Emboldened by my exploration last week of the national stereotypes portrayed by European Union president Silvio Berlusconi in his “Nazi” jibe directed at a German colleague, I have no hesitation in addressing even trickier areas of ethnicity that have emerged this week closer to home.
There were 11th-hour manoeuvres last week in the share stock of Cordiant Communications, the beleaguered British advertising group, which may have been directed at frustrating a rescue takeover, just when everybody had assumed that it was in the bag for WPP Group.
In stuff that you couldn’t make up, it emerged that a declarable stake of some ten per cent of Cordiant’s shares had been accumulated by Nahed Ojjeh, the Syrian-born widow of a Saudi billionaire. She is described as “an exotic, Paris-based chess promoter” – and much else besides.
What a stir she has caused – and not only for WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell, who is thought to have convinced Publicis chairman Maurice Lévy that there would be no point in Publicis entering a bid battle. Lévy has been forced to angrily deny that he has been plotting with Ojjeh, or their mutual friend Jean-Marie Messier (who made a mess of Vivendi Universal).
Publicis has also been forced to deny that it is in cahoots with Active Value, run by raiders Julian Treger and Brian Myerson, to block the WPP deal. If there is a concert party for Cordiant – and whether or not it involves Ojjeh – it is playing some discordant music.
But note also the references to the Arabian background in the coverage of Ojjeh. Note how she is said to grace the fashionable and exclusive “salons” of Paris and elsewhere in northern Europe. Note also how there is enthusiasm to see her slapped down by the regulatory authorities, such as the Takeover Panel, for failing to declare her beneficial interests in Cordiant.
There also seems to be some degree of frustration that as a footloose foreigner – and a very rich one at that, who may care little for the reprimands of men in cheap suits in the City of London – there may be few effective sanctions that can be imposed on the “exotic” Ojjeh.
There is already more than a whiff here of the phobic Anglo-Saxon apprehension of the unscrupulous and powerful Arab, using his – and, even more uncomfortably in this instance, her – wealth to meddle in Western assets that they have no business with.
This is intriguing at a number of levels. It has a resonance of the Brits’ resentment of the Arab money, generated by the West’s demand for oil, that bought up prime UK property in the Seventies.
There are also echoes of the knee-jerk British aversion to the Arab arms trade – of all former defence minister Jonathan Aitken’s misdeeds, surely the most unforgivable in many a traditionally British mind is that he dealt with Arabs.
All this past baggage is further packed with the prejudices attached to the Middle East in the wake of 9/11 and the war against Iraq. Nobody has as yet, of course, actually suggested that Ojjeh has links with Osama bin Laden (and least of all me, please be assured everyone), but there is unmistakably something in the air that there are dodgy dealings here.
The same old attitude used to be applied to the Asian business community, especially from the more old-fashioned quarters of the Conservative Party. The phrase “dodgy Asian businessmen” has rolled off the tongue of too many senior politicians in the past for them to be able to suggest now that they meant there to be a comma between “dodgy” and “Asian”.
Now it is the turn of the Arab business world again to feel the heat in Western commerce. And the heat that Ojjeh feels in Britain at the moment is evidence of that, because it is only partly to do with a lack of disclosure that would have been considered trivial if it had come from, say, Americans.
There is a further point – and one that will make liberals go weak at the knees at its very observation. Given the geopolitical sensitivities of the Middle East, there is a common assumption that every Arab considers every Jewish business person to be a Zionist, while every Jew considers Arabs to be anti-Israel.
With so many of the principals in the Cordiant power play of Jewish extraction, the very idea of Ojjeh in the role of arbitrageur or concert-party participant should put paid to such glib assumptions. So I rather hope she is part of such a plot.
Ultimately, these would be rather trivial musings were it not for the implications for East-West trade that such petty prejudices might jeopardise. Syria is both a key British trading partner and a linchpin for peace in the Middle East.
As such, President Assad of Syria has been courted by Prime Minister Tony Blair – with mixed su
ccess, but there can be no fault for trying. Meanwhile, the US hasn’t quite included Syria in its “Axis of Evil”, but its more hawkish elements consider it to be up there with its potential enemies.
The UK’s attempts to act as a bridge between Syria and the US are aimed at the economies of peace. And they won’t be helped if every time someone like Ojjeh and her money turn up on the British commercial scene, they are treated with contempt and suspicion.
George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon