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A Place in the Sand

I hadn’t realised the true scale of the battlefield from the first war with Iraq. Looking down as we pass the track west along the border between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, even a Bedouin tent is sharply contrasted against the delicately pink-hued sand in the low-angled morning sunshine. Visible for miles upon miles are the remains of Iraqi tank berms surrounded by rings of blackened sand. Whether the knocked-out armoured vehicles are still in them, I can’t quite tell from this height but I don’t think so. One can also see the devastation caused by the oil well fires as huge black smudges on the sand ocean below.

It occurred to me after the end of the eGovernment conference that two books should be mandatory reading for anyone tackling any large-scale public sector computing project outside the West, the first is Saul Bellow’s ‘Henderson, The Rain God; and the second is Robert Pirsig’s ‘Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. The latter actually came to me as a surprise when a Government programme manager from Dubai used it to help illustrate the challenge and definition of quality and what this might mean in the Arab experience.

Rather like my experience of the airline this morning, what we come to expect as service or quality of service at home, can be very different elsewhere. As an example, the check-in desk for Business Class this morning, was allowing passengers (his customers) to queue-up to his counter before announcing to those making connections that all flights were delayed by at least one hours and that they should now go to the ticketing desk in the next hall to re-book their onward flights before, returning to queue up all over again at the business check in. One couldn’t imagine British Airways treating its First Class passengers so but before people can make an equivalent conceptual leap in the more unreachable parts of the world, Liverpool, Lagos or Liberia even – Just watch the documentary ‘Airline’ on television – then any thought of delivering eGovernment services in terms of acceptable service levels, remains a significant cultural challenge to overcome.

That reminds me, for some unknown reason, room service knocked at my door at one O’clock this morning and announced my breakfast. Very considerate of them I’m sure but I wasn’t hungry just surprised and annoyed.

When I did finally arrive to check-out at hotel reception at 06:00 it was quite busy, filled with young men with very short haircuts and a variety of t-shirts with messages on them like ‘Smoking Camels is Good for You’ and ‘After Free Iraq Comes Free Beer’. “Are you with the 5th armoured going to Umm Qasr”? An American with a pair of very loud braces asked. “No thanks not today”, I answered politely.

Getting into the hotel Mercedes with two other airport-bound travellers, I realised what benefits a free Iraq could bring to its closest neighbour. Radio Kuwait, an American station, was blasting out rap music, which our young driver was quite prepared to inflict on the three of us if I hadn’t ordered “Lose the music please driver”. “Thanks” said my companions. “They may have lost a bad neighbour”, I remarked “But their new friends may be just as dangerous in different ways”.

That said, I retired to the Starbucks at the airport, which was busy serving American soldiers of both sexes rotating out of theatre. Ladies, I have to tell that where the desert camouflage look might suit some of you, it’s definitely last season’s look and several weeks in the desert does nothing for your hair. Best use one of your webbing pouches for your grenades and the other for chocolate and Vidal Sassoon. You know it makes sense.


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