Arabic is a huge language cluster, containing nearly 30 different variations. Nearly half a billion people speak it as their first language, and it is the majority language in 22 countries across the Middle East and North Africa.
A number of organisations have paid me to monitor communications in Arabic. That requires exceptional skills in active listening, superb command of the language and its variations, and great insight and analysis. Don’t forget, we view analysis and communications as two sides of the same coin.
Nearly everything about Arabic is different to English and other European languages. Linguistically, this means the alphabet; grammar; vocabulary; pronunciation; sequencing and more are different. Then add complex layers for different religions, cultural aspects, politics, geography, history and economics. Then add complex ethnic and family, clan and tribal loyalties. Some elements are fixed and immutable, but many are in a state of flux, changing in response to pressures of demographics or globalisation, and other security threats.
With Arabic spoken by over 400 million people and 22 countries having it as their majority language, Arabic is a major force in the world of communications.
My experience with Arabic and the Middle East over 35 years has provided me with a superb knowledge of the region, including its past; its people; its perils; and its potential.
There are distinct pan-Arab similarities and unifying features, but also very distinct regional, national and local differences. Where these intersect can be fascinating but also confusing for outsiders and even dangerous. For example,
Geography makes history. This is a shorthand way of describing how the location creates the human environment. Climate and resources, such as water and fuel, affect birthrates, centralisation, protection from invaders, trade routes. These human patterns over centuries create patterns of behaviour and age-old customs and loyalties that have their internal logic and motivation but can be baffling and illogical to outsiders.
When it comes to geography and resources that make political and security history, the Middle East is not short of case studies.
Jurisprudence might not be an important word in the West but, when religious judgments still carry huge power in the Middle East to affect society and politics, jurisprudence and its different schools are of the gravest significance for millions, perhaps billions of people.
Resources in water, oil, gas and now solar energy continue to form points of tension between and within Arab states, and with the wider world.
I have had the advantage of seeing much of the geography of the region at first hand, and also studying thousands of years of its history to the earliest kingdoms of Egypt and Mesopotamia. I use that underlying knowledge to help me judge situations in the present, and make informed decisions about future trends.
My consulting and analysis has been acquired through practical experience on the ground: in trains; streets; cafes, markets and hotels. I use direct first-hand materials and sources (in Arabic) wherever possible.
My favourite series of programmes about Iraq’s history is undoubtedly ‘Making History’. They originally went out on various Iraqi and other satellite TV channels in 2009-2010. I don’t know who made the series but, from my knowledge of Middle Eastern history, I couldn’t have written these episodes better if I’d written them myself. They are entertaining and informative, with interesting guests and fascinating locations around this ancient country. I think what I like particularly about the episodes I include below is the lack of any ‘orientalist’ approach to the subjects: it’s studious, but also pragmatic and pacy. Whoever made them really knew what they were doing!
As I know most people visiting this site won’t be familiar with spoken or written Arabic, I’ve taken the opportunity to add subtitles in English. I hope you enjoy these episodes as much as I have enjoyed them.