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Sunday, May 9, 2010

The State of Democracy

One of the oldest stories in every book of anecdotes is that of George Bernard Shaw teasing the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell into admitting that she would sleep with him for a million pounds. He then asked if she would do so for five pounds. 'What do you think I am?' she demanded in feigned outrage. 'We have already established that, madam,’ answered Shaw. ‘Now we are merely haggling over the price.'
I am an avowed fan of the BBC’s World News channel – as an ex Beeb man myself, that is hardly surprising. But to have watched that channel over the past few weeks, one could have been forgiven for believing that apart from the British election, nothing else was happening in the rest of the world. Little coverage of the giant oil spill in America from the exploding BP platform; little too on the killing rampage that occurred in some of China’s schools; and almost nothing of another election on the other side of the world being held in the Philippines.
In the UK, Nick Clegg – leader of the Liberal Democrats - climbed into bed with the Conservative Party, whom most of his supporters hate. A few Tories, in their turn, are dismayed that David Cameron has made a deal with a party of hookers. But the consequence is that Britain has a new government.
The good news is that Britain is finally rid of mealy-mouthed Gordon Brown and his left-wing cronies. The British people have very short memories, but it was Brown who was responsible for ensuring that many – very many – Brits will spend their last days in poverty thanks to a tax on pensions that he almost single handedly brought in when he was the Chancellor of the Exchequer under Tony Blair (who, himself, has recently hit the headlines for earning nearly £400,000 for two 30-minute speeches).
Britain has always prided itself – in the way that the UK likes to be smug about such things – that it is the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world. It is often first in the queue to point out the inadequacies and failings of foreign political structures and their voting systems.
So it was ironic indeed that, still relying on antiquated paper ballot sheets and sometimes outdated lists of voters, thousands were turned away when the voting stations closed at 10pm, denied the chance to vote. Yet, in true British fashion, there were no riots or large-scale demonstrations, even though many younger and less solid democracies around the world have done better jobs of ensuring all those eligible could cast their votes in elections.
Meanwhile on the other side of the world, Senator Benigno Aquino is to become the next President of the Philippines following an election in which a computerised vote-counting system was used for the first time, whose effectiveness surprised many. It replaced a pen-and-paper system that often took weeks to produce results, and allowed plenty of time and opportunity for cheating. Many had argued that the computerised system would not work. Some opposition figures even said it was designed to fail, to allow the outgoing president, Gloria Arroyo, to cling to power.
But on polling day, voters showed up in droves, with turnout reaching 75 percent in some areas, according to Comelec. Some machines malfunctioned – Mr. Aquino himself had to wait several hours to vote – but only about 400 of the more than 76,000 deployed, Comelec said. The key moment came when the polls closed and the machines began wirelessly transmitting the results to central servers. Some machines had trouble establishing communications, but within hours, Comelec began posting results on its website.
Of course, the machines did not prevent other ills of Philippine elections, such as vote-buying and intimidation, but they were an important introduction to a democratic process that has made very many Filipinos wary of ever trusting a politician.
I remember many years ago being asked by my daughter for advice on finding good ‘husband material’. By all means, marry whomever you fall in love with, I told her, but never fall in love with a politician!
The past month reminds me of yet another famous anecdote:
While walking down the street one day a Member of Parliament is tragically hit by a bus and dies. His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the pearly gates. 'Welcome to heaven,' says St. Peter. 'Before you settle in, because of who you were down on earth, we can give you a choice as to where you want to spend eternity.’
'No problem, just let me in,' says the MP. 'Well, I'd like to, but I have orders from higher up. What we'll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose.'
And with that, St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell. The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a green golf course. In the distance is a clubhouse and standing in front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him.
Everyone is very happy and in evening dress. They run to greet him, shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people. They play a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster, caviar and champagne. Also present is the devil, who really is a very friendly guy, dancing and telling jokes. They are having such a good time that before he realises it, it is time to go.
Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the elevator rises.... It goes up, up, up and the door reopens at the Pearly Gates where St. Peter is waiting for him.
Another 24 hours pass with the MP joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have a good time and, before he realises it, the 24 hours have gone by and St. Peter returns.
'Well, then, you've spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now choose your eternity.' The MP reflects for a minute, then he answers 'Well, I would never have said it before, I mean heaven has been delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell.'
So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.
When the doors of the elevator open, he's in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage. He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags as more rubbish falls from above. The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulder.
'I don't understand,' stammers the MP. 'Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time. Now there's just a wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable. What happened?'
The devil looks at him, smiles and says, 'Yesterday we were campaigning... ... Today you voted!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

ATM Time Again

I love this time of year. Well, I do ever since I have been living in this part of the world. The daytime temperatures are warm, but not too hot; the sea is pleasant to swim in; and once again it is time for Arabian Travel Market to hit town.
This is the third year I have worked at the show which attracts exhibitors from all corners of the globe, all anxious to entice the locals - who have far too much time and money in their possession - to part with at least one of these commodities. And just like the marketing puff that they (we) put out year after year after year, you always wonder how they can improve on last year’s show.
On the first day, hardly have I set foot through the door of ATM hall 4 (there are 8 halls altogether) than a lady comes running toward me from the TTN-ME stand waving a copy of their latest edition. Read this! Read this! she says, thrusting it under my nose. It’s such a good read. You’ll love it! And which article did you enjoy most, I ask, in mock 'innocence'. Errrr… it’s a good read. You’ll enjoy it, really you will, she blusters. I don’t labour the point as I raise my eyes to see the sign over the TTN stand. Oh dear oh dear. On reflection I think I might well indeed enjoy their magazine, but not for the reasons she hopes for.

