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Cultural Change in the Arab Gulf;
Natural Progression or Imperialist Plot?
by Neil McBeath
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Arab-Gulf Culture and Change

Both Denman and Mernissi, therefore, appear to suggest (possibly unwittingly) that cultures are fixed. The same can also be said for Asadi (2013) although her arguments are more deeply rooted in simple ignorance.

Asadi is an Iranian-American who works at the Al Faisal University, a private female institution in Riyadh. This is an important point, as it means that Asadi has probably never interacted with Saudis outside the classroom. Her research is based on a questionnaire circulated among her students, and on interviews with two other female expatriates, though her questions seem to have been less than searching. This much can be seen from three statements from her informants.

(a) “A lot of their beliefs contrast my own, so I just have the urge to educate them” (P. 85) is a classic example of denigrating “the generalised characteristics of anyone who is different from the unproblematical Self” (Holliday 2005; 19). Your beliefs are different from mine, so YOU need educating. This is an attitude that could be characterised as smug, ignorant and self-complacent, but its offensive ethnocentricity is magnified when we remember that this speaker voluntarily moved into another culture and is now attempting to impose her own conception of “the unproblematical self” in that environment.

(b) “I hold dear the rights of a free and secular democracy for everyone regardless of race or creed” (P. 87) is a comment that screams for a definition of terms and an exploration of its own internal contradictions. Exactly which “free and secular democracy” does the speaker have in mind? In Britain, politicians tend to avoid open reference to religion, but the Monarch is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and one of her titles is Defender of the Faith. In Britain, moreover, the upper chamber in parliament, the House of Lords, remains unelected. In France, where overt religious symbols such as the hijab, and turbans for Sikh males are banned in school, the summer of 2013 saw massive demonstrations by Roman Catholics against the decision to allow same-sex marriage; one protester taking things to the extent that he committed suicide at the high altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. In the USA, where state and church are constitutionally separated, it has become impossible for any candidate to be elected to high office without repeated assurances that his/her religious beliefs match those of the more vociferous believers in the constituency.

(c) “I enjoy expanding the minds of Saudis and hope they will make much needed changes in their country because of the things I have taught them” (P. 87) is breathtaking in its condescension.

Yet none of these statements is evidence of linguistic imperialism. What we see here is, perhaps, pedagogic incompetence, or examples of unrepresentative ignorance. The statements expose the muddled thinking of two misguided women, and such confusion is familiar to anyone who has spent any time of Dave’s ESL Café, but it is hardly the game-plan of a hegemonic military-political-educational alliance that aims to dominate the globe.

What the last speaker obviously fails to realize is that she is working at an all-female university in Saudi Arabia only because there have already been quite staggering changes in her host society. These changes, moreover, have affected the entire Arab Gulf. In his memoirs, the Emirati businessman Mohammed al Fahim comments, “Life in Abu Dhabi at the time of my birth was the same as it had been in 1800” (Al Fahim 2011; 32). Al Fahim was born in 1947. Similarly, Khalfan al Habtoor, another Emirati businessman, and two years Al Fahim’s junior, states that “It was 1949 when I emerged yelling into a world that no longer exists.” (Al Habtoor 2012; blurb).

Holes (2009; 217) goes further:- “The rate of social and economic change in the Gulf in the last 50 years, and especially in the last 20, has been giddyingly fast, and certainly much faster than at any time previously. Before this sudden acceleration there seems to have been a long period of stability, one might almost say stagnation, in the way of life, no matter who occupied the seats of power. In a sense, when we talk about 50 years ago in the Gulf, we may as well be talking about 200 or 300 more years ago, so slow was the pace of change until recently.”

Yet more evidence of change is offered in the careers of Salim bin Kabina and Salim bin Ghabaisha, and in this instance we have the pictures to prove it. Bin Kabina and Bin Ghabaisha were Wilfred Thesiger’s companions on his epic journey from Salalah, through the Empty Quarter and on to what was then the Trucial Coast (Thesiger 1959). Thesiger employed them in 1950, when they were impoverished 15 or 16 year-olds. At that time they were already responsible for widowed mothers and younger siblings, but owned only a rifle and the clothes that they wore. (Figure 1 and 2).


Figure 1 – Salim bin Kabina. Figure 2 – Salim bin Ghabaisha

Just before he met Thesiger, Salim bin Kabina’s only, elderly camel had died, and the boy was in complete despair, but by the time of their second series of journeys, both men were older, harder and tougher (Figure 3)

(Figure 3)

and after Thesiger left the Trucial Coast, Bin Ghabaisha transformed himself into a notorious raider (i.e. bandit) with a number of blood-feuds on his hands. Thesiger feared for the future of both his companions, predicting that “economic forces beyond their control would eventually drive them into the towns to hang about street corners as ‘unskilled labour’” (Thesiger 1959; 330).

In fact, he need not have been so concerned. Both men are still alive, and have transformed themselves again. They have now become living legends. The explorer and adventurer Adrian Hayes recently retraced Thesiger’s route, with camels, albeit also with sat-nav, a camera crew and without the problems caused by internecine tribal warfare and blood-feuds (Hayes 2012). At the end of the journey, Bin Kabina and Bin Ghabaisha welcomed him at the city of Al Ain.

(Figure 4)

They are now the most respectable of gentlemen, both in their seventies, and the patriarchs of large and flourishing families, living in grace-and-favour villas gifted to them by the late Sheikh Zayed al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi.

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