All hail the benevolent dictator

Foreign Policy, the rag founded by Samuel P. Huntington, has become a lot more fun (and less dignified) recently. First there was the whole zombie thing. It started with the innocent use of the word zombie (ie, reanimated corpse) to describe the proposed three-state solution to the Israel-Palestine crisis that was being bandied around back in January 09. Then, in August, there was the first of many blog posts by Daniel Drezner: how international relations theorists would cope with zombie attacks, soon followed up with March’s Dawn of the Theories of International Politics and Zombies and June’s Night of the Living Wonks.

Another favorite topic, after the undead, is failed states. They make for interesting photo essays – from Postcards from Hell to The Worst of the Worst (subtitle: bad dude dictators and general coconut heads) to Planet War. The one that stuck with me most, however, is Lifestyles of the Rich and Tyrannical: a short exploration of the lavish real estate holdings of some of the aforementioned bad dude dictators.

Perhaps it just seems topical. I recently returned from Oman, home to the enigmatic Sultan Qaboos and his (estimated) twenty-four palaces. True, he’s had forty years to feather his nest, having deposed his father in 1970. And judging by the looks of his central palace in Muscat (left), I don’t blame him for trying again (and again, and again).

Oman is the second-largest country on the Arabian peninsula, and by most accounts its most beautiful. It’s remarkably peaceful, especially given it shares a land border with Yemen, is 21 miles from Iran, and hosts a large port in close proximity to Somalia.

I was there for two weeks on a business trip – long enough to learn three phrases in Arabic and meet two members of the royal family (one of which took the opportunity to extol, at length, the virtues of Russian hookers as opposed to Chinese ones).

Writing about economic development in the Gulf states, as I have since December, has been an eye-opening experience. With some notable exceptions, these countries were largely sand dunes populated by nomadic tribes until the middle part of the last century. What the Arabs have been able to produce in the last sixty years – albeit with a lot of help from guest workers – is nothing short of revolutionary. When His Excellency Sultan Qaboos came into power in 1970, less than a third of the country was literate, and its people either lived in a medieval-style fort or a tent (the remains of the former dot the capital’s craggy shoreline).

‘If you wanted to go outside at night, you had to carry a sword,’ my driver, Hashim, told me. He was born sometime in the fifties, though he’s not sure exactly when.

Today, 95% of the Omani population is literate and almost everyone speaks fluent English in addition to Arabic. The roads of the capital, Muscat, are wide and nearly traffic-free, there’s air conditioning everywhere, and the tap water is potable (which is more than you can say of Turkey). Life expectancy is in the 70s and the per capita income is $24k a year. Which, incidentally, is an order of magnitude greater than most of my American college-educated friends made last year.

There are two obvious reasons this kind of supercharged modernization was possible. First, the GCC’s rulers – absolute monarchs, or emirs, or sultans – have little need to pander to that pesky bourgeois notion of democracy, thanks to decades of oil-funded public largesse.

In true Maslowian fashion, the idea of democracy doesn’t hold much appeal to the generation who are experiencing life in a safe, stable country for the first time. I asked Hashim if he would like to vote:

‘Why would I do that?’ he said. ‘I live a good life.’

The only country in the region to make any concrete steps towards democratic rule is Kuwait, which formed its first elected National Assembly in 1963. The experiment has not been a smooth one. Critics blame the National Assembly for hamstringing Kuwait’s development through petty, corrupt, and/or incompetent governance. The decision in January to take over responsibility for all consumer loans – effectively, a bailout for some of the world’s least credit-worthy spenders – is only one example of how the short-term interests of politicians worried about reelection are trumping the long-term viability of the country.

I remember writing an essay about how democracy is self-evidently the best form of government back in sophomore year of college. It has since been lost to the sands of time (read: computer failure). I still believe it is, in theory. But subsequent courses back in the Ivory Tower – and, of course, being hit over the head with the disparity between the developing country I live in, a ‘democracy’, and places like Oman – have made me think a lot more about when and where democracy can be reasonably introduced.

Tocqueville thought democracy would lead us a future of equality and blandness. Robert D. Kaplan, in his excellent, if controversial piece on why democracy is bad for developing countries, has a slightly different vision. Kaplan believes our love of the bottom line will lead us to a globalized, and therefore anarchic, economy, which will necessitate tyrannical rule to restore stability. The tyrant will be The Corporation, or the Military-Industrial complex, as the problems of the world are too vast to be controlled by one bad dude dictator and/or coconut head.

In Oman, at least, the promise of democracy – the premise of democracy – is seen by many as dubious. The financial crisis has if anything strengthened the average Omani’s (and Oman-based expat’s) conviction that Sultan Qaboos’s measured approach to development is best for the country (the country continued to grow and saw a minimum or projects go on hold while neighbors like Dubai tanked). One man I talked to, the Dutch GM of a major oil company’s Oman operations, went so far as to call Qaboos ‘a philosopher king in the Platonic fashion.’

As an American raised by a Palin-loving ex-Marine (ex-Marine in the Palinic fashion?) on the good old fashioned values of hard work, industry, and disdain of the Washington establishment, I’m uncomfortable with Omani king-worship. And, for that matter, the docility of most of the people in the Gulf in the face of the abuses of their governments. Yet I also realize I grew up in a state that provided me free education, a childhood untouched by violent or arbitrary crime, and an environment where blog posts comparing politicians to soul-sucking zombies are laughed at and not censored.

I’m sure there are plenty of people doing fascinating work on human development. Some day when I don’t have 26,000 words of copy to write in a month I might have more time to get into it.

