after our blessed patrimony, our reserves of oil and gas, have been depleted. But we have to face the prospect that within the next fifty years those resources will no longer be as valuable to the world as they are today. Our neighbours and trading partners are, as I speak, developing  alternative energy technologies which are reducing the world’s reliance on hydrocarbons.

We must do the same. Whether the long-term solution is nuclear, solar, wind, wave power or a combination of all these technologies, Saudi Arabia must be at the forefront in developing solutions for ourselves. This is why I authorised the establishment of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and other research initiatives.

But these are long-term programmes. They will not solve the pressing problem facing many of our young people – the curse of unemployment. Therefore, after consulting members of the Shoura Council and the Council of Ministers, I have decided to issue a Royal Decree announcing a number of measures designed to stimulate employment, reduce our reliance of foreign labour and move towards a knowledge-based economy.

The first and most important measure will be to divide the country into two areas with separate commercial and social policies. The cities of Jeddah, Rabigh, Yanbu, Dammam, Al-Khobar and Jubail, together with their surrounding areas, will be designated as International Zones. The remaining cities, including Riyadh, Makkah, Al-Madinah and Hail, as well as the rest of the Kingdom, will be designated as Heritage Zones.

The Western cities, and particularly Jeddah, have long been at the commercial heart of the Kingdom. The conurbation of the Eastern Province plays a vital role as the centre of our petrochemical industries. It is in these regions that we will be implementing new regulations to encourage trade and investment, employment and the free movement of labour. If the measures succeed, then we will consider implementing them in the Heritage Zones also. If they fail, then those who accuse us of being resistant to change will not be able to say that we were unwilling to consider new approaches.

The new measures in the International Zones will include free association between men and women in the workplace, in education and in public gatherings. Women will be permitted to drive. Women will be permitted to practice as lawyers and in all other professions open to men. The sponsorship system for foreign labour employed in these zones will be abolished. The incentives currently in effect in the Royal Commission cities of Yanbu and Jubail will be extended to all the cities in the International zones. Several government departments currently located in Riyadh will move to the International zones, but staff will not be guaranteed lifetime employment, and their working conditions will be similar to those in effect in the private sector.

The Heritage Zones are at the heart of our culture as Arabs and Muslims. Riyadh and Hail best exemplify the purest Arabian traditions of hospitality and observance of the customs of our ancestors. The Holy Cities have been entrusted to us by God, and we will cherish and preserve them as living monuments to our Islamic values. In these regions, life will continue much as it does today.

There will be no discrimination between the Zones in terms of the basic rights and entitlements of our people. But by these measures we recognise and cater for the differences of aspiration and social preference between one section of our society and another. Our policy of investing in business, education and research across all areas of the Kingdom will continue. It will be the choice of our citizens whether to live and work in either Zone.

Saudi Arabia cannot stand apart in the world. We recognise that not all of our neighbours share all of our customs and values. We have learned from their successes and failures. These measures make certain areas of our Kingdom more aligned to the commercial and social practices of our neighbours and trading partners, while preserving in the heartland the way of life practiced by previous generations. They open the way for Jeddah to become the third great commercial and financial centre of the Middle East, rivalling Dubai and Bahrain, but with the advantage of being the only centre in the West of our country. The Eastern Province can similarly develop to become the centre of excellence for engineering and petrochemical technology in the Arabian Gulf, capitalising on the experience and expertise of Saudi Aramco. By these changes in social regulation, we even open the door for the cities of the International Zone to host major sporting competitions such as the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup.

Other measures will include regulations requiring a rigorous examination of productivity both in the public and the private sector with adjustments to work permit allocations and labour laws based on the findings. Schemes to re-train Saudi nationals in mid-career into new and rewarding occupations. Anti-corruption legislation that imposes stiff penalties with no exceptions on those who abuse positions of trust for personal gain. The requirement that foreign companies operating in their own right or as joint ventures contribute either to a national research and development fund or invest in their own research and development in the Kingdom, with the rights to their inventions remaining in the Kingdom. Standardisation of procedures for granting business and visit visas common to all our embassies abroad. Investment in non-religious tourist attractions within the International Zones.  Extension of tourist visas into the International Zones for non-Muslims…..

The full piece is here.

Things are not quite working out that way. It would be hard to see young Saudis in places like Riyadh being content to miss out on all the fun to be had elsewhere. And the ban on women driving has been lifted throughout the country. But NEOM, if it happens, would be the first example of an entire area being sectioned off into a zone where different social and economic rules apply, even if, as Bloomberg anticipates, it ends up being populated more by robots than people. If it works, the principle of “one country, two systems” could become a model for further zoning.

