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…before oil meant terrorism

Arab countries are stigmatized with an image of terrorism

by Norbert Schiller

I recently made contact with a very old friend of mine living in Switzerland. We had not seen one another for almost 18 years. In fact, the last time I saw him was just before the 1991 US-led invasion of Iraq when, after having covered the build-up to the conflict, I was replaced to go on holidays. Upon hearing I was about to leave Iraq my Swiss friend offered both my wife and I the use of his family’s ski hut in the Swiss Alps. After our vacation we returned to the Middle East and even though I regularly returned to Switzerland I never again had contact with him until now.

This past spring I decided to take my son on a trip to Switzerland in order that I may reunite with relatives and friends that I have not seen in many years. I was hesitant, showing up after such a long spell, so as a way of breaking the ice I sent out small gifts along with my contacts and waited for responses. I was fortunate that I had a number of published books under my belt so I just wrote a nice note on the cover pages and sent them to all those with whom I wanted to be in contact again.

No sooner had my Swiss friend received the book he immediately sent me an email and from then our relationship was back on track. His missive posed the obvious question, “Where have you disappeared for so long?” Before I could respond he had sent a follow- up email with a bit more sarcasm, suggesting I had “joined the likes of Hamas, Hizbullah and al- Qaeda.” I then went on to write him a lengthy reply apologizing for my long abscence and explained to him what I had been doing and where I had been living for the last 18 years, and that I hoped that we could get together again. Just out of politeness I asked if there was anything he wanted from Dubai. He replied with the same sarcasm and said “Yes, bring as much petroleum as you can carry,” and then added, “but leave the terrorists behind!”

He was not alone with that response. When we finally arrived in Switzerland and were staying with other friends the topic of discussion, when speaking about the Middle East, always centered on terrorism and the price of oil. It was like the two subjects were inseparable.

However, this had not always been the case. I remember when I was living in Egypt in the early 1990s, during one of the most volatile times when home-grown Islamist terror groups were bent on overthrowing the government of Hosni Mubarak and replacing it with one based on sharia, many of my Swiss friends visited me with little or no concern for the political tensions that were rattling the country. Even though tourists were targets of the fundamentalist, the friends that visited were more interested in the ancient wonders that Egypt had to offer than of being shot at in the streets of Luxor. Their curiosity of the past has now been replaced with questions like, “aren’t you afraid?” or “isn’t it dangerous living there?”

What’s even funnier is when these questions are asked by my long lost Swiss friend who during his free time jumps off cliffs with paragliders for kicks looking for thermals as he flies high among the Alps.

Unfortunately, the state of the world today is a far cry from what it was 18 years ago. It seems that many of the same crises we faced back then never went away, but instead intensified. Take Iraq for example. When I covered the first US-led war in Iraq my Swiss relatives were more concerned on how the conflict was affecting the people of Iraq and how more should be done by Western nations to alleviate the suffering of ordinary Iraqis than of the long term dangers of terrorism that could arise from such conflicts. The term ‘terrorism’ was hardly ever talked about and gasoline prices, even though higher than in America, were not something that the Swiss grumbled about.

The friends and family I have in Switzerland are not typically Swiss (if one can still use that phrase). They are artists, musicians, and architects who for the most part were the ones that pushed for change when Switzerland was still clinging to its World War II isolationist values. They were the ones who traveled extensively, living abroad and in some cases marrying spouses from different parts of the world. They are the open-minded Swiss, the ones interested in the world around them and now the ones with the most to loose if the country reverts back to its old ways.

There is an unspoken bond between the Arab world and Switzerland that has developed over the last few decades. Switzerland (in particular the area surrounding the Lake of Geneva) is one of the top destinations for the Gulf’s super-rich. It’s here where the Emiratis, Qataris and others send their children to be educated and where many spend their holidays.

Maybe the Swiss should try and use their influence with their wealthy guests and see if they can’t help in lowering the price of oil or stemming the rise of terror groups. Then friends like mine may look at the Arab world in a more positive light rather than the way they see it now.

Norbert Schiller is a Dubai-based photo-journalist and writer

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