x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Evolutionary theory

Youssef Rakha on the westernisation of the Emirates and how far it is likely to go from here.

Women shop in the Al Wahda mall on April 22 2008.
Women shop in the Al Wahda mall on April 22 2008.

There is something Western about the Emirates. A statement you will hear in the widest range of tones from non-Gulf Arab expatriates here: on arriving they marvel, first, at the dearth of local citizens compared to Asians of every stripe; then, when they start stepping in and out of offices, clinics and malls, they celebrate or decry the nizam aurobbi: the European-cum-North American order of the day.

Smiling, ranting or simply looking flustered, they point out that the climate is at variance with parks, brandy and fireplaces. In the grassroots collective memory, they add, there is more sand than either asphalt or green. And in spite of both Ski Dubai and the endless food-dispensing Cedars of Lebanon, local tradition remains hard pressed to furnish even the most alcohol-free Christmas tree. What strikes them is the Gulf tendency (not altogether unwise under the circumstances) to choose West over East . The attempt may not always or immediately work, but institutional eagerness to implement "global" standards - in urban planning, administrative policy, economic and political allegiances - reflects multinational capital more clearly than desert, damask or dhow.

Whether and when they choose to embrace the deeper Western values of individual freedom, pluralistic government and social disintegration, Emiratis are clearly opting for the antismoking future, whatever it may bring. Maybe it is only a problem for said Arab expatriates who, watching their own earlier moments of promise go to the dogs, cannot help squeaking, "NO!" But it remains a problem in one crucial sense: as it embraces Westernness, the Emirates bypasses Arab modernity. By that I mean the late 17th- to early 20th-century metamorphosis of the Town Arab from illiterate fellah (as in, practically, serf) to opinionated effendi (white-collar Ottoman employee). Which transformation, failing to foresee the incredible greasing power of black gold, made the grave error of leaving the Desert Arab by the wayside.

Living along and across from the coasts of the Mediterranean and the valleys of the great rivers, TA had autistically looked down on the kind of Bedouin life led by DA in the Arabian Peninsula and the African Sahara, belittling and distrusting him through the centuries. And being a more authentic, less Turkified creature with an enormous ego of his own, DA had likewise distanced himself from the tarboush-topped pretensions of the pashas — themselves, by the mid 18th century, already biting the bait of French literature, Italian music and Swiss timekeeping. Then it all came down.

No wonder Gulf choices now rest firmly with globalisation, which is not only post-Bedouin but also post-effendi, and will readily take everything — TA, DA, every possible cultural or national identity and every kind of A who might claim it — in its unrelenting stride. In the end, while Westernness reinvents itself, possibly along Eastern lines, there will be little left to either species. The question is which of them will inherit the mall.