East Is East, and West Is West… [Archives:1998/09/Viewpoint]

March 2 1998

I was part of the recent official visit to four Asian countries – China, Indonesia, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates. That was not my first trip to any of these countries, but it was my first formal encounter. I want to use my most recent experience in the East to draw parallels with my many experiences with Western countries. After all, I am a regular visitor of Euro-American countries.

a) Human Rights:
During this recent trip to Asia, as part of the official delegation, I was asked about my job at the Consultative Council. As soon as I started talking about my effort to promote full respect for human rights and liberties and the drive to empower NGOs, my hosts often lost interest. I can imagine what goes through their heads. They never imagined an Arab from Yemen would come to them to talk about human rights and liberties.
In most cases, the host immediately changes the topic to some mundane issues, in a clear indication they do not want the conversation to continue on the subject. In one instance, my counterpart host simply left me. He just went away.
In many similar instances in the West, the other side would show decidedly more interest, and even encouragement.

b) Gifts:
During all my travels in the West, I never received gifts. It is just not part of the deal. People in the West give gifts to friends, not to officials visiting from other countries. And even when they do go out of their way to give something, it is often symbolic like a pin that carries twin flags (representing the two countries) or something of that nature.
During the two weeks of travels to the East, the official Yemeni delegation was showered with expensive gifts. The Yemenis had also carried gifts from Yemen.
The problem started when I refused to take my share of the gifts. I explained that it was not proper, in my views. That was a source of lots of remorse from my Yemeni colleagues. I still do not understand, let alone accept, taking ÔgiftsÕ from other governments, even if it is done openly.

c) Personal Pleasures:
Asian hosts will go out of their way to make their guests enjoy themselves. They would help arrange entertainment programs around personal interests. This is done on a routine basis, and there is nothing to it.
Many of my colleagues in the delegation took advantage of this courtesy. But it would be unthinkable in the West for government officials to help in this way.

One continues to learn in life. And the little things I have learned from my recent Asian trip have added tremendously to my understanding of how things work and how issues are perceived over there. There are, of course, many things in which our Eastern hosts enjoy a lot more merits and advantages than their Western counterparts.
But that is the theme of another editorial.

Prof. Dr. Abdulaziz AL-SAQQAF
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher