His name was Ahmed and we met in a coffee shop in Withington. One of those chance and quick encounters.
I was waiting for someone, browsing through a second hand copy of Freakonomics: A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything, which I had just picked up in a charity shop nearby, when he came over to my table. He introduced himself and asked what I was reading. I offered him a seat and showed it to him, and as he browsed through it, he told me he was a researcher at Manchester University and had been in the UK for a number of years with his young family. That he would return home to Saudi Arabia soon. And thats when he began complaining.
“They burn gas in Saudi Arabia” he said matter of factly “Not selling it, not keeping it, not putting it in cans [i thought he meant canisters] or just containing it, no they just burn it, into the air-just like that” he said with a hint of frustration. I pushed out any thoughts of greenhouse gas effect from my mind, since in burning it, there was carbon di oxide released unreservedly into the atmosphere.
“They can channel it to the people, they saving them bills” Ahmed continued, in the best of his english. “The King is 90 years old and there is infighting in the royal family” he said. I checked this, and it turns out there is [1, 2]. Also, for some reason, Saudi royals always bring to mind thoughts of obesity. Most of them look overweight.
“Its not even a secret, everybody in the street knows it.” He talked of the power struggle murders in the royal family, which I had a vague memory of reading about at some point. He thought it would happen again in his lifetime.”They are finished, I know this, it will bring them down”
“The end of the dictatorship altogether?” I asked
“Yes” he said confidently “maybe within the next 3 – 5 years.”
We compared notes. Africa vs Saudi Arabia. Pluses and minuses. Challenges and opportunities. Our own goals. Myself – an Engineer, he – a social scientist. He admitted that Africa had a lot of potential, much greater than Saudi Arabia’s, but that “we don’t know it and it looks like there are too many inefficiencies, with corruption here, dictator there…” he said. He feared the wastage occuring in Saudi was happening in Africa and the poorest were suffering, but that if we were united in tackling African challenges we would build a very prosperious continent.
“Because you have everything, Saudi is just one massive dessert, with oil wells all over, but you have everything, the forests, the lakes, the rivers, fresh water fish, wildlife, young people, everything”
I assured him that while there was great potential, wastage was indeed everywhere, and the lack of vision was depressing.
He expressed concern regarding the plight of young people in Saudi Arabia, use of force against citizens and interestingly mentioned “clerics” as the stumbling block.
“You would think they know, better” he said pausing before the word “better”.
“Taking a higher moral ground?” I asked him, thinking more in terms of not collaborating with the power blocs at the expense of the people.
“No, not that. They tell people that the king is chosen by God so you must not protest against him because it’s not right and God does not approve of protesting, that it is against their religion to protest. And people listen, people don’t know what their religion says. They haven’t read the koran. So they listen” At that point, I began thinking about the role faith ministers play in Malawian society.
“That way effectively cementing the rule of the wasteful and murderous regime” I said
“Exactly, which is why there was no real arab spring in Saudi.” said Ahmed
At that point, my friend entered the coffee shop. We exchanged numbers with Ahmed, him promising to give me a call sometime to ask advice for a wifi project he was considering. As he left I told him I had links with a company in Lithuania that made wifi devices – that I’d be happy to talk with him about it. Then he was gone.