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Saturday, February 5, 2011

TUNISIA, EGYPT ... OMAN



In December 2010 my wife and I visited – as tourists – Egypt, Libya and Tunisia as part of a Mediterranean cruise. Now, at the time of positing this article, Tunisia has undergone what looks like a revolution of sorts, while Egypt teeters on the edge. Western media moguls are fascinated by the thought that the domino effect will turn the Arab world up side down, sweeping aside monarchs, despots and gangster regimes – all of which were installed with their blessings in the first place. Democracy is coming to the Arab world – a line that Leonard Cohen might want to consider taking up in one of his songs along with his ‘democracy is coming to the USA’. But hold on: what if the Arab people vote for Talebanization and the Caliphate? Bring back the monarchs, despots and gangster regimes? In the first instance the NATO regimes want nothing less than Western democracy to come to the Arab world, so as to forge a cozy alliance of common economical interests, ensuring a well-oiled oil and gas supply. If this doesn’t work, one has to bite the bullet and intervene as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ultimately it doesn’t matter which way to go as the rapid trend towards a globalized neo-feudalism will establish feudal corporations to run the world as we know it today. Indeed it may well be an unnecessary – even dangerous – sidestep to have Westminster-style parliamentary-democratic movements to intervene in this process in the Arab world, lest such upheavals result in brief outbreaks of direct democracy. My guess is that the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings will result in a watered-down regime change, what with lots of cosmetic changes but with no change in the weather as far as the multi-national corporate structures operating in the Arab world are concerned. Even if all the Tunisian and Egyptian oilfields were to be nationalized – echoing earlier attempts by Nasser and Gaddafi – there would be wheeling and dealing until the cows come home: witness the latter’s recent dealings with BP.

In any case the original intent of this article was to exemplify Oman – from personal experience of having worked there in 2008 – as a case in point for my thesis that some places on earth have made and will make a much smoother transition to neo-feudalism than others.

The Sultanate of Oman - as most of the other Gulf states and Saudi Arabia - is a nice example of how ancient feudalism developed seamlessly into modern neo-feudalism. That a whole country could be the personal fiefdom of a potentate (some say he is secretly gay) in the 21st century may come as a surprise to some but if you ever lived and worked in Oman during this time, you wouldn’t blink an eyelid.

Oman’s Ministry of Higher Education website used to have this cryptic message in English:

With the beginning of the Renaissance of Oman in 1970, the bulk of the attention of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said gave an emphasis to the establishment of science and education and by making his eternal (we will teach our generations under the trees).    

It was perhaps not surprising that the ENTER button into the English site resulted in the equally cryptic message COMING SOON, and left one with no option but to access the site via the Arab script. English after all, is the language of the devil, and while one must teach it at all schools, one ought to ignore it in reality. Not that Oman doesn’t have English media outlets (TV and newspapers galore) and other signs of English taking over but again the main point is that such English media must report, daily if not hourly, the good news of His Majesty doing good deeds for his people. I happen to know of an expatriate architect who oversaw the building of the Sultan’s vast palace in Seeb (strategically next to the airfield, just in case one needs to get away in a hurry) and he says it was the greatest Mickey Mouse job he had ever been involved with. The point being, again, that His Majesty needed the best of the best, not to be underdone by His Majesty in England (in case she came for a visit) in terms of modern conveniences built into traditional architraves and other such wonders of invention. His armed forces officers and personal body guards ensured that His Majesty never once got into physical contact with the expatriate devils and underlings who were hired to build the impossible dream. Unlike the mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, the Sultan has enough oil and gas under his land to finance every folly known to mankind. While some of the rural folk have to contend with Toyota vans to grace the motorways to nowhere, one can observe the spectacle of the Royal motorway exit leading onto the public one: a cavalcade of Porsches with young princes and princesses race around the roundabout only to disappear back into the Royal enclave when their superiors tell them off for being unnecessarily flirtatious with their subjects.

The Sultan’s fabulous wealth is of course wisely invested in the US stock market and all manner of US banks with gilded initials grace the main commercial drag of Muscat, the capital city. With Iran across the ditch the Americans also maintain all manner of secret installations so as to be able, if needed, to bomb the hell out of the Ayatollahs. Feudal lords have always chosen their allies wisely in terms of keeping their neighbours docile. After all, Oman once was a Persian dominion. No Islamic brotherhood here! The Omani population must endure a schizophrenic condition: modernize the American-English way but remain a traditional feudal subject running around in traditional dishdashas with silly daggers in their belts. Upper class Omani women ditch their hijabs and abayas for Calvin Klein jeans and tank tops as soon as they get onboard an Emirates flight to Hawaii, LA or San Francisco. Feudalist ritual is the backbone of the system inside the country. The rich and powerful don’t mind getting dressed up in feudal garb so as to impress their loyal subjects and thus supplement their attempts at education with some realia. There are however some problems with tourism: swanky tourist resorts by the sea - and with outlandish swimming pools to match - attract all manner of nouveau-rich who don’t give a damn about local customs and run around in itsy-bitsy strand bikinis that leave the local men salivating with uncontrolled desire. Of course such resorts are strictly fenced in by high walls but is it is increasingly impossible to keep out the local menagerie of playboys who want to get it on with the tourists. Worse, they indulge in alcohol as well and tend to make fools of themselves when heavily intoxicated (let alone increasing the death toll on the roads). In line with feudalist tradition such problems have to be solved by turning a blind eye for most of the time and then suddenly invoke a drastic measure (such as a public flogging) to keep things in comparative check. After all general debauchery is a well-known feature of all feudal societies, and as long as the long suffering subjects don’t complain too much about being sidelined from such fun activities, well, who cares. In addition there is always the religious police in case the female subjects take to disrobing on public beaches.

Oman is a fabulous country with a fabulous countryside. One can almost feel the origins of ancient civilizations along the whadis with their date palm plantations, and one can lament the subsequent history as being that of eternal feudalism. On the other hand, Arab feudalism has always been close to the hearts of occidental feudalists inasmuch they envy the Arabian nights full of frankincense, harems, camels, magic carpets and assassins - not to speak of the oil reserves they sit on. Working and living in Oman, as we did, is an education of sorts.

At the time of writing this, it was announced that Oman’s feudal neighbour, Dubai, is facing financial disaster, owing billions of dollars, mainly due to the obsession to build castles in the sky (literally and figuratively), what with the highest building in the world (now renamed Burj Khalifa in honour of the financial rescuer from Abu Dhabi), the artificial islands in the shape of a palm and other building projects that defy common sense in the most amazing ways. In this the local overlord, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is akin to the mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, as mentioned above. Oman’s ruler has no doubt also heavily invested in the Dubai building boom but may be better placed than his Dubai counterpart in that he has greater resources to draw on and thus avoid a right-feudal collapse. Naturally his subjects will have to suffer a bit and revert to camels for public transport. Dubai on the other hand, as HQ for the Emirates Airlines and a host of other commercial entities that live on borrowed money, may have to revert to a ghost town where sand storms will smoothen the sharp edges of the ghastly towers that populate the waterfront. After severe deprivations for the common subjects there may be a revival in that these edifices become tourist attractions, not unlike Ludwig’s castles in Bavaria, perversely promoted and admired by all those people who are in awe of what feudal societies can achieve in terms of truly outlandish building projects. As a further footnote one may add that a few weeks down the track, Dubai’s oil-rich neigbour Abu Dhabi has bailed out Dubai to the tune of some 10 billion dollars - possibly enough to stave off imminent bankruptcy but not a long-term solution to the underlying problem of financial madness - from which Abu Dhabi and her absolute ruler suffers no less.

One may also comment on the laments even liberals tend to voice when people’s revolutions sweep away the feudal lords and tear down their palaces. Well, unfortunately they are, more often than not, not torn down but are taken over by the revolutionary elites to accommodate themselves. Accordingly such icons of cultural heritage are often preserved, ready to be taken over by the rightful owner when the revolution has subsided and the lords and ladies have returned in a new guise. I say: tear them down brick by brick and build solid huts for the peasants. In this way the lords and ladies will have nothing much to come back to. Indeed a vast number of liberals seem to agree with the notion that ‘culture’, in terms of architecture in particular, is the sole domain of feudal expression - nobody else could afford it otherwise. Note the common laments expressed about Soviet style architecture, being supposedly bland, functional and cheap. Well, yes, how can they compete with the Sultan of Oman who built a fantastic mosque that boasts the largest single-weave carpet in the world? Must have cost a vast fortune and by definition must be beautiful, singularly artistic and unique in every way. Imagine revolutionaries cutting up the carpet into small squares to furnish the huts of the long-suffering subjects. Oh what a travesty, what mindless destruction of a cultural heritage, I hear them say! In a similar vein one can feel the neo-feudalists lusting after the ‘forbidden city’ in Beijing, waiting for a Chinese Jeltsin and Putin to claim it as suitable accommodation for the new oligarchs. Mao was disingenuous in keeping the ‘forbidden city’ as a museum to show his subjects how wasteful the feudal lords had been. At least he could have turned it into a hospital, school or accommodation for homeless people. Sure, the latter might have used the fine furniture for firewood but at least it would have kept them warm.

Returning to Oman - and in light of the financial meltdown in the region - we have the German media giant Der Spiegel1 laud Oman and her absolute ruler for not being as ostentatious and reckless as his counterpart in Dubai, noting that Oman favours education of its citizens over building castles in the sky. The Sultan of Oman being a trusted ally of the USA and EU, he is praised for funding a free and compulsory (sic) education system while at the same time keeping Omani traditions - meaning Omani feudalism - alive. Education as a supreme tool for indoctrination has long been the preferred choice for enlightened feudalists inasmuch the so-educated population comes to accept the status-quo as an inevitable fact of life. Adding my experience as a one time expatriate educator in Oman - in line with colleagues from North-America, Europe and the Middle-East - one has to subscribe to the schizophrenic requirement to bring modern education content to bear while at the same time bowing to the feudal lords. Anti-feudalist jokes in private might be overheard by a jealous colleague, who would report one to the local authorities, and a one-way ticket out of Oman would result. In any case Der Spiegel in typical style manages to reveal the deeper reason for being so complimentary to Oman: it is not education or Omanization of resources but it is the fact that the Sultan has now decreed that foreign investment can now proceed on the basis of 100% foreign ownership of companies established in Oman. So much for the much lauded Omanization of local resources! In no time the lucrative higher education market of Oman will be provided for by multinational education corporations - and paid for by the Sultan’s oil reserves.

Contrast such a happy outcome with the constant criticism of China by the West that it allows for Western-style market capitalism but not for Western-style education curricula. The evil Chinese Communist Party hierarchy wants to keep on indoctrinating the population with silly, if not evil, communist ideas. Oman and her Sultan have no such weaknesses and he deserves much praise and support accordingly.

Will Tunisia and Egypt be the dominos that eventually push over Oman - China even (a re-run of Tianamen Square)? Wasn't the Cold War, as practiced in the West, based on preventing the domino effect? Strange how political metaphors fall victim to the Newspeak of Orwellian proportions.


Note:
1            http://www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/0,1518,668348,00.html Um ausländische Investoren anzulocken, hat die Regierung sogar die Bestimmungen gelockert. Inzwischen dürfen Ausländer bis zu 100 Prozent des Unternehmenskapitals halten. 

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