What Thesiger got wrong about the Arab world

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The Independent Online

It is the fate of anyone who lives to a great age to be acclaimed as the "last of the breed". The obituarists were at it with a vengeance with the death of the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger this week. And they will no doubt be at it again when Edward Heath goes, although I hope that will not be for many years as the old boy still has a lot to contribute from his experience of war and world affairs.

With Thesiger at least the obituarists are right. Like Norman Lewis, who also died recently, Thesiger was a chronicler of vanishing peoples, himself a member of a vanishing group who could still travel with tribes untouched by what they saw as the grim destruction of western civilisation. It's not that we won't see the likes of him again, it's just that soon there won't be any remote group left to be chronicled. Thesiger's beloved Marsh Arabs were destroyed by Saddam Hussein. Norman Lewis's Amazonian peoples are barely clinging on against the depredations of loggers and oilmen.

What remains on our side is that peculiar listlessness, that desire to lose oneself in the identity of others, which still marks the English educated classes. Thesiger took it to extremes, as TE Lawrence before him, insisting on not just joining the desert tribes but matching the hardness of their existence step by self-lacerating step. "The harder the life, the finer the person," was his creed - a motto that would be dismissed with total contempt by anyone from a less privileged background who had no choice in the matter.

But at its best this urge to abnegation has made the British natural travellers and able foreign administrators. Far from taking the baggage of their own culture with them - as the Americans are so often accused of doing - they seem to take positive delight in leaving it behind, in "going native". Empathy with tribal structures is a great deal better a means of understanding, and coping with, Iraq than the facile categorisation of Sunni and Shia that the occupying administration keeps using. Indeed it is not a bad means of understanding much of what happens in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia.

The weakness of this approach - aside from the romanticisation of the noble savage to which the British upper classes are always prey in Africa and the Middle East - is that it is such a poor means of understanding what is happening to Arab society today. The Arabists of the Foreign Office, the "camel corps", are largely drawn from those with experience in the Gulf, where British influence is greatest. So is the British Army, many of whose officers have served in Oman and other Gulf states. In a tribal view of the world it is all too easy to side with monarchical or dictatorial regimes as the natural holders of the court between competing interests as the way it has always been done in these parts.

It is also all too easy to fall prey to the particularist view of the Arab world that would have it as different in kind than other societies. The pages of academic journals and the serious press are now full of articles about why Muslim society seems incapable of democracy and why it is so intrinsically given to violence.

Most of this is just patronising rubbish, which bears no relationship to the strains of urbanisation and rural depopulation that we have seen in Latin America, Asia and most other parts as much as the Arab world. If you want to understand what is going on in the Middle East, there's not much value in worrying away about the Wahhabi sect or Sunni-Shia conflicts as such. You need to go the slums of Baghdad and Cairo, or the shanty towns around many Gulf cities, where the poor and the young unemployed gather. There you will find exactly the same kind of problems as you will find in Johannesburg, Mexico City or Bangkok.

What is peculiar to the Middle East is the combination of oil wealth, which has increased the divisions between rich and poor and encouraged a self-interested and corrosive intervention from the outside world, and the continuing sore of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which has galvanised opinion in the Arab street and led to a sense of injustice and humiliation shared by most Arabs.

What may also be particular to the Muslim world is that it is the mosque that provides basic welfare and health, along sometimes with a dose of political radicalism.

To see this as some great conflict in values between West and East is ridiculous. The problem for most Arabs is that the solutions offered by the West have all too often proved to be merely self-serving support for repressive regimes. The West has always come to the region not bearing the gift of self-determination, but a fistful of weapons in one hand and an oil contract in the other.

Iraq to most Arabs is likely to prove no exception. But the basic desire for economic prosperity and a say in your future are no different there than here. Only the mosque is nearest to providing it, not the ballot box. Wilfred Thesiger and his fellow explorers were right. There is nothing in Arab culture or achievements that gives the West the right to look down on them.

But he and the Arabists who have succeeded him are wrong to see that culture only in terms of a nostalgia for simpler ways. What we need to understand about Arab society is not so much what it was but how it is changing.