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Postcard from Saudi Arabia – The Law of Good Intentions

April 22, 2016

Turkish Coffee

For as long as westerners have been coming to Saudi Arabia, the use of the word inshallah (if God wills it) serves in their minds almost as a signature of the local culture. If I ask you to commit to doing something by tomorrow, you say “inshallah”. If I’m new to the region, I might get mad, and say, “not inshallah – definitely!”

Even if I try to prohibit the use of the word, which would be extremely rude, the person from whom I’m trying to extract a commitment might say it in his head if not to my face. A bit like keeping one hand with fingers crossed behind his back.

At least that was the case when westerners were brought here to run things. Nowadays there are fewer Americans and Europeans in the Kingdom, and most are in jobs which require them to support rather than dictate. All the more reason for them to work with the culture rather than against it.

So perhaps it’s time to explain the cultural context of the word inshallah, at least in the limited understanding of this westerner.

In the literal sense, it implies that you can never guarantee that something will happen, let alone that you will make it happen, because the event is out of your hands – it’s in the hands of God. You might have a heart attack. Your car might break down. You might forget, or you might not do the thing because something more important gets in the way.

Which then leads to the question of how to define what important means. If your child gets sick, that’s surely more important than some business commitment, especially in a culture in which people often expect things to go awry, and are sometimes surprised when things happen as they’re supposed to.

In the West, when faced with a promise whose fulfilment seems unlikely, we tend to say “I’ll believe it when I see it”. And we live by the idea that “actions speak louder than words”. Anyone who makes a commitment they have no intention of meeting soon becomes known as a windbag, right? Or a politician, maybe.

In the West, maybe, but in the Middle East the magic word inshallah changes everything. After a conversation with a Saudi friend, I’ve come up with a new law of human behaviour. I call it The Law of Good Intentions. What it means in a nutshell is “intentions are as important as actions”.

In other words, if I promise to do something, what’s important is not just whether I do it or not, but whether I sincerely intend to do it. Because intention is under my control, but execution isn’t. We use the phrase “he meant well” in western culture, but that often carries the connotation that the well-meaning person is pretty dopey, if not downright incompetent. But in Islam, intention is extremely important, which explains why, when things go wrong and the person can’t deliver on his promise, his failure to do so doesn’t necessarily meet with a chorus of disapproval – except in the mind of the only westerner in the room.

Which also explains the incomprehension which middle easterners display at the westerner who blows his stack when things don’t go like clockwork. “Why are you giving this person such a hard time? His intention was good.” And that, basically, is what matters.

Not that the Arab culture is always tolerant of procrastination. The scariest phrase from an all-powerful Arab patriarch is “do it now”. That could mean do it now or I’ll fire you. Or it could mean give the appearance doing it now, and as long as your’re making progress that’s OK. And the judgement could depend on what sort of mood he’s in when he gives you the order, or views the results. A kind of Russian roulette really.

One of the side-effects of the Law is that it can be a little one-sided. Those who have the power to do so live by it. But because they’re wise to its effects, those who work for them are subject to different rules. And if they’re late in the morning, they get their salaries docked, even if that same boss expects them to hang around after hours if need be.

By and large, though, I like the Law of Good Intentions. It’s fuzzy, not digital. Above all, it’s human. And if you’re foolish enough to ask someone for a guarantee of performance in a world where Murphy’s Law (what can go wrong usually will go wrong) rules, then you only have yourself to blame for losing half your brain cells in an eruption of impotent rage.

Yes, there are deadlines that can’t be broken. If none of the stadia are ready in time for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, I suspect that someone in Qatar will definitely be heading for the shark pond.

But if the new Metro in Riyadh fails to open on time, not much will be lost apart from face on the part of the person who announced the completion date. And even then people won’t be too hard on him because they probably won’t be expecting such a major project to complete without glitches. After all, in twenty years’ time, who will remember that the project was a couple of years late?

So as long as you’re prepared to tolerate a certain amount of wasted time, and your expectations are tuned to execution being less perfect than intention, what’s lost?

The Law of Good Intentions is a way of thinking that’s alien to the modern western culture that lives by the clock. It would have horrified Frederick Taylor, who invented the time-and-motion study. Henry Ford would have thrown himself from his factory roof rather than accept it. Even though there are many people in the Middle East who pride themselves on keeping promises and respecting deadlines, those same people are less likely to get aerated if others don’t live up to their standards, or if occasionally they fall short themselves.

And who’s to say that tolerance of failure, even if it’s accompanied by all manner of finger-pointing and gnashing of teeth, makes for an unhappier culture than one which demands better, faster, bigger and smaller, and sees waiting as catastrophe rather than an opportunity to do something else, or to re-think the original intention? As long, of course, as people don’t get harmed in the process.

The other day, the Saudi Ministry of Communications announced a three-month extension in the deadline for mobile phone users to register their fingerprints as a condition for use of their phones. No recriminations, no explanation, just a plain announcement. Was it wrong to set an original deadline that in retrospect might seem to have been overambitious? Not necessarily – it was probably what’s known in business as a stretch target, born of a desire to have the new system in place before the huge influx of people during the Haj (pilgrimage) season.

But if it can’t be done by then, well, there will be another Haj next year. And in the minds of the implementers, the important thing is that they tried. The Law of Good Intentions in action.

I, being prone to bouts of laziness, procrastination and disorganisation, am very comfortable with the Law. My wife on the other hand, who is a born organiser, is not, and to witness her explosions of frustration when things don’t happen when they should is akin to standing on the rim of an erupting volcano.

The truth is that we need both approaches. Untrammelled obsession with deadlines can result in people being enveloped in a stressful bubble of frantic activity without the opportunity to step back and view the bigger picture. The Law of Good Intentions, if unquestioned, can result in inertia in the face of impending disaster.

I like a culture in which some things take precedence over deadlines. A couple of days ago, at very short notice, I was asked to go to a meeting. The guy I was with, who is Saudi, knew the building, and we arrived on time. The trouble was, we didn’t know which floor to go to. So for about ten minutes we went up and down the lift, until my colleague decided to ask a friend on the 13th floor.

So we went into the friend’s office and were immediately treated with a Turkish coffee, while my colleague spent ten minutes catching up with the gossip. We finally arrived at our intended destination – the 11th floor – half an hour late. Was this a problem? Of course not. We made our apologies, which were gracefully accepted, and the meeting started as if nothing untoward had happened.

Earlier in my life I would probably have been looking aghast at my colleague’s diversion to his friend’s office, and squirming with embarrassment at being late for the meeting. Not these days. The thing was, we intended to be there on time. After all, we got to the building on time. But a combination of navigational failure and the demands of hospitality got in the way. The result? A nice cup of coffee, nothing lost, and blood pressure normal throughout.

Now that Saudi Arabia is full of sharp young technocrats with degrees from the best universities in the West, perhaps the Law of Good Intentions will start to wilt under a less accommodating ethos, just as other traditions are starting to fade.

I think that would be a shame, because though there’s a time and a place for unbreakable deadlines, for a guy like me who’s been around a while, a road paved with good intentions eases the path to happiness.

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