12th April, 2011 – Home at Lake Mabprachan, East Pattaya.


3 months 12 days – still sober.

In today’s blog, I have decided to write an essay, entitled:

Arabs – a personal perspective.

I spent nearly 3 years in the Arabian Gulf in the early seventies, followed by almost a year in Libya a few years later. I also spent some time in Bahrain, Oman and have some pleasant memories of Lebanon before it descended into chaos and civil war. So I do have a bit of experience in the region, albeit, a few decades ago.

Certainly, when I finished my ‘stint’ in Abu Dhabi, I vowed that never again would I spend time or live in that region as I developed a distinct dislike for all things Arab and the Arab way of life.

Looking back, after a gap of some 25-30 years, I think I am able to take a more ‘balanced’ view of my time spent there and my opinion of Arabs.


I first flew to Abu Dhabi in 1971, not long after the then ‘Trucial States’ had been granted full independence from Britain. The country was very backward. The airport was a  hot dusty strip in the middle of the desert and the airport terminal was little more than a ramshackle lean-to. I will never forget the day I arrived there. As soon as I left the comfort of the BOAC, VC-10 cabin and stepped onto the aircraft ramp for my walk down the steps to the terminal, my body became immediately soaked in perspiration from the intense heat and almost unbearable humidity. I had recently spent 3 years in tropical Nigeria, but the heat there paled in comparison to what I encountered in Abu Dhabi when I first arrived at the height of the summer.

I was met by an elderly, fat very swarthy Arab, dressed in shabby western attire, who introduced himself as Mohamed (who else?). He spoke broken but passable English and told me he was there to take care of me and he escorted me to the hot tin shack that masqueraded as an airport terminal, where he took my passport for stamping, and notably failed to give it back to me, before dumping me in the back seat of an ancient Mercedes 280. Mohamed informed me that I was being sent straight out to ‘Base camp’ where my employer’s offices were located. Before I had time to enquire how far it was and  how long the journey might take, a tall Gulf Arab, dressed  in traditional white flowing robes and usual Arab headgear, climbed into the front seat and we were off down the main highway that snaked away from the airport and out into the virgin desert beyond.

I barely had time to get used to the idea that we were driving along a very impressive, smooth dual carriageway, when the driver slowed the vehicle briefly, before taking a sharp left turn and headed straight out across the sand towards the  horizon beyond, leaving the comforting concrete highway far behind. If I was worried, I tried hard not to show it.

In all, the journey probably took about 3 hours, over  hard unremitting sand tracks, and occasionally skidding and sliding over shifting dunes, with the intense heat whistling across our hair and faces. There was no air-conditioning in the vehicle and it was either a choice of closing all the windows and suffering from unbearable heat and humidity, or opening them and trying to benefit from the very hot breeze that blew in from the desert – we chose the latter. I learned later that the only vehicles that could make the journey from Abu Dhabi airport to ‘Base Camp’ were these sturdy Mercedes sedans and the British made Land Rovers. Any other make of car or jeep would overheat, break down and often become irretrievably stuck in the deep sand dunes.

(A point of note is that British Leyland, the company who manufactured Landrovers, were boycotted in all Arab countires as they traded with Israel, but an exception was made for Landrovers, as it was the only vehicle that could operate safely and efficiently in the Arabian deserts.)

Base Camp, I was told when I arrived, was by far the largest centre of population in the entire State of Abu Dhabi, and indeed it was a massive place with literally hundreds of caravans and other types of make shift accommodation. The town of Abu Dhabi was in its infancy and the majority of the population were nomadic Bedouins who wandered about the desert, from place to place, oasis to oasis, with their herds of camels, eking out a living doing God knows what! A year or so  after I arrived, the oil companies relocated their main offices into the rapidly expanding new town on the coast and I dutifully, although somewhat regretfully, went with them.

The Gulf Arabs, with the exception of the rich local Sheiks who had benefitted from overseas educations, were semi-literate, very poor and, by western standards, pretty uncivilised. You rarely, if ever saw any women, who were always locked away in their homes or confined to tents; many of the men were openly gay and used to hold hands, and kiss and cuddle in public, despite the fact that they had families back home. Even sexual perversions with camels were by no means uncommon and it was a frequent occurrence to find dead baby girls dumped in the desert. They only wanted sons, and if their wives gave birth to more than one daughter, then they were invariably disposed of before they were more than a few days old.

We used to hire gangs of locals to do the manual work on the oil rigs, but most of them were found to be very lazy and unwilling to work. The government of the newly independent State was, to their credit, determined to improve the lot of their people, so the oil companies were obliged to pay  high minimum wages and to provide a great deal of care and social benefits for their indigenous staff. ‘Third World’, educated Arabs were hired to manage and to act as go-betweens for the local labourers. ‘Third World’ meant Jordanians, Palestinians and Lebanese, and these formed the middle management of the company, along with some of the better educated Indians. So every oil company was obliged to hire large numbers of locals who were paid fairly decent wages for very little, unskilled work, and the rest of the semi-skilled and skilled work was performed by Indians, Pakistanis, and hungry Arabs from other places in the region such as Bahrain. At the top of the pile were the Americans and Europeans who filled the top management positions, as well as most of the skilled jobs on the rig, such as drillers, electricians, mechanics, superintendents and so on.


