Persian Gulf Sunset And Wondering: Isn’t Travel Always A Moral Issue?

It was still winter in Dubai, the hotel palm trees along the beach well wrapped up against the wind. We were on a two-centre trip – a week in the Maldives with stopovers in Dubai either side. It was 1998.  We needed a break from Kenya. There were times when crime-and-politics wore us down. The long-term one-party presidential incumbent and his backers were more than a little reluctant to admit the construct of multi-party politics into the regime. And it seemed to me that whenever the power-brokers felt nervous, the crime rate soared. Just to make us all feel uneasy.

It  began at the top of course – the crime. And doubtless still does. It is the same here in the UK, I lately discover, and is also officially-unofficially sanctioned. It is just not visible to most of us, and is massively more clever, being wrapped up in trusts and shell companies parked in the ‘hot-money archipelago’ of the Cayman Islands et al. I am indebted to British economics professor Baron Nicholas Stern for this phrase. (He’s also written a good deal about climate change). Such offshore financial services (so anodyne in their terminology) apparently provide safe places for the world’s robber elite to hide their loot, so maintaining the status quo of tyranny and poverty meted out to ordinary hard-pressed folk in the places whence the loot was stolen.

And so we were in Dubai and Maldives for some light relief, destinations where in 1998 crime was not permitted to exist. The only problem was, even then, both locations seemed more than slightly bonkers (and probably more so now in sustainability terms). On the one had – a complex of luxury island paradises, where both the tourists and every consumer item they might want was flown in, and the resultant minute-by-minute packaging residue disposed of in a massive concrete silo embedded in the sea off the capital Male. Not only that, but contact with the locals was very tightly managed (not that I blame Maldivians for that. Someone has to make a stand against nasty European sex predators – women as well as men). But it also meant that you felt as if you’d just holidayed in a stage set. Very lovely, certainly – but synthetic.

And as for Dubai (and it’s probably ten times wider and taller now) it was wall-to-wall shopping malls, eight-lane highways, building sites, apartment blocks and hotels of the top-end plush variety. Since our visit this last notion has gone stratospheric. I mean, what does it say about us humans? How much consuming do we need to do and in how many weirdly fabricated environs?

Actually in ‘98 there was not much shopping going on. The malls were magnificent but eerie – scarcely a soul in the marbled halls of designer boutiques. Though we did see mature dishdasha-ed gents in the cosmetics stores treating their black-gowned wives to Chanel perfume and Estee Lauder lipstick. It appeared to be a popular family pastime. We also saw similarly garbed gents in the bar of the Radisson, drinking lager. Interesting, I thought. It was the  particular brand that was said to reach parts that others didn’t. I wondered if it also granted dispensation to Muslim transgressors. Or if perhaps the territory of a European owned hotel provided the equivalent of diplomatic immunity for the drinking of alcohol.

The best part of Dubai is the Creek. Tied up along its banks were still the great dhows of the Gulf – Indian Ocean trade routes – timeless somehow, despite being loaded up with refrigerators, expensive motor cars, crates of coca cola. Once such dhows plied the coast of East Africa as far south as Mozambique and the Comoros, borne on the outward voyage by the monsoon north-easterlies, returned six months later on the south-westerlies – this before the advent of petrol engines of course.

Over two thousand years, the dhow merchants of Persia and Arabia traded with the coastal Bantu peoples of Africa. In return for consignments of dates, rugs, silks, jewels, treasure chests, they bought, gold, mangrove timber, animal skins, ivory and slaves. And their centuries’ long congress with Africans gave rise to a string of coastal city states of mixed race Arab-Persian-African people, the Swahili, who both owned and traded in humans, and did so until at least the 1920s when the British occupiers of British East Africa (now Kenya) finally outlawed the practice – the unintended consequence of which was hundreds of homeless and unemployed ex-clove plantation workers whose former owners could no longer afford to employ them as  plantations ran to bush and their fortunes rapidly dwindled.

Ah, the tangled webs we humans weave. (And this is not an apology for slave owning. Only an example of what happens when you unpick/ban other people’s economic practices, customs and beliefs in a piecemeal fashion.)

Which brings me full circle really. Kenya. After two weeks away in odd places, we were fairly glad to go back there, never mind the moral dilemmas. And that I suppose is the point of this little travel ramble. Moral dilemmas. The more we ignore them, the more things stay the same.

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell


P.S. There are things we can do about the present state of global inequality. The Tax Justice Network outlines some of them.



In the Pink #20

57 thoughts on “Persian Gulf Sunset And Wondering: Isn’t Travel Always A Moral Issue?

      1. From a personal standpoint, the tax evasion issue, in NZ, annoys me because it means that ordinary people, minding their own business people, are now saddled with bureaucratic requirements emanating from the NZ Anti Money Laundering regulations. Supposedly, all the new regulations will catch the naughty people. Personally I don’t see that happening. What I know is happening is that I am filling out endless papers, identifying and certifying my identity, getting docs apostilled etc just to settle my father’s relatively small estate; time-consuming and expensive. While I make my way diligently through everything required by state and banks, I know for sure the big fish are already off swimming free. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to bring the tax evaders to justice; we just need more effective methods than show piece legislation.

      2. I so agree with you, Ann over that last statement., and everything else. The Brit tax evasion investigator from the Tax Justice Network said of the hundred or so big evaders’ accounts he looked into, every one of them involved some sort of illegality. As we little people jump through hoops, the official aim is presumably to convince us that the matter has been dealt with.

  1. Beautiful photos and an excellent thought provoking piece. Thank you Tish as always for making me stop for a moment and think. Off now to explore that link.

