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2017 Retrospective Part 2: The Middle East

January 1, 2018

In 2017 I didn’t even try to get into the labyrinthine mix of politics and slaughter in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Others have covered those stories far better then I could have done.

I chose to focus primarily on two countries close to my heart: Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

In April, a movie funded by an Armenian billionaire, since deceased, stirred up passions on a perennial bone of contention: Turkey’s treatment of its Armenian population during the First World War:

We may remember the Armenian genocide as the forerunner of the Holocaust and other mass killings that scarred the last century. We may disapprove of the Turkish state refusing to acknowledge the enormity of committed by its Ottoman predecessor.

But perhaps we should also ask ourselves whether the United States, Britain or France would allow three million people to cross their borders, and, if they did, what kind of impact the influx would have on their politics, cultures and economies.

Which goes to show that no matter how unambiguous the historical narrative presented by movies like The Promise, there’s always another side to the story. Unfortunately, in the age of fake news and limited attention spans, we don’t always go in search of it. (From The Promise – one country’s certainty is another country’s lie)

I read two books by Turkish novelists: The Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak, and The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk. Neither disappointed:

Despite Turkey’s recent move towards religious orthodoxy and authoritarianism, Istanbul in my experience is still a place defined by diversity of thought. Shafak in her writing represents that diversity. Long before the arrival of the Ottomans, in Constantinople religious disputation was a way of life. Arguments over the nature of The Father, the Son and The Holy Ghost have indelibly seeped into its ancient walls.

If there is a future Islamic world in which heterodoxy thrives, in which respect for difference wins out over the suppression of The Other, then I suspect that Turkey, and in particularly Istanbul, will be the source of that mindset. Despite the country’s long history of bouts of religious and ethnic intolerance, if Shafak and Pamuk are to be believed, the spirit of inquiry and uncertainty still survives.

It will outlive presidents, ISIS and the preachers of Medina. One day perhaps, we in the West will stop looking at Islam through fearful eyes, and will once again recognise that it, like other faiths, has many shades of belief, and that among the faithful there are as many uncertain seekers after truth as are to be found in churches, temples and ashrams. (From Three Daughters of Eve – a telling window into the heart of Istanbul)

A TV series on ISIS gave an insight into the mindset of the murderous cult’s foot-soldiers:

What we in the West have not witnessed first-hand is the emotions of the participants – courage bolstered by common belief; fear, bewilderment, shock at the reality of their predicament. We only have the stories of those who survived to draw on, but based on what we know, The State has achieved the nuanced portrayal that Kosminsky hoped for.

I was not shocked by the narrative, perhaps because I’m familiar with nearby states where much of the ISIS ideology prevails, albeit without the jihadist fervour. Saudi Arabia, for example, in which a significant proportion of the population shares the Salafist beliefs of the ISIS cadres, where women are kept apart from men, though not to the same level of extreme impracticability. (From Peter Kosminsky’s The State – four characters in search of jihad)

In June, Saudi Arabia and three other neighbouring countries imposed sanctions on Qatar, ostensibly because of its support for terrorist organisations. As I write this, the standoff continues.

It’s easy to look on the current contretemps as a spat – a cat-fight in which rhetoric plays as important a role as claws scratching faces. Rhetoric is something in which the Arab world excels, often with no discernible consequences. Declarations of undying amity frequently precede actions that belie the sentiments. Likewise, blood-curdling threats are not always carried out.

But this is different. It will be seen by many Qataris as bullying. If the impasse leads to bloodshed, it will create yet another cycle of martyrdom. The temptation on the part of the Iranians and Turks to intervene might become irresistible. And the Gulf region will experience an instability and insecurity that makes the turmoil in Bahrain seem like a minor squabble. (From Qatar- swift resolution or lengthy siege?)

One of Saudi Arabia’s concerns was about Qatar’s Al-Jazeera TV station. The anti-Qatar alliance would like it closed down. The opposite should happen:

Al-Jazeera is and always has been a concern to countries that feel threatened by media outlets that they do control. I’m not speaking of English-language outlets – it’s not the English-speaking audiences that they worry about, or at least not as much. As an Arabic channel, it is – or was until it was blocked by several neighbouring countries – pervasive, powerful and influential.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, the claims and counter-claims, whatever its biases, and regardless of the extent to which its editorial policy is dictated by the Qatar government, Al Jazeera is unique.

It should not be shut down. It should be replicated, emulated and competed against across the Middle East. Not just so that other stations can offer counter-narratives, though that can only be healthy, even if some of the narratives might be repellent to viewers of its English output. (Standing up for Al Jazeera)


The implications of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plans for a technology-focused zone to the north-west of Saudi Arabia:

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. (From Saudi Arabia’s NEOM)

I kicked off RetroSaudi, a series based on stuff I wrote about Saudi Arabia thirty years ago, comparing my observations then to the current state of the country:

My purpose in writing about Saudi Arabia is not to bash the country or its people. Yes, there’s plenty to criticise, and no lack of people lining up to deliver their disapproval. I leave that field to them. Underlying everything I write is an affection for the good people I encountered, and memories of many happy years I spent there.