There is so much razzmatazz here from every corner of the globe at ATM; some bring in the professional glitz and glamour to get their serious marketing messages across; others attempt a cut price job and wonder why they are taken less seriously.
On Day One I go to a press conference of Afghanistan’s Safi Airways who are keen to show off the new colours that they have daubed all over their aircraft. As the German CEO drones on about how “excited” he is that their predominantly blue logo is now a different shade of blue, a three minute video plays in the background. Three members of the Afghan National Cricket squad are sitting on plastic camper chairs on a cricket pitch, pretending to be in an airplane. Romina and Najia – two bruisers from Safi cabin crew’s all women’s wrestling team serve their pretend-passengers with bottles of water. “When I was in the refugee camp, my dream was always to fly in a plane. Never did I think that one day I would actually do so,” explains the team captain in near-perfect English subtitles. Right..... ‘nough said….

As always, many of the exhibitors are in competition with one another to see who can field the sexiest, most vibrant dolly birds and draw visitors to their stand. It's neck and neck between Sri Lanka and the Philippines, but the former wins on sheer determination as they prance out to the sound of beating drums at the slightest provocation.

Other exhibitors choose to attract interest by dressing up in the most cringe-making costumes. Dubai Shopping Festival are the clear winners here, with one of the Incredible India representatives coming a close second.

Of course, with the large number of press conferences being held over the week, there is competition aplenty to attract the journalists. Give-aways are common at news conferences, but this year the gifts are somewhat down market from what have been handed out as sweeteners in previous years. (“We never attempt to bribe journalists with our gifts,” I am told by one exhibitor. “We simply show them our appreciation before they write about us.” I can’t help but remember that even 40 years ago, the practice of accepting even the tackiest of freebies could almost be guaranteed to have got one fired from the BBC.)
Qatar Airways gives away a mobile computer case (alas, minus computer) at their conference. And to bring in the punters from the press office they also have an Argentinean-looking couple with oil-slicked hair dancing a tango – not once, but over and over until it is time for the CEO to step in and announce one of their new routes will be to Buenos Aires. A journo beside me reckons the oily duo would certainly be good enough to try their hand in the prelims of So you think you can dance?

The classiest gifts have to be from the Yemen tourism board who hand out not one, but two glossy coffee table books about their country.
Of course, there are giveaways aplenty being handed out on the exhibition floor as well: fridge magnets from Macao; pencils with plastic fish stuck on their ends from the Maldives; a plethora of baseball caps from the likes of Sharjah;

a picture puzzle from Turkey;

a teddy-bear pin badge from Berlin; a little rubber aircraft from Kam Air of Afghanistan (which pulls apart to reveal a USB flash memory stick); and of course loads of coffee mugs, pens, T-shirts and other paraphernalia too numerous to mention here.

From one of the European stands (though for the life of me I cannot remember which one) I pick up a Focus Sniff Box. A what??? According to the instructions, you open the lid, take a few breaths and receive aromatherapy benefits. Promote clarity of thought and awaken your senses, it says. I sniff. Once. A mix of bergamot, lemon and cinnamon (it says). I close the lid. Senses awakened. Clarity of thought … where’s the nearest waste bin?

Tackiest giveaway has to be the rubber map of Bahrain which also opens up to reveal a memory stick.

At one end beyond Asia is a culture zone to get the visitors “in the mood” and which features performances of national dance and music. Highly entertaining stuff with (more) dolly birds strutting their stuff in national costumes, and the occasional musician strumming away to a filmed backdrop. Thus is the Bahraini entry – two very lonesome musicians that no-one wants to listen to.

I take a picture of the empty chairs in front of said musicians and immediately am accosted by a Bahrain PR girl shoving one of her rubber maps at me, so glad is she that anyone should dare show their face here. I tell her I will always treasure her gift; but somehow I don’t think the concept of sarcasm has been fully grasped in this miniature state.
Of course, when talking about this year’s ATM, one shouldn’t forget the series of seminars tackling many of today’s pressing tourist-related issues. This year the amount of seminars has been massively increased in order that everyone should be able to come away older and wiser from the event.
I learn from one seminar that low cost airlines (LCCs in the jargon) attract the lower fare paying passengers in the market; from another that sports tourism is high on the agenda of many national tourism boards’ plans; and from yet another that, given the choice, not everyone prefers to pay through the nose for 5-star hotels. Unfortunately the seminar on HR within the tourism industry is cancelled for lack of interest. A shame. I wanted to time how long it woud take for someone to tell us that a company's most valued asset is its people.
I may well leave ATM with aching feet, but by golly I am certainly feeling a whole lot older ... and perhaps just a little bit wiser.