Share this:

Pragmatic if not practical

‘Les filles sont fait pour fait l’amour,’ was the opening line (and refrain, and pretty much entire text) of French rocker Adanowsky’s set at the Moloko Music Festival, the culminating musical event of Kiev’s Gogol International Modern Art festival. The song seemed especially fitting here in the Ukraine, where women are as uncannily beautiful as their Muscovite cousins (see ‘The Moscow-New York Connection‘).

To the delight of almost every male expat, and the trepidation their female counterparts, there is a rich tradition of Ukrainian woman – expat man relationships, or so I gathered from the cover story of the Sept. 3 issue of ‘What’s On Kiev‘. The article blithely lays out the pros and cons for each party. Some highlights:

‘The delights’ Ukrainian women can offer the expat man:
– No matter how ugly, overweight, or out of shape you are, you can probably find yourself a young wife with a face you can’t believe and a supple body to die for!

‘The dark side’
– Don’t allow yourself to entertain the foolish thought that because your Ukrainian wife expects you to be the breadwinner, going off to work every day and earning fortunes (she will expect this, by the way), she’s going to be stuck at home being a housewife… she will expect you to hire a nanny, a cleaner, a cook and a maid.
– All Ukrainian women believe that men are bastards. They will fully expect you to be drunk all the time and to be unfaithful in equal amounts. She will treat you as if you are doing all this, even when you’re not, which will certainly drive you to drink, and probably drive you to being unfaithful, in the unlikely event you’re not already

‘The Good’ about expat men for Ukrainian women
– Chances are they can give you a better lifestyle than their local counterparts. Then again, an ex-pat in Kiev is never going to be worth what an oligarch’s worth, but if you’ve got no access there, a foreigner’s a good option.
– Most western men know it’s a bad thing to beat a woman, while statistics show that might not always be the case with Ukrainian men.

The Bad and the Ugly
– He’s going to be old. While that might not matter now, try and project into the future and calculate how old he will be when you’re his age. He may well be dead by then, but then again, that might not be such a bad thing. After all, you’ll have the passport and all his money.
– An expat will not be as generous with his money as his local equivalent. He will tell you it’s because he doesn’t have the fatalistic attitude to money Ukrainian men have and that he thinks of the future, but you know it’s just cause he’s a tight bastard and doesn’t appreciate how much it costs for you to look the way you do. He simply does not understand!

Naturally, the article was the subject of many conversations among the expat community. I thought it was a joke. On the contrary, said nearly everyone I talked to, it’s spot on. Even the Ukrainians I talked to didn’t seem to take much umbrage with the fact that it painted their women as gold-diggers. ‘Of course women want to be taken care of,’ said one man. ‘My wife has told me she doesn’t want to do anything but play with our children all day. Of course it is my responsibility to provide for them.’ ‘It’s just the reality of life over here,’ one woman echoed. ‘And it’s so true, what they say: foreign men don’t understand how much it costs to look good. I used to date an American who said I should get a job if I wanted to spend $2000 a month on spa treatments. How ridiculous is that? I dumped him and started dating a Ukrainian man who owns a spa.’

Share this:

The Moscow-New York Connection

‘I’ve noticed something,’ says my brother as we wait for the subway in one of Moscow’s sumptuously decorated stations (above). We don’t have to wait long, as it runs on roughly 90 second intervals. I look at my brother, who is obviously trying to put a complex thought into words. ‘It’s the women in Moscow,’ he says. ‘They’re all beautiful.’

Unlike my brother, I don’t have to be a gentleman, and so I can say with impunity that the women in Moscow are not beautiful but gorgeous, smoldering, melt-the-resolve-of-a-priest hot. They have the kind of bodies that I latterly thought existed only on the pages of Maxim magazine. How Russian men function I cannot imagine: every straight American male I know would be unable to tear himself away from the continuous beauty pageant that is the street.

‘But there’s something else,’ says my brother, bringing me out of my reverie. ‘They dress themselves so well and do their hair and makeup – they’re undeniably trying to get people to look at them. Then when you catch their eye they give you this look of utter scorn, even disgust. It’s the same with the women in New York, who, by the way, are the only women I’ve seen who might even compare to the women here. It’s incredibly frustrating.’

I try to argue that women make themselves look beautiful for their own sake, because it makes them feel individual, superior perhaps… and then I realize I’m confirming my brother’s point. I’m good at confounding my own arguments, which means my decision not to go to law school is probably a good one.

[For an abrupt change of topic with stretched segue] The women in Moscow aren’t the only beautiful thing in town. The city could never be confused with one of those jewels like Paris or Venice where every facade deserves its own postcard, but it packs a punch of its own. There’s the vast imperial complex of the Kremlin, where even the J.Crew-watermelon-and-green bell towers look macho; the stunning ‘Seven Sisters,’ skyscrapers erected by Stalin, which defy all the negative stereotypes of Soviet architecture; the gold onion domes of the Church of Christ the Savior, gloriously reconstructed in 1997, (more on that in a second); the too-big-to-be-ridiculous statue of Peter the Great: in sum, enough evidence that this is one of the mightiest nations in history to earn respect from even the snobbiest Europhile.

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior was torn down by Stalin in 1931 (photo courtesy of wikipedia) to make way for a monument to socialism, to be known as the Palace of the Soviets. After the demolition of the 19th century masterpiece, rather bashful structural engineers informed Stalin that the riverside location would not support the weight of the planned palace, so Stalin had the site turned into a swimming pool instead. This seems to have been a popular way to repurpose those pesky religious buildings: I visited another church that had been reclaimed from swimming pool status a few days later. The tile floors and stadium-style seating centered on the altar were a surreal combination for me, as I spent all of my extracurricular time growing up in either a swimming pool or a church. It seemed like deliberately little effort was spent trying to make the place look like a church again, which made the place almost more holy: wherever two or three are gathered together, right?

Share this: