Yet another Gulf bashing article

The British press seem to be continuing to bash Gulf states at every opportunity.

Here’s a piece from The Sunday Observator’s bumptious columnist Gerhan Hankins, covering his visit to the nearby state of Bahdobian.

I look at myself in the mirror, sullen face staring back at me, wide, empty London smile fixed to my face, hiding the torment within. I have the faded look of the once-objective.

What’s causing this? A meeting I have just had with my editor.

‘Gerhan’, he told me. ‘I want you to go to Bahdobian and write about how rubbish it is.’

‘I thought we loved it,’ I asked. ‘The last five features this paper ran said it was the best thing since sliced bread?’.

‘Good point,’ said my editor. ‘The pendulum swings both ways though you know. We decided it’s rubbish now. Because we can.’

‘Fair enough, but why do I need to go’, I asked. ‘I already know everything there is to know about the place from my friend Germaine Greer – she spent four hours on the bus there only the other day.’

‘I know’, grunted my editor. ‘But we’ve got five days’ free at one of their best hotels, provided we give them a mention in the article you’ll write. File your piece before you leave, if you like – take the week as holiday.’

I’m still in shock. How can I, with my values and example-setting lifestyle, manage to survive five days in somewhere so awful as Bahdobian?

At home I spend an hour looking for my passport, which I haven’t had to use since my last travel article. The mental scars of that particular piece still haunt me. Images of interviewing drunken tourists at four in the morning at nightclubs in Ibiza fill my mind. None of them seemed to care in the slightest that they were in a town that lacked an opera house or in a country that lets people fight bulls. And that used to be a dictatorship and had some kind of civil war a while ago. Or something. These people just wouldn’t talk to me. They simply carried on drinking Aftershock and vomiting.

I fly in on Bahdobian’s national airline. 150 years ago this counry had no aeroplanes – camels were used for transport. Now they operate a fleet of carbon-belching planes, allowing people to flit from continent to continent in search of instant gratification. Whilst I feel this kind of form of travel is unethical, it is very useful for helping journalists such as myself to get to important destinations quickly. I refuse to watch Top Gear playing on the in flight entertainment. The works of Lenin and Marx shall be my only companions on this journey. I settle into my first class seat.

‘Are you a slave?’ I ask the smiling stewardess. Katy Framione from Essex looks at me blankly as she offers me a glass of a particularly cheeky Chablis, her wide, empty Bahdobian smile beaming up at me as she crouches, shamed at my elbow. ‘I’m sorry?’ she says, clearly not understanding what she is part of. The poor woman doesn’t even realise that she is an indentured worker, forced to slave her life away at 40,000 feet, never to return home. Behind her smile I read her mind – she knows, but cannot admit what she sees and feels. I smile at her. ‘Take courage,’ I say, ‘I hear you – I hear you.’ I pat her on the head encouragingly. I write down her innermost thoughts on my notepad as she backs slowly away from me. The look of fear on her face is thanks to me, I congratulate myself – I have opened her eyes.

As I fly into Bahdobian, the clear air of the Gulf of Mexico provides me with a clear view of the city. It rises from the desert like a [insert turgid metaphor here please, sub editor]. I wish I had gotten off as lightly as my colleague Simon Jenkins, who managed to file his piece based simply on flying over the city. I, alas, must venture into its portals of doom.

Bahdobian takes it’s name from the ancient Arabic for ant, the ‘dob’. This is an undisputed fact. As we fly in I see people on the streets below. They look like ants from up here. Later, sitting on my hotel balcony, I see an ant. The sympbolism overwhelms me.

As we land at the airport, skyscrapers surround us. Every window, every free piece of space on every building, absolutely everywhere is taken up with pictures of a Sheikh. Sheikh [insert name here – subs, please make sure you spell it right] is the absolute ruler of Bahdobian. Just 35 years ago he lived in a desert. Now he has made of the desert a city. But of this city, a desert shall once again rise. I predict.

I enter the airport, its ceiling hung with more images of the Sheikh. Looking more closely, however, I realise that there’s one small image of the Sheikh and that the rest of the pictures are actually adverts with people wearing local dress. I remind myself to get some new glasses. It’s so hard when they all look the same.