On the other hand, I’m not looking to excuse the inexcusable, or pretend that the dark side doesn’t exist. It did then and it does now. (From RetroSaudi: Introduction)

King Abdulaziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, had a sure political touch. What would he have thought about about his grandson’s policies?

Would Abdulaziz – the man who on his deathbed made his two eldest sons swear not to fight each other – be looking down in horror at the arrests of brothers and cousins?

Perhaps. He certainly would have admired the ruthlessness of the current Crown Prince. But I suspect that he would be reserving judgement until the consequences of Mohammed bin Salman’s actions become clear.

Finally, a story about Abdulaziz. When the King had the first telephone line installed between Riyadh and Jeddah, the religious sheikhs denounced this innovation as the work of the devil. He asked them whether the devil would tolerate the words of the Koran being transmitted through the phone. They had to admit that he would not. So the King arranged to call the sheikhs in Riyadh from his palace in Jeddah. And he recited the Koran. Hence perhaps the significance of the phone in the picture above, and evidence that he was not just a warrior king, but a man with political finesse when need be. (From RetroSaudi: The Founder)

Saudi Aramco is about to be floated on a yet-unnamed stock exchange. A story from the days when the company was controlled by US oil companies:

There are many other legends about Aramco in the days when it was an exclusively American enclave. Every new family was given a leaflet called “The Blue Flame” with detailed instructions on how to safely distill their own spirits at the back of their houses. Those who did were not always as safety-conscious as the booklet advocated. They included a householder who happened to be away one evening when his prefabricated house exploded. Legend has it that the camp engineers constructed a new house on the site by the following morning. (From RetroSaudi: The Company Town)

I wrote this in 1987 about firearms in Saudi Arabia. Today, the country bristles with weaponry.

Out in the desert, the bedouin have carried weapons for centuries, but their firearms are usually more suited for suicide than offensive action; many started life in the hands of the British around the time of the Indian Mutiny. Every two or three years the authorities announce a weapons amnesty, but it’s a meaningless gesture to the gnarled old sheikhs, for whom the family flintlock is as much a status symbol as an instrument of destruction. Not so a hundred years ago, when armed robbery was a popular pastime among the bedouin, particularly if the neighbour’s camels happened to be there for the taking. (From RetroSaudi: gun’n’poses)

A post in which I asked whether a socially liberal and politically autocratic Saudi Arabia will be sustainable in the long run:

Finally, one can understand MbS’s thinking in locking up critics, and anyone who he thinks might be a critic. But he needs to realise that it’s not a viable long-term option for preventing dissent. There also needs to be dialogue and reconciliation, especially with members of his own family. (From What should Mohammed bin Salman do?)

What I wrote thirty years ago about the British in Saudi Arabia still applies today. But the numbers have dramatically reduced.

Some British families talk endlessly about property and investments. The future is everything, sometimes at the expense of the present. They dream of thatched cottages, cricket by the village green and other vanishing symbols of a long-gone age that they never knew. It’s only when they buy their cottages that they notice juggernauts rolling past their front doors like battalions of tanks on Salisbury Plain.

Others never make it home. I know of one guy who worked away from his family for thirty years, sent all his money home, educated his kids and provided them with a comfortable home. On his way to the airport for his final flight home, the poor chap had a heart attack and died.

Which suggests a lesson for all workers in a foreign land: make the most of the life you live. You may never get to enjoy your hacienda on the hill. (From RetroSaudi: The British)

The same goes for the Americans – a much smaller population today. When I referred about blustering salesmen back then, I could have been talking about Donald Trump.

I don’t want to go into observations about Americans in Saudi Arabia that might seem cliched, but I probably will. I like many of the Americans I’ve met here. But I’ve had to forgive them for many things.

For slip-roads and left-hand drive; for thinking they founded Saudi Arabia; for thinking the world owes them a living; for sending back US-educated Saudis who sound like Texans; for using long words when short ones suffice, and teaching the Saudis to do the same; for interminable and impenetrable acronyms; for being so aggressively ignorant of their host country, or so cloyingly curious about the things that aren’t important; for forcing me to change my spelling; for being so maddeningly hierarchy-conscious; for their blustering salesmen who promise more than they deliver.

I do thank them for a few things. For mistaking education for talent (in my case); for some rewarding friendships; for the fast food outlets they franchised in Saudi Arabia; for the strength of the US dollar; and for employing me in the first place. (From RetroSaudi: Americans)

One of the biggest issues facing the monarchies of the Gulf – corruption:

Ultimately, I can’t see an end to corruption and the wasta culture as long as the ruling family continue to believe that the country ultimately belongs to them. And for that to change, they will have to start acting as accountable custodians rather than conquerors.

At a time when democracy in my country and in the United States is falling apart, I’m not about to lecture anyone on the need for transparent governance and the rights of citizens. Saudi Arabia will have to find its own way forward, and it’s unlikely that their model will closely resemble ours.

But if it wants to imbue in its people a sense of ownership, then, as Jeremy Corbyn constantly reminds us Brits, it will have to convince its citizens that the state is there for the many and not for the few. In a region of nation states beset with similar concerns, that could take a long time. (From RetroSaudi: Corruption – and its little brother)

The conclusion to a piece on a campaign to exterminate street dogs in the Eighties:

But dogs are resilient creatures, and should the gleaming new cities built over the past fifty years ever crumble back into dust, no doubt the dogs will return to scavenge through the remnants. Except that the gene pool will be wider. The desert dog will be joined by feral chihuahuas. (From RetroSaudi: Dogmageddon)

A formidable ambassador passed away this year:

All these activities were serenely presided over by the ambassador. For the early part of my time in Jeddah, he was Sir James Craig, who died recently. Before he left, he wrote a scathing end-of-term dispatch to his masters in London about his posting, in which he accused the Saudis as being “feckless, incompetent and unconscientious”. It was supposed to be confidential, but someone leaked it. And of course, copies were smuggled back to us in Jeddah, much to our delight. Not that we agreed with him, you understand.

The Saudis did forgive him though, possibly because they admired his mastery of Arabic, both classical and colloquial, and his love of the Arab culture. He maintained strong links with them well after retirement.

His successor was not so deeply appreciated, partly because of his unfortunate habit of nodding his head violently when making a point. This was highly counter-cultural. Saudis, used to keeping their heads still for fear of losing their ghutras, thought he was rather undignified. Little things make a difference in diplomacy, I guess. Moral of the story: don’t appoint a moorhen as ambassador to a Middle Eastern country. (From RetroSaudi: Embassies)

The biggest killer in Saudi Arabia:

The most common and obvious crimes happen thousands of times a day in full view of everybody, on the roads. While the citizens of Saudi Arabia may lag behind the rest of the world in the achievements of its specialist criminal fraternity, they make up for it on the road. Dangerously and flamboyantly. (From RetroSaudi: Crime)

Perspective on Trump’s embassy move to Jerusalem:

It means nothing in the sense that it will not change the Israel-Palestine impasse. Few countries will follow Trump’s lead. In political terms Israel’s possession of the city is no more legitimate today in the eyes of most of the world than it was before Trump issued his fatwa.

And if Jerusalem’s ancient walls were sentient, I suspect that they would be having a hollow laugh at Binyamin Netanyahu’s triumphant crowing, just as they would have done at Saladin’s glee.

Nothing is permanent in Jerusalem. Saladin passed on. Over the following eight hundred years, and up to the present day, there were more conquests, sackings, periods of peace, changes in control. No faith or political entity could truthfully be said to own the city. (From Jerusalem – Nothing and Everything)

A piece about the yearning for advice on religious matters great and small, and the rise of internet fatwas:

I don’t blame those who turn to religious authorities for certainty in a volatile, confusing world. And many of the sheikhs I’ve met are positive, moderating influences. But sometimes I can’t help thinking of the scene in the movie The Life of Brian, when the accidental not-the-messiah appears on his balcony and tries to send away the mob of would-be followers by screaming out:

You don’t need me!

You don’t need anyone!

You’ve got to think for yourselves!

You’re all individuals!

A subversive message indeed. (From RetroSaudi: Agony Uncles)

And finally, not my words. An extract from a Christmas sermon by my sister (an Anglican priest) on a visit to Palestine a couple of years ago:

We were whisked into three taxis by smiling Palestinians but after a mile or so the taxis turned off the main street. All three taxis stopped and the drivers got out. I began to feel uneasy- worrying about hijackings and mugging but after a few minutes the drivers were back in the car and took us off to the check point. When we got out of the taxis they laid before us boxes of cake and encouraged us to share the cakes with them. They smiled and laughed and did not want any money apart from the taxi fare. They thanked us for coming to visit Bethlehem and asked us to tell the world what life was like living under the shadow of the separation wall and the Israeli occupation. They had an exuberance and love of life that was so infectious despite having very little- it made me realise that sometimes those who have nothing can be free because they have nothing to lose. (From On Christmas Day: so much from those who have so little)

If ever a region – or rather its people – deserves a break in 2018, it’s the Middle East. But for that to happen, there needs to be a lot less posturing, a lot less killing and a lot more wisdom and goodwill.

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