Confusion: Bahrain, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates

Mosque in Bahrain

Mosque in Bahrain

Confusion! This theme resonated with me as I toured three of the Gulf Coast Countries (GCC) – Bahrain, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain – for two weeks in November 2015 with a group of educators sponsored by the Bi-lateral Chamber of Commerce, Houston, Texas. The GCC, like other countries around the world, are a fascinating collection of contradictions, tensions, dilemmas, and confusion. Although the individual countries that I visited are quite different, they do share many similarities that I will highlight in this blog series.

The theme of confusion is not meant to be judgmental, since my country, the United States, is hardly a beacon of reason and consistency, but merely my observation of these three countries as they are thrust into navigating a modern/globalizing world very quickly amidst the influx of tremendous wealth from their oil reserves, and the continued pull of their tribal traditions, culture, and social structures. Although many other countries have had to quickly modernize/globalize, the GCC’s relatively small population, tribal influences, and tremendous wealth have uniquely shaped them.

The question I kept in my mind as I traveled the region was–what do I think would be helpful for Americans to know about these three countries, in particular, American educators and students. There is more to these countries than the oil spewing from their underground reservoirs, although that is a part of it.

Continuing with my confusion theme, I will examine 9 areas in a blog series that I think are the most pressing and confusing issues facing these countries:

Traditional weavers in Bahrain

Traditional weavers in Bahrain

1. Traditional and Modern Culture. Their social relationships, sense of time, style of communication, hierarchical interactions, and masculine society are at odds with modern notions and customs. Their tribal culture, not too distant in the past, is juxtaposed against the outward manifestations of a modern/globalized world.

2. Islam. Unlike the West, there is no separation of church and state in these three countries. The influence of Islam permeates every aspect of society from the economy to family life to the books selected for a school’s library shelves.

GCC photo3. Oil. The wealth bubbling from this harsh environment is oil, which smears a film over the workings of the traditional culture and furthers global climate change. The wealth from vast oil reserves has lined the pockets from the ruling families and elite nationals who share earnings from sovereign wealth funds.

4. Class. Since all three countries have a relatively small indigenous population called the nationals, they have had to import workers to build and operate their modern cities. While the nationals make up an elite class, the middle class and workers have been imported by the state from over 60 countries around the world. Denied citizenship, these temporary workers come and go furthering instability and confusion. Is this class structure the model for the future?

5. Women. Draped in black abayas in public, it appears to Western eyes that women are oppressed and relegated to second-class status. In fact, a typical stereotype of women in this region is that they are bound to house and family. However, in reality, a major shift is occurring in the lives of women as they excel in secondary schools and higher education, have a greater say in family life, and begin to fill vacant slots in professional positions in the public and private sector. What will be the effect of this profound shift in women’s roles on society?

Workers barracks, Abu Dhabi

Workers’ barracks, Abu Dhabi

6. Democracy and Human Rights. Although imperfectly carried out, the West promotes human rights and democracy as ideals that are interwoven into the political structure. However, the GCCs are governed by unelected royal families who want to continue their rule and are very careful not to upset their constituency too much. Huge subsidies placate most of their citizenry, and Arab Spring types of protests are quietly repressed.

7. Consumerism. If there is one belief system that the world unquestioningly embraces, I would argue that it is consumerism. Megalith malls, glitzy consumables, and tourism are championed by the GCCs as their engine of growth as the oil money begins to shrink.

8. Education. All of the confusion about the above issues seems to funnel into the educational debates today: inclusion of traditional culture and Islamic values, girls excelling while boys struggle, imported middle class teaching personnel, an emphasis on STEM subjects that by-passes the democratic impulses of the liberal arts, whether democracy should be included in education, and whether training students for a globalized society is ignoring the debate about how the future should be fashioned. All of these issues seem to daunt teachers and administrators as they struggle to educate the youth.

Imported middle class, Abu Dhabi

Imported middle class, Abu Dhabi

9. Globalized Future. As our tour guide gushed about Dubai as the city of the future, I had a sinking feeling. One teacher commented “humankind is doomed.” Although I marveled at the stunning architecture and was in awe of their determination to construct an ostentatious city in such a short time, I was also sad to realize that the workers who built the city received paltry wages, lived in sub-standard housing, and faced death everyday as they dangled from towering high-rises. Could this really be the city of our future? Dubai’s shimmering towers seemed to mock the ideas of environmental sustainability and resource conservation that the city of the future must incorporate.

Downtown Dubai

Downtown Dubai

You may ask, “Why should we care about the region, we have our own problems.” For one, we are all part of this global society, and we are all global citizens. As the GCCs are adopting many aspects of a globalized society today and moving forward into the future, it behooves us to know about it and evaluate the costs and benefits. If we don’t, we face a confusing future in which the basic tenets of a middle class, fair, safe and democratic way of life have been eroded.

questions-to-consider1. What do you think about the melding of traditional and modern culture in these or other countries? When does this work well, and when does it create confusion?

2. Does training students for a globalized society ignore the debate about how the future should be fashioned? How can educators create opportunities for this debate in the classroom?

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