Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hidden history

A Foreign Affair

Have moved out to the east side of the kingdom in an effort to find a different perspective on developments of late. Assessments of the differences of opinion within the family largely follow assumptions found elsewhere as to the usual suspects opposing the assumed urge for domestic political change emanating from the very top. However, when looking at affairs outside the kingdom’s borders, views alter from those that tend to be found in the capital. A sojourn on the east-side can see starker views on what is motivating policy among different key policy actors. An essentially consensual decision-making model motivated by the desire to project the kingdom’s Arabism without antagonising Iran whilst rigorously policing those in the family who over step the policy mark is a common explanation in the capital. Eastwards, one also hears that there is a consensus behind policy, however one based on more sinister machinations, apparently designed to re-export radicalism in advance of sectarian aims, partly in a bid to contain Iran and, in the process, some say, Egypt, which supposedly motivates the Saudi projection of strength in the Gulf. Around this, senior figures are apparently united. A brief Saudi flirtation with Palestinian unity is acknowledged in the capital and its eastern detractors as having been genuine. However both see little scope for any bold renewed effort to once again oversee national unity efforts in an ill-fated land for which most Saudis in the capital have little patience and those eastward have little knowledge. These views, if right, essentially leave the leadership watching and waiting, lacking any substantive vision, and preoccupied with subterranean tactical positioning in neighbouring disputes rather than any real desire to contribute to a way to resolve them.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Designer salafi

In the office of a reformist cleric I waited. My irritation at a sweaty attempt to locate the place gave rise to a modest conflagration with his Amani suited, salafi bearded, assistant. As soon as I walked in, he strutted toward me, refused to indulge my weak Arabic, and displayed an almost effete but bitchy manner reminiscent of an office queen sensitive to their petty rank. Moments later he demanded my business card for presentation to the office director. Once he had thankfully departed, I slipped into the toilet to great my dearest friend. Upon my exit, the start of the call to pray had seen the waiting area fill with all the office’s foreign staff as the rolled up carpets I had previously spied were pressed into action and the nida was answered. I stepped between genuflecting devotees and stood awkwardly at the back as the prayers continued. I noted that those Saudis still present in the office (it was 330pm) continued to chat as their underlings got on with the serious business of respecting what is almost mandatory in the kingdom. Before long, a friendly Pakistani bawab ushered me into the meeting room where my things had been arrayed in anticipation for the arrival of the cleric. With prayers still continuing as he arrived, indifferent to any need to join in, he apologised for being late. I guess the hadith on exemptions to the imperative to observe the call to prayer and the cultural imperative to honour guests did not obligate his participation. I wondered also if, for all his religiosity, there is resentment with the regimentation that is officially required from the religious establishment, as opposed to the popular enactment of religious principles that he wants to see. He proved to very impressive, and highly pleasant to boot. I am intrigued by the scope of the transformation that would be wrought, should power be as consensually based as he wants.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Disorientation technique

It’s strange to be in Riyadh and to be reminded of my three month Hotel California incarceration back in Dubai. It’s not that I am wondering if I will ever leave my current hotel, off the Olaya Road, it’s just the familiar breakfast room scene. This time no over-attentive waiters I want to stab with my steely steely butter knife, but the same dismal selection of instant coffee, tea, cold egg and cardboard corn flakes lightly dusted with sweetener. Unlike the HC however, these guys don’t offer any kind of cold drink, not even tap water. On arriving in the modestly air conditioned “mezzanine” I had to engage in a complex exchange in Arabic and English with, I think, a Vietnamese guy, who I thought was telling me that water was "tap", to which I said "no problem", only to find that he was actually saying it was “charge”, a rather different concept to which my reaction was an angry “la”….I expressed to him later how appalling it was to offer your guests such a sumptuous selection of food and hot drinks, but to deny them complementary water. The next day I got them to bring me some chilled eau d’tap, a privilege, only upon request, I was treated to the following morning as well, albeit at more like room temperature. Yesterday, however, was a write off. I had previously been told at reception breakfast did not start until 8, but rang the desk anyway as I had woken early to see if this really the start time for the most important meal of the day. "Akeed".. 7'o clock it will start, I was assured, and arrived at the mezzanine to find only empty tables. This morning, deciding it was safer to arrive at 8, it was the same, however I discovered that breakfast had been relocated and in fact always begins at 7….."maloom". However not only was cold water still not standard, but the hot water for making tea was cold too. I placed my finger in my freshly made cup of tea to accentuate the point to the waiter

