So Saudi Arabia is splitting its forces in order to fight what it sees as the greater fight; they are reportedly sending around a thousand troops into Bahrain, at the invitation of the crown prince (my lack of capitals – after all, there are so many crown princes around this area, it’s essentially become a generic term).

Obviously these troops have been otherwise engaged in the last few weeks, crushing the few small-scale protests that have been ‘allowed’ in Riyadh.

Since it has become apparent that what come commentators insist on referring to as the ‘Arab Spring’ (mwahahahah, as in gymnastics, d’you see?) is more resilient than at first supposed, the key question this was always going to boil down to was: are there more loyal troops than disloyal ones?

The first thing to notice here is just how much these theocracies/oligarchies spend on their military. OK, we all know it’s going to be a lot. But according to the CIA’s suspiciously jolly-sounding ‘World Factbook’ (does it have pop-ups?) not only is Saudi Arabia the world’s 3rd highest spender on the military – as expressed by spend as a % of GDP, 10% in their case – but 6 of the top 10 are Arab Muslim states. Plus, one of the others is Israel – which you might say was directly linked to the others.

So I think it’s fair to say that these countries have all been preparing pretty thoroughly for some professional-level repression of their own populaces (unless Oman, at number one, were seriously considering invading Australia or something – actually thinking about it they probably wouldn’t go for one of the few places hotter than their own country. Maybe Wales then?).

The second thing to notice is that, in all of the footage of these current conflicts, from Libya to Yemen – no-one is burning their own flag in protest.

We will all have seen some ritualistic flag burning over the years, largely it has to be said of the American one. (Where do they get those flags from incidentally? How does owning a factory churning out the revered and yet flammable icon of the Great Satan sit with the ayatollahs?).

In those instances, whether consciously or not, those people recognise they are defiling the symbol of nationhood of another country. Simply, I think the fact they are not doing this with their own symbol means it’s not the nation that’s broken, it’s the administration of it. That is to say, the flag still means unity to them.

There is a lot of conjecture about how bad the replacements for some of these regimes may be, and in particular the contention that the resulting power vacuum will be a breeding round for further extremism. And yet – where are Al Qaeda in all this? There was a brief panic about the Muslim Brotherhood (which sounds more like a specialist barbershop quartet to me in any case) – but unusally for our media, that was largely founded in complete ignorance since the MB was founded in 1928 as a nationalist movement and has been essentially stamped on by successive governments ever since, trying to field legitimate candidates for election but prevented from doing so.

The extremist elements we have been trained to think of as the unified voice of Islam by televised idiots (‘Fox news: 7 days, 24 hours, 10 commandments’ – copyright Newsjack) are in fact resolutely anti-nationhood, anti-cultural identity.

The inhabitants of these countries recognise that much better than we do. They don’t want to win some eternal war of faith, and they don’t want to obliterate anyone – they just want to live somewhere where they can wake up with the same number of family members in their house as when they went to bed.

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Harrods has been bought by the Qatari royal family, the House of Thani,  for a reported £1.5bn. Which is a lot of money, but amusingly is even more in Qatari Riyals – 8.1bn.

The reason I think this is interesting is that it is yet another symptom of a reversal in the flow of value between the different conceptual regions of the world. Sounds exciting doesn’t it?

So it should. OK, so Harrods was clearly already owned by the Fayed brothers since 1985, from House of Fraser who’d owned it since 1959; it’s not like it was a salt-of-the-earth emporium run by Arkwright and G-G-G-Granville.

But consider how the shop (and the ‘fancy goods’ consumerism it fed) grew in the first place. Harrods actually started out as a small room in Stepney specialising in tea – which ranks with sugar, coffee, diamonds & timber as one of the world’s most politicised commodities. All of these My First Empire (TM) building blocks were fundamental in delineating the difference between the developed (like we’ve stopped – eerie) and developing worlds. Check out Dan Carlin’s excellent podcast on the topic.

My point is that the global model from the 15th century until 6pm on Thursday the 1st of December 1955 was essentially going to countries where the local definition of natural resource was something like “cunning” or “the ability to survive in a desert for 50 generations”, setting up infrastructure to systematically remove raw materials which were of little or no apparent value in their native setting, and then taking those materials home to create value out of them.

So the value creation was not in the mine but in the Cartier ring, not in the forest but in the workshop of Thomas Chippendale.

Fast forward to 2010: in a lot of cases, by no means all, the infrastructure of production is integrated into the economy of the country of origin. I’m not saying that the principal beneficiary of Brazilian logging are the Tupi indians whose house is now under the 40-tonne crane – I’m saying that the licensing fees and profit shares paid by commercial logging firms are in no small way responsible for the fact that Brazil is the world’s 8th largest economy by GDP. The point is that the gap between production & value no longer stretches across the world.

The fact is we in the Western world aren’t really in much of a position to create any kind of value – the UK alone owes more than £900bn, a number so big that’s ceased meaning anything numerical and practically become another language. Our banks – institutions founded on the principal that other people give them money – still can’t make any money, and the Euro looks frankly buggered (old economist’s term). There was a lot of crowing in Western media a few months ago about how Dubai’s dreams were in tatters – all because they have accrued a paltry £59bn in debt through the sheer scale of their investment. So they could lend us £800bn, and still be better off.. In fact we should try asking.

So yes, Harrods was already shiny enough to have attracted the notoriously magpie-esque attentions of the Middle East – but what about MGM? Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, bona-fide Hollywood royalty, the studio responsible for some of the most successful films of all time – has managed to achieve a debt level of $3.7bn – about the same as Russia’s national debt (sort of). The new Bond film is being delayed until a buyer is found.

My conclusion is this: although the other major US media corporations are sniffing around, we now live in a world where is actively possible that one of the crown jewels in the Hollywood mechanism responsible for spreading the Word of Western cultural supremacy is bought up by the government either a Middle-Eastern islamic state or a Far Eastern communist totalitarian regime.

That is amazing.

The sticky pole

March 19, 2010

Why does anyone want to be a politician now?

There are a number of factors counting against it as an attractive career: comparatively poor salary (one reason it seemed acceptable to top it up with expenses); general mistrust – if not downright dislike – by the public at large; unsociable hours & travel; astonishing bureaucratic lethargy; etc.

However there are two really big ones that stand out for me, and there is something to be learnt here.

1) They all seem mediocre, because no-one really believes that they sign up in the name of public service. We tend to think of them as middle managers who’ve slipped sideways, in it for the duck islands because they couldn’t get onto the Boots grad scheme.

I have to say I don’t hold with this; if nothing else, look at the battery of reasons to do any other job. I believe only a genuine sense of duty, a desire to improve and to shape, could get someone over that hurdle. I’m sure that’s not always how it pans out, but I think it’s a valid hypothesis for a starting line.

You might say that power is an alluring bauble, but it is plainly evident to any observer, potential applicants included, that any power that does come is extremely hard to achieve and obviously very unwieldy. I don’t think anyone thinks that you can start banning people called Gerald and cut all diplomatic ties with the Shetland islands in your third week.

2) In our public lives, we as a country have become physically allergic to failure.  This is dangerously insane – learning lessons this way is the fundamental reason humans have risen to our status as Earth’s pre-eminent monkey, and we all constantly do it in our own, private lives.

I see this dichotomy every day; we can run a tactical online ad campaign, and discover that one particular site or format just doesn’t perform. We don’t run around screaming, or write to the Daily Mail and demand the nostril hairs of the buying team are plucked out one by one. We compile the results, establish what works and then repeat that bit. Of course we do.

I fail to see the difference between this and PFI IT schemes, or ID cards, or buying helicopters.

OK, so in the public realm then the money being apparently wasted is our money – but in my private realm, the money being spent is my client’s, so I am immediately and constantly accountable.

There is a separate issue of doing it once and failing to learn the lesson – and of course that should be highlighted as failing to perform, just as we should be slapped for recommending a website that has not delivered time & again.

There is a management concept specifically called ‘rewarding failure’ – because if you don’t accept that not everything will work, then you will never try anything new and your company will wither & die. It’s not like this is new news.

So why would you be a politician? Everybody starts off hating you as a matter of course, assumes you’re an imbecile, you can’t really get much done – and in any case if you try anything new then you will be burned as a witch.

Lesson: give people who at least should be helping you the benefit of the doubt, and be prepared to learn that some things don’t work.

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