Traditional and Modern Culture: Confusion in Bahrain, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates

Part 3 in a Series on Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Qatar (Our blogs will be taking a holiday break! Part 4 in the series will return on Tuesday, January 5th.)

The three countries that I visited on my educational tour in November 2015, sponsored by the Bi-lateral Chamber of Commerce, Houston, Texas, were a mixture of modern and traditional influences. Their tribal culture, not too distant in the past, is juxtaposed against the outward manifestations of a modern/globalized world, as exemplified in their stunning high-rise architecture. I found that below the shimmering lights and dazzling architectural monuments is only a partial acceptance of modernization, traditional ways of thinking still run deep. This tension between modern and traditional ways added to the confusion that I identified as a theme permeating these three countries as they navigate their way into a modern/globalized world.

Modernization is a multi-faceted process that started in Western Europe around 1500. Different societies around the world have adopted modernization in different ways and times, while some people have violently resisted the process others have eagerly adopted it. Traditional cultures have been under intense pressure to modernize over the last 100 years and especially since the end of World War II. Modernization efforts profoundly change traditional people and their way of life. The following blog highlights some of the economic, social, political, and psychological changes that the GCC countries have experienced.

Transforming Economy and Tribal Culture


Off-shore drilling model (Photo: Denise Ames)

Modernizers pressure traditional people to change economically. They give up their subsistence way of life and immerse themselves into a world market. The GCC were able to do this because they had a high-demand natural resource: oil. Oil promised untold wealth and riches, a temptation that tribal leaders were unable to resist. Since their oil ran the world economy, especially after the 1970s, their traditional economies based on pearl-diving and regional trade gave way to a cash economy based on the market-price of oil. However, they did not have the technical expertise to harvest their own oil and had to rely on partnerships with all-to-willing Western firms. Since tribal culture did not have a system of private, individual ownership, the wealth from oil flowed into the pockets of the ruling elite and sovereign wealth funds for the local population. Oil flooded the world and its riches transformed the tribal culture in unexpected ways.

Business Culture Meets Tradition


Traditional gift giving (Photo: Denise Ames)

The modern way of doing business is where two impersonal agents discuss a deal and then sign legal, written contracts. The parties don’t form close personal relationships with each other. But that is not the case in the GCC. Relationship is everything. For example, a company our group visited in Bahrain was very hospitable and showered us with food, gifts, and asked us to participate in ritual picture-taking. Before our final departure, we were treated to yet another sumptuous evening meal with entertainment, all at the instructions of the company President. It was a truly delightful experience, as educators are rarely treated to such recognition and honor. But as expected, many, including myself, were tired and not accustomed to such elaborate traditional rituals of relationship building and gift-giving.

Maintaining Family Structures

The family has many responsibilities and serves as the center of traditional societies. The family provides emotional support for all members, oversees marriage and reproduction, educates and socializes the young, cares for the elderly, and performs religious functions. The small, nuclear modern family has reduced functions and responsibilities compared to traditional families. For example, one working woman in upper management I spoke with in Bahrain entrusted the care of her children to her mother, as was the custom, not an “impersonal day care center,” as she noted. Traditional families also care for the elderly. In Bahrain, in some traditional families the husband’s parents reside in his family’s house. The woman I spoke with welcomed her mother-in-law into her home, as was the custom to care for the elderly.

Religion Woven into Everyday Life

Religious functions in traditional societies are integrated into all aspects of community life. In Western societies religious functions are the responsibility of institutions outside the family. Even though the state does not support religious institutions, they do not pay taxes on their establishments. We saw Islam woven into everyday life in the GCC. Calls to prayer were respected in schools, and even foot bathing facilities were provided in public buildings for ritual cleansing before prayer. Five calls to prayer routinely blared from megaphones attached to every mosque tower. Many followed the ritualized call to prayer. Even the hotel rooms had an arrow on the ceiling directing the faithful to pray in the proper direction of Mecca. Below: foot washing facility and prayers at school (Photos: Denise Ames)

Modern Politics Shift Traditional Allegiance


The ruling family (Photo: Denise Ames)

The political changes from traditional to modern societies are also quite disruptive. These changes involve replacing the traditional religious, family, and ethnic political authorities with a single, secular, national political leader. Loyalty to the family shifts to an allegiance to the state and political parties. A modern, Western political system requires that diverse social groups come together to form working coalitions of different political parties. These parties then compete in a voting procedure for political rule with the winner selected as the elected leader. However, the GCC has not adopted a Western political system, and the traditional allegiance to a ruling family seems to be well-entrenched. The ubiquitous faces of the various ruling families adorned public and private structures from government buildings to billboards. These daily reminders reinforce the importance of the ruling family as the official guardians of society.

Individualism and Changing Values


Individualizing values (Photo: Denise Ames

The psychological changes that accompany modernization are perhaps the most unsettling. Modern values need to be inculcated by individuals and families. Probably the most significant value change is the focus on the modern individual—rather than on the collective or group. The modern individual is socialized to be independent, active, and open to new experiences, interested in public policies and cultural matters, and thinks about long-term plans for the future. Traditional individuals are socialized to passively accept group traditions, think in the present and short-term, defer to group’s leaders, and rooted in the local place. The modern individual has a mobile personality and readily changes and adapts to a rapidly changing world, even if it means relocating to a different place apart from his/her family. S/he strives for an achieved status—through education and hard work—and understands that there is the potential to become something different in the future.


Individualizing values (Photo: Denise Ames)

From my observations, the GCC are making a concerted effort to adopt the individualizing values of modern society. Billboards clearly articulated the new values such as thrive, rise to your potential, achieve, the future awaits, grab possibilities, and many others. This shift in values has profound repercussions. The disruptive forces of modernization tend to produce alienation, anomie, and psychological disintegration among traditional people.

Holistic Perspective in a Confusing Transition

One source of confusion in societies transitioning from traditional to modern is the big gap between the new aspirations that individuals strive for, and their ability to satisfy these aspirations. Using a holistic approach, perhaps the disrupting and alienating forces of modernization on traditional societies can be connected to the rise of extremism and terrorism in the region and around the world. In my mind, this sobering prospect tarnishes the glittering modern façade of the exquisitely-crafted buildings thrusting their twisting forms into the clear, desert-blue sky.


  1. Imagine you are living in the GCC, how would you navigate between a traditional society and a modern society?
  2. What obstacles would you face?
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1 Response to Traditional and Modern Culture: Confusion in Bahrain, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates

  1. Pingback: A Delicate Balance: Political Relations in the GCC | The Center for Global Awareness

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