The diary of a Saudi man, currently living in the United Kingdom, where the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment.

In Memory of the lives of 15 Makkah Schoolgirls, lost when their school burnt down on Monday, 11th March, 2002. The Religious Police would not allow them to leave the building, nor allow the Firemen to enter.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

A ramble around Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, and Egypt 

"Saudi Arabia is not New Zealand". Thus spake Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Princeton-educated nephew of our present King. It's another of those SBO's (statements of the blindingly obvious), a close cousin of the SFO. It is also Gnomic. Gnomic?

Gnomic: describes something spoken or written that is brief, mysterious and not easily understood, but often seems wise:

which just about sums up that utterance. It seems wise, but on closer examination looks completely meaningless. I remember in my UK education, we weren't allowed to watch "Charlie's Angels" at school, most unsuitable, but we were allowed to watch something called the "Water Margin", which was a bit like a medieval Chinese "Robin Hood" with gentle Kung-Fu, badly dubbed into English, and we were allowed to watch it because it looked like a children's story. And at the end of every episode of the "Water Margin", the camera would show the edge of a pond (of course), and the narrator would also pronounce Gnomically, something like "Do not despise the snake for having no horns, for who is to say it will not become a dragon?" which always left us totally mystified but we nodded wisely because we didn't like to admit we were clueless. However, I've been a great fan of the Gnomic Utterance ever since.

So let's take "Saudi Arabia is not New Zealand". Well, I suppose that explains why they didn't film "Lord of the Rings" here. Only a few mountains, Tolkein never had camels wandering across the horizon, and I don't think Gollum would enjoy all that sun. But the Prince was talking about something else. He was talking about the D-word. He was talking about Democracy.

I guess the point he was trying to make was that while democracy may be OK for New Zealand, it isn't OK for Saudi Arabia. Why make the distinction with New Zealand?. Well, geographically it's thousands of miles away, probably about as far as you can get before you start coming round the other side. Apart from Easter Island, that is. But then he's unlikely to say "Saudi Arabia is not Easter Island", that would be ultra-gnomic and everyone would think he'd completely flipped. So New Zealand it is. Three million rugby and cricket playing sheep-farmers, about as remote culturally and geographically from us as you can get, that's an excellent distinction to draw.

It also meant he didn't have to talk about that more local example of full-blown Western democracy, one whose border is at one point only ten miles from our own, a place where they have a Parliament and a Prime Minister and Elections, a place that we pretend doesn't exist, and it's called...


There. I've said it. Israel. The only democracy between Turkey and India. But now I have to go and wash my mouth out with soap and water, because we're not supposed to talk about it. Unless we're slagging it off, as we've slagged the Joooos off since Mohammad had trouble with them in Madinah all those centuries ago. Nobody really knows why they fell out. Perhaps the Joooos were trying to demolish the railway bridge and rebuild the Temple with the stone, you know what those Joooos are like. Anyway it's all lost in the mists of time. But we don't talk about Israel. And very little about democracy.

What prompted all this? Well, it's a saying of the good Prince that I've always treasured, and I was reminded of it when I came across this article.

Prince Saud congratulates Mubarak on presidential vote

Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal conveyed a message of congratulations from the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Thursday for thriving democracy and the expected result of the presidential elections in the country.

That's good, I thought, he's congratulating the Egyptian President on its fledgling democracy. "Thriving" perhaps is a bit strong, the whole process was as dodgy as a seven-dollar bill, but at least it's a start. Perhaps the Prince is taking to the idea of democracy. But then I came down to earth. After all, and you're no doubt ahead of me by now, "Saudi Arabia is not Egypt".

There are many reasons for this. After all, Egyptians are arabs like us. They are also muslims. So in theory we're the same. But that's like saying that the English and the Welsh are the same, or the New Yorkers and the Nebraskans. Foe whatever reason, right or wrong, one looks down on the other. And we definitely look down on the Egyptians, big-time.

Now you may think it should be the other way. After all, Egyptian civilisation has been around for thousands of years. Those people were building pyramids when we were still squatting with our backsides in the sand, trying to figure out how to make goat's cheese. They had writing and astronomy and a priestly religion about the time we'd just realized that you can both ride a camel and eat it, but only in that specific order. So they ought to look down on us (as indeed they do, in the privacy of their own homes). But history can be cruel, times have changed, and while we are now Rich, they are now Poor. We might pity the Egyptians, we may feel charitable towards our arab cousins crowded along the Nile, but we definitely see them as inferior.

Not that we treat them badly. The Poor People from the Indian subcontinent, the Pakistanis, Indians, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis, as well as the Indonesians, we let them come and work in our country, and whilst they are generally fellow-muslims, we give them the lowliest jobs, the ones we'd rather die than do, and we treat them like dirt. Eighteen Bangladeshis killed in a building site accident? Get onto the recruitment agent, send eighteen more. But Egyptians are arabs, so we treat them better.They generally come over and work in clerical jobs, not the government jobs because we keep those for ourselves, but in banks, legal firms, and they often have degrees so they make good jumior clerks. They also make good secretaries, because we don't have women secretaries or receptionists of course, it's an all-male profession. They are not as pretty but at least they don't get pregnant or have two-hour lunch breaks buying shoes*. They are also good pharmacists, they can give advice that will save surgery waits and doctors' bills. Generally they seem to like it here, they tend to stay until they've saved up enough to retire in old age to a little flat in Cairo.

So we look down on them because they're poor. But we give ourselves reasons to do this, based on folk-lore. They are thieves, you can never trust them around money. The women go in for witchcraft. The men let the wives order them around too much in their own homes. The women are extremely plain - Mark Anthony may have swooned over Cleopatra's face but these days he'd settle for the Nubian bodyguard.* And of course, their religious piety is very suspect, they are a bit too relaxed in their observances. Now if they get really poor we could offer them some foreign aid. A few tons of rice followed by a truckload of Wahabbi Imams and a platoon of muttawa. Abdullah and Ibrahim to come and look after the antiquities ("An earthquake destroyed 80% of the pyramids, your Excellency, we had to demolish the rest to protect the public; would you like a small replica in your palace grounds?").

So that's how we feel about the Egyptians. So why would we want to copy their democracy? Surely Prince Saud wouldn't, in spite of his congratulations. But on the other hand, he's a capable guy. He's very presentable, good with foreign leaders and diplomats, no doubt the brightest of the top royals. And he's ambitious, and rightly so, because he has much more to offer. Yet look where he comes in the line of inheritance.

Saud Family Tree

There he is, the next generation down from the King and his myriad still-alive brothers. It'll be ages before they all die off and he's in with a chance. By that time he'll be in his wheelchair, dribbling down his thobe and complaining about the cold. The only chance he's got, is if a tsunami hits the next family picnic.

And yet, there is democracy and there is democracy. There is democracy, western style; electoral commissions, electoral registers, legal redress if your chads are hanging. All fair and square and above board. And then there are elections like the recent Egyptian one. Potential candidates intimidated and put in gaol, dodgy registration, polling stations with no officials, indelible ink to make sure you don't vote twice, except it washes off. Surprise, surprise, Mubarak gets in with 80% of a 22% turnout, what good fortune. Democracy is great when you can make the system work for you.

I don't think this example is lost on the ambitious Prince Saud. He could also make the system work for him. Look out for more statements supporting democracy, more moves behind the scenes towards wider elections. Don't write the guy off just because he's in the House of Saud Minor Leagues. Because I think I've just figured out the meaning of:

"Do not despise the snake for having no horns, for who is to say it will not become a dragon?"

* Sexist comments added after Mrs A retired for the night.

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