The Assad emails – what’s really interesting

In the articles I’ve read about the private emails unearthed by The Guardian between the Al Assad clan, no-one seems to be commenting on the fact that they are all in English.

I was very surprised (and relieved) when I came to Dubai to find that all the business emails, plus a lot of private emails, are written in English, even when both speakers speak Arabic as well.

For business reasons in this part of the world, the likelihood that the content of the emails will need to be seen at some point by a non-Arabic speaker is fairly high, so it makes sense to use English by default. That said, there are plenty of emails still written in English, even when both parties know for certain that only they will be reading them. I can’t imagine having to write, say, in German to a whole office English speakers, just to say something along the lines of ‘cake in the kitchen for my birthday’.

Another contributing factor is that many Arabic speakers have been educated in English at university level, or learnt their skills in English – a computer course for example. In certain situations, when you speak two languages well, you pick the one that fits best with your topic and the general environment, I suppose. It’s also my understanding that many textbooks simply don’t have Arabic versions. So whilst religious topics are clearly well covered in Arabic, English is going to be your only choice for computer science, engineering and other topics.*

Many of my Arabic speaking colleagues tell me they can’t even type in Arabic – they often don’t even have an arabised computer keyboard, for example. If they need to write Arabic, they use this method.

All of this goes to show that amongst educated people in the Arab world, the general use of English is very widespread. Even a comparatively poor Jordanian taxi driver will be able to communicate in English to do his job in Amman. This probably comes as a surprise to many Westerners, who think that the Gulf and Levant are full of people who cannot be communicated with, when the opposite is true. It’s a very anglophone region. More so, I have often felt, than a certain other country in the area.

I find it quite ironic that the head of state of a country officially called the ‘Syrian Arab Republic’ chats to his wife in English. Granted, his wife is British born and he studied in the UK, but still!

* Obviously a similar situation applies in French speaking Arab and African countries, but the Levant and Gulf countries were never colonies in the same way as most French speaking non-French countries were.

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