x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Since Roman times, envy has fuelled stereotypes of Arabia

The Gulf States are attracting unfair criticisms based on outdated and incorrect assumptions.

A recent survey by the market-research company Ipsos MORI ranked Abu Dhabi as the world’s fourth favourite city, behind New York, London and Paris.

This well-deserved accolade is welcome news for us who live in Abu Dhabi, although my inner scientist is more than a little sceptical about the methodological rigour underpinning this bold conclusion.

Research critiques aside, however, the real problem with being awarded such a designation is the envy and vitriol it’s likely to generate.

Envy often gives rise to destructive behaviours such as slander and libel, and there is a rich history of envy directed towards the Arabian Peninsula.

Based on this region’s relative wealth, the ancient Romans referred to parts of the peninsula as Arabia Felix, meaning happy or blessed Arabia. Agatharchides, a Greek historian writing in the second century BC, describes Arabia Felix as a land of luxury, inexhaustible gold mines and gem-studded palaces. But wait for it: the indigenous inhabitants he describes as decadent, lazy and steeped in immorality. With a similarly envy- tinged tone Pliny the Younger, a Roman historian, complains that it is “Roman sesterces” (money) making the inhabitants of Arabia Felix the richest in the world.

The wealth of old Arabia Felix was largely based on the frankincense and myrrh of biblical renown. These aromatic resins were prized in the ancient world as ingredients in medicines and perfumes.

Geographically, Arabia Felix was the fertile part of southwestern Arabia where these plants grew, an area that in our day makes up part of Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

The poor arid part of the Arabian Peninsula – now the Gulf states – was known as Arabia Deserta, or deserted Arabia. Today, however, the Arabian Gulf states can lay a legitimate claim to the title previously bestowed upon their southern cousins. Arabia Deserta has become the new Arabia Felix.

The old Arabia Felix was a land of plenty, home to a hyper-abundance of valuable natural resources; the new version, in the Gulf states, is home to a sizeable percentage of the world’s oil and gas reserves.

Greco-Roman writers, often relying on dubious secondary sources, made old Arabia Felix the subject of much exaggeration and derision. Sadly, contemporary writers often do something similar when discussing the Gulf states. Recurring media themes and social media memes include a focus – to the point of obsession in some cases – on the “outrageous excesses” of the Gulf’s super-rich, or allegations of oppression and maltreatment of women and workers.

Like the Greco-Roman stereotypes, more recent and contemporary caricatures also tend to centre on ideas of wealth, sensuality and noble- savagery.

Rudolph Valentino’s portrayal of Sheikh Ahmed Ben Hassan in the 1921 silent film The Sheik is an obvious early celluloid example, but such images and ideas continue to be perpetuated both in film and, more recently, popular music.

The Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artist Common refers to Dubai in a lyric as an exemplar of ultimate wealth: “we’re on our paper [money] until we get it like Dubai.”

Another US recording artist, Busta Rhymes, ultimately apologised for Arab Money, one of his more controversial recordings. Both the lyrics and the video promote the idea of super wealth fuelling hedonistic lifestyles, with the song’s hook repetitively proclaiming: “we getting Arab money.” This track also mentions by name Dubai, the emirate that has to a large degree become a symbol for the whole region, and a synonym for wealth.

There have also been several outbreaks of “Dubai bashing”. This is often understood as journalists trying to cash in on Dubai’s fame by exposing the supposed dark side of the Gulf’s shiniest emirate. A 2009 piece by British journalist Johann Hari describes Dubai as an “adult Disneyland” built on “credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery”.

This new Arabia Felix, just like its ancient counterpart, attracts envy and vitriolic derision. The news that Abu Dhabi is ranked the world’s fourth favourite city will no doubt stimulate those who are quick to envy. I suspect we might even begin to see some Abu Dhabi defamation, accompanying the now-routine bouts of Dubai bashing.

Justin Thomas, an associate professor at Zayed University, is the author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States: The New Arabia Felix