My first hotel upon arrival in this dustbowl was The Riyadh Palace. It took the driver an eternity to find as he wanted to take me to a backstreet three star. However this dubiously described five star was too far from where I needed to be. On reflection I wished I taken the three star as I am currently still in dispute with them about an extra night’s charges that they have deducted from my bank card – without authorization. This house of ill repute is in hiya’ al wazaraat (ministerial area). Be warned. (After 36 hours I have just been told that I will be credited what was taken in error…)

It’s great to be in my present abode, however. Huge apartments without natural light and subtle over-head strip lighting have always been the best places to relax in. However the ample kitchen allows much room for storing cold drinks and Saudi salami, so I am most delighted. Less thrilling was my failed attempt to let in natural light, which made the ultra thick blankets that cover the windows impossible to unroll again, and a two day battle to get a bulb for the single bedside light. All is now resolved, however, and I am in accommodational bliss. Natch.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Saudi circles

The weather in Saudi Arabia is actually noticeably more hospitable than in Dubai. The dry dusty heat of landlocked Riyadh is more bearable than the humidity of the Gulf city of Dubai, although I know which I prefer.

Have been speaking to a mixture of officials, political analysts, and journalists so far, with the objective of further understanding internal and external developments in the kingdom. Relative progress is being made, but more interestingly perhaps have been the unexpected, almost off the wall, experiences. Visiting an office of a reform-orientated Islamist lawyer took me, thankfully, away from the mall scene of where I am based and allowed me to peruse an open street market where more ordinary folks come to shop. Highly observant in the mainstream religious tradition, and wearing his hatta in the loose manner of the like-minded, this man can amuse with the variety of the sources for his conspiracy based understanding of western politics. Although my facial reaction made him concede that the Da Vinci Code had some flaws, he was quite sure that this book captured the flavour of the secret powers of the Catholic Church. On his home turf, as it were, he is a more informative source, expressing the frustrations of those who want a more religiously orientated but apparently pluralistic model of authority, with legislative power held by an elected assembly and the powers of the executive clearly defined. Genial and generous to a fault, he asked if I would join him and one or two others of like mind for the maghreb (sunset) prayer when they would pay their respects to the family of a recently deceased senior government advisor. We set off in his beaten-up BMW, a measure of funding problems for this wing of political opinion, and arrived shortly to the melee that was the entrance to the departed patriarch’s home. My friend made his way to the mosque – I had assumed he meant that prayers would include me and all those paying their respects at the home – while I unhesitatingly stepped past the morass of police vehicles and limos to enter the grounds. I was the only westerner there and practically the only one not wearing regulation dish dasher and hatta. I was very soon approached and asked my business there, but in the most courteous manner. This was as much about curiosity about me and the desire to ensure that I could be properly received as an outsider, as an attempt to protect the relative solemnity of the occasion from a possibly inappropriate guest. An English speaker was produced, although I did not really want one, as my rudimentary Arabic really sufficed for the occasion. I proffered details about who I worked for etc, but emphasised that I too wanted to pay my respects and this was keenly facilitated as my “handler” introduced me to the two senior sons of the deceased and light-bulbs flashed and the crowds parted as I exchanged firm hand shakes with the two men and somewhat nervously made suitable obloquies about their father’s highly respected status and influence. There was genuine appreciation for the fact that this westerner wanted to join such an occasion. My handler, presumably satisfied that I was what I professed to be, was happy to leave me to the attention of the reformers who had invited me, and I was introduced to a more senior figure from the trend. The occasion proved to be an instructive flavour of how this “movement” seeks inside allies in its gentle but sometimes quite public effort to advance its case. That said, there had not been any insider encouragement of their recent initiative to propose changes, and arrests had followed. That though was a development that can seemingly be blamed on more conservative parts of the authority structure. It is also a measure of how those with radically different political views seek to find entry via official doors, not all of which are firmly closed, and how social and religious ties maintain a kind of unity, especially when the departed can garner relatively wide political sympathy.