I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of Saudi Arabia. I’ve been coming to the country since 1981, and for several years it was my home. That doesn’t make me an expert on all matters Arabian. But I’ve met and worked with enough people over those years to know that there’s no shortage of talent, enthusiasm and goodwill.

I also know that the Kingdom’s political leaders have always tempered dreams with pragmatism, and for that reason I don’t believe that a greater degree of political plurality is out of the question, even if today it appears far away.

Perhaps my optimism is rooted in a desire to see the country succeed. For all its flaws, there is so much to like about its people, its traditions and its often quirky approach to life.

If the region were not so riven with conflict, I would be even more positive about Saudi Arabia’s future as a nation. Even so, there have been plenty of people willing it to fail over the past nine decades of its existence, and it’s still standing. For the sake of all the good people who live there, I hope its current evolution leads to stability and fulfilment.

Those of us who watch from afar, whatever our reservations over its social and political policies, sometimes forget how important the country is to our prosperity. The prospect of it plunging into the chaos that has ruined its neighbours to the north would have ramifications way beyond the Middle East.

For me, it’s a bit more personal. I made friends with many Saudis over thirty-five years. They deserve happiness and success as much as the rest of us.

Brexit: thoughts from an enemy of the people

 

Back in the days when I was an employer, my business partner and I took the view that there was no point in trying to keep people who wanted to leave the company. Even though we felt that our company was a great place to work, we understood that some people – especially those for whom we’d been the only employer – would want to branch out and broaden their experience of working life.

A number of them came back to us, after realising that the grass was not greener. And we welcomed them.

But would they have left in the first place if they had known that the grass consisted of a few desperate shoots in a field full of mud and putrefaction?

I’m beginning to think that the only way we will resolve the decades-old argument that culminated in Brexit versus Remain is if we crashed out of the EU with only the bare minimum of working arrangements in place.

Yes, the result would be economically difficult. I’m not going to use words like catastrophic and disastrous, though in hindsight we may see it that way. In fact I, like many others, fear that we will end up with a shrunken economy, diminished influence and a generation of citizens whose prospects of happiness and personal fulfilment will be substantially reduced.

In other words, we are in danger of discovering that the grass is not greener.

If that is the hard road that destroys the pretensions and credibility of the Brexiteers for ever, then perhaps it will be a road worth travelling down. In a decade or so, reduced, humbled, and finally stripped of any aspirations to be a world power, perhaps we can apply to re-join the EU as just another medium-sized European nation.

By that time, the EU will hopefully have reformed itself into an entity that no longer orbits around the dead weight of the current Brussels establishment, and is flexible enough to accommodate greater diversity in economic, political and social models within its membership, including the strange ways of us fractious Brits.

I don’t want that future.

I’m still counting on the likelihood that come 2019, there will be enough people in politics who will realise that although their careers may be crippled by overturning Brexit, at least they will escape the notoriety that will stay with them for ever as the architects of Britain’s most damaging mistake since Suez.

Again, should we slip off the cliff, the consequences would not only be economic. It’s entirely possible that our political order will disintegrate. The parties we know today may no longer exist. They might well be replaced by an extreme right, who, like Nigel Farage today, will look for any opportunity to blame others for the misfortune that they helped to create, and an extreme left, who will blame a rigged economic system for all our social ills.

One who apparently knows better than me is Iain Martin, who wrote in yesterday’s London Times:

This winter we are about to be treated to the spectacle of a large part of the British establishment (much of it unelected) effectively trying to overturn a referendum result that was at root a rejection of the British establishment view. If you want to reverse the referendum, this chaos might delight you. But for many millions of voters this will be “our betters” saying that what the country voted for should be vetoed.

Which perpetuates the myth that those who oppose Brexit are the “British establishment”. Not me sir, and not the millions of young people who voted Remain, including my kids.

He goes on to predict fire and fury if the supposed will of the people is thwarted:

…. I have a stark warning from the Leave side of the argument about the potential implications of keeping Britain in the EU against the wishes of voters. Those trying to stop Brexit are playing with matches in a petrol station. Right now, Brexiteers may be depressed by the difficulties of the talks and their own failures of planning but if the process is stopped or looks like it could be, those who campaigned for it are hardly going to sit back. They will organise, and quickly.