Base Camp was a fascinating place to live for many reasons, not least of which was the rigid class structure that was prevalent within the caravan ‘city’. In effect there were 3 separate and distinct camps. There was the expatriate camp, the ‘third country’ camp, and the local camp. The employees of each camp had different rights and privileges, different standards of accommodation and their own, very different choice and standard of food. One or two of the Third country Arabs, such as the Personnel Officer, were elevated to the status of an expatriate and were allowed to reside in the expat camp, but for the Indians and the lower-level third country Arabs, they had to live in the second camp, while all the Gulf locals, resided in the third and most basic of the three camps.

It was in this environment and later when I relocated to Abu Dhabi town that I got to know many Arabs from all walks of life. I had a large apartment in one of the few apartment buildings in town, which, incidentally, also accommodated the American embassy on the top floor. (I used to have bitter fights with the bloody American embassy security personnel, but that’s another story.) Two of my best friends in Abu Dhabi were Mohammed Zaben, a Jordanian (Personnel and government liaison Officer) and Amin Obeid, a Lebanese (Catering Manager). They were both well-educated, spoke excellent English and we used to have good times together and even took occasional trips together to places like Dubai, Doha and even as far afield as Beirut. Through them I also got to know many other Arabs, including Bahrainis, local Gulf Arabs and even a few rich Sheikhs who Mohammed introduced me to.


It was in the days before the Lebanese civil war and before the rise of  the Muslim fundamentalists. Alcohol was not generally available to the locals and expats had to obtain a license and buy their booze from a special liquor store. But the hotels had open bars, and no Arab, whatever his background was refused entry or refused a drink, should he wish to order one. The issue of the Jews and Palestine was always there in the background and indeed it was in Abu Dhabi, where the soon to be Palestine leader, Yasser Arafat, spent his early adult life, working as a ‘Third World Arab’. We now know that he was busy honing his skills as a terrorist, but at the time, no one knew. How times have changed.

But even in those days, I felt uncomfortable living in a country where the Muslim religion still dominated the lives of the locals. Everything shut down on Fridays, when the entire pollution went to the Mosques; I have already stated that you very rarely saw any women – anywhere; the overtly homosexual behaviour of so many of the Arabs always made me feel uncomfortable; many locals rarely washed and often stunk to high heaven. Many still used the desert as their toilet, squatting wherever they happened to be to defecate, after which, in tiome honoured Arab tradition,they cleaned themselves with their left hand always making sure they ate with their right. And let’s not forget the infanticide practice which was still widespread.  In spite of my friendships with some of the more ‘civilised Arabs’, after two years, I was truly fed up with living there and was gnashing my teeth to get out, which I finally succeeded in doing , only to end up in another, mainly Muslim country – Indonesia. But what a difference!  (That’s yet another story).

My dislike of the Arabs was purely a subjective issue. Apart from the infanticide issue – which by any standards were deplorable and I assume has long since ceased, there was nothing I could put my finger on to demonstrate that they were evil or wicked. Sure I hated the treatment of their women, but there again it was a cultural thing which had been handed down from generation to generation.  It didn’t make it right but to some extent I could understand why they were the way they were.


Then along came the fundamentalists, the 9/11 tragedy, suicide bombings, and the widespread dissemination of hatred and violence towards the west. The Palestine issue, was and always will be at the heart of the Arab’s hatred of the west.  It all started to heat up, thank God, after I left the Muslim worlds of  the Arabian Gulf, Indonesia and Libya. I don’t know when this trouble  is all going to end and I doubt whether anyone does. It will certainly take many, many years; maybe decades to run its course, by which time who knows what untold death and destruction the world will have suffered. In any event, there is no hope of it going away before a solution is found the the Israel/Palestine nightmare, which in itself, is years away from any hope of agreement.

I can understand why so many Arabs have been taken in by this religious nonsensical extremism. As the Arabs have become more educated,and more aware of the outside world and their place in it, many must surely feel a sense of inferiority and jealousy when they compare their lives to the rich, western countries full of infidels. It wouldn’t take much stirring up to convert many of the most disenchanted and disenfranchised of them into extremists, even potential candidates for suicide missions.

The breeding ground for converts to Muslim extremism have been the repressive regimes which have existed throughout the Arab world and even beyond, in countries such as Afghanistan and  Indonesia. In countries where a majority of the population is downtrodden and poor, and where a privileged few own most of the nation’s’assets and control the daily lives of the populace, then these places are ripe to be influenced by radicals who teach them about new paths to happiness and everlasting salvation.

Ironically, the people of many of these very same authoritarian regimes have also now started to rebel against their authoritarian masters, demanding democracy and a fairer distribution of their country’s wealth and an end to dictatorship, cronyism and massive corruption. Countries right across the Arab world are in revolt, from Egypt, to Tunisia, to Yemen, to Libya to Bahrain to Syria to Algeria and even Iraq are in a state of turmoil, and as with the rise of Muslim extremism, no one can really say where it will all end.

There is little doubt in the mind of this observer that the cause of both phenomena, (Muslim extremism and the fight for democracy), have a common root. Decades of repression and entrenched poverty in countries where the masses, despite their censored and blinkered lifestyle, have slowly started to become aware that there is a better life for them out there if they fight for it.

When I worked in the Gulf, I would be told over and over by my American co-workers that all Arabs are a bunch of cowards and would run at the mere sniff of trouble or threats to their person. I think much of this was based on what transpired in the earlier conflicts between Israel and the Arabs, which in spite of their massive superiority in numbers, managed to lose two wars within a very short space of time. I am not all sure that this was actually down to cowardice but more down to inferior military strategy, training, and crucially, their inferior weaponry.

One of the truly amazing facets of the Muslim terrorists is just how many of them are perfectly prepared to kill themselves for their cause. Yes, I know that they are promised sublime, eternal happiness in the next world, but even so, to my mind it still takes a lot of guts to be prepared to kill yourself in such a way. Has there been another, similar case of ‘mass willingness’ to die for a cause in the history of this world? Maybe, but I think not? They may be cold-blooded, evil, brainless dupes, but cowards? I think not.

It is a similar situation with the revolutions currently going on throughout the Arab world. If you follow the news on these protests you cannot fail to be impressed by the bravery of so many of these people – from Libya, to Egypt to Syria and beyond. For decades, they have been scared to even utter even one word of criticism, yet now, after deriving inspiration from the first revolution that broke out in Tunisia, the entire populations of the middle-East are prepared to be maimed or killed rather than give in to their oppressors. The bravery of these Arabs is extraordinary and is to be respected, if not admired.

Maybe the wave of democratic revolution that is engulfing the Middle east will sweep away the Muslim fundamentalists – or maybe the two movements will combine against a common enemy. If they do, it will probably end in a victory for radical extremists over the democratic seeking majority and will result in yet more years of terror filled violence and despair for the world at large. The next few months will be crucial in determining which direction they choose, or are forced they take.

Let us hope it is the right choice, for our children’s sake.


Poetry in Music.

Continuing my occasional series, I am not too sure that today’s offering is poetry – more of a saga really.  But upon reflection, I believe it is poetry. It is a poem that tell a little story, and it is set to an intriguing,  beguiling melody, which is so simple and once heard, never forgotten

Brit’s of a certain age will know this classic. I is Peter Sarstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely‘. If you haven’t heard it before, then enjoy.

Like so many of my favourite songs, this one also evokes certain personal memories…

Enjoy…

Where Do You Go To My Lovely

 

You talk like Marlene Dietrich
And you dance like Zizi Jeanmaire
Your clothes are all made by Balmain
And there’s diamonds and pearls in your hair, yes there are.

You live in a fancy apartment
Off the Boulevard of St. Michel
Where you keep your Rolling Stones records
And a friend of Sacha Distel, yes you do.

You go to the embassy parties
Where you talk in Russian and Greek
And the young men who move in your circles
They hang on every word you speak, yes they do.

But where do you go to my lovely
When you’re alone in your bed
Tell me the thoughts that surround you
I want to look inside your head, yes I do.

I’ve seen all your qualifications
You got from the Sorbonne
And the painting you stole from Picasso
Your loveliness goes on and on, yes it does.

When you go on your summer vacation
You go to Juan-les-Pins
With your carefully designed topless swimsuit
You get an even suntan, on your back and on your legs.

And when the snow falls you’re found in St. Moritz
With the others of the jet-set
And you sip your Napoleon Brandy
But you never get your lips wet, no you don’t.

But where do you go to my lovely
When you’re alone in your bed
would you Tell me the thoughts that surround you
I want to look inside your head, yes I do.

You’re in between 20 and 30
A very desirable age
Your body is firm and inviting
But you live on a glittering stage, yes you do, yes you do.

Your name is heard in high places
You know the Aga Khan
He sent you a racehorse for Christmas
And you keep it just for fun, for a laugh ha-ha-ha

They say that when you get married
It’ll be to a millionaire
But they don’t realize where you came from
And I wonder if they really care, or give a damn

But where do you go to my lovely
When you’re alone in your bed
Tell me the thoughts that surround you
I want to look inside your head, yes i do.

I remember the back streets of Naples
Two children begging in rags
Both touched with a burning ambition
To shake off their lowly brown tags, they try

So look into my face Marie-Claire
And remember just who you are
Then go and forget me forever
But I know you still bear
the scar, deep inside, yes you do

I know where you go to my lovely
When you’re alone in your bed
I know the thoughts that surround you
`Cause I can look inside your head.


Listen to Peter sing: Where do you go to my Lovely….

2 thoughts on “12th April, 2011 – Home at Lake Mabprachan, East Pattaya.”

  1. This is a good blog. Keep up all the work. I too love to site. This is great everyone sharing opinions. Magnificent post, very informative. You must continue your writing. I’m confident, you have a great readers’ base already!

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  2. Nicely written as usual particularly your personal observations. But it could have been more nuanced. I don’t know if there are any articles by Greg Sheridan available online but if they are you may find them interesting.

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