‘Passport please,’ asks the smiling Bahdobian at the desk, clothed in cool, crisp white robes, his beard neatly trimmed. 70 years ago these people dressed in sackcloth. Tradition, it seems, counts for nothing here. He is drinking a Coke, I notice. I shudder.

‘I know your game,’ I snap back. ‘You just want to imprison me here for ever, forcing me to write press releases for a living, paying me a pittance and never allowing me to return home.’

He looks at me blankly, but I read his true thoughts – he agrees with everything I say, but he cannot admit so in public. This, he senses, would be a transgression too far. ‘May I have your passport please, sir,’ he asks again, hiding his shame behind a face filled with mild confusion.

I know we’ve connected, sensed his guilt. I hand my passport over. He stamps it and wishes me a pleasant stay in Bahdobian.

As I buy four litres of vodka at Duty Free I wonder how I will manage to get through the next few days in this oppressive atmosphere.

60 years ago this place was desert, filled with nothing but Red Indians and cowboys. And tumbleweed too I expect, like in the Clint Eastwood films. Now, as I drive to my exclusive hotel, there is nothing but 18 lane motorways. Everywhere. Even the side streets have at least 10 lanes. Every car I pass is a gas guzzling 4×4, not a bicycle in sight. I weep silently.

‘Are you a slave?’ I ask my taxi driver, a bearded man from Baziristan. He looks confused. ‘I work hard here, yes, but there is little for me back home and this is what I need to do to support my family.’

I look into his eyes as he tries to avoid my gaze. He pretends to be focusing on the road, but deep inside, I know what he really feels, but he cannot admit it. It’s Bahdobian’s fault there is no work for him back home, this is clear. For him to say otherwise would be, he senses, a transgression too far.

He asks me if I can help him to get to Britain. I shake my head in disbelief. How naive he is. I only have a three bedroom flat in Islington. How could I manage with him staying there for weeks on end?

I check into my hotel, a gorgeous understated place well worth staying at – apparently its minibreaks are great value and come highly recommended. You can book your stay there via my newspaper’s website.

Checked into my room, I decide to stretch my legs, the cramps caused by the conditions in first class still causing the pain to jab through my calves.

Naturally, as a first class investigative reporter, my first destination is the hotel car park. It is here I see my first signs of the shocking truth that fills Bahdobian. A truth that no Essex expat may dare speak of.

Mohan shakes his head in disbelief at me. He repeats the same thing over and over – he is a driver for a local businessman and he is waiting for him to return from a lunch meeting. But I know what he is really trying to say, deep down. He cannot say it though – this, he senses, would be a transgression too far.

Mohan is clearly living in his Rolls Royce in this car park. Maxed-out, in debt, he has nowhere else to go. No choice but to spend his days sleeping in the car with the AC on. Afraid to go home, he is destined to spend his life here, in a Rolls Royce, in a hotel car park. His story isn’t unique. Across Bahdobian, maxed-out expats sleep in their cars, not thinking to sell them or to live somewhere more practical than a hotel car park, not possessing even one friend with a couch to spare in their hour of need. No, sleeping in their Rolls Royce is their only option. I know this – I can read it in Mohan’s eyes.

But it’s not only sleeping in cars. The desert, 40 years ago nothing but tumbleweed, lions and tigers, now resembles a refugee camp, as expat middle managers huddle, with nothing but a Rolls Royce, Range Rover (HSE or Vogue) for shelter, nestled amongst the dunes. with nowhere to go.

That evening I set off for my first bout of real research. Although I already know what I am going to write, I feel I should pay some lipservice to journalistic standards.

I look at the list of meetings arranged for me by the local government’s media relations office, the British Consulate, a business group, local charities, educational institutions and the like. I decide to take a stand. Throwing these contacts to one side, I head to the only place I will get objective, honest, in-depth feedback on what it’s like to live here. I resolve to visit a local pub hosting a long lunch for a visiting rugby team from the UK.

