A Question of Identity: United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait

At the camel farm

At the camel farm

 

 

[This a transcript of a talk I gave at Concordia University in October of 2010 regarding my Fulbright-Hayes trip to UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait earlier that year.   This talk was accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation.

(notes to accompany PowerPoint presentation)
This summer, I spent six weeks in three countries: the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait. I travelled with a group of nine other academics from around the country as part of a Fulbright-Hays seminar. The purpose of Fulbright-Hays seminars is to deepen the knowledge of American educators in non-Western countries so that we in turn can share our knowledge with students, our colleagues and the community. My goal in today’s presentation is to provide you with an overview of some of the highlights of my trip.
The seminar was multi-disciplinary in focus, with lectures and visits focusing on politics, history, geography, education, energy, economics, religion, the role of women, and other issues. In preparing for today’s talk, my main challenge was trying to determine what my focus would be.
I’ve decided to do so by answering the question I got most often: What was most striking about the places I visited?
Here is my response:
1) The extremely rapid modernization and Westernization of these countries in the last 40-50 years, with English language dominating the societies.

2) The warmth and hospitality of the people.

3) The citizens of these countries are a small minority in their own countries.
Before I get into my main points, I’d like to start by showing you where these countries are.
To understand these countries, it’s important to understand the natural environment of these countries. They have some of the harshest natural environments on earth—all desert. The summers are exceedingly hot. We were there in May-June, and the temperatures in UAE and Qatar were around 105 and humid every day. In Kuwait it was hotter—around 115, but less humid. Apparently, it gets hotter in July and August.

Desert dunes

Desert dunes

 

Rocky desert

Rocky desert

All three countries border the Arabian Gulf, so they have access to the sea.

Kuwait City

Kuwait City

 

Me on the Arabian Sea

Me on the Arabian Sea

 

They have a long history of trading with nearby countries.
The first point I want to stress is the mind-boggling rapidity of change that these countries have experienced in the last half century or so. Before the discovery and extraction of oil in the 1940s-60s (depending on the country), these were some of the poorest, least developed places on the planet. In general, life was extremely harsh and simple and the populations were small. This land can support very little agriculture. Traditionally, before oil wealth came, people lived very simply: dates from palm trees, camel milk and meat, some rice and fish. Many of the people were nomadic Bedouin who lived in tents; others lived from fishing and pearling. There was no electricity or other modern conveniences. For example, the first hospital, begun by Christian missionaries didn’t come to United Arab Emirates until 1960. Kuwait was different from Qatar and UAE in that it has had a sizable town for centuries. Life there was still harsh, though.

Dubai in 1989, 2005

Dubai in 1989, 2005

 

Dubai, 2010

Dubai, 2010

Despite, or perhaps because of the harshness, the desert life had an appeal to many people. For example, Wilfred Thesiger, an English explorer of Arabia wrote, “The everyday hardships and danger, the ever-present hunger and thirst, the weariness of long marches: these provided the challenges of Bedu life against which I sought to match myself, and were the basis of the comradeship which united us.” The Bedu belief that satisfaction in any task was in inverse proportion to the effort required was, he said, the most strikingly beautiful expression of humanity there was. “Among no other people,” he wrote, “Have I ever felt the same sense of personal inferiority.” (qtd in Tatchell 31)
Today, because of oil and gas, these countries are among the richest in the world. These countries are dominated by hyper-modern cities with all of the luxuries and conveniences that money can buy.

 

What about the culture?

I was expecting something like this.  You know, magic carpets, genies coming out of bottles, that sort of thing.

 

What I Expected

What I Expected

 

What I actually saw was this:

What I Actually Saw

What I Actually Saw

 

And this:

What I Actually Saw  Was This

What I Actually Saw Was This

Not only are they hyper-modern, but these countries also struck me as extremely Westernized—to such an extent that sometimes it was easy to forget that were in an Arab country. English is one of the two official languages, so it was everywhere. Almost everyone I met spoke fluent English. In fact, an area expert told us that it’s not a good idea to send students to these countries to learn Arabic—because so few people speak it in daily life.

This is not to say they never make errors in English.

I thought Muslims didn't drink alcohol!

I thought Muslims didn’t drink alcohol!

You could find just about any American fast food chain you want. And the place to be, the social center, is the mall. That’s where people spend their free time. The malls are similar to American malls, except bigger and richer. You could spend $30,000 on a cell phone, for example.

Qatar Mall Masquerading as Venice

Qatar Mall Masquerading as Venice

University education struck me as extremely Americanized. The curriculum, the instruction style, the organization, even the textbooks are all very similar to those of American universities. In fact, branch campuses of major American universities are popular in many countries, especially Qatar, where they have a “university city.”

American University of Sharjah

American University of Sharjah

 

 

Women are encouraged to attend university.

Women are encouraged to attend university.

The People
When I told people I was applying to do this program, a common response I heard was, “They hate Americans over there.”
“Oh, well, that’s good to know,” I’d replied.
Other people told me,
“You know, those people hate women.”
“Well that will be unpleasant for me, then.”

Still others, (most notably my mother) told me it’s dangerous over there.
“I’ll be careful then.”

Well, if they hate Americans, especially women, they certainly did a good job of hiding that fact from us. This was the second time I’d been to an Arab, Muslim country (the first was Egypt) and this was the second time I was struck by the huge disconnect between the stereotypes of Arabs (all of whom are supposed to hate us) and my experiences of the warm, hospitable, generous people I met.
One of the core values of Arab culture is hospitality. I certainly found that to be true. One guide told us to be careful with our compliments. Often if you admire somebody’s possession they might give it to you!
A couple of examples: the dress I’m wearing, along with material for another dress, was given to me by a family who hosted us for dinner one night. They lavished us with a dinner and gave all of us dresses, even though we were complete strangers.

 

Qatari family hosted our group for dinner

Qatari family hosted our group for dinner

 

 

After dinner, we are offered perfume

After dinner, we are offered perfume

Incense is burned after dinner

Incense is burned after dinner

Another example: one member of our group, Karen, told an Emirati man that she was looking for saffron (the most expensive spice in the world.) A few hours later, all of us received a delivery of a package of saffron.
In terms of danger, one of the greatest dangers we faced was that of weight gain and in inflated sense of self-importance. Everywhere we went, we were overwhelmed with servants offering us coffee, food, chocolates and other treats. We were also constantly being waited on and showered with gifts of all kinds. It was actually kind of hard to come back home and realize nobody was going to wait on me and that I had to fetch my own coffee and treats if I wanted any.

The third issue I found striking was the extent to which these countries are dominated by temporary foreign workers. 70-90%.
Definite hierarchy. I noticed open disdain for the unskilled laborers from other countries.

Fisherman

Fisherman

Foreign workers dominate in food service and tourism

Foreign workers dominate in food service and tourism

Foreign workers do most construction work

Foreign workers do most construction work

Most Gulf Arabs have foreign domestic help

Most Gulf Arabs have foreign domestic help

At the farmer's market in Qatar

At the farmer’s market in Qatar

 

Restaurant staff come from Southeast Asia.

Restaurant staff come from Southeast Asia.

 

In the kitchens of restaurants

In the kitchens of restaurants

A Question of Identity

How does this rapid modernization, Westernization and dominance of foreign workers affect the national identity of people from UAE, Qatar and Kuwait?
There is no one response to this question, but identity is definitely a hot-button issue.
One aspect of modernization that poses little controversy is modern technology. Most people from this area love their cars, air conditioners, cell phones, computers and so forth. As one Emirati said, “Come on, why would you ride a damn camel when there are SUVs? We like this new stuff. I don’t need a tent with fleas. I love the space out here, but when I need to get out of the city I like doing it in a car” (qtd in Tatchell 55)
The dominance of English does, however, provoke debate. On one side are those who want the country to open up to the world and claim that the use of English in education is a prerequisite for modernization. On the other side are those who believe that over-reliance on English is detrimental to national, Arab and Muslim identity.
For example, Jalal al-Sultan, a businessman from Dubai, said in an interview in Le Monde Diplomatique “We no longer know if our children are from here or if they’re turning into American or English kids who can’t express themselves properly in Arabic. It’s worrying. It is making us rethink our educational system. It’s a matter of saving our national identity” (Belkaid 1).
The influential minister for higher education and scientific research, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, advocated a different view. “We are all proud of our language and our identity, but nevertheless, English is the language of science and technology. We cannot afford to lag behind in global competition. If we want our children to contribute to making this country a real player in globalisation, we have no choice but to educate them in English” (Belkaid 1).

“We are in the minority in our own country, where some 200 different nationalities cohabit,” said a high-ranking official who preferred to remain anonymous. “That can lead to a feeling of being hemmed in, which triggers a more rigid assertion of identity. That explains the debate about English. We want to remain different from those we have invited in to build our country. If we start speaking their language, there is an amalgamation factor involved that frightens many people. That’s why we are such sticklers about national dress, which every civil servant is obliged to wear.” (Belkaid 2).

“It is imperative that we have a real national debate on this issue,” warned Gameel Muhammad, a researcher at the Emirates College for Advanced Education. “If nothing is done and we can’t find a solution to reduce our dependency on foreign workers, then one day the Gulf State Arabs may become aborigines. We’ll be the native Arabs, like the native Americans in the US, on whom alien traditions and values were imposed because they were in the minority” (Belkaid 2).

Perhaps the most common attitude is that of gratitude for the new ease and opportunities that development has brought combined at the same time with a nostalgia for a simpler way of life. Some believe that the modernization has brought about a decline in a sense of community and strong religious and cultural values.
Adullah Masaood, an extremely wealthy and influential man from Abu Dhabi says: “Of course we needed roads and houses, schools and hospitals. . . . My father and grandfather. . . were moving always. We used the plants of the land. We were eating from the land—dates and camel’s milk, goats and bread. We had a very simple life. Happy times, when God was with us. Myself, I liked to hunt for the rabbit.. . . We used everything. Not one thing was wasted. We worked all the day and took enough to live, but we did not every forget to give thanks.” His tone hardens. “We thanked God for each thing that we had, food and peace at night. Now they have plenty and no one give thanks. People are slaves here. They talk and think about the job, the money, but they do not live well. Time is their boss. Before, people were happier.” (Tatchell 130-131)
One Qatari writer also believes that modernization has brought about a decreasing sense of community:
“The neighborhood has lost its meaning of unity and homogeneity. Previously a neighborhood was made up of the same tribe, and each house had an extended family living in it. The houses stood next to each other, and their doors were always open. It was safe, as no strangers lived among them. Today the same area is made up of buildings and houses; the residents barely know each other. The buildings have become taller, the houses bigger; but our hearts have become smaller”(Al Matwi 36).
Nonetheless, despite the problems of modernity and a nostalgia for the past, the majority of people would not want to turn back the clock. A Qatar writer sums up this feeling of inevitability by saying:

“A lot of people were afraid of these changes at that time and some still are. They thought it was too much, it should happen more slowly; change should be more gradual. This idea is normal; sudden change is worrisome: we get used to things being done in a certain way. But that’s not a reason to turn our backs on change. Yes, there will be some problems and some mistakes. But that’s inevitable; that’s how life is.” (Rasheed 28-29)
To conclude, the nationals of UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait have witnessed an astonishing transformation in their societies in the last generation or two. Although they welcome the comforts and opportunities rapid modernization has brought, many simultaneously mourn the passing of simpler times that many find more authentic. Many, such as Saad Matwi al Matwi, ask themselves, “Can we keep our hearts rooted to our values and our culture, and still be modern? (36)
Works Cited
Belkaid, Akram. Trans. Krystyna Horko. “Language Debate Reflects Identity Crisis.” Le Monde

Diplomatique. Aug. 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-10886413Le

Tatchell, Jo. A Diamond in the Desert: Behind the Scenes of the World’s Richest City. London: Sceptre,
2009.
Matwi Al, Saad Rashid. “The Sidra Tree.” In Henderson, Carol and Rjakumar, Mohanalakshmi . Qatari
Voices: A Celebration of New Writers. Doha, Qatar: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing,
2010.
Rashid, Mashaael Salman, “The Secret Smile of Change.” In Henderson, Carol and Rjakumar,
Mohanalakshmi . Qatari Voices: A Celebration of New Writers. Doha, Qatar: Bloomsbury
Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2010.

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