They will do so even if the evidence that we are making a terrible mistake is overwhelming? Perhaps. When faith trumps reason, all manner of demons come out to play. Martin claims that there’s plenty of money available from donors to fund a renewed campaign:

The capacity to facilitate new forms of political organisation and protest via social media is well observed here and in the US. A cross-party campaign outside Westminster could be put together very quickly. Think in terms of Momentum for Brexiteers but much bigger, with attempts at organising rallies on a vast scale to spread a pro-democracy, anti-elite message.

At the root of it would be latent anger with the liberal elite and the cosmopolitan contempt in which Brexit voters are held, too often finding themselves dismissed as decrepit racists or stupid dupes.

Ho hum. Pro-democracy and anti-elite? Liberal elite and cosmopolitan contempt? It sounds as though we’re in for a British Trump campaign. Stand by for the swamp drainers and wall builders.

But if you call out racist attitudes among leave voters, and point out the blatant lies peddled by influential (and wealthy) leave campaigners who were aided and abetted by shadowy data analytics companies and mischief-making Russian bots, does that mean that you are anti-democracy and pro-elite? Arrogance works both ways, I think.

Most of the arguments at the moment are about the possibility of no deal, something that the Chancellor and the Home Secretary describe as “unthinkable”, but which the fanatical Brexiteers view with glib complacency. They, of course, are not the ones who will suffer most from the economic consequences. I can’t see John Redwood, for example, applying for income support any time soon. Those who think that Britain under World Trade Organisation rules will be in clover should take a look at this Twitter thread launched by Jo Maugham QC, who is a barrister and a leading Remain activist. He quotes from the Treasury’s own findings pre-referendum. The scenarios are not pretty.

If no deal is not unthinkable, I can’t see how a reversal of Brexit is also beyond the pale, especially if the electorate vote for it in a referendum on the terms of departure. Failing that, as Yanis Varoufakis advises, we should adopt the Norway model which guarantees us access to the single market, albeit at a price. As he says, we would be far better prepared after five years under the Norway terms to work out what future relationship suits us and the EU best.

Even better would be to revoke our Article 50 letter, stay within the EU, and set up an independent advisory body that can help us ensure that should we choose to press the exit button further down the road we will have a coherent view of strategic options, we will be working with accurate data and will have contingency plans already in place. In short, all the things we’ve been struggling with over the past six months.

If, in the meanwhile, reforms to the EU institutions create an entity with which we are more comfortable, fine. But at least we will better understand how to leave in the future without falling into a black hole.

Either way would surely be better than the path we’re on right now. I have no ill will towards the Brexiteers. But speaking as a committed traitor and enemy of the people, I long for the day when the angry ideologues at either end of the political spectrum fall silent. And if for that to happen they must get the chance to put their theories into practice, then so be it.

Let’s hope that afterwards we still have a country worth living in, and that we don’t burn too many martyrs along the way.

The Sun God of Morality feasts again

If public revulsion at Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual predations was as widespread as you might think, you might also think that the newly outraged would turn on Donald Trump. No such luck, unfortunately. Those most likely to be outraged will no doubt remain so. For the rest, the prevailing view on Trump will continue to be “he might be a bastard, but at least he’s our bastard”.

For the time being, at least.

We Brits have seen this stuff before. It’s a crude parallel, but you could say that Weinstein is our Jimmy Savile. True, Savile died before he could face the music, whereas the film producer, once he emerges from his sex addiction clinic, has every opportunity to defend himself, most likely along the lines of “forgive me – I have a problem”.

Just as Savile was not the first celebrity to be revealed as a sexual predator in Britain, in the United States Weinstein’s downfall was preceded by some high-profile busts: Bill Cosby for example, and Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News.

The shaming of our creepy former icon kicked off a series of sexual abuse allegations against famous people. Some were convicted. Others were acquitted, and yet more were named but not charged, thus tarnishing their reputations forever.

Our hunting frenzy has not been confined to people in the entertainment business. Over the past three years the finger of accusation has been pointed at a former prime minister, Edward Heath, and a several more politicians who, like Savile, were unable to defend themselves because they were dead.

Weinstein will no doubt be followed in the moral dock by others in his field. He may be the most powerful executive named and shamed, but he won’t be the last. After all, the casting couch has been around since the dawn of Hollywood. We can expect a wildfire of accusations against all manner of famous people in the coming months. And I have no doubt that some of his peers who are energetically casting him into the outer darkness will themselves, like Robespierre, the grand inquisitor of the French Revolution, end up at the guillotine.