I arrive just before closing time. People, I am astonished to note, have been drinking. In a pub!  Not able to decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing, I sit alone in a corner, trying to make up my mind if I should comment on the fact that despite the fact that this is an Islamic country it’s pretty generous of them to allow expats to be able to drink. I decide to ignore this point.

I talk to two old ladies, just the sort of people you would expect to find in a pub aimed at the under 30s. They too, have been drinking. Drinking beer, I notice. Hiding my disgust, I order a cheeky glass of rose and engage in conversation.

‘It’s great here,’ says Aliciana Frackmouter. She works at a local school for disabled children, teaching them skills that will enable to live as normally as possible in society. ‘After a hard day at work I had nothing that would really help me relax when I was back in England. Here I relax by going to the market and buying maids to lock in my basement. Everyone does. It’s the British expat way.’

There is a common echo I hear in every one of the imaginary conversations I have with myself during my visit. Everyone has staff. Even maids have maids. Fifty years ago, there was nothing here but desert, roamed by dinosaurs. Now the desert is filled with runaway maids, sleeping under maxed-out expats’ Range Rovers, with noone to look after them but slightly more junior maids.

I leave the pub, my head spinning from one too many glasses of Jacob’s Creek – there is no quality wine available here, sadly. Feeling tired and emotional after the day’s onslaught of awfulness, I forego a night in my comfortable hotel and, in solidarity with those maxed-out expats, climb into a nearby car in the car park. I will sleep here tonight, shoulder to shoulder with the millions of others doing the same thing. Going back to my hotel, would be, I sense, a transgression too far.

The following morning, I wake up around midday when the car’s owner rudely turfs me out of the backseat. ‘Are you a slave?’ I ask him. He shouts at me rudely, not realising I am on his side.

I visit a local shopping mall. Shopping malls are everywhere here. Glittering domes of consumerism, rising out of the desert like the cactuses which filled the area just 20 years ago.

As I approach this brand new building, I am struck by something so few others seem to have noticed – it’s new. This new city is filled with new buildings. There is not a single Anglo-Saxon era church, no Roman remains, no Georgian terraces. Nothing built here over the last twenty years is older than twenty years. How can British people sink so low as to live here? Why have they not built anything older?

Once inside, I wander, dazed, from dress shop to dress shop. I am a man and don’t wear dresses. With each salesperson’s pitch, my spirits sag further. Why are they trying to sell me dresses?

I approach a 17 year old girl wearing a miniskirt, walking through the mall. She walks briskly away from me. ‘Are you a slave?’ I cry out, but still she walks away. To talk to me, she senses, would be a transgression too far.

Finally I corner here between an ice cream shop and a fast food joint. I lower my head before talking to her, overcome with disgust that people in this country might want to eat fast food or ice cream.

I know what this young girl thinks, as I can read her mind, but before I can ask her again, I feel a firm grip on my shoulder. The authorities have clearly caught up with me – it took longer than I thought, but the secret police were bound to be on my tail. The presence of a campaigning journalist such as myself was bound to become an open secret eventually.

The secret policeman is disguised as a security guard and speaks only rudimentary, broken English. ‘Good afternoon, Sir,’ he mumbles, in halting, disjointed sentences. ‘Would you please be so kind as leave this young lady be? You seem distressed. May I recommend that you proceed forthwith to your hotel, where a cold refreshment and a lie down might server to revive your spirits?’ I struggle to interpret his attempts to communicate, but, finally understanding, I agree that a quick lie down might be a good idea.

He leads me, brtually, to the taxi rank. I sense he would like to cuff me, but he holds back, aware of my vaunted status as an international newspaper columnist, standing a little ahead of me, smiling encouragingly. As I climb into a my cab, I see the 17 year old girl looking at me from across the marble floor of this temple of consumerism. She is talking to a friend. ‘Weirdo, freak’ are the words I can read on her lips. I smile at her in agreement. She is clearly referring to the disguised secret policeman who has treated me in such a degrading manner. She wishes to speak to me, I can tell, but is afraid to. That, she senses, would be a transgression too far.

