Not long ago I received an e-mail that included as an attachment a few pictures of prominent Gulf sheikhs in what appeared to be compromising situations. There was one of a certain UAE former minister with Shimon Perez, the Israeli president, when the latter was foreign minister. Another showed a dignitary in what looked like a discotheque. Needless to say all the pictures carried captions under them sarcastically praising their Excellencies for their “hard work”.
None of the e-mails concerning these public figures explained the circumstances under which the photos had been taken. For example, was what appeared to be a nightclub in fact a charity ball? Probably not, but that’s beside the point. We happen to know that sensationalism works: if you doubt that, just turn on a certain Arabic news channel.
In the autumn of last year Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed of the Abu Dhabi ruling family bought Manchester City football club. Negotiations on behalf of the buyer were conducted by Sulaiman al Fahim. For some followers in the UAE community Mr al Fahim’s popularity ratings went from overnight fame to notoriety because of some pictures of him with the socialite, actress and model Kim Kardashian that appeared on the internet. He explained the circumstances by saying: “All there is to it is that I was invited to the opening of a restaurant in Las Vegas and the actresses took these shots with me.”
Fair enough. The truth is that many of those who criticised him, including bloggers, journalists and e-mail-forwarding timewasters, have a few skeletons in their own closets that they would probably not want to appear all over the internet.
I have some of my own. Eleven years ago, when I was a 20-year-old student in Paris, a visiting GCC official delegation invited me and some friends for dinner at Nino’s, a Jewish-Tunisian owned restaurant in the 17th arrondissement. Shortly after we sat down, I sensed the presence of a man twice my size standing right behind me, blaring out in broken Arabic-Iraqi dialect: “Welcome, my Gulf brothers!” Were we that obvious, I wondered – until I learnt that it was the restaurant manager who had pointed us out. The heavy breathing hoverer was none other than Yitzhak Mordechai, the former Israeli Minister of Defence whose conviction a couple of years later on charges of sexual misconduct during his military service ended his public life. “Come visit us in Jerusalem” he yelled. “You visit us in Jerusalem one day,” a Bahraini delegate answered back, and that was the end of that one-minute, friendly, tense encounter.
I couldn’t help but wonder, as I saw some of the e-mails recently: what if someone had taken my picture with that undesirable and e-mailed it around? The repercussions would certainly have been more serious for my hosts, some of whom currently run large airline businesses in the Gulf.
Another “skeleton” was exposed when my name was published on the Washington Post website recently as a donor to the Clinton Foundation. I had partly sponsored a youth exchange programme three years ago that brought together Muslim, Christian and Jewish children to learn to live in a diverse world. Oh, the horror.
On that subject, David Ben-Gurion, the founder of Israel, speaking about Palestinian refugees in 1949, said: “The old will die and the young will forget.” Yes and no. On the initiative of a good friend from Kuwait, I also participated a few years ago in sponsoring a project known as the Nakba Archive, the purpose of which is simply to record hours of testimonies of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war with Israel who are now living in the camps in Lebanon. Thanks to the digital age and the internet, only the first half of Mr Ben-Gurion’s prediction will come true. Researchers can forever access these testimonies on the internet to hear and see what this rapidly thinning generation has to say.
Last year I had to take the very difficult decision to let go of someone who works for one of our organisations. It was because of an e-mail that she sent to another institution despite my explicit instructions not to contact that party. The e-mail made it literally half-way around the world before appearing in my inbox several days later. One must keep in mind that once the “send” button is pressed there is no way of undoing that: unlike human beings, the internet never forgets. E-mails, including small comments that are sent in jest, find a way to inconveniently reappear sooner or later.
Technology doesn’t always work in one’s favour, which could be something very positive for governance in the Arab world as we lack even the basic understanding of transparency. For example, it may keep officials in check when they finally realise that their actions, intentional or not, are recorded for ever and can’t be undone. Who knows? Maybe, thanks to the internet, one-day corruption in the Middle East will once again become taboo, rather than practised in broad daylight.
Diamonds don’t last for ever. The internet does – and it never forgets.
This article was originally published in The National on February 1, 2009.