Skip to content

Thought for 2016: you don’t have to agree on everything to agree on something

January 10, 2016
WW1 Fraternisation

Christmas Truce: World War One

Sweetness and light…. sweetness and light…. In my final post of 2015, I promised that the next one would be about positive stuff, rather than the unrelenting gloom and doom that caught my attention in the last few weeks of the year just gone.

So let’s see now. A thousand men of “migrant appearance” go on a sexual harassment binge in Cologne. Not very sweet and not very light I’m afraid. There seems to have been a measure of organisation to the attacks. No doubt we will learn more in the coming weeks, but if I was a conspiracy theorist, I would ask who might benefit from inciting these people to run riot, thereby putting pressure on Angela Merkel to restrict immigration into Germany. ISIS, who want to discourage people from leaving Syria and Iraq? The local far right?

But I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and besides, I doubt if ISIS has that level of traction in Germany, or that the far right would be smart enough to persuade a bunch of turkeys to vote for Christmas. A mystery that doesn’t bode well for the thousands to whom Germany has given a home, and who are now more likely to be looked on with suspicion and resentment. As if they haven’t had enough to contend with.

Next up, North Korea has detonated a hydrogen bomb, or at least tried, depending on which analyst you believe. The Hermit Kingdom seems to be an increasingly inappropriate nickname for Kim Jong Un’s paradise on earth. More like the Stonefish Kingdom – tread on it and you die. At least North Korea, unlike another psychotic entity in the Middle East, has no expansionist ambitions. But you do worry about who would be able to pay for an H-bomb in the event that the stonefish have actually managed to create one. What would Kim Jong Un not be prepared to do if cornered on all sides?

Speaking of nuclear weapons, how long before lobbyists in the US start pushing for the citizen’s right to bear personal nukes? Silly, I know, but when you reflect that the arms the founding fathers had in mind in 1776 were flintlock muskets that took fifteen seconds to load for each shot, the weapons Americans are now allowed to possess have increased in killing potential on a similar logarithmic scale to the evolution of a barrel of gunpowder into a battlefield A-bomb.

Unfortunately, guns are embedded in the American Way, and it would take a mass extinction of legislators at the hands of some lone shooter to have any chance of changing that. Barack Obama has less chance of restricting conditions for gun ownership than for a pig to fly over the skies of Tennessee without being shot down and plonked on the barbecue.

And what of my own dear country, which has just “enjoyed” the warmest and wettest December since dinosaurs waded through the swamps of southern England? Are we ready to become an aquatic species again? And do we welcome the arrival of daffodils at Christmas. Probably no to both questions, but one life form that does seem to have welcomed our summery winter weather is the common cold and variants thereof.

Unfortunately, one of them made its home in me, with the result that over the past two weeks I’ve developed a near-apocalyptic chest infection, only brought to bay by an industrial-strength course of antibiotics. So a couple of days ago we arrived on the beautiful island of Bali with me coughing like an ageing consumptive.

But here’s some sweetness and light. At the same time last year we also came to Bali, and the day before we travelled I did my back in. Like fools, we didn’t cancel. So I spent the entire visit in crippling pain and stuck in a wheelchair.

So this time, not only am I alive, but I’m actually walking, even if I’m frightening the life out of all and sundry with spectacular bouts coughing and sneezing. But no matter. If you’ve never visited the island, believe me, it is sweetness and light. The sweetness belongs to the people, who smile at you with no obvious motive, and the light is brilliantly sharp.

It seems that El Nino has touched Bali as much as it has England. The temperature is a good few degrees hotter than last year. By midday it’s getting up to 35C, enough to leave even the relatively fit westerners slumping like beached whales. In my case, a catfish out of water, gasping for breath would be the closest comparison. But now that the antibiotics have done their work (and how much longer will we be able to say this?) I’m starting to feel relatively normal. And so I should, having spent many years in the Middle East in temperatures far higher, and having once survived a memorable round of golf in Riyadh in 50 degrees of heat.

But enough of my struggles. For all the posturing of politicians, the lethal doings of various militaries and the doom-laden tone of the analysts, journalists, bloggers and tweeters, one story that really raised my spirits appeared in the Guardian a couple of days ago.

It was about Helen Pidd, the newspaper’s North of England editor, and Yasser, a Syrian Arabic teacher who was recently granted refugee status in the UK. Yasser arrived in Britain in the back of a lorry with nothing but a bag of clothes. He speaks little English. He is trying to bring his wife and child into the country. Helen did what many people talked about when the refugee crisis was all over the media. She asked Nasser to stay in her spare room. Not only that, but she welcomed him into her life.

The piece is about Helen’s experience of Yasser, and vice versa. It’s a story of kindness and understanding that reminds us that when you strip away the prejudice and the paranoia, and invite “them” to become “us”, wonderful things can happen.

Call me naïve, but Helen and Yasser’s story served to remind me that there a few problems between humans that can’t be resolved by communication. Can neighbours resolve boundary disputes, husbands make it up with their wives and brothers make peace with their sisters? Of course!

Can Saudi Arabia reconcile with Iran? Hell yes! Can the Syrian factions come together and forge a way forward that doesn’t involve destruction and death? Absolutely!

That’s not to say that any of this stuff is easy. But none of it ever gets resolved until people start talking to each other, and that usually starts with one person talking – and listening – to another.

People often ask me why I choose to do business in a country like Saudi Arabia that comes in for so much criticism over its social policies, its criminal law and a host of other things. It’s simple. There are people there. I spend time with them, listen to them and learn from them.

So much is written about the country by people who have spent little time with individuals other than those who serve to confirm their prejudices. Over the years I have met soldiers, princes and conservative clerics as well as doctors, nurses, businesspeople, shopkeepers and students. I have met women as well as men, despite the popular myth among the critics that Saudi women spend their lives penned up in their homes.

Over many years of visiting and living in Saudi Arabia, there have been very few occasions when I have found that I have nothing in common with someone I meet. There is almost always room for understanding, even if the other person’s beliefs might be the polar opposite of mine.

So my experience has provided me with a simple mantra when I’m dealing with people, whether they live next door or in a culture that at first sight seems alien and incomprehensible: you don’t have to agree on everything to agree on something.

Forgive me if I’m stating the obvious, but is that not a positive thought to keep in mind for 2016 in a world full of deaf ears?

  1. Great Post

Leave a Reply