Thursday, 31 May 2012

Lessons To Be Learned from Qatar Fire

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19 die in Qatar mall blaze 
"A tragedy that could have been averted. Basic fire precautions were not taken care of. Witnesses confirmed firefighters' inabilities tackling the blaze. They even didn't know that there was a nursery inside the mall!!!Fire exits were not marked properly, That is farcical! However, this is the way things done in the Arab world. We tend to care for appearances and magnify the facade, but we are totally in denial with the basics and the elementaries... the result is tragedies. Responsibles for this should be hanged. My heart goes out for the dead".  Comment by Mohammed, Al Arabiya News.
It is sad that tragedies must first occur before lessons are learned.  But then, as I said to my son once you don't usually know you've made a mistake till after you've made it.  What matters is the lessons you learn.   

Most in the west would assume that safety systems are part and parcel of the huge fancy buildings and the glitter they see in the rich middle eastern countries.  We who live here know they have a long way to go.  As Mohammed says, 'we tend to care for appearances and magnify the facade' at the expense of the fundamentals.  This tragedy may have happened in Qatar but just across the border we expats know it's lessons are also relevant to Saudi.

Calling for arrests and hangings won't bring back lost lives.  But calling for arrests and hangings is usually the first reaction people have in this region to any major issue brought to the public attention.  It's a cultural response that, if you live here long enough, you put down to Arab excitablity.  But it's also a response the heirachy use to Save Face.  Only yesterday Hubster was talking to me about this very concept, one he meets all the time in his work. 

'Saving face'.  The Arab culture of non-confrontation which, in extreme cases like this tragedy, operates to throw the light of blame on someone else and usually that someone is lower down the hierarchy ladder when we all know that there are only a few at the top of the ladder with the power to say 'yes build' or 'no, wait, lets make sure we're doing this properly'. 

Unfortunately the culture of Saving Face' goes hand in hand with the culture of greed, backhanders and shortcuts by those with enough money to not have to take shortcuts. 

Saving Face is basically trying to avoid embarrasement - your own or someone elses.  It's a means of avoiding conflict.   It involves doing anything but facing situations head on.  Westerners who like tackling problems head on or who like to be told the truth, and nothing but the truth, do not handle the Saving Face concept well.

Saving Face is not to be confused with 'Giving Face' which is the manoevering done to allow people to approach you about a sensitive topic without embarrassment.  Giving Face is part of Saving Face.  Saving Face is supposed to be a practice where both parties can walk away from a situation with minimal harm to their dignity.  It involves a lot of looking the other way. 

Looking the other way happens a lot in the middle east.  It happens a lot in Saudi.  Looking the other way leaves the highway open for corruption - bribery, forgery, abuse of power, deception,  payouts - all accepted practice in the Arab world.   Looking the other way allows a lot of the top brass here to get away with, well, anything they want.  Taking responsibility doesn't seem to be a large element in the practice of Saving Face.

It was not suprising to see the Qatar Government spokemen being interviewed stating the obvious - there are lessons to be learned from this tragedy.  One presumes Qatar has not become one of the richest countries in the world by not being good at learning lessons and taking appropriate action on the back of those lessons. 

It is hoped that the money Qatar sets aside to implement those actions will not be pilfered away in back handers as everybody looks the other way in business deals that see subcontractors do a second rate job with minimal cash outlay as happened in Saudi before and, it is rumoured, after the Jeddah floods of 2009 resulting in more catastrophe in the Jeddah floods of 2010.

Instead of arrests and hangings one hopes those in charge in Qatar will be able to have an honest talk with themselves about how they do things, admit they need to make a few changes and then do everything necessary to make sure their systems work so future tragedies are prevented. 

With any luck Saudi will recognise this tragedy as an opportunity to be proactive in having their own honest discussions regarding lessons they need to learn starting right at the top of the ladder and looking deep into the heart of the culture.

The King can be excluded from such honest, personal heart-to-hearts on lessons to be learned as he seems to have already had a little chat with himself on such issues and decreed an official position on corruption in Saudi - although such a decree doesn't necessarily mean the right people get their hands smacked (not yet anyway but I can feel it coming) - and handing the Jeddah flood projects to Saudi Aramco with 'no dealing with sub-contractors'.

Ka Kite,

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