My time in Bahdobian over, I forego a normal cab back to the airport and choose to take hotel transport to the airport. I ask for a bicycle, but am met with blank looks. Clearly, environmental sensibilities have not made much of a mark here. The concierge points out that a bike may be unpractical, given my three suitcases. I give in and grudgingly accept a lift in the hotel Bentley. To my surprise it is being driven by Mohan. I congratulate him. He has clearly stolen the car and is hoping to escape this hell hole. He tries to deny this, telling me, in halting English, that he has a new job driving for the hotel. I smile knowingly, understanding what he is really saying. He is telling me that he has given up on life and has agreed to become a slave. To admit that openly would be, he senses, a transgression too far.

At the airport, I take my last chance to speak to an expat of the horrors they experience, daily. I signal to a cleaner, beckoning to him from where I sit on the toilet, pleading with him to join me. He hangs back, hesitant. He speaks no English at all, but I know what he’s saying. He’s trying to create a poetic metaphor about mirages, deserts, oases and that sort of thing, but can’t quite find the words.

‘Do you feel this place is like a mirage?’ I ask him. ‘A brittle rose of the desert, apparently whole, yet so delicate, crumbling when touched, yet so perfect to behold, as if buried in time, but ready to shrivel like a date in the midday sun?’.

‘Yes, sir’, he answers. I congratulate myself on pinpointing his thoughts so accurately.

My flight back is uneventful. I sit, drained, in First Class. The habits of expats have rubbed off on me, leaving me no choice but to numb myself with cheap liqour. Sharon from Manchester feeds me glass after glass of Moet. I look into her face, frozen as it is in an empty Bahdobian smile. I sense a feeling of utter revulsion coming from her as she looks at me. I know what she is thinking about – the desperate awfulness of the sweltering desert city we have left behind. ‘Another glass, sir?’ she asks. I know what she’s really saying though. She turns her heard away from me, shamed that she has chosen to live anywhere other than London.

I whisk through Heathrow’s VIP fast track. All around me I see pictures of the Sheikh. They are everywhere. Or am I getting confused with advertising boards again? Who knows – Bahdobian has left me dazed.

I pick up a copy of the paper on the way through. My Bahdobian Hell, the headline screams, my name and photo just below. Once again I’m filled with joy at seeing my face and name in print. The article I filed before leaving on holiday has been printed. Wikipedia and a quick phone call with Germaine were all I needed – she went on the Big Bus tour when she was over, after all. With contacts like these, my visit was superfluous. I had the material I needed to print straightaway, but five days’ paid for holiday is five days’ paid for holiday!

Finally reaching my bijou pied-a-terre, I collapse onto my sofa. Looking around, I am pleased to see that the cleaner’s been while I was away. Everything is spic and span, my underpants ironed, bedclothes neatly made. That nice plumber form Poland has also popped around and fixed my blocked toilet. I write cheques to pay them their monthly wages. Should I give them a little extra, considering the great job they do? Maybe pay them the same amount I am paid for writing my in-depth reportage?

I decide not to do so.

That, I sense, might be a transgression too far.

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46 Responses to “Yet another Gulf bashing article”

  1. weedy Says:

    brilliant

  2. Reg Says:

    LOVE IT! Made most of the points you made in your blog post…

  3. 2020hindsight Says:

    You are sir, a genius without doubt.
    Should you ever give up your day job, a promising career awaits.

  4. Aaron Says:

    Crikey Chris – an epic parody. Brilliantly conceived.

  5. Muhamad Talha Says:

    This has got to be one of best pieces of satire/parody i have EVER read. EVER! awesome stuff!!!

  6. Muhammad Talha Says:

    I’m just hoping my appreciation of this writeup was not a ‘transgression too far’ LOL ๐Ÿ˜€

  7. Seabee Says:

    Chris, I salute you. Absolutely brilliant.
    (Although it seems you may have too much time on your hands – you’re not one of the thousands of maxed out jobless expats living in your Range Rover are you?)

  8. the real nick Says:

    brilliantly witty!

  9. dxbluey Says:

    Fantastic work sir! Brilliant…

  10. Keefieboy Says:

    Oh, Chris, this had me rolling on the floor. Brilliant!

