Meeting Thatcher in Dammam, Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s
I met Margaret Thatcher in the early 1990s on a dusty, sun-scorched airfield in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. In journalistic jargon it was an “ambush’’ interview two other colleagues and I had, when we were informed that the Iron Lady was in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia for a whistlestop visit, perhaps some vague detour in her secret agenda.
There are no civil niceties in such situations when journalists are fishing for news. What you have is the firing of quick questions, tape recorder on hand, and out again to beat the early front-page deadlines. We were told to wait outside the VIP lounge where Thatcher and her daughter Carol were formally received after stepping out of the plane that brought them to Saudi Arabia’s oil fields.
I expected the Thatcher ladies to come out wearing the traditional black robes and scarves reserved for women. They both came out of the VIP lounge dressed in business attire, and we were surprised because dress code details are not taken lightly in Saudi Arabia regardless of status and once you’re out in public.
Looking back, it’s remarkable that the first thing I saw was not her face, but the sweep of carefully coiffed silver-blond hair that even the wind failed to ruffle. Then a pair of eyes that scanned the three of us—quickly from left to right like a desert lizard, as if we are obstacles blocking her way to the exits. The press in Saudi Arabia is far from hostile, and yet the frosty air that exuded from her was like an unseen Great Wall of China.
We don’t expect her to provide details of her visit and I was cynical that my editors would run a decent story of her whistlestop tour. Our questions were almost routine and her replies perfunctory. No breaking news, no telling details. I even forgot now what I wrote for the newspaper about that brief encounter.
But what was not lost, even after she was recently edged out of power at that time, was her political flair and the unspoken reminder that she was in command and fully holding the reins. To the pointed questions, she mumbled a runaround reply and my doubts were confirmed that despite my efforts, the story would land somewhere in the inside pages.
I am not a fan of the Iron Lady, certainly not of her divisive way of politics and her championing of the free market which, as many know by now, has contributed to the financial crisis in Europe. Privatization, market deregulation, anti-labor tactics…the arguments may swing back and forth, but the record is clear that the free market enthusiasts had their spectacular blunders.
What is also ironic in the case of Thatcher is that she is often praised for her iconic role in female politics, when she herself considered feminism as “poison.” It is rather curious that her fervent female admirers conveniently disregard her war record in the Falklands or the way she tore apart communities in the UK with her declaration of war against the unions.
Indeed, the free market has brought us the iPad but do we really need 10 varieties of a tablet, 20 types of shampoo and a grocery shelf stocked with 40 variants of potato chips? Thatcher avidly preached the value of individualism and the free market, and ran a total war against state management, but ignored the salient fact that in times of crucial nation-building, crisis, famine and war, solidarity is precisely what we need.
In a crisis situation the free market ideas of the Thatcherites do not work, otherwise what we will have is a social condition of Darwinism where the poor, the jobless and the handicapped are trampled by the powerful and the strong. Here in our country there are moves to privatise public hospitals with false premise and hopes that competition will improve services. I doubt if the queue at the Philippine General Hospital will get shorter with private management.
Besides, do we as human beings leave to the free market our choice for a partner, children and building a family? The free market camp pretends that we have free will. But are we really free when we have our deeply-rooted obligations to our wife, husband, children, our elders, and in the case of many Filipinos, even to our extended families?
Thatcher was a product of her working-class background and her cold and scientific training at the chemistry lab was the core and progenitor of her equally cold, calculating politics. No wonder that some Brits celebrated the passing of the politics that she represents, for we could only surmise what we could have achieve by now had she not strutted and swaggered on the world stage.
NOTE: This column has been originally published in the April 11 edition of the Manila Standard Today, and reprinted in the April 14 edition of the Saudi Gazette