Not so many years ago those who entered the Foreign Ministries of countries such as Britain and France were expected to be cultured individuals destined to be the public face of their nation’s in various corners of the globe. Historically the embassies in Middle East and North Africa were staffed by an elite who not only mastered Arabic as easily as they had Latin and Ancient Greek, but were just as likely to be autodidacts who in their spare time would teach themselves Farsi, Hebrew, or Arabic calligraphy. For all their patrician virtues, these remarkable individuals still managed to generalise about the Arabs and Persians and looked upon the regions they served in as a chess board of which they were the soul arbiters.
This gilded world lasted until the 1950’s when Arab-nationalism wreaked havoc to the policies formulated by the Foreign Office, London and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Paris and was to see the gluttonous King Farouk toppled in Egypt and the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. London and Paris along with the newly created state of Israel endeavoured to engineer an emergency to act as a cover for military intervention only to find that their machinations earned the disapproval and censure of the United States of America and resulted in a humiliating climb down.
The fall-out from the Suez Crisis was far reaching, bolstering Gamal Abdel Nasser, emboldening the Soviet Union to send tanks into Hungary and sowing the seeds of discontent and treachery that was to result in the murdering of the benign King Feisal II of Iraq and his family in 1958.
One of Nasser’s disciples, Brigadier Sallah in September 1962 was to orchestrate and execute an Egyptian backed coup in Yemen, thus ousting Muhammad al-Badr – the Yemeni King and Iman, whilst the following year Abdul Salam Aref, another friend and admirer of the Egyptian leader, carried out the violent overthrow of Prime Minister Qasim of Iraq an event that ushered in the era of the Ba’ath Party which ultimately was to lead to the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.
In the fifty years or so that have elapsed since much has happened that should be a clarion call for foreign policy makers to return to their history books or at the very least spend a few hours in the company of Arabs taxi drivers in cities such as Amman, Cairo and Nablus. In this age of austerity and uncertainty maybe foreign policy makers in London and Paris could put “leverage” and “synergy” to one side and drink in some of the knowledge, opinions and wisdom to be found away from official vehicles and the Euro-mediocrities that fill their diplomatic social scene.
A battered yellow Mercedes-Benz could prove to an unlikely place of learning and the driver a refreshing commentator, guide, historian and observer of local and international politics. These ‘seats’ of learning and transportation would of course include certain features as standard; small cups of cardamom coffee, pungent cheroots and the sublime if rather doleful voice of the unofficial Patron Saint of Arab taxi drivers – Oum Kaltoum. So what might the not-so-bright young things from Europe’s foreign ministries gain from such an experience? Well, one thing is for certain they had better be familiar with the following:
The Sykes-Picot Agreement
The Balfour Declaration
Arab taxi drivers delight in exploring what has shaped their region and have an excellent working knowledge of the West’s games and game players. Such is their knowledge that the world’s top business schools and multi-nationals should be hiring some of them them to draw up PESTLE analysis to help companies seeking to interact with the region. The knowledge, both general and specific of some British diplomats and Foreign & Commonwealth Office staff sent to the region is invariably woeful. Many have never even heard about John Bagot Glubb let alone read any of the writing of the famed Glubb Pasha; his books most notably Great Arab Conquests should be required reading. Mention the likes of Aden, the Trucial States and Nuri -as Said and you are greeted with quizzical looks and blank stares.
The Arab peoples whilst disparate in nature possess a strong sense of history, one which ensures that they are only too well aware of former triumphs and past slights.
Diplomacy in the West has largely ignored history, even recent history and therefore is placed at a real disadvantage when it comes to engagement, establishing a rapport and understanding the mindset of those one deals with.
The Hashemites of Jordan are grounded with birth of their historical association with the Holy city of Mecca and the role the House of Saud played in ousting them, equally they understand that they owe their current status not due to a popular mandate but to being installed by the British. Whilst the Arabs treasure their sense of the past and delight in conspiracy theories (the latter being a favourite past time) those seeking to represent the West seem to have overlooked so much and what is worse appear utterly ignorant of what has gone before. Is it any wonder then that some elementary blunders are still being made?
If policy makers in London and Paris seem ill prepared the situation in Washington is even more parlous. The US has been used to running much of the region by proxy and has made little or no effort to appreciate the dynamics and antipathies that shape inter-Arab rivalry or make the Arab League so utterly ineffective.
America’s foreign policy myopia has resulted in a siege mentality made worse by its total pre-occupation with Israel. Policy makers have bought into their own rhetoric and have routinely formulated solutions which bare little or no reality to the situation on the ground. This has been exacerbated by security concerns which have resulted in American diplomats being ever more detached and thus hamstrung. Recent events from the Maghreb to the Persian Gulf have left Western diplomats dazed and confused.
The time is right for Western diplomats to venture forth from their hermetically sealed offices and cars and discover the real world again. They may well find that the purveyors of swarmer or chai nana (mint tea) know a lot more than they think. Arab hospitality and humour can come as a very pleasant surprise if you have been used to an unremitting diet of Fox News. Yes, there are uncertainties, the very art of living contains risk, but in sallying forth and even being prepared to travel in aged taxis and to unfamiliar settings insights and wisdom can be garnered the like of which will never be available at protocol stifled ministerial meetings or dull diplomatic gatherings.