Dining out on the problems besetting the world today

'You could not have foreseen in February 1917 what would happen in the next 70 years in Europe, maybe it's the same in Egypt now.'

The top banker, my host for the evening, leaned back from the dinner table and gave his verdict on the transformations taking place in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

"It's always the political events that give you most concern. The rest is within your control to some degree, but events like these are unpredictable and far-reaching."

We were sitting in a nice villa in one of the poshest residential areas in Dubai - a small, informal gathering intended as a mutual exchange of views between the worlds of finance and media on the momentous events sweeping the region.

There were three top-level bankers from one of the biggest financial institutions in the world, one that has played a substantial role in the Gulf for many years. (The "rules of engagement" for the evening prevent me from naming the organisation.) Their female partners made for a welcome dilution of the heavily male atmosphere.

Three journalists, myself included, formed the media contingent. We were there to give our perspective as supposedly well-informed men of the world.

What struck me immediately once the table conversation had begun was the huge disparity in quality between my contacts book and those of the bankers.

They appeared to be on first-name terms, and had recent contact with, senior members of the post-Mubarak leadership in Egypt, as well as the ruling families of the Gulf countries. They talked with a knowledgeable familiarity of events at the top levels of politics and economics.

It occurred to me that I was going to get far more out of the evening than the bankers.

"There has to be a long-term advantage for all of us to what's happening in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East," said the host. "In the long run, greater freedom and democracy is a good thing for the region. It may take a couple of years, and there may be some serious problems along the way, but in the end it has to be to everybody's benefit."

That was a quite surprising bit of long-termism, countering the "churn and burn" accusations levelled at many bankers. This bank, at least, seemed to be invested in the region for the long run.

One of his colleagues brought a European perspective. He thought the events of this year in the Middle East were comparable with those that began in eastern Europe in 1989 and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and liberation of Hungary, Poland and the other countries on the fringes of Russia.

But he also drew the historical comparison with Russia in 1917, the year of the Soviet revolution that began the sinister process of enslavement of those countries.

"You could not have foreseen in February 1917 what would happen in the next 70 years in Europe, maybe it's the same in Egypt now," he said.

For a while, the conversation drifted around the question: who will be the Bolsheviks of Egypt? Which group will be powerful and organised enough to emerge on top?

One of the bankers brought an in-depth knowledge of Saudi Arabia to the conversation. He believed that conditions in the kingdom, especially in the south and east, were potentially volatile, and that western views of Saudi as a monolithic society controlled from Riyadh were hopelessly inadequate. Disparities of wealth and economic prospects within the kingdom were wider than commonly perceived, he said.

But equally, his considered view was that Saudi's rulers were too clever and too efficient to allow an Egyptian scenario to develop.

The conversation broadened to Palestine, where there was a fear that the convulsions in North Africa would lead to more confrontation between Israel and Hizbollah in Lebanon, and with Hamas in Gaza.

Over dessert and coffee, we got around to the UAE. The bankers' view was that the changes were going to be good for the country, in the long term. They thought the reaction to the global crisis had brought Dubai and Abu Dhabi closer together, and that the federation would be further strengthened by the response to events in North Africa.

Regarding Dubai's financial situation, my host was of the firm belief that the emirate's debts were manageable, and that the big merchant families of the emirate were well-capitalised and well-placed to take advantage of the new circumstances - again in the long term.

But my host ended the evening with a note of cautious realism. "Event risk is the problem," he said. This is a banker-speak version of Donald Rumsfeld's "unknown unknowns", a quiet admission that even the power and expertise of a global banking giant are inadequate in the face of events such as those unfolding in the Middle East.

EDITOR'S PICKS
NEWSLETTERS