Thursday, September 29, 2016

The World Beyond

It's our last day here in Saudi Arabia. We'll be flying to Jeddah from Madinah this afternoon, insya'allah, and then on to Singapore, hoping to touch down some time tomorrow afternoon. It will be nice to get back to normality yet sad to leave the centre of things. Except, of course, that the centre of all things is always accessible assuming we don't make the mistake of assuming it's ourselves.

For the first week or more of our journey I felt almost completely cut off from the bigger world beyond. I didn't see a newspaper until three days ago - the Saudi Gazette, provided gratis by the Oberoi here in Madinah - and we didn't have any television in the apartment at Shisha. It was possible to go on-line for news, but I just didn't feel inclined to do so. The only thing I bothered to check were the football results - and I wish I hadn't. Then moving to the big hotel in Makkah I found myself occasionally glancing at CNN and BBC World, with those glances gradually turning to more sustained viewing, especially here in Madinah where I watched the whole of the first televised debate between the contenders in the US presidential election.

I suppose the race for the White House has comprised the most substantial part of my growing awareness of big events, along with the horror of the bombing of Aleppo. And in local terms exposure to the Saudi Gazette has made me more keenly aware of the challenges faced by the Kingdom, a place about which I have much to learn. Yesterday the lead story concerned some fierce cuts in government salaries - up to 20%, and no annual bonus for the current year - and when you consider just how many Saudis are government employees it isn't difficult to imagine just how disgruntled a lot of folks here are likely to be feeling. Another story about sudden lay-offs, 1300 of them, at a printing company dedicated to printing copies of The Holy Qur'an further suggested deep systemic problems.

As did the Clinton-Trump debate and reactions to it. When one of the contenders for the most powerful office in the world appears to offer little more than an almost comically blustering charlatanism and still gets taken seriously you've got to be more than a little nervous.

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