The next day I had an appointment with a foreign national, but long resident, journalist. Urbane, he proceeded on a long discourse about what he saw as the conflict of societal opinion in the kingdom’s modern history. More usefully he then related this recent events and how openings were occurring for popular grievances to be expressed against targets that some of the leadership want to be reined in. I scribbled away, feeling this to be a meeting providing genuine insights from a good, ear to the ground, journalistic source. The seriousness of the exchange would inevitably be punctuated by bawabs bearing tea and phones ringing, but, more unexpectedly, climaxed in an alarm call from his desk clock to the tune of My Way. I swallowed hard and kept focused on the hints of top family intrigue.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Art scene

Room with a View

Art trip turns violent

Went and checked out the Sharjah Biennale yesterday. The bus from Bur Dubai to Sharjah was a synch, though walking out to the Ghubaiba bus station at Shindagha was more of a challenge. The heat has shifted up several notches these days, and is akin to a broiling for much of the day. The breeze that the creek throws off can bring relief, though in the middle of the day this doesn’t seem to ease the discomfort. In Sharjah, a mere 15 minutes to the north once the driver got underway, we attempted to walk to the al-Ta’ayun street location for the Expo building, before coming to our senses and hailing a cab. The exhibition there was essentially installations related to environmental themes. Some, like the huge, billowing arrangement of gold and red metal, largely generated from whisky bottle tops and coffee packs (interesting cast offs), made a striking impact. Others, like table tops of sand in which you could draw a roadmap to peace were total bollocks. Our efforts to navigate our way to the Sharjah Art Museum for more Biennale delights proved fruitless. Asking a taxi driver in Arabic or English, or any of the “locals” where a major street is, proved equally pointless. After walking through the broiling heat, we decided to bail out and headed to the sprawling bus station near the Heritage area. Chaos never witnessed on a Friday in Dubai or Abu Dhabi could be seen, and for no apparent reason. South Asians fought each other to get on a mini bus, as the heat and exasperation overcame the relative queue discipline witnessed elsewhere. Having been shoved from behind, I mistakenly gave a mouthful to an old Haji who, it turned out, functions as the local enforcer. He waved his rather fetching hooked stick unceremoniously at the young guys who he had just single handedly hauled off the bus for daring to enter without his say so. Luckily I was with my wife, otherwise I would probably still be there now, as opposed to going straight to the front of the bus to sit in the Ladies’ seats…

Friday, June 1, 2007

Deira fridge fiasco

(May 25) Apologies for the lapse in communication. Firstly I was seeking to find some furniture for an apartment that was devoid of any furnishings, save for fitted wardrobes and kitchen cupboards, and then my wife arrived five days ago and we have been trying to refamiliarise with each other, as well as get more furniture, not always an easy process on either count. We had a day together, which involved an overpriced but very tasty Lebanese mezze selection in a hot little cafĂ©, and a romantic stroll down creek-side Bur Dubai, before the next day I returned to keyboard pounding and phone calls intended to ease, ironically enough, my passage out of here to spend a few weeks researching on one or two neighbouring countries. This didn’t help our situation, but now with the local weekend upon us we have been able to get closer to each other and, as I put it to her, she has “unblocked the drain”…..

It is strange to now be living across the creek from Deira. However there has been one key event to remind me of my old home. Before she arrived I purchased a couple of white goods from Deira Souq, having hopped back over on the abra. Given the financial situation, buying seriously second hand items have to been to an extent forced upon us, but of course the reason why you wouldn’t do that back home can soon seem oh so clear. After nine days, and only shortly after my wife’s arrival, the fridge went kaput. A brief inspection of the receipt given to me in one of the back allies off Musallah Road Deira revealed the legend “NO GUARANTEE” emblazoned across the document. I rang a number on it and asked for “boss”. To my surprise the bloke who answered offered to replace it with the same hi-tech model that very same day. Too good to be true? Indeed. Lateness is one thing, but on checking when the exchange would in fact take place, to be told that “pick up” charges would be at my expense, sent me through the roof. My usual strategic skills in the course of the ensuing argument over the phone ensured that I had no way out other than to back down and agree that I was probably not going to go to the police armed with the receipt and would in fact pay the fridge collection charge. Said item arrived at nearly 11pm and was filthy. "Boss" had plainly found his way to the back of his storage depot of ageing white goods and found the most dirt encrusted item he could to remind me of who, in fact, was boss. Two hours later and much back pain, the design classic was almost gleaming. A couple of smuggled mini bottles of schnapps and a game of Scrabble later (the kind of gig one looks for these days), and we felt brave enough to switch the machine on…….sounding good……

Today’s exercise is to get to Times Square, that being one of a plethora of malls, and to check out some white goods etc… suddenly having become less of an object…..