When the shame storm has played itself out, will America enter a new era in which sexual exploitation becomes a career killer? I doubt it. At least not as long as Donald Trump rules the roost, and not as long as Hollywood continues to feed the public appetite for depictions of murder, rape and sexual exploitation.

As for Trump, there’s plenty of evidence of his attitude towards women, but nothing that has conclusively proved that he’s more than all talk and no action. Allegations, yes, but videos, semen on clothes, no. Bill Clinton showed that modern presidents can survive pre-election scandals. So it has proved with Trump.

Nor is it likely that he will risk future indiscretions. US presidents are unlikely to be able to get away with bunga bunga parties, even if, like Silvio Berlusconi, they are still able to rise to the occasion.

But then again, who knows what Vladimir Putin has up his sleeve, ready to let slip at the appropriate moment?

Sadly, my best guess is that after the sun god of morality has feasted on the ritual sacrifice of Weinstein and a few others, things will return to normal, and powerful men will continue to do stuff with impunity for which the rest of us would end up behind bars.

Because they can.

Evidence of a life – building a virtual monument

For me, letter-writing died some time around 1993. That was when I started using email in earnest. I’d had a computer for the previous eight years, but it served as a repository of data rather than a means of communication.

Nowadays, I wonder how many people up to the age of fifty actually send letters to anyone, apart from job applications, tax returns and – in the case of the young – thank-you letters to elderly relatives that they’re shamed into writing by nagging parents. In fact, forget about jobs and tax – most people deal with these chores online.

Postcards from exotic locations, yes. But mainly for Granny. The really hot stuff – the parties, the champagne and the daring pursuits that cause the elders to fibrillate with anxiety – appear on Instagram and Facebook, which, conveniently, Granny doesn’t know much about.

A little personal project recently competed reminds me how much I miss letters.

Too many people in my age group have died recently. David Bowie, Alan Rickman and a host of others – and just now, Tom Petty. Therefore I’ve decided it’s time to prepare for death. Not that I’m planning to go any time soon, but I dare say all those talented people who departed in their sixties didn’t either.

Death doesn’t require a monument. Not everyone can say “si monumentum requiris, circumspice” (if you seek his monument, look around you), as Christopher Wren’s epitaph in St Paul’s Cathedral proclaims. Most of us pass on with little ceremony and not much to show for our lives, forgotten within a few years by all but a small group of friends and family.

So in the absence of a physical monument – a Playboy Mansion, a Monticello or a Goldeneye – the evidence of my life will have to be virtual.

My generation is perhaps the last to have corresponded regularly by letter. If I was famous, I might leave my “papers” to some public institution such as the Bodleian Library in Oxford, so that scholars could admire my wit and wisdom for centuries to come.

Now that everything is electronic, that will no longer happen. If you wrote in your will that “I bequeath my emails to the British Library”, your executors would rupture themselves laughing. And anyway, if you were really famous and your emails were even vaguely interesting, the Russians would already have hacked them and sent them over to Wikileaks.

But old letters written on real paper – thick creamy sheets or wafer-thin airmails – lie hidden in trunks. Ready to be discovered, or not, by relatives who are clearing up your stuff after your funeral. If you’re lucky, or not, the person doing the clearing might be fond enough of you to hang onto stuff that has no intrinsic value, but adds to the patchwork of evidence as to who you really were.

On the other hand, if they’re only after the jewellery or the antique furniture, or if they fancy a second-hand set of golf clubs, they might be tempted to throw the rest of your crap into the rubbish dump.

I have plenty of mementos of my parents. War medals, diaries, hundreds of photos that I’ve lovingly digitised, a few press cuttings about significant events such as my uncle’s death in World War 2. The diaries, written sporadically by my father, are almost indecipherable, but shed some light on the person. But there are precious few personal letters, and virtually none written or received by any of my grandparents.

So I know a reasonable amount about my mum and dad, including stuff I wasn’t supposed to know when they were alive. About the earlier generations I know virtually nothing beyond the bare details of births and deaths that my parents passed on, and what I can trawl from official sources – census records, the War Graves Commission and so forth. Not much in the way of monuments.

There is one exception. As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I have my grandfather’s diary of his experiences in the First World War. As a result, his character comes alive – a rare shaft of light in an otherwise muddy jumble of anecdote and bureaucratic records.

As for my parents, I interviewed them on video for five hours in an attempt to fill as many gaps as I could.

My children have shown little inclination to do the same exercise with me, perhaps because they think I’m immortal, young fools. So if I want to be remembered, it’s up to me to build my own monument, whether it’s interesting to others or not.