    1. Yep. Their press seems pretty good these days. They report stuff certainly. And then, well, nothing seems to get done about it – a bit like hiding things in plain sight. Are you back there or still caring for the ‘Ageing Ps’.

  2. A very good post, Tish. A lot of the issues you brought up here are important to me, and I’ve been thinking about them quite a bit in recent years. I can imagine how difficult it was to write, because each issue brings up more problems and questions, so one is always challenged when writing about corruption, how much we can describe before we start losing the attention of the reader. What has disturbed me the most in recent years is the consumer culture and economy. Though I do believe in a maximum of individual freedom, the intensive sell which is part of the consumer economy, has turned almost all classes into slaves. Not only does it endanger the environment, but it creates an irrational dependence in the average citizen. There are solutions for some of the more primitive forms of corruption, but it is very difficult to influence people to change personal habits and life styles. Still, I have faith in the ‘horse sense’ of simple rational people.

    1. I would like to hold out hopes for the horse sense, Shimon (and thank you for all these thoughtful observations) but now I’m not so optimistic. We have been so hoodwinked by our own establishment in the UK, that few of us know which way is up. Brexit is but another of the distractions to keep us thoroughly confused, and who knows where that will land us. In the meantime shopping provides a marvellous distraction.

  3. Whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, we all find ourselves in the same moral dilemma. The minute we decide to do something about the injustices at home or abroad, we discover that doing so we are working against our own self-interests. You described the moral entanglement very well, Tish.

  4. Tish, I love you! You say so well what many of us never even think of. I have friends who love the Maldives. It never occurred to me to wonder what happens to the waste! So many issues. I must read Stern xx

    1. Well Jo, it’s so easy to beguiled in places like the Maldives when someone has put so much time and money into laying on what seems the perfect, blissful upscale destination. And of course the Maldivians have their own futures to consider -i.e. how many of their islands will ultimately survive being at sea level, and many without fresh water. They do in theory control tourism development, as every developer investor has to have a local partner, but even so, not sure what they’re going to do with all the rubbish. There will be all the plane left overs as well. The good thing about concrete ocean silos (earthquakes not withstanding) is that corals colonise the cement, so in theory it might be possible to make a new reef based on garbage. Tho sounds a bit iffy to me and I haven’t kept up to date with current practice.

  5. Peter’s comment spots it for me, and one reason why I try to simply switch off.Yes, this might be the Ostrich Syndrome but there is only so much a body can do/can take.
    I do what I’m able within my very limited sphere of influence and refuse to allow all the other nonsense to weigh too heavily.

    Nice post, all the same.

      1. I understand fully …. remember, we had recently ”got over” Zuma and all that entailed, not least of which was the Arms Scandal.

        I beleive there comes a point where one must , or at least try to – believe that what goes around comes around.

        Yes, rotten is always there, but there’s enough good to keep you smiling and…. please excuse me for this … have ”faith” in humanity.

  6. An interesting piece Tish. I just can’t see where all this obsession in wealth and materialism is going to lead us other than to a totally destroyed planet. I can quite understand why Ark buries his head.

  7. Very interesting writing Tish, I found it very informative. I only saw a video of Dubai yesterday of the new hotel and it is just unbelievably luxurious. I was in Dubai once, only for about 8 hours between flights, and saw both the poorer area and the hugely luxurious buildings and shopping malls. What opulence, what is the need for all this one wonders.

  8. These days, I feel everything is something of a moral dilemma. There’s not black and white today if there ever was. There’s no “entirely good” though personally, I think there IS entirely bad.

  9. Love when you call it like you see it Tish. Your post reminded my favorite quote from the 1981 movie My Dinner with Andre “They’ve built their own prison, so they exist a state of schizophrenia. They’re both guards and prisoners and as a result they no longer have, having been lobotomized, the capacity to leave the prison they’ve made, or to even see it as a prison.” I still believe that we create the world in which we live and that we have the power to change it. The tax justice network is a good place to start. The Maldives hasn’t changed much since your visit, but there is a greater access to people given the sadly short reign of Mohamed Nasheed.

  10. Oh what a tangled web we weave, whether trying to deceive or not. We humans really do bumble along in appalling thoughtlessness and/or apathy don’t we? And yet on a personal day to day basis I do believe people are good, and kind, and just want to care for their families. The rich and powerful it seems to me are scared to death to lose their wealth and power, as if that’s what keeps them safe. I think we are all amazing in our creativity, whether from fear or love. Wonderful thought-provoking post Tish.

    1. Many thanks for you thoughtful observations, Alison. I think you’re right that ordinary people don’t mean to be thoughtless; I also think too that much of what is happening presently in the world, and the way it is being presented to us in the media, is down to the ultra-rich trying to hang on to their money empire.

      1. Oh no! It is worrying though isn’t it. One is brought up to be proud of one’s country – one way and another, and then you discover the powers that be either want to steal from you, send you to war, or poison you, and whereas at one time this might have seemed like a bad Monty Python sketch, or that one had been blitzing out on conspiracy theories – now it seems there is nothing that some people will not stoop to, while passing it off as perfectly acceptable. And since we are approaching the centenary of 1918, I am further asking myself why am I remotely surprised.

      2. 😦 😦 On the plus side, I do believe that in NZ, at least, we have a PM who is genuine and who is determined to right wrongs. But that will take time.

  11. My brother and sister-in-law were in Dubai last month. My sister-in-law said she felt as if Dubai was a very artificial place. Life is the same everywhere, isn’t it?

    1. That is a good point – the everywhere artificiality of man-made environments. I suppose in most cities the development is more gradual and reflects at least some local culture. Whereas Dubai, away from the Creek, seems to have been created on an epic scale – and mostly to serve expats and tourists.

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