  11. nzm Says:

    Very witty!
    You should cross-post this on the UAE blog!

  12. Peter Cooper Says:

    A masterly piece – I’m off to kip in my Merc now!

  13. mk Says:

    Pure glory.

  14. pp Says:

    brilliant, very well written

  15. Susan Macaulay Says:

    OMG. LOL. I laughed out loud. Absolutely brilliant. I’ve added your link to the comments on my open letter to Mr. Hari here: http://www.amazingwomenrock.com/myblog/an-open-letter-to-johann-hari-of-the-independent.html
    I can’t stop smiling… ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. D Says:

    BRILLIANT BRILLIANT BRILLIANT!!!
    I could not stop laughing. Bit of a transgression, wot? ๐Ÿ˜€

  17. Mark Says:

    Has Solaris become so intuitive and easy to install that you now find yourself with an extra 12 hours in an average day mate? Nice Piece

  18. NSB Says:

    This is absolutely fanatastic. I so miss the sanity of satirical analysis! In fact it’s the main reason I’m leaving … ๐Ÿ™‚

  19. alexander Says:

    Top Saul!

  20. cb Says:

    I would you tell how much I enjoyed reading it but that, I fear…

  21. Sophia Says:

    Absolutely hilarious – well done you!

  22. Simone Says:

    As a Bhdobian expat, living in my 4bedroom-ROlls, I have to tell uou: Absolutely brilliant!!!
    Catch up with Mr. Hari and his articles about the pirates in our neighborhood, would like to see your piece on that article.

  23. Susan Macaulay Says:

    Hey Chris & friends, you seem to be an interesting lot. I thought might be interested in TED. In case you haven’t heard of it, yhere’s a talk on my blog at this link: http://www.amazingwomenrock.com/myblog/unlock-human-potential-by-tapping-into-creativity.html.
    TED has hundreds of such talks on everything under the sun. They can be freely downloaded or embedded into blogs. Enjoy ๐Ÿ™‚

  24. Natalia Says:

    Hi Chris! Could you drop me an e-mail if it’s not too much trouble? I’m a journalist. Really liked your piece and would like to talk about it if at all possible.

  25. Mickey Stevens Says:

    SUPERB! More! More! Morrrrrrrre!!

  26. rakesh Says:

    ROTFL. Brilliant!!!

  27. Julie Says:

    Oh dear….an example of absolute unprofessional journalism. It seems that Mr. Hankins has psychic powers too, he is able to read the minds of cabin crew amongst other whilst topping himself up with yet more booze. The people you encountered are not ‘slaves’ but there from their own choice. As for you approaching the 17 year old girl ‘in a short skirt’..she probably smelt the alcohol from you from the night before and with you chasing her shouting ‘are you a slave’ is really not cool and is harassment and verges on serious inappropriate behaviour and confirms my thought that you are a weirdo. Seriously people, this is not cool. Write to me Mr. Hankins and maybe if we ever have the misfortune to ever meet, I might pat you on the head and also open your eyes to a whole new way of thinking….but then again, I might just numb your pain by giving you a couple of glasses of Moet.

  28. Nicolas Says:

    Am I the only person to not find this parody "soooooo" funny (ROFL, LOLOLOLOL…)? I can see how it makes fun of what the caricatured article could be (in particular the one written by Johann Hari in The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/the-dark-side-of-dubai-1664368.html), but it is pointless as it addresses none of the documented points made in it. Apart from your overblown satire, do you have anything to _say_ to rebuke what was written in the article published in The Independent?

  29. Nicolas Says:

    Sorry, I have just seen the previous post. I have not read it completely, but I acknowledge that you tried to address some of the points of the article. From what I have read, I would qualify a lot of your points as weak, as other commentators have already pointed out. Slavery in all but name seems to be the norm for foreign construction workers and house personnel in Dubai and pointing out that it may be better than elsewhere does change anything to these people’s sufferings. Second, this satire makes fun of people who do not want to cover these abuses, and I find it sad. You could have pointed out the inaccuracies of the article without ridiculing its valid points, and even state unambiguously that you find such treatments inhuman. But that does not seem to bother you.