Which is where the letters come in.

What I don’t have is ones that I wrote. They remain with the recipients, and have probably been thrown out ages ago. I do remember writing long letters, which will be no surprise to readers of this blog. In my first year in Saudi Arabia I wrote to all and sundry about the wonders of that country, the bizarre, the hilarious and the unexpected. And when people dear to me went off to other places, I would also write at length about the nonsense that was going on at home.

I must have been striking the right tone, because people would write back. It’s those letters that I religiously collected over the years. And it’s those letters, disinterred during a garage purge a couple of weeks ago, that I decided to digitise.

Most of them I hadn’t read for twenty-five years. They were written to a student making new friends, falling in and out of love, casting away the legacy of school and home life. They were written to a penniless struggler in his twenties, living in a succession of houses where the windows froze on the inside in winter. And they were written to an expatriate whose fortunes were transformed amid the oil fields of the Middle East, who became a husband and a father, an actor, a traveller and eventually a businessman.

None of those recipients are me today, and yet all of them are. Reading them again after all these years has shown me more clearly than before what sort of person my correspondents thought I was.

They also shine a light on the world my generation lived in.

No email, PCs, IPhones, WhatsApp. Often no land lines:

I’m feeling a bit concerned about not hearing from you, especially after hearing that things had not been so good where you are. I hope all is well with you and that you have received my recent letters.

A phone conversation with a close friend thousands of miles away was eye-wateringly expensive, beyond the pocket of many young people – therefore a major event:

It was great talking to you on the phone – the line was pretty good considering, but it must have cost you a fortune.

Direct flights to faraway places? Not if you were from a forces family, as one friend was. And when you get to your parents’ house, no aircon:

My flight to Hong Kong was horrible – 19 hours including stops in Aden and Delhi. It’s bloody hot here – it’s midnight, and I’m lying under a fan in 80 degrees.

The annual student ritual of house hunting, by snailmail:

I’m wondering if you’ve found a new house to rent for this year – if so, do you have a spare bedroom?

CDs, streaming, ITunes? Nope, just the humble cassette:

Hello again, my father has put on a cassette of folk songs – and my mother is singing away. They’re enjoying it so I mustn’t complain.

Writing letters was an effort. Receiving one from home was an event to look forward to. Would you say the same about an email?

What a little shit you must think me. There you are in the desert and all you want is the occasional letter, and I can’t even be bothered to do that. There is no excuse, you’ve always made time for me and I should at least have done the same for you.

With your best friends, a chance to amuse, to create and share stuff:

He cheated at cards
He cheated at life
He cheated his friends and he cheated his wife
He lied to us all till he ran out of breath
Then he threw in his hand when he could not cheat death
(My latest effort after 4 pints)

And much, much more. Words of love, hurt, thanks, reproach, praise, disappointment. References to people I don’t remember. Letters from people I don’t remember. Reminders of opportunities taken and lost. Words that bring back the person I once was, and people who once were.

These letters have become part of my modest little monument. It includes photos, videos, various writings (including the 750 pieces I’ve written in this blog). Most of it is open to anyone who’s interested. The letters, however, are rather like the repository for the naughty bits from Pompeii: restricted access.

Perhaps I will also provide some commentary about the writers of these letters, or at least those whom I remember. Not because I’m planning to write an autobiography, though that might be fun. But who would read it? And who would be interested?

You don’t have to be rich, famous or especially talented to create your own monument. But if you’re not, nobody will do it for you. It doesn’t have to be grandiose or full of bombastic self-justification. It can be more like a burial mound, hiding its treasures within.

I have no better reason for building mine than my own satisfaction, and the possibility that those who remember me when I’m gone will have more than a few photos, a few artefacts and a pile of crap to be thrown on the dump. I’m not vain enough to assume that the stuff I’ve gathered in electronic form is going to be interesting to my kids or their kids. But it’ll be there if they want it.

I don’t believe in living in the past. There’s plenty left to see, feel, do and enjoy. But the past  – especially our own – is not another country where they do things differently. It’s with us, it’s part of us, it informs us and it helps us make sense of the present.

And as I think of all the people – famous or not – who have gone this year while having so much more to give, I appreciate the present all the more. The future will take care of itself.

Like St Paul’s Cathedral, my monument is not a static thing. I shall keep building it until I can build no more. Hopefully that won’t be for a long time.

This post is dedicated to Paul Brett Sommers, a dear friend and letter-writer who passed away two years ago, aged 66, about whom I wrote this when he died. An example of his ramblings is below:

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