The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged Gulf states
The new Arab capitals
The way of the future? The Burj Khalifa in Dubai

The way of the future? The Burj Khalifa in Dubai

Earlier this month, Sultan Sooud El Qassemi wrote an op-ed in Al-Monitor that has stirred considerable controversy. El Qassemi, a writer, active Twitter presence, businessman, art patron, member of Sharjah's ruling family and friend, argued that the capitals of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have become

..the nerve center of the contemporary Arab world’s culture, commerce, design, architecture, art and academia, attracting hundreds of thousands of Arab immigrants, including academics, businessmen, journalists, athletes, artists, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. While these Gulf cities may be unable to compete with their Arab peers in terms of political dynamism, in almost every other sense they have far outstripped their sister cities in North Africa and the Levant. 

Needless to say, the claim that Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have become what Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo once were to the Arab world raised many hackles. The Angry Arab replied: 

What contribution to Arab culture have those cities made, unless you are talking about sleaze, worship of the European, denigration of the Asians, promotion of singers purely based on breast sizes and lip thickness, prostitution mentality (literally and figuratively), gender segregation and repression, the culture of measuring humans by the size of their bank accounts, etc.  Culture, what culture? Cairo and Beirut were known for hosting a culture that allowed (often despite desires of the ruling governments) various political and cultural trends to co-exist and to clash, and for the expression of divergent political viewpoints.  Cairo and Beirut were cities that allowed artists and writers to seek refuge and to express themselves artistically and creatively, and there is none of that in the Gulf.  Yes, academics and journalists are flocking to the Gulf but what have they produced there? What ideas? They go there and they work as assistants and propagandists in the entourage for this prince or that prince.  If anything, the impact of that Gulf oil and gas culture has been quite corrosive on the entire Arab world and its culture.  In that sense alone, yes, Gulf cities do play a role. 

Al-Monitor also published a response by Abbas Al-Lawaty that rightly highlighted the single most distinctive feature of the Persian Gulf cities: their system of imported, caste labour: 

Millions of workers flocked to the Gulf. Everything from people, ideas, academic institutions, museums, athletes and even bottled water flown in from tens of thousands of kilometers away was imported. In an effort to develop at a breakneck speed and become competitive with Western hubs, they have become replicas of those cities with little more of their own to offer foreign visitors and tourists than the clichéd desert safaris packaged with belly-dance shows.
Today, in each of the cities that were cited as the new Arab centers, foreigners vastly outnumber citizens. Like the traditional Arab capitals, they have become hubs for migrants. The difference is that migrants in the Gulf have residency cards with expiration dates. It is therefore unrealistic to expect Gulf cities to grow to the level they wish if the majority of the population is transient and continuously reminded that it will one day have to leave. Someone who does not feel a sense of belonging will not invest his or her full potential in such a city.

I'm pretty sure that Sultan did not intend it this way, but it strikes me as in somewhat poor taste to celebrate the advent of Gulf cities when the capitals they are supposedly superseding are suffering from such damaging conflicts, losing lives and losing history. 

Our own occasional contributor Bilal Ahmad makes the interesting argument, at Souciant, that the chaos that besets cities like Cairo is not a symptom of their irrelevance but quite the contrary:

al-Qassemi forgets that cities are a convergence of human experience, and desire. They’re settings in which millions of people arrive at different times, for similar goals of self-betterment, and work. At times when the dreams of their residents, and society as a whole, are not being realized, they also become the main engine by which their residents can better conceptualize, and make manifest, their yearning for emancipation.
 The reason that Cairo is in shambles is because it’s a city that has been galvanized by attempts to envision the new. For me, that’s what a center of the Arab world is supposed to do: fight for the future. Cairo is still one of the centers of the Arab world, because its current difficulties are a result of the fact that the Cairo that will be hasn’t been born yet. It’s still lost in the fighting of the Arab Spring. That goes for many cities across the region.
The fact that the Khaleeji cities are not dealing with such unrest is not something of which to be proud. It means that they’re absent from critical discussions of what Arab cities will come to mean. How can they be leaders if they’re so conspicuously missing? It’s also worth noting, once again, that their relative tranquility came at a violent price.
The Gulf states only avoided the unrest of the Arab Spring because they’re controlled by morally-bankrupt monarchs, who are backed by investors armed by the West, and who successfully pressed for a peaceful democratic revolt in Bahrain to be crushed. This is because the idea of embracing the new, in any serious way, was too much for the leaders of these alleged centers to bear. As a result, we’re at a point where not only is the new still in the process of being born in cities like Cairo, but it has also been sterilized against in the Gulf, following an induced miscarriage in Bahrain.
Out with the old? A street in Damascus

Out with the old? A street in Damascus

I'm happy Sultan raised this debate, although I disagree with his general argument (or wish it had included many more nuances and caveats). The hydrocarbon-rich emirates of the Arabian peninsula are undoubtedly a force in the Arab world, and as such they need to be understood, not just reflexively bashed. They are a facet of the future, and important one -- centers of economic, political and yes cultural influence. But to claim that a city is "a cultural center" implies that it is engaged in a kind of sustained, unique cultural production that so far hardly takes place in the Gulf. It's not just that there are very few local artists, writers or scientists. It's that what is produced there, culturally, by locals or expats, has a very tenuous connection to or engagement with its context. When it is relevant, like the politically engaged poetry of the Qatari poet Mohamed Al-Ajami, it ends with 15-year jail sentences

Dubai has a booming art market, but it's just that, a market -- art is one of the many forms of capital that circulates there. The art exhibitions, international museums and publishing and translation ventures being generously hosted in the Gulf are a positive development, but this is largely culture for hire, for show, or as a form of international diplomacy. The foreign universities have an agenda to work on issues relevant to national development, but they cater to a minority of the population and are there under the patronage of individual rulers -- they have no solid existence in society, from which to act as independent centers of learning.

And these gleaming, air-conditioned cities remain ones in which the population is divided into precise professional-ethnic castes that are constantly recycled, so that the majority of foreign workers can't and won't develop a stake in the place. Physically and socially, they are cities with no public, shared spaces, because they are designed to keep their residents segregated, to prevent them from mingling, gathering, and participating in free and open debate. And how can cities without centers of their own become the centers of something bigger?  





Slaves of Babylon

Frequent contributor to this blog Paul Mutter follows up on the recent Guardian report on the deaths of Nepalese workers in Qatar with a detailed account of migrant labour in the Gulf.   

A third of the Gulf’s total population today consists of guest workers. Primarily South and Southeast Asian in origin, they have replaced the Arab guest workers of the 1980s who departed – or in the case of 200,000 Palestinians in Kuwait, were expelled – during the 1991 Gulf War. The Gulf states increasingly opted for non-Muslim and non-Arab workers in the years that followed. Two million guest workers are present in just Saudi Arabia and the UAE, out of six million altogether. South and Southeast Asian migrants actually outnumber the native populations of several Gulf states: 70% of the UAE’s population, and 69% of Kuwait’s population, consists of guest workers nowadays. Saudi Arabia hosts tens of thousands of workers – it issued 700,000 new visas for maids alone in 2013 – and now fines or shut downs employers in the Kingdom who employ more migrant than domestic workers.

Qatar is even more heavily dependent on migrant workers than Saudi Arabia. 87% of the population consists of migrants, and 94% of the entire labor force is from overseas – which means that only 6% of the workforce, as native Qataris, can legally form a union or leave a job without their employer’s permission. Qatar is planning a major expansion of its guest worker population in order to build twelve stadiums, along with subway lines, hotels, and causeways, to support the planned city of Lusail that will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.


Egypt and its patrons
Egypt's new patrons? A poster in Cairo thanks the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE -- and Russia.  

Egypt's new patrons? A poster in Cairo thanks the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE -- and Russia.  

Why does Egypt receive between $1.3 and $1.5 billion of US aid annually?

"Because of Israel" is the most common answer to that question. Certainly, that is driving much of the American political wrangling over whether aid should be suspended. The New York Times reports that during the back-and-forth among the US and its allies leading up to Morsi's ouster, Israeli officials argued against cuts, and told the military not to put stock in US threats to cut off aid. The Israelis, like the US, greatly prefer the Egyptian security forces to be in charge of the country. Whatever, the depredations of Mubarak, the Brotherhood, or the counterrevolution, Egypt is too valuable for any American leader to risk "losing."

But though the Muslim Brotherhood signaled it might be less hostile to Hamas or Iran than Mubarak was, in practice the former president did little to change existing policies. Under Morsi's short presidency, the Egyptians even stepped up the destruction of smuggling tunnels into the coastal strip (moreover, the Egyptians were reportedly instrumental in negotiating an end to Operation Pillar of Cloud last winter).

Both Israel and Egypt have many shared interests in the Sinai, especially as the security situation deteriorates. Though Egyptian pressure on Gaza is massively increasing now, it was never seriously in jeopardy under the Brotherhood given that the terrorists and criminal gangs in the Sinai were going after both the SCAF- and Brotherhood-led Egyptian state, and it served Morsi little to champion the Palestinian cause while in office.

The massive corporate investment in Egyptian or Saudi defense expenditures certainly contributes to Congressional deliberations against aid cuts. And while one might examine the head of President Obama, and whether his reluctance to "take sides" really suggests a desire to reduce a US commitment to Egypt, the fact that the aid has not yet been publicly cut off suggests that Washington has tacitly taken a side: that of the military's, guarantor of the status quo.

It was, in fact, not just the Israelis telling General Sisi et al. to pay no mind to the US law that requires all aid to be suspended to a country if a coup takes place there. It was King Abdullah telling the Egyptian generals that the Kingdom would make up for any cutoffs in economic or military aid - the latter, almost assuredly in the form of American-made weapons in Riyadh's possession.

Riyadh's role is extremely important in all of this, especially with respect to Iran's containment. As the CNAS think tank noted in February 2011, Egypt's strategic importance in the wider region has nothing to do with the current deployment of US forces in the country, where the only fully staffed America military station is a US Navy medical center. It instead has to do with the nightmare scenario that would threaten the US's interests in the Persian Gulf: the sudden collapse of any one of the Gulf monarchies that host the radar sites, listening posts, airfields, and weapon emplacements pointing at Iran:

"The United States has no military bases of its own in Egypt. Its headquarters for directing air and ground troops in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, are in Qatar. Stockpiles of tanks, ammunition, fuel, spare parts and other war materiel are warehoused in Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. U.S. missile batteries are deployed along the Persian Gulf's west coast. The U.S. Navy's regional headquarters is in Bahrain.

But in contingencies or crises, American forces have depended heavily on Egyptian facilities built with U.S. aid to U.S. specifications to accommodate U.S. forces as they move from the United States and Europe to Africa or westward across Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the Persian Gulf. American nuclear powered aircraft carriers, whose jets are playing a major role in Afghanistan, rely critically on their expedited use of the Suez Canal, giving them easy access to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf."

Jane's Defence Weekly presented an analysis of commercial satellite imagery compiled between 2011 and 2012 to illustrate the expansion of US, UK, and GCC "conventional combat capabilities" in the Persian Gulf. The analysis highlighted the most salient points of this cooperation, which all ultimately leads back over that waterway and the Saudi desert to Egypt's own airspace and port facilities.

Meanwhile, the suggestion that the failure of the Brotherhood's political experiment in Egypt may be necessary for the House of Saud's survival is not farfetched. Though security concerns largely determine American actions, for the Saudis, there is also the matter of not wanting competition from the transnational Brotherhood as a mass Islamist movement.

While in years past, the Saudis supported the Brotherhood in Egypt - against Nasser, primarily, whose pan-Arabism and meddling in Yemen during the Cold War threatened the House of Saud's shaky legitimacy. But then the Brothers' messaging and aspirations began to appeal to dissidents within the Kingdom, as did other rival Islamist precepts, threatening absolute monarchy with the prospect of replacement. In recent years, top Saudi officials have made extremely negative remarks about the Brotherhood, most notably the late Crown Prince Nayef. Last month, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal fired a Kuwaiti preacher from his Al Resalah channel for having pro-Brotherhood leanings. As a Foreign Policy article recently noted about Saudi efforts to arm anti-Assad Syrian militias, "Saudi Arabia does not only despise the Muslim Brothers, but political Islamic movements and mass politics in general, which it sees as a threat to its model of absolute patrimonial monarchy."