  30. alexander Says:

    I’m truly amazed that a number of people appear to have missed the fact that this piece is parody. WTF?
    Nicolas. Stop being such a pompous arse. You obviously appear to have no understanding of parody, satire, irony or even humour. You likely don’t live in or haven’t even visited the UAE or other Gulf countries and so cannot grasp why so many people that have some, any experience of this region find the tone of Hari’s piece quite so risible and the pin-point accuracy of Chris’ puncturing of the wind bag quite so amusing.
    Do you really know what ‘sufferings’ you’re talking about? REALLY? Have you ever seen a labour camp? Or talked to a labourer out here? Or have even the most basic understanding of the labour law, its applications, the nature of the abuses of that law and the systems that exist across the labour markets, many abusive and originating from the labourers home countries, existing in the face of the efforts of the auhorities here to introduce at least basic regulation of the labour markets? It’s far more complex than you appear to allow – and your pals M. Hari et al are interested in reporting on.
    Until you do understand a little more, leave satire to provoke wicked laughter and spare us your humourless finger-wagging.

  31. Nicolo Says:

    I sincerely hope that this is the lowest a journalist would ever stoop, to elicit plastic LOLs and pats from the audience. If it was meant to be satirical, you were far from it, as your style of writing (or rather the lack of it) is obnoxious. I understand that the issues that you discuss in this article, are simply beyond your grasp, so I spare my words towards that.
    Report for the cause if you can, else spare us your disdainful overtures.

  32. Linda Says:

    If only parody wasn’t so uncomfortably close to truth!
    Signed: someone who got out of the UAE still relatively sane – everything is relative there

  33. acp Says:

    Fab – just found this and have emailed it round. Also found it quite hilarious how others commenting seemed to have missed the point quite spectacularly! Brilliant. If I get fired for laughing out loud in the office (therefore clearly not focusing on work) then can I cite this to HR? ๐Ÿ™‚

  34. Cait M Says:

    You’ve made my day. Thank you!

  35. Susan Macaulay Says:

    Hey Chris & friends,
    Thought you might also enjoy this post, although it touches on Dubai only tangentially: http://www.amazingwomenrock.com/myblog/what-do-madonna-susan-boyle-and-dubai-have-in-common.html

  36. rupert Says:

    Brilliant parody!
    Originally viewed via twitter link to ArabComment, shame it was not on UAE Community.

  37. adele Says:

    Superb!
    First giggle and guffaw of the day.
    I dearly hope the cerebrally challenged journalist who wrote the original article gets to see it.

  38. Jim Says:

    Your article sir, was, I sense with pinpoint accuracy from your mind, a transgression too far.
    Jim ;0)

  39. Susan Macaulay Says:

    More grist for the mill here:
    http://www.amazingwomenrock.com/myblog/why-blame-it-on-dubai.html
    ๐Ÿ™‚

  40. Sophie Says:

    Hysterical! Excellent.

  41. Abdullah Says:

    Let’s not forget:
    http://web.archive.org/web/20071109185930/www.boycottdubai.com/english/media_E.php

  42. Sawsanc Says:

    Gifted writer , you write so truthfully would love to read more of your articels in the mainstream press .

  43. Did Twitter Kill Blogging? « An Englishman in Dubai Says:

    […] Christopher Saul’s Blog – My oldest mate in Dubai and perhaps one of the smartest. When Chris is not moaning and groaning about hisย apartment, vehicle fleet or doing his expenses his blog is one of the longest running in Dubai and was partially to blame for my own blogging obsession. His satirical genius often emerges in his posts and none better than this example. […]

  44. 2010 in review « Christopher Saul's Blog Says:

    […] Yet another Gulf bashing article April 2009 43 comments […]

  45. More Dubai bashing drivel « Christopher Saul's Blog Says:

    […] time readers might remember a similar Dubai bashing article that appeared a couple of years ago.ย  Plus ca change. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "0"); […]

  46. Schadenfreude – The Johann Hari Edition « Peter's Place Says:

    […] – Brilliantly parodied and dissected by Chris […]

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