Flagpole diplomacy - Monocolumn | Monocle


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16 September 2010

Fledgling nations have an understandable urge to spend the early stages of their independence over-compensating. The years of impotent squirming beneath the heel of whichever vanquished oppressor are avenged in an orgy of stamp-redesigning, banknote-issuing, street-renaming and statue-decapitation. In Central Asia, however, the clamour for recognition of several post-Soviet states has resulted in the most entertaining example of post-independence Freudian neurosis yet recorded: a gathering competition to erect the world’s tallest free-standing flagpole.

The current record-holder is the 162-metre prong established at the lip of the harbourfront of Baku, Azerbaijan. It dislodged from the pages of Guinness a 133-metre shaft planted in 2009 in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan – and will itself shortly cede its title to a 165-metre rod currently surging from downtown Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Whatever the nations concerned think they gain from being briefly in possession of a benchmark-setting metal spike, it is indisputably good business for the company that built all three: Trident Support, an American engineering firm based in Dubai.

“These are national monuments,” says Marc Summers, one of Trident’s co-owners. “How would you put a price on the Washington Monument in DC? From that point of view, the costs aren’t that great.”

Summers has a point. Though the price of one of Trident’s flagpoles varies significantly with soil and weather conditions, and becomes exponentially more expensive the taller the order, the “upwards of several million dollars” that Summers cites is still a bargain compared to most infrastructure projects – and this one gets your country talked about all over the world.

Inevitably, however, the contest has promoted a certain amount of jealousy. Summers admits that a few clients have sought assurances that there will never be a taller pole than theirs. Trident won’t give this assurance, on the reasonable grounds that this is their livelihood. Indeed, they’ve adopted a policy that every record-breaking flagpole they build from hereon will be no more than one metre higher than its predecessor – which sounds rather like a plan to maximise the opportunity presented by a Central Asian Middle Eastern flagpole race (Trident began planting what they call their “Monumental” range of flagpoles in Abu Dhabi and Jordan).

Summers confirms that negotiations are in progress with other potential clients – national governments, he says, or persons acting on their behalf. “They don’t seem to mind that the record won’t last forever,” he says. “It doesn’t diminish the accomplishment, and anyway, records are made to be broken.”


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