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Lost in Translation: The Perception Divide between The Middle East and The West

Riyadh: Sunday 13th May 2012

Returning from holiday, yesterday, I was engaged in conversation by a member of our client’s team, who wanted to welcome me back. As is our habit, our conversation briefly touched on politics and to international affairs and, not for the first time, I was privileged and delighted to hear a particularly Saudi perspective on a number of issues, from the “Arab Spring” to the European Debt Crisis.

I say delighted because I have frequently been struck, since moving to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the seriousness and engagement in global political issues indulged in by Saudi men. I should immediately qualify this by acknowledging that I have neither met nor engaged either with poor Saudis, of which there are many, or Saudi women. When I refer to the conversations I have enjoyed, these have been exclusively with men from a privileged professional background, who have enjoyed the opportunity to be educated and to travel abroad, and who usually hail from influential families. Clearly, therefore the views of these Saudis need to be viewed within the context of their privileged position within this society. But allowing for the limitations posed by this much scrutinised and oft maligned demographic, it never-the-less remains the case that compared to conversations I find myself having with the equivalent of these people in Britain, the level of engagement and maturity is striking. I have no doubt that many professional Saudi males enjoy football and computer games as much as their British counterparts but (In my experience, at least) they are far less inclined to let it dominate their conversation.

But I am also struck by how seldom their views and concerns are heard in the west. True, the views of this privileged elite are heard where it matters, in Government as well as in the foreign capitals around the world. But in the western media it is more common to portray the inequities and vested interests of the elite as blocks to reform and in particular, to women’s rights. So to hear the voices of these middle and upper class Saudis is both a privilege and an education for me personally as I suspect I would never have had the opportunity to do otherwise. Moreover, to a person with an interest in history, it he is noteworthy that history is only ever weaker from not having recorded all sides of the argument.

To myself, as a westerner, a recurring theme is the way in which the west is often viewed very fondly by Saudi men, many of whom have been educated and spent time in the US or UK. Moreover, the west is still perceived as an unquestioningly global force by the Saudi’s I have spoken to. While in Europe there appears to be a growing lack of self-confidence that our institutions and the core beliefs that have come to define our way of life can be maintained, here in Saudi Arabia, it does not appear to be questioned that  the west has many good positive aspects, not least our rule of law, our system of providing health care, our education system and our history. There is a general and widespread understanding about rising Chinese economic strength, but, on the surface at least, Saudi Arabians are more familiar with Western language, imports, cultural icons and fashion and certainly more comfortable discussing western values and opinions than those of China.

But two other recurring themes are also instructive and cast a revealing light on how the west is viewed in Saudi Arabia and in the Middle East at large.

The first of these, I have heard many times before from Arab men, a feeling of deep hurt over the depiction of the Profet Mohamed by a Danish Artist a few years ago. When it was first mentioned to me I dimly recalled the incident but it had long since slipped from my mind as news stories have a tendency to do. It was not until I arrived in the Middle East that I began to get any sense of the level of indignation this had caused. What I found interesting about this is that it reveals a deep gap in understanding between Western values and those of the Middle East that is all the more profound because the incident encapsulates very neatly a cultural difference inherent in both societies. I cannot, of course, know why the cartoonist was motivated to draw Mohammed, but can speculate that he was probably completely unaware, as I would certainly have been at the time that this would have been anything other than another cartoon, lampooning an authority figure. As such the depiction forms part of a noble and respected tradition of satirical discourse within the West, most often directed at our own leaders, both political and religious.

Yet in the Middle East this is simply anathema to the culture and way of understanding the world. I was asked yesterday, how I would feel were the situation reversed, and I was stuck for a suitable response, not because I could not grasp the seriousness of his point but simply because it occurred to me that the situation would simply have been judged differently in the west. It is more likely that it would have been judged on its comic merit than on its lack of respect for God. If it were able to carry off that difficult line between funniness and offensiveness, it would likely have been judged, even by devout Christians, as harmless fun. But in a culture which respects authority figures and which demands submission to God, such a response is inconceivable.

And then there is another issue which has been raised on numerous occasions by Saudi men, in conversation. It refers to George W. Bush’s use of the work “Crusade” in an address made some years ago. Now, Bush is often criticised, particularly in the UK for his folksy delivery and anti-intellectual approach to matters of rhetoric, and given the context of the Middle Eastern tensions at the time, it is safe to say that by any standards, the use of this term was ill-judged. But it was also, to many inflammatory, recalling as it does, the series of wars designed to expel Islam from the Holy land. Yet here too, to Western ears, the memory of this slight from a man famed for having a slapdash approach to the English language seems over the top. Criticising Bush for ill-judged language (which, in any case was intended primarily for his own electorate) is like criticising Donald Duck for having anger management issues. Yet, for all my poe-faced western off-handedness over this slight, the fact remains that a substantial and influential body of opinion was deeply offended by Bush’s use of the word “Crusade” to describe the war against the Baathist Dictator, Saddam Husein.

And on reflection they are absolutely right. In the west, we are comfortable with the idea that our leaders need to be responsive to our needs as voters. Any western politician would be rightly pilloried for exercising pejorative language to describe minorities within their own society. Yet, if we expect our sensibilities to be taken into account by professional politicians, we have a right to expect of them that they will use similar discretion when confronting foreign affairs. Mistakes happen of course, and offence is caused but clumsy phraseology is antagonistic and diplomatic, and, frankly, not really very professional.

Yet in saying that, it does not remove the fact that Bush was almost certainly not using the term in an historically accurate manner. I do not think for a moment that Bush was really proposing another holy war, or that he had any axe to grind with Islam or the Middle East. On the contrary, he was using the expression in a secular manner, as a lazy catch-all term to describe a war with an underlying cause. He was, in other words, merely using language designed to be familiar to English-speaking Americans.

Only that is not good enough. At least not for some Saudi men, who view this language as a coded slip of the tongue revealing  that their way of life was under attack by an America bent on imposing values which are at odds with the Koran. Before we point out that Bush almost certainly did not mean this, it is worth remembering that Bush was at the time, occupying the very job which epitomizes the western idea of a professional politician, directly responsive to the needs and wants of an electorate. Before we treat Saudi manhood to another lesson in the importance of civil liberty and the rule of law, we need to remember that what we are selling is very far from perfect as well.

But then there is another basic and recurring difference between the way in which we in the west and Saudi men appear to understand the world. For inherent in the idea that Bush was planning a “Crusade”, is the idea that the west remains an expansive global force. And on the face of it this is a wholly reasonable assumption. The United States, remains the globally predominant military and economic force on the planet, able to project its naval and air power to any point on the globe it chooses on a unilateral basis. No other power (even expansionist China) could hope to maintain a permanent fleet in the Persian/Arabian Gulf without massively diminishing its power to defend itself in home waters.

Yet, another conversation held with a Parisian Receptionist a few days ago tells the story of a very different west. One in which, far from seeking to impose our values on the globe, we are, instead at imminent and direct threat of surrendering our power to govern ourselves. Asked what he thought of the election of Francois Hollande as the French President, he was dismissive of the socialists viewing them as elected by the ethnic minorities, who he suggested had been celebrating in the most stupid fashion over the last couple of days.

Now there is much to criticise in this analysis. But it shows a few things very clearly. Firstly, the impact of the shooting of a French Algerian loan gun terrorist had affected French opinion in subtle ways, not necessarily fully conveyed by the media. Secondly, his perception was not only that the ethnic minorities of France had galvanised around a single candidate but were also sufficiently powerful to directly determine the result of the campaign. On one level it doesn’t really matter if this is true or not (although if it were, it would represent a massive implication for all of Europe). What matters is that this intelligent and articulate man, whose English was considerably better than my French and who was unlikely to have been misunderstood, could perceive his nation so weekly: so directly at threat.

This image of a France which has dismissed its president on the collective will of an ethnic fifth column, so powerful that it is able to dictate the future of the nation is clearly at odds with the Saudi Arabians perception of an expansionist and Imperial west looking to resurrect the “Crusades.” True, France, is not the West, but from the Mexican Border to the court room drama unfolding in Oslo for the trial of Anders Breivik, our receptionists opinions are echoed by many ordinary Western people who see their way of life in decline and see an influx of foreign values as being somehow linked to this process.

Like the views of my Saudi client, the French receptionist does not speak for his country or his faith or his ethnicity. It is probably that he is part of a small minority. But his views were not those of an unengaged man or someone who appeared disenfranchised by the political process. Like my client, he was speaking as a resident of his country’s capital, lucky enough to be in full-time employment and, as a Frenchman, entitled to be called Monsieur, entitled to Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite by the constitution of his homeland. In many ways, both he and my client were speaking with the voices of male privilege and empowerment.

Yet, as with so many things, their perceptions were wholly at odds with one another, or at least, were lost in translation.

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