x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Never forget, all the 'little' people have power, too

There are always people who feel the urge to show off their power to those less rich, or to those working in more menial jobs

There are always people who feel the urge to show off their power to those less rich, or to those working in more menial jobs. We have all witnessed their displays of self-importance, but an incident a few weeks ago made me wonder about the effectiveness of such strategies. At an airport, a fellow passenger tried to prove to the ticketing agent that he knew the chief executive of the airline - or, even more significantly, that the CEO of the airline knew him.

With his superior tone and influential connections, he naturally deserved to be upgraded (so he thought). I later saw him fuming in his seat at the rear of the aircraft. Judging from the agent's look, I wouldn't be surprised if his luggage later landed hundreds of kilometres astray. A ticketing agent has to deal with thousands of people a day, though it may be fairer to say that thousands deal with him every day. It's no wonder that by midnight the person behind the desk is less than lively. The same is true for a taxi driver or a nurse. Many of us are already stressed at midnight and not exactly in the mood to be friendly to an annoyed and irritating stranger.

Fortunately, human dealings have some rules of engagement. In the corporate world, for example, it is said that the small investor is an entity to be reckoned with. Laws across the globe attempt to ensure that the rich and powerful don't trample on Average Mohammed's rights in the latest IPO. Cross the line and one starts to learn the difference between insider trading (also known as a prison sentence) and friendly counsel from a well-placed cousin.

Other dealings don't enjoy such protection. Most people are not discourteous - we just aren't brought up that way - but what if they are? There are hundreds of taxi drivers on the streets, and they probably won't remember your face even if you are rude to them. The no-need to-thank-you-it's-your-job attitude towards a barber for a meticulous haircut, or a housemaid for looking after a child while you are out partying carries no guilt. But not everyone carries this burden-free conscience. Why not?

To start with, much as we glorify ourselves, not all of us are rich and powerful. Not all know how to play the game, and those caught in the act, like my fellow passenger, find out who is boss very soon. And "little" people learn how to get their own back. Consider the example of a nurse. A nurse can let you in for your appointment on time - or "reorganise" your day. Ultimately, it is the nurse who decides how gentle to be when inserting a needle into your skin.

Similar experiences teach business people that tipping a farrash (also called a tea boy, even though he might have grey hair) in a government ministry can be their best investment for the day. He, and usually only he, can show you whom to see to get anything done in the labyrinth of a government building. A farrash knows that power is both the ability to award and to deny. There is one distinct group that we in the Gulf seem to have no qualms about mocking or demeaning. Witness the plight of the Asian (or to be politically incorrect, Indian) labourer. They built the Gulf for us. It is these men who worked - and continue to work - in 50 degree heat yet only recently have we started to recognise their humanity.

History has plenty of lessons for societies which collectively abuse a specific group. It is said that it was the grandchildren of the master architects and stonemasons who built and camouflaged the burial chambers of the Pharaohs and nobility of ancient Egypt who "inherited" the untold wealth from those very tombs. As recently as this year, the rubbish collectors of Italy demonstrated how much society depends on them, when they withdrew their services. The government effectively had to assign a garbage minister to deal with the resulting stink.

Other forms of retaliation exist, less drastic than strikes, but potentially more devastating. Why do you think that many bureaucrats lengthen a procedure to get something done? They need to show that they have muscle too, and will flex them. The ability to say, "come next week, I am too busy", creates a make-believe world of control and power. Like it or not, we all depend on each other, and total power does not exist. A tennis superstar needs an attentive ball boy, and even company chairmen report to their wives.

As I discuss these ideas with my physiotherapist - herself an occasional victim of alienation from "real doctors" - she suggests I add the following thought: "How many days can we survive without waste and garbage collectors? And how many without the high and mighty?" Anees Sultan is a writer and businessman based in Oman