Have you ever heard of the countries of Bahrain, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates? Most people have a quizzical look on their face as I explain to them that I am going on a two week educational trip to these three countries. Some ask if it is safe, some wonder if I am required to wear an abaya, and some have said they have never heard of these countries. Probably the reason the Bi-lateral U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce based in Houston, Texas is generously sponsoring my educational travel to there is to ultimately introduce more Americans to these relatively new and unfamiliar countries.
I plan to do a series of blogs about these three countries which form part of a total of seven Gulf Coast Countries (GCC), the other four countries include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Sultanate of Oman, and the Republic of Yemen. From this map you can see that the GCC is situated in a strategic location, surrounded by great powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, and close to volatile hot spots such as Iraq and Yemen. As I prepare for the upcoming trip, I thought I would share with you some of the questions I want to ask and information I want to learn, as well as some of my apprehensions.
I love to learn about different cultures, countries, and people’s lives around the world. The GCC should provide a striking contrast with life in the U.S. and my life as an educated, professional woman. The first question that pops out when discussing the trip with people I encounter is: “Will you have to wear a burqa?” I explain that as foreign visitors, we are not subject to a dress code; we are not required to wear a burqa or abaya. But modest dress is required for both men and women. Modest dress for women includes skirts and dresses below knee length, modest neckline, no tank tops, since it is best to cover the shoulders, and closed-toed shoes. Men should not wear shorts or tank tops either. Interestingly, bikinis are acceptable beachwear for foreign women, as long as they stay on the beach.
Women wearing bikinis on the beach or strolling in their abayas brings to light an interesting visual conundrum about life in the Middle East and informs a “big question” that will guide my thoughts, writing, and questions I pose on the trip. What is the difference between modern and Western and how are these differences reflected in these three countries? Beach attire is only one striking difference, and I hope to uncover and share many others with you such as the role of women, political systems, human rights issues, education, cultural behaviors, the economy, and others.
Perhaps a good start is to define and describe the terms “Western” and “modern,” which can be confusing, have imprecise meanings, and are often used interchangeably. Europe has historically been divided into two sections: eastern and western. The imaginary line dividing these imaginary entities roughly splits Germany in two and runs north to south. The Western part of Europe is the region that led the way in the Modern Wave of history (beginning 1500). Western Europe earned recognition during the Enlightenment era of the 18th century as a center for ideas that define Western principles. Some of these Western ideas, often collectively referred to as liberalism, emerged from the Enlightenment era or were added later and include (or partially include) a representative government, division of government into legislative, executive and judicial branches, individual rights and freedoms (speech and press), private property, the scientific method, reason, individualism, freedom of religion or secularism, and later women’s and gay rights and sexual freedoms. Most European countries and the U.S., Canada, and Australia have adopted these Western principles as part of their form of government and values system.
Modern is somewhat different from Western; it applies to that which is near to or characteristic of the present in contrast to that of a former age or an age long past; hence the word sometimes has the connotation of up-to-date and thus, good, such as modern ideas. In my world history book, Global Waves of Change: A Holistic World History, the Modern Wave starts around 1500 and is distinguished from other waves by an embrace of up-to-date technology, a shift to a capitalist economy, scientific ideas, and changes in social values. What is modern constantly shifts over time. For example, modern technology today is different than modern technology 25 years ago. For example, China, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and others have modernized their economies without becoming Western.
Let’s take Japan as an example to illustrate the difference between Western and modern. Tokyo, by any measure, is a modern city. It has tall skyscrapers, an efficient subway system, lots of cars and enough lights to blind you. As an Asian nation, Japan was one of the first countries in the 19th century to adopt, especially from Germany, many Western ideas about government, the economy, and unfortunately, a modern military. After its defeat in World War II, the U.S., as the victor nation, required Japan to adopt Western political and economic ideas. It did. Therefore, many observers would think that Japan had adopted Western ideas, and I would reply yes, many Western ideas, but not all of them. Japan has not adopted to the full extent the Western ideas of individualism or sexual freedom. Family obligations and social responsibility are very much part of Japanese culture.
Having freeways, good infrastructure and all the trappings of modernity does not mean that you have become Western. Acceptance of Western liberal values is certainly not universally recognized in many nations considered modern. For example, Dubai, a city and emirate in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is a very modern city but it is not Western in its outlook or governance. Another example is the country of Saudi Arabia, where the cities have modern technology and infrastructure, yet the state does not allow women to drive, and they have an inherited monarchy; these are not Western political ideals. An example of a country adopting a Western value is South Africa, which recently accepted and legitimized gay marriage, still largely taboo in Sub-Saharan Africa. Therefore, modern and Western are two more of those nebulous terms that mean different things to different people.
One of the goals of the Center for Global Awareness is to enhance cross-cultural understanding. This means to understand other cultures within the context of their own traditions, history, beliefs, and practices. Although I generally support the long tradition of Western values, my goal on this trip is to try to understand, which means without me judging, the modern societies of the three GCC. I hope I can do so without getting aggravated that I can’t show my toes or that I may offend a man if I extend my hand for a cordial handshake. I am only human, so I imagine my impatience or aggravation will show through at times. But I will try to be mindful about conveying to you that countries exist that don’t follow the American prescribed path of political, economic, cultural and social convictions. It will be part of my investigation on this trip to see the relationship of the GCC and Western and modern.
I look forward to the trip and writing my blog series for you.
1. What preconceived ideas do you have about Bahrain, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates? Where did these ideas come from?
2. What would you like to know about these countries? (Feel free to send me a note about this one!)