Friday, February 20, 2015

Lessons of the Persian Gulf

This week, I go off-topic. 

In January, I spent two days apiece in Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and Kuwait, almost entirely in the largest cities of Doha, Manama, Muscat, and Kuwait City.  Not business – I had been to Dubai several years ago and liked what I saw, so returned to the area. 

So what did I see this time?

First, note that I handpicked probably the four safest, most prosperous countries in the region.  I stayed out of much poorer Yemen, a good thing since machine guns went off in its capital that week, and Saudi Arabia, still not big on general sightseers.  Although all four are more or less absolute monarchies, with the king or sultan taking at least the role of permanent president, they have done superbly at not only getting into the 20th century, where not all were 50 years ago, but further into the 21st than almost any others.  Their infrastructure is first-rate and getting better.  I have never seen more construction anywhere than in Doha.  The new airport with free Internet computers was finished last year, a city rail system is being assembled underground, and it seemed like every other building was either going up or being remodeled. 

Second, every single person I encountered, with the possible exception of a man who didn’t want me leaning back in my airline seat, seemed civilized.  Although my ordinary Western wear of polo shirts and khakis was not rare, it was in the minority, but nobody seemed offended that I was there.  People at hotels, restaurants, or even market stalls even went well past that to be solicitous.  When I went to the desk of my unassuming lodging for more toilet paper, I was assured that all I needed to have done was to call them and they would have brought it up to my room.  I like to think that the cause was that the locals’ Bedouin ancestors, going through the desert, were critically dependent on the hospitality of others, and passed it along in cultural form.

Third, those countries were excellent travel values.  The round-trip airfare from JFK to Doha was $680, which seems substantial until you see that much closer locations such as Rio de Janeiro, Casablanca, and even London and Dublin were priced higher.  On the ground, I stayed at places costing $37 to $85 per night, choosing as I usually do low-end hotels with private rooms and baths and decent online ratings, and ate somewhat like a local at smaller restaurants and food stands.  The meals rarely cost me more than $15 and usually much less.  Each hotel also had a fine free breakfast buffet, and I had hummus, olives, feta cheese, orange juice and pita bread for eight days straight.  Taxis cost less than in American cities, and museum admission charges and the like were nominal or nonexistent.

Fourth, the weather was wonderful.  It was dry, in the 70s and 80s during the day with ample but not intense sun, and in the 60s at night.  Given that I returned to a second straight unseasonably cold Catskills winter, which has continued throughout the three weeks since, it was just the break I needed.

Fifth, whatever you think about the first Gulf War, in which Iraq invaded Kuwait and was repulsed by Operation Desert Storm, the Kuwaitis have not forgotten the efforts of others.  When arriving there, someone said I should consider their country “my second home,” and my visa was free.  I visited the Memorial Museum, dedicated to the invasion – they had display after display of the nations which had liberated them, and an entire wall, including the names of every American soldier who had died there, honoring the United States.  Although it may seem that people in countries we have rescued “should” have that attitude, it doesn’t take much international travel to see that such a viewpoint is hardly the norm.

Sixth, physical safety in all four places was complete.  Whether on fairly dark streets near the market in Muscat, walking through a construction zone in Kuwait City, or though the mazelike narrow streets of Manama, there was clearly nothing to fear.  To be sure, they were all worthy of big-city precautions, but beyond that there were no problems.

Seventh, with their British colonial heritage, English is the second language in all four countries, and is on almost all signs.  That is convenient for those of us who know little Arabic.  English also served as a common tongue; in Muscat I often heard Indians, quite common there, and locals doing business in English, even though it was primary for neither.  I also talked with a man working at a candy store, found out he was from Iran, and determined that his English was better than his Arabic.  Tourists traveling to those places, at least in the cities, are not at all handicapped by not knowing other languages.   

Eighth, I never did see another known American.  I also talked with people from Bosnia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, India, and Great Britain, but not from here. 

Ninth, a few scattered observations.  As expected, there were any mosques, with loudly broadcasted calls to prayer.  It is not necessary to dress formally for public buildings, but the shorts and jeans should stay home.  In general, the countries were good places to see how people do things differently but still effectively. 

So, it was a great week-plus without thinking much about American jobs.  One of my usual topics, though, did present itself.  The quality of what and how much they are building made the case for a national American infrastructure project even stronger.  It would be a shame for Americans to consistently note, upon return, that places like Qatar and Kuwait are more advanced than we are, but at the rate we are going we will be there soon.  There is a lesson here – if we cannot accept that not all success comes from our country and ideology, we will not be the world’s leader for long.        

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