Holidaying for world peace

10th November 2006 at 00:00
Friends and I once visited the great fish market in Tokyo. If you set aside Japan's dismal record on whaling and the suspicion that you are looking at the rape of the deep, it is an enthralling place. And the kings of the fish market are the tuna men.

Glorious silver tuna are cut into portions with what look like workaday samurai swords. We were introduced to a man said to be the king of the kings of the market. He suggested we eat, so we went to a sushi shop at the edge of the market and had a sumptuous raw fish breakfast. Afterwards, he insisted on paying and said he liked to play host to foreigners as a gesture towards international understanding. He sprang to mind in Saudi Arabia a few weeks back.

The Adult Learning Inspectorate was helping prepare the ground for a tender to be sent worldwide to colleges and training providers hoping to run around 90 vocational colleges and 160 technical institutions in the kingdom.

The Saudis are investing more than pound;1.5 billion in buildings, services and equipment. The country produces many children, some the first literate generation, and they have to learn to make a living. Forty new colleges will be for women. Debate rages about which jobs are seemly for them. The new colleges will be the fulcrum of Saudi Arabia's quest for balance between religion, monarchy and prosperity.

But there is a problem. Let me draw you a picture. We're in a college, talking to the principal and his senior staff. The atmosphere is stiff.

This goes on for 10 or 15 minutes until it emerges that the principal studied for his doctorate in Manchester. Half his senior team did likewise.

Their kids are at British universities now and they visit the UK every few months.

But it's all one-way traffic. Sure, the Saudi government doesn't make a day trip to Jeddah easy, but the real issue is that the love affair Brits had with romantic Arabia has cooled into suspicion and fear. Once we saw nobility and honour, now we tend to see fundamentalism, bigotry and Al-Quaeda.

Unfamiliarity breeds misunderstanding. That's what the king of the Tokyo fish market understood perfectly. The history of the West and Japan is strewn with boulders: the Burma railway and Hiroshima, one ghastly war crime each, will do for starters. Yet through trade, tourism in both directions, culture from Madame Butterfly to YO! Sushi, we are probably more mutually respectful and admiring than we have ever been.

But if we want to understand Saudi Arabia, we need to get out more. The organisations that run the new colleges will need to be motivated by more than profit; they will need to have travelled to the kingdom often.

It's something the wandering British have always been good at - and it's the certain antidote to confused rhetoric about a War on Terror.

* David Sherlock is